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THE EVOLUTIONARY CONTEXT OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION

Mira C r o u c h

University of New South Wales

"Postnatal depression" denotes the syndrome of dysphoria, debility, and anxiety that follows childbirth in about 10-20% of women (as variously estimated). Its etiology is seen to be lodged in a variety of psychosocial as well as biological factors, among which the isolating and pressured culture of contemporary society (especially for women/mothers) is commonly singled out as a powerful precipitator. This view is extended here through the evolutionary perspective which casts maternal distress as a set of adaptive responses with the function, in ancestral environments, of soliciting support for a mother who feels that her maternal responsiveness may be threatened. As continuous caretaking of the infant is the active expression of evolved maternal responsiveness, departures from this pattern result in anxiety and distress that seek resolution. Manifestations of maternal distress in contemporary society are dysfunctional, however, since the present social structure does not provide spontaneous and immediate support that can spring forth within small, closely knit social units. Furthermore, for present-day mothers distress is self-perpetuating since the ingrained tendency toward continuing responsiveness rarely finds practical expression and is thus converted into anxious vigilance and depression. This view generates the hypothesis that the emotional and cognitive contents of maternal vigilance are associated with the needs of the infant and will therefore be focused on crying and feeding. A number of qualitative studies of women's experiences during the postpartum bear out this prediction and support the feasibility of the evolutionary hypothesis of "postnatal depression" as a set of adaptive responses, now out of place in a novel environment. Received: April 1, 1998; accepted June 30, 1998.

Address all correspondence to Mira Crouch, School of Sociology, The University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052 Australia. E-mail: m.crouch@unsw.edu.au
Copyright 1999 by Walter de Gruyter, Inc., New York Human Nature, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 163--182. 163

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Human Nature, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1999

KEYWORDS: Adaption; Emotion; Evolution; Maternal responsiveness; Postnatal depression; Stress.

Affective disorder following childbirth is generally recognized in three relatively distinct forms. The mildest form is a transient low mood state of short duration ("baby blues"), most commonly occurring about 5 days after labor at a prevalence of 50-70% (Howard 1993:255); arguably therefore it is, in a statistical sense at least, "normal"--however inexplicable its symptoms may be at the subjective level. Postnatal depression can surface at any time during the postpartum year; most commonly, however, it sets in during the first three months and can take a considerable period of time to resolve, especially if untreated (Cox 1986). It is an ill-defined condition characterized variously by sadness, low self-esteem, confusion, lassitude, anxiety, and somatization, the symptoms configuring differently in different individuals (Dennerstein et al. 1986; Mills and Komblith 1992). Largely because of the absence of definitive diagnostic criteria, estimates of prevalence vary (Dermerstein et al. 1986; Kumar 1994); commonly 10-20% has been suggested (Brockington 1987; Cox 1986). At its extreme end, postnatal depression shades over into puerperal psychosis, the most severe and least common (0.2% [Brockington 1987; Cox 1986]) emotional disorder following childbirth. This paper is concerned with the implications of evolutionary theory for postnatal depression (but not including puerperal psychosis, which may be a qualitatively different state; Brockington 1987)--a condition which, because of its duration and prevalence, represents a substantial dimension of human experience overall. Indeed, it is possible to argue that postnatal depression is much more common than the (various) figures indicate, since its symptoms may often be "normalized" (in line with the general tendency for women's mental health problems to be accepted as part of life; Waiters 1993) and the condition can consequently remain unreported (Gruen 1990). This argument can also be inverted to suggest that various degrees of relatively extended dysphoria and dysfunction following childbirth are "normal" in the sense of being relatively common and that only their more extreme and protracted manifestations should be recognized as symptoms of an "illness" state. Either way, "normalization" of matemal distress postpartum is consistent with the problematic nature of postnatal depression as a diagnostic entity (e.g., Purdy and Frank 1993); this, in turn, has led some authors to redefine the syndrome more broadly as an adjustment disorder (e.g., Whiffen 1991) in which biological factors m a y also play a part, especially in serious cases (which include "postpartum panic disorder"; Mills and Kornblith 1992).

The varied symptomatology of postnatal depression and the lack of clarity concerning the clinical status of individuals manifesting some of its range of symptoms suggest that "postnatal depression" is an umbrella term rather than a defining one. (1985:620) put it.The Evolutionary Context of Postnatal Depression 165 Significantly for this discussion. the "normalization" issue also relates to the perplexing question regarding the line between predicament and disease (Barnett 1994:23)----or. From an evolutionary point of view. while the use of the term "postnatal depression" will be retained where reference is made to the concept as generally employed. the point at which distress becomes (postnatal) depression. PNSD will be used in the context of arguments specific to this paper. as Brown et al. the psychological pain of the condition functioning just like physical pain "to demand immediate attention" (Thornhill and Furlow 1998: 342). In view of these considerations. the term Postnatal Stress and Depression (PNSD) is adopted here to denote the multifaceted and variable pattern of emotional and functional disturbances during the postpartum. It may therefore be ar~alytically useful to regard the broad spectrum of postnatal maternal distress manifestations as the primary category of maternal distress within which clinical "postnatal depression" may be identified (in principle. since these methods fail to take into account the possibility that some "symptoms" may reflect common stresses during the postpartum and that negative feelings experienced by "depressed" and "normal" w o m e n may overlap substantially (Barclay 1996:137). This question underlies the view of postnatal depression as mothers' "misery" (Barclay 1996) manifested in a continuum of emotional and biological disturbances. in many cases. many of which are normal (contra "normalized") under the circumstances of the majority of mother-infant dyads in contemporary society. the disorder represents a mother-infant relationship disturbance brought on by the pressure of psychological tasks the baby imposes on the mother. . especially where objective assessment methods and clinical interview schedules are used. Barclay further holds that "postnatal depression" is often overdiagnosed. An examination of the premises and implications of this general formulation will lead to more specific propositions regarding the nature and function of PNSD. though poorly so in current practice) as a subset. 1 In the discussion that follows. Cramer (1993) adds another dimension to a broader view of postnatal depression by arguing that. PNSD is thus a "design compromise" (Nesse and Williams 1994) within the natural selection process where the cost-benefit fitness calculus governing its development becomes inappropriate under environmental pressures that have come to differ significantly from the design's long-term evolutionary determinants. PNSD can be seen as an evolved adaptive response to the demands and challenges of early mothering and nursing.

whether these conditions are seen as efficient causes or merely precipitating factors and. postnatal depression is not unknown and. correspondingly.g. Pilsbury 1982. It is not clear. Stern and Kruckman 1983). 2 As already implied above. the cross-cultural perspective casts "postnatal depression" everywhere as the result of sociocultural conditions. on the other. Vol. ascribing its manifestations in western societies to the attrition in ritual practices of reproduction that structure. whether traditional postpartum practices are understood to protect w o m e n from the condition (that might otherwise occur)--or whether their presence implies that intrinsically pathogenic social conditions are simply less likely to obtain. as well as to the various stresses associated with poverty and social factors such as the widespread oppression and low status of w o m e n (Kumar 1994). the mother's transition to parenthood in traditional societies (e. then. that in less developed and more traditionally organized societies in the present. moreover. No. Harkness 1987. 10. This view has been challenged by two sets of considerations arising from more recent research: on the one hand. Homans 1982.. but have merely changed from magico-traditional practices to rational-medical--but still basically ritualistic--procedures (Davis-Floyd 1992) and. some of the literature on the subject offers a degree of support for this contention. 2. especially those associated with various aspects of the modernizing process.166 Human Nature. Howard 1993). socially and psychologically. 1999 PNSD: UNIVERSAL OR CULTURE-SPECIFIC? The discussion so far has been couched in universal terms. furthermore. The latter circumstance has been attributed to the dysfunctional dichotomy between m o d e m and traditional childbearing practices that are concurrent in such societies (Steinberg 1996:1782). The relevant literature has tended to portray "postnatal depression" as a culture-bound syndrome. since this paper argues that PNSD arises out of a pattern of reactions that has developed within "the (original) environment of our evolutionary adaptiveness" (Barr 1990:357) in response to stress during the postpartum period for both mother and baby. can have the same incidence and prevalence as it has in western countries (Cox 1996. however. it has been argued that rituals have not disappeared. The cross-cultural issue is important here. In general. This argument implies that postnatal maternal disorder--in the form of some culturally recognizable distress and dysfunction--will be manifest across the species (though not necessarily to the same degree or in the same way in all societies) as an aspect of women's behavior and experience during early motherhood." and therefore u n d i a g n o s e d / u n - . those studies that may counter the universalist view still leave open the possibility that "normalized. Yet with any psychological disorder the question of its possible cultural specificity must be taken into account (Kleinman 1988).

