“Examine some of those expectations,” Foli advises. “Are they realistic? Have you set yourself up to be something that’s not attainable as a parent?”
In the realm of nonbiological parents, nonbiological lesbian mothers are often in a unique situation where their partners give birth to the baby and they can be left to struggle for their role in the family, both legally in places where parental rights for gay couples are hard to come by, and socially, when they don’t have pregnancy as a visual cue that they, too, are becoming mothers.
Studies that have been done on this so far have been qualitative, not quantitative, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that these mothers experience depression, too.
Dr. Michele McKelvey wrote her dissertation at the University of Connecticut on this concept of “the other mother,” and interviewed 10 nonbiological lesbian mothers about their experiences. McKelvey told me about one woman who felt that she went through postpartum depression more than her wife who had given birth, and how their strong relationship got her through it. Another woman had a worse experience, in which she felt that she had to stay in an unhealthy relationship with her partner, because the place where she lived didn’t offer her any parental rights as the non-birth mother. So if she left, she might not get to see her child.
“She was a legal stranger to her daughter,” McKelvey says. “Those were the words she used… [The women I talked to told me they were] fighting for every piece of motherhood.”
Some women reported feeling invisible as mothers, something that could contribute to depressive symptoms. “There’s so much recognition of mothers in our society,” McKelvey says. “When a woman becomes pregnant, you have a baby shower for her.”
When you don’t get that kind of recognition, it can feel like your experience is less validated, even though in getting a child, you’re going through the same transition, the same joy and uncertainty that any parent does. Foli notes that things can fall similarly flat sometimes for adoptive parents. “There are casseroles sent, and there’s a little bit more celebration sometimes for the birth of a child,” she says.
Whatever depression’s causes, when it hits a parent in the wake of a new child, it can take a toll on the whole family. There is a risk for negative outcomes for the child if the depression goes untreated, although Kleiman says that “most women who are experiencing depression continue to take good care of their children, maybe at their own expense.”
Postpartum depression is also associated with marital dissatisfaction, though it’s hard to know which comes first.
“The truth is just sort of obvious,” Kleiman says. “When depression descends, resources are depleted, partners become weary. Even the most loving partners become tired of taking care of each other when they’re not getting a lot back.” She says that even so, among couples she’s worked with, the other partner “generally rises to the occasion and does what needs to be done.”
As with all mental illnesses, the important thing is to talk about it and seek treatment. That can be hard, though, especially because, as Kleiman notes, while mental illness is stigmatized, when you combine it with parenthood, the taboo gets worse. “We don’t like talking about moms and dads who don’t feel like being moms and dads,” she says.