Wachenheim Suicide Lays Bare the Anxieties of New Motherhood

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March 19 2013 10:39 AM

Wachenheim Suicide Lays Bare the Anxieties of New Motherhood

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New mothers are constantly reminded that every move they make can leave lasting damage on a baby.

Photo by Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, a New York lawyer and new mother named Cynthia Wachenheim strapped her baby son, Keston, to her chest and jumped from the eighth floor of her building. Her 10-month-old son, snug in his Ergo carrier, survived, barely injured. Wachenheim died from her injuries. According to the New York Times, the 44-year-old Wachenheim left behind a 13-page suicide note in which she wrote that she was convinced that her son might have autism or cerebral palsy because he had two minor tumbles—the kind most babies have at some point—and she felt responsible. Her pediatrician did not believe anything was wrong with the child, but she was convinced her son was damaged and that it was her fault.

It’s pretty clear that Wachenheim was suffering from postpartum psychosis and was not, to use a cliché that doesn’t feel like it expresses the gravity of the situation, in her right mind. No mother, especially a woman who by all accounts was an upstanding and decent person, would do this to herself or her child unless she was in the throes of an awful, debilitating mental illness. That didn’t stop Above the Law’s Elie Mystal from writing a painfully ignorant post about Wachenheim in which he calls her “a monster” and says that because his family just had a newborn, he’s “acutely aware of all the time hospitals, pediatricians, and psychiatrists put in telling new parents how to handle the feelings of anxiety and sometimes depression that affect new parents.” He also assumes that Wachenheim refused to seek out “readily available help with her mental health issues” based on no evidence. He says that because she had the money and education to deal with her mental health, she is a monster for not fixing it.

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I don’t purport to know where Mystal’s partner gave birth or what her experience was. But just because she was well-informed about the risk of depression before and after pregnancy doesn’t mean everyone is. I know from the survey I did of more than 1,000 women on pregnancy and depression that many women don’t get any information from hospitals, pediatricians, or psychiatrists on depression or anxiety and get no support from their families. Secondly, even psychiatrists treating patients in the hospital (and immediate inpatient hospitalization is the recommendation for women experiencing postpartum psychosis) have a notoriously bad track record at predicting which ones will commit suicide. We don’t know what went on in Wachenheim's final days, but it’s quite possible that her family members—despite having advanced degrees—did not realize how bad things were or were in denial about her mental health. 

According to New York state health department stats cited by the Times, postpartum psychosis affects one to two out of every 1,000 new moms; of those one to two moms, 5 percent commit suicide and 4 percent commit infanticide. “Symptoms may appear abruptly” according to the health department, so Mystal’s assumption that she would have even had time to get help is really dim. (For another rebuttal to Mystal, Wachenheim’s childhood friend Elizabeth Nowicki wrote this important corrective on Above the Law.)

The specific anxieties that Wachenheim mentioned in her suicide note are extreme and obviously the thoughts of a disturbed mind. Still, it’s alarming how much they reflect the current thinking about how much mothers are responsible for the ultimate sound health of their newborns. What they eat, what they don’t eat, what mood they are in, how long they wait to get pregnant, even what music they listen to—mothers are constantly reminded that every move they make can leave lasting damage on a baby and make them more prone to get even serious diseases like autism and other developmental disorders. (For a great roundup of the crazy-making information about what pregnant women are supposed to do to keep their kids healthy, check out this hilarious and depressing Jezebel post). Of course Wachenheim’s psychotic mind could have grabbed onto some other anxiety if fears of autism weren’t so outsized in the United States. But her case should give us a slap-in-the-face reminder to lay off a little—new mothers can be vulnerable enough without the extra anxiety.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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