and enjoy "virtually universal and immediate maternal responsivity to (their) signals" (Barr 1990:364). In the context of dense social interaction characteristic of the !Kung San. social support. biologically grounded needs. this m a y have implications for an evolutionary account of PNSD. all such prescriptive practices produce the following conditions: (1) isolation and seclusion of the mother. but also because it contributes. It can therefore be assumed that their evolution has taken place under pressure which the vulnerabilities of the mother-infant dyad exert on the social group as a whole. Rest. whose needs initially are met almost exclusively by the mother. this state most probably enables her to focus on the infant to a greater degree than is generally possible under the usual circumstance of her life and to do so without anxiety and loss of self-esteem that reduced social engagement may otherwise bring about. (2) intense caring for. and recognition of new status appear to characterize the state such practices engender in the mother. tightly knit groups. exhibit continuous feeding. Evolutionary theory assumes that the prototypical human mode of existence is based on intimate social interaction in small. being functionally advantageous as stress-reducing mechanisms. (3) behavioral proscriptions upon the mother. through lactation.The Evolutionary Context of Postnatal Depression 167 recorded.) It is possible to glean an impression of the prototypical mother-infant interaction through observations of the present-day !Kung San. THE ADAPTIVE FUNCTION OF CHILDBIRTH RITUALS Childbearing rituals are common in many cultures. then such rituals can be understood as Dawkins-type "memes" (Dawkins 1981) that have evolved and survived long-term in most societies. and support of. The structural uniformity of such rituals across cultures strongly suggests that they meet universal. in turn. Crouch and Potter 1979). whose social organization and reproductive practices approximate those of our ancestral hunter-gatherer societies (Kolata 1974). If we take the view that biological and cultural evolution of the human species is a unified process (Alland 1967. the mother (usually by female kin). to . this is closely linked to the extreme and extended physical dependence of the infant. and (4) suspension of mother's social roles and protection from previous demands (See11986. the infants have practically constant caretaker contact. protracted dysphoric states are experienced by at least some postpartum w o m e n everywhere. 3 Although of variable duration and diverse cultural construction. leading to rest and modification of diet. Such a pattern has adaptive significance not only because it improves fitness from the point of view of sheer survival (of the infant). (Arguably. quoted in Kumar 1994:252).

