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Monday 24th October 2016

Mothers of invention

1st June 2006

01062006_BloggerAtHome1Q.jpgA surprising new book on maternal depression should be required reading for the healthcare industry.

WASHINGTON—Flipping channels this week with my small daughters, I landed on “Bewitched?, the American sitcom that ran from 1964-72 in which a twinkly blonde witch named Samantha inexplicably chooses to marry a mortal advertising executive named Darren Stevens.

Even as a young child, I wondered at the lunacy of Samantha’s cheery though not entirely successful abstinence from witchcraft as proof of her wifely devotion. When a leprechaun appears and tries to shelve Samantha's groceries by snapping his fingers, she rebuffs him. “I’m a normal housewife,? she explains. “And housework is something you do yourself … to show people you love them.?

A similar sitcom, less well-known in Britain but an icon in the United States, tapped the same theme. “I Dream of Jeannie,? which ran from 1965-70, featured a Farsi-speaking genie named, uh, Jeannie. Jeannie lived and slept in a magic bottle—to which her master, an American astronaut, would banish her when she misbehaved. Like Samantha Stevens on “Bewitched,? Jeannie too fought to suppress her magic powers to please Master Tony and fit in on his buttoned-up Florida military base.

Three decades on, reruns of both programs still entrance me—even more now that I have a home and family of my own, both of which might run oh-so-smoothly if only I could wiggle my nose or blink my eyes to find, voila, that everything is now magically in its place, dinner served, and the linen napkins are nicely ironed. Blink! The laundry is folded and put away. Blink! The children are bathed.

It’s hardly coincidental that Hollywood invented these women, so gladly denuded of magic, at precisely the moment when real housewives were awakening to the fact that fulfilling all their sanctioned roles—as wives, mothers, and domestic and community CEOs—in fact demanded superhuman powers, or, failing that, more helpful husbands, talk therapy, or tranquilizers. On the small screen, meanwhile, Samantha and Jeannie were eternally cheerful, knowing witchcraft would save them when the roast burned, the basement flooded, or life inevitably grew messy.

In my own well-heeled East Coast neighborhood in the 1970's, women took their newly raised consciousness and sprang into action, evicting husbands, joining the workforce, and declaring their own emancipation from the lonely and relentless aspects of homemaking. Many in my generation, their offspring, remain traumatized still by the seismic shift that catapulted us from “dinner at 6? to “find something in the freezer, and start the washer while you’re at it? in a matter of months. This post-domestic stress disorder probably goes a long way toward explaining our wholesale, over-hyped embrace since the 1990's of Martha Stewart-style living—as well as the surfeit of books advocating that mothers lucky enough to have the option should stay home and tend the hearth so long as they have children under the same roof.

Despite the improved childcare options and spread of labor-saving appliances that is our mothers' legacy, however, mothers today face a vastly expanded list of duties—whether or not they work outside the home. Nor has this gone unnoticed in Hollywood: Witness the smashing success of “Desperate Housewives,? none of whose leading characters seems able to manage a career, a family, and a relationship simultaneously without committing felonies or engaging in substance abuse. Meanwhile, our increasingly winner-take-all economy demands that breadwinning parents work ever longer hours with fewer breaks, fewer holidays, and constant intrusions, thus increasing everyone's burden exponentially.

(Interestingly, the Sunday night spot now occupied in the United States by "Desperate Housewives" used to belong to a violent spy drama on another network, "La femme Nikita," which seems to have targeted the same demographic of 30- to 50-something women: All the adverts hawked nappies, wrinkle creams, wholesome children's foods, and hair-coloring. That a program like "Nikita" was appealing to mothers should have clued us all in years ago to the seething cauldron of angst percolating inside the modern hausfrau).

"Mothers today," writes Tracy Thompson, in her groundbreaking new book The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression, are "often expected to plan household meals, clean the house or hire someone to clean it, keep track of the social lives of various family members, possibly see to the care of elderly parents hundreds of miles away, set up after-school care, provide cupcakes occasionally for classroom parties, file medical insurance claims, sign the report cards, make and keep doctors' appointments, make sure the family computer has up-to-date virus and spyware protection, maybe even pay the monthly bills or monitor investments."

To this list I would add: making sure children are clothed and shod, spouses attended to, homes maintained, pets fed, pantry stocked, and hair combed when necessary. And that's considered "not working." No wonder so many millions of women on either side of the Atlantic are depressed.

"The list of things required for the smooth functioning of the family unit is much longer today, and mom is usually the default option for the person who gets to do them," writes Thompson, formerly a reporter at The Washington Post who surveyed thousands of women in the United States over several years, along with Emory University psychologist Sherryl Goodman.

Like Thompson's brilliant book, due out in America in June and Britain in September, a new report by the Mind mental health trust found that depression among mothers in Britain, as in the United States, is indeed pervasive, often diagnosed terribly late, and frequently treated with inadequate or inappropriate measures.

Mind found that 90 percent of the women it surveyed about their experience of maternal depression believed that better-trained health care workers could have diagnosed their condition earlier. Even after their diagnoses, 31 percent had to go on waiting lists for treatment and 25.5 percent had to wait six months or more.

Addressing this sorry situation doesn't require sorcery—just a bit of the ingenuity and grit that mothers use every day all over the world to keep themselves and their families functioning under the best and the worst of circumstances. Governments could offer incentives for competent childcare and better working hours, while clinical caregivers might devote substantially more effort to diagnosing and treating mental health problems early.

We might all stop holding ourselves and each other to impossible standards and seek the support we need wherever we can get it, from partners, professionals, or pharmaceuticals. We can look out for each other, teaching our children compassion and resilience in the process.

Blink! Damn.

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