the evolution of this "motive disposition" being a specific product of "natural selection for high investment parenting among humans" (MacDonald 1997:331). Maternal distress can certainly arise for reasons other than an infant's crying. "paradoxical" (Barr 1990:356) because its survival value may be negated by maladaptive reactions to it. there is evidence that arousal is positively correlated with increased pitch of an infant's cry (Thornhill and Furlow 1998:355--356). thus at particular intersections of social context and individual propensities. As such. As pointed out by Trivers (1974). general exigencies of life are perhaps more likely to represent stressors for the mother than infant crying. for the infant as well. 1999 appropriate birth spacing. by extension. is less intense in societies where continuous caretaking of infants is the norm.168 Human Nature. Within this pattern. attract support and help for herself and. it may also contribute to her unwillingness to care for an infant whose crying provides "acoustic cues of (low) reproductive value" (in which connection Thornhill and Furlow [1998:355] note the established association between high-pitched crying and a variety of ill-health indicators). Maternal distress is one possible reaction of this kind. a situation may develop where a mother's investment in the infant costs her more than it gains her. In the social and environmental context of hunter-gatherer societies. A case in point is infant crying. infant crying is a specific adaptive response that functions as an attempt to elicit maternal responsiveness (especially nursing). In any case. is likely to impede the mother's capacity to care adequately for the infant. At the same time. It is postulated here that manifest maternal distress has evolved as an adaptive response to the mother's diminished capacity (for whatever reason) to care adequately for the infant. the manifest expressions of maternal distress can also have adaptive significance as they signal the mother's inability to manage adequately and thus can. parent and offspring are locked in a conflict of interests as each strives to maximize her/his own (inclusive) fitness. Yet this is a precarious situation. in addition. regardless of the nature of its precipitating factors. as Barr (1990) has pointed out. in fact. crying may also have broader adaptive significance. it is an integral part of the coordinated system of emotions and actions that form the evolved motive disposition of maternal responsiveness. outputs of motivational systems honed through selection "to modulate parental effort" (Daly and Wilson 1995:1281 ) under circumstances where parental investment in one particular infant may be detrimental to inclusive fitness. which is. Distress. 2. Vol. maternal psychological pain can at times be associated with variations in maternal solicitude that are. No. in turn. 10. indeed. which. especially in a "dense" social context. In the latter case infanticide through either neglect or intent may be the ultimate result. since it may act as a continuous reinforcer of maternal responsiveness understood as a "motive disposition based on emotion as a coordinated system of response" (Nesse 1990:264). . in all probability.

By contrast. this is likely to be prompt. and delegation to experts are the more probable strategies in western societies. then. Yet. it may constitute a powerful precipitating factor in the mother's reactions of arousal. Williams and Nesse 1991:13). 4 It can therefore be expected that postnatal maternal distress will surface though variably in both form and degree whatever the cultural practices of the postpartum. culturally less elaborated social organization (i. regulatory systems for such responses have been shaped . Such reactions may serve to solicit social support in the form of greater level of care for both the mother and offspring. deliberation.e. in the tangible sense of disablement. in every individual case. and direct in dense social contexts of simple. the condition of PNSD is not necessarily an abnormality. a n d / o r withdrawal. In the light of such considerations.. personal. Lewin 1998:44. given the inevitable variability associated with the human genetic make-up---and within which adaptation/selection unfold in response to environmental pressures (Nesse 1990:261)--adaptive social practices in relation to childbearing cannot cancel. and depression.The Evolutionary Context of Postnatal Depression 169 Cultural practices in relation to the postpartum may have their origins in this pattern. becomes her best strategy. then. negative affect. its final path. is likely to emerge in the context of the mother's inability to respond appropriately and consistently to her infant. Insofar as the infant's crying is perceived as a danger signal. hypothetically. hypothesized to be the milieu in which human selection has largely taken place. self-consciously and deliberately autonomous individuals. Anxiety-induced avoidance. delay. It is reasonable to suggest that such practices have developed as adaptations to change in the ancestral social structure towards differentiation and complexity--relative to some hypothesized earlier. the lack of immediate and intensively supportive social response to the mother's distress signals is likely to inhibit the development of useful coping strategies in the "reappraisal phase" (in terms of the Lazarus and Folkman [1984] model) of her stress response. under the environmental circumstance of the Pleistocene savanna. pre-industrial societies--as well as in ancestral social environments. The intensity of that response can be accounted for in evolutionary terms: since the cost of not expressing a defensive response in the presence of a threat may be enormous. but rather an evolved defensive pattern of responses to the loss of capacity for effective maternal solicitude. reproduction's potential for noxious effects on the psychological and physical equilibrium of the mother. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MATERNAL DISTRESS P O S T P A R T U M Maternal distress. Conditions for prolongation of stress and escalation of negative affect are built into the latter pattern: in the enclosed private lives of contemporary.

in general.170 Human Nature. the painful emotional state and its overt manifestations are counterproductive and compound the difficulties that have precipitated them. postnatal distress responses can appear to be inappropriate and disproportionate and are therefore seen to represent symptoms of an illness. their usefulness must be evaluated in terms of predictions regarding proximate mechanisms of the entities in question (Nesse and Williams 1994:7). then. No. Since evolutionary hypotheses necessarily rest on premises concerning distant events. help. and too prolonged. Given the variability that can be assumed in respect to stress tolerance and levels of arousal (as well as in personal histories). this support may not be sufficient for some individuals. and psychological security. Such acuity and strength can lose usefulness when the environment in which the adaptive responses occur is substantially different from that in w h i c h m a n d for which. 2. What. MATERNAL RESPONSIVENESS: A N EVOLUTIONARY HYPOTHESIS FOR P N S D The assumption that the mother's responsiveness to the infant is a dispositional fitness-enhancing tendency lies at the root of the evolutionary understanding of postnatal maternal distress as put forward in this paper. and for whatever reason--that the level of her care for the infant is thrown into question. 10. This formulation constitutes an evolutionary hypothesis that attempts to account for PNSD. When this tendency is thwarted and the mother feels--rightly or wrongly. psychological pain results as an adaptation to this situation. 1999 through natural selection to be. PNSD as a pattern of such responses may be a case in point: in a sociocultural environment that is largely emancipated from established traditions and within which "rational" judgments and action are (at least ostensibly) favored. adaptively speaking--they have evolved. who will still experience and express distress. To sum up the discussion so far: PNSD is an adaptive aspect of maternal responsiveness that has evolved through natural selection in a context where some environmental (including social)factors can challenge the mother's capacity to provide continuing care for the infant. are the proximate mechanisms that are . since the overt expressions of the pain have the potential to recruit social support that may help restore effective maternal responsiveness. producing reactions that may be too quick. overactive. In most societies. In a closely knit and dense social context a strong emotional reaction may be an useful strategy. Vol. too intense. evolved cultural practices support the vulnerable mother through the provision of conditions for rest. much of the time more so than is essential (Nesse 1990:283). but in a complex social setting far removed from the conditions under which the response pattern evolved.

biological (especially hormonal). perception. in the w a y in which postnatally distressed and depressed women act. and other bereavements--and previous psychiatric history). In the former category.The Evolutionary Context of Postnatal Depression 171 relevant to PNSD---and how is their "normal" function disrupted? The distant events on which the PNSD evolutionary hypothesis is based focus on circumstances that affect the dispositional tendency of maternal responsiveness. therefore the proximate mechanisms must operate in the same dispositional realm. The volume of publications in this field is by now enormous. The literature on postnatal depression does not provide many leads in this direction. and no attempt has been made here to survey it. These circumstances are recognized to be "stressful" and." In somewhat more detail: if the adaptive responses that constitute PNSD are predominantly dispositional. have also been identified. For the purpose of the present discussion. issues relating to diagnosis and etiology are more important than discussions of management/treatment.." In the process of such conceptualizations. disturbance. and feel. inability to feed or bathe the infant) and the mental states (sadness. s During the early weeks and months postpartum. this responsiveness resolves into attention to the infant's relatively simple needs for food and . and motivation. more general. their proximate mechanisms will be precisely those of feeling. Precipitating circumstances. biographical factors--such as relationship with own mother.g. variously emphasized and. (For a concise but comprehensive review of recent literature on postnatal depression. as indicators of an underlying. pregnancy terminations. lack of cultural esteem for mothering functions. excessive fatigue. inter alia.g. guilt. understood to operate in interaction with one another. in combination with individual maternal characteristics (e. sociocultural. the actual experiences of "depressed" women are explained away. role-conflict over motherhood for contemporary women. more often than not. and the actual ideational content of these "reactions" can therefore be expected to be determined by the mother's tendency towards responsiveness to the infant. age. and social isolation. the negative emotional tone is often discussed in terms of. Yet these very experiences constitute the "proximate mechanisms" of the adaptive response pattern that is n o w labeled "postnatal depression. It follows that these mechanisms are to be located in what is generally understood to be the symptomatology of "postnatal depression"--in other words. think. anxiety. see Thornhill and Furlow 1998.) In much of this literature the functional disturbances (e. as well as predispositional (constitutional a n d / o r biographical) factors have been identified. For instance.. are often structured into a set of "risk factors. pessimistic and destructive ruminations about self and baby) are treated as symptoms of the disorder/syndrome in other words. emotion. such as difficult delivery and illness/deformity (or prematurity) of the infant.

(Even "demand feeding" is not truly "indulgent. Barr therefore holds that what is thought to be "excessive crying" in western societies is. If it is the case that a biosocial complex of close interaction represents the environment within which the human mother-infant dyad's behavior pattern has evolved. the infant's crying. more specifically. the emotion contributing to the mother's necessary vigilance and motivating her conscious activity in relation to the infant while simultaneously signifying its importance to the community (as well as having the capacity to elicit help if necessary). mother) and the unwillingness of western parents to be "indulgent" with their infants' demands (Barr 1990). No. Vol." which the mother needs to learn to identify [Crouch and Manderson 1993:138].. Crying. To put it more simply: what the mother feels and thinks should bear out the predominant role of the needs of the infant in the development of PNS D. 10." since it is almost always shaped by some notion of appropriate manner and timing of feeds. the details of the ensuing state will correspond to their operative selective force. as already pointed out. but its bouts are much shorter than those of infants in western societies where "constant caretaking" is not practiced. and her emotional re- .e. in fact. just as constant caretaking among the !Kung Sun is embedded in its own dense social context. 2. it is necessary to consider the manner in which the distant mechanisms of maternal responsiveness are echoed in their putative proximal correlates. where constant caretaker contact with the infant ensures a continuous feeding pattern. The fundamental nature of these needs is the selective force that has shaped the mother's adaptive response to it. "immediate maternal responsivity to infant signals" is invariably forthcoming (1990:364). has demand features. In the radically altered circumstances of contemporary society. Barr has observed that among the !Kung Sun. the mother's evolved dispositional tendency towards responsiveness will still come into play.) Of course the nurturing practices in western countries are enmeshed with the complexities of their social structure generally. insofar as this response is dispositional/emotional. Under such conditions crying does not occur less frequently. the affective correlates of responsiveness (oriented towards constant caretaking) have constituted an integral part of this situation. 1999 succor. and even in the context of "constant caretaker contact" it is guided by "hunger cries.172 Human Nature. prolonged crying resulting from the physical separation of infant and caretaker (i. Barr (1990) shows that constant caretaking and continuous feeding constitute the behavioral facets of maternal responsiveness to the infant and. "CONSTANT CARETAKING" A N D ITS M O D E R N EQUIVALENTS Before support for this proposition can be usefully examined.

S U P P O R T FOR TIlE H Y P O T H E S I S It does indeed seem to be the case that women's thoughts and feelings during the postpartum are overwhelmingly focused on the infant's crying and her/his feeding pattern (or lack thereof). sometimes. the actual content of women's ideations and emotions postpartum can be expected to reflect specific concerns with infant crying and feeding.e. the mother's emotional state and its cognitive correlates will befocused on the infant's crying and feeding. Arguably. whether they are obtainable or not. producing longer crying bouts) but also the mother. sleep disturbances and the like all of which signal that "there is something wrong" and thus cry out for immediate help and support. anxiety. since these factors inevitably signal ruptures in the continuous caretaking pattern which selection has entrenched in the maternal responsiveness disposition overall. The literature (often from psychology and nursing) on early parenting (and. an enforced change in this pattern will unsettle not only the infant (i. more specifically. regardless of the "'objective" amount of crying and nourishment intake by the infant. neither possible nor culturally valued in the absolute sense of being taken for granted. debility.The Evolutionary Context of Postlmtal Depression 173 sponses will still be provoked by the infant's signals--but in a social context where constant caretaking is. On this view. this. 7 The popular literature on postpartum depression also very clearly emphasizes . It can now be argued.b e c a u s e her "continuous responsiveness" tendency is thwarted by the environmental and cultural conditions contemporary social life imposes on her (more often than not in a complicated manner through both external forces and their internalized representation). The above considerations lead to an a d d e n d u m to the hypothesis that "what the mother feels and thinks should bear out the predominant role of the needs of the infant in the development of PNSD" (see above). maternal disposition (with its emotional underpinnings) is at variance with the social environment. postnatal depression) demonstrates that infant crying and infant feeding---both separately and as an interrelated complex of variables---dominate as stressors in studies on "coping" with babies (reviewed in Terry et al. 6 It follows that the major stressors during the postpartum are associated with infant crying and feeding. that tf PNSD is an adaptive aspect of evolved maternal responsiveness disposition. 1996).. can result in obsessive worry. To expand on the above: if constant caretaking and continuous feeding represent the pattern of action/disposition for the mother-infant dyad that has become entrenched through the evolutionary process. in turn. generally speaking. depression. She may become disturbed not merely because the infant "cries too much" but also--and more import a n t l y . then.

But even Oakley has tended to accept "postnatal depression" as a given diagnostic entity. particularly in relation to the amount of baby's intake. and every cry a sign that the outcome is negative (Crouch and Manderson 1993:154). as Harkness (1987:208) put it. 2. 1999 the ubiquity of worries over crying and feeding (for example. The second theme meshes constant worry about crying with obsessive concern over feeding. No. The first theme is related to lack of social support in the face of anxiety regarding one's own mothering practices and capacity. Each feed becomes a control task judged by its outcome. loss of control (relative to the generally planned and managed character of contemporary activities. instead. These themes are (1) "overcome by responsibility" (1993:149-153) and (2) "feeding-and-crying" (1993:153-158). Considerable anxiety is associated with the uncertainty which is inevitable in this respect. the "inner experience of the post-partum period reflects biological functioning as well as in9 . There have been few qualitative studies of women's subjective experience during the postpartum. Vol. Welburn 1980)9 As Barr (1990:363) has observed. Dix 1987. Naturally the sociocultural context of contemporary society contains factors which precipitate this unease and exert decisive influence on the imagery through which it is expressed. anxiety. Such research tends not to be concerned with emotions and the intrinsic meaning of the thoughts associated with them. on attitudes suggesting that "postnatal depression" is a reaction to the loss of a more autonomous pre-motherhood self and way of life (Oakley 1980)9 Following Oakley's general approach but cast in a more eclectic theoretical framework. fatigue. 1980.174 Human Nature. Disrupted sleep. 10. a study of 92 first-time mothers (Crouch and Manderson 1993) has identified two primary themes in the experience of women who reported some anxiety and negative affect postpartum. even at a personal level). Here Ann Oakley's work (1979. Most investigations of early parenting from the "coping" perspective (as well the majority of studies of postnatal depression) are generally inventory-based and analyzed in terms of predetermined variables and their interactions. and parents measure their parenting effectiveness by their ability to control crying. and the apprehension becomes focused around unease about the baby's feeding pattern and the mother's own response to it. yet arguably it is only through this type of research that the mental and affective state of what has been called "postnatal depression" can be apprehended. and negative feelings concerning one's performance as a parent--all these reactions are positively correlated with parental perceptions of "excessive crying" and "feeding problems" that dominate "adjustment difficulties" during the transition to parenthood. thus permitting her analysis to slide over those manifestations that can be construed as "symptoms" and to concentrate. 1981) stands out as a methodological exemplar where the analysis of interview data is guided by a feminist sensitivity to issues of women's vulnerabilities at this time. crying is the most common problem dealt with in the popular "baby" literature. confusion.

the previously discussed work by Barr (1990) demonstrates that increased caretaking decreases infant crying. for example. the psychological equivalent of constant caretaking. caloric value. and anxiety grows with the proliferation of sources of "expert" advice on mothering and baby-care as their sundry and often confusing advice compounds. it is possible to use some of their results to give credence to the hypothesis advanced here. to the process of infant feeding and.) s The vigilance is focused. (This is. just one example of dispositional tendencies evolved through selection pressures but dysfunctional in their present environments. timing of meals. Although the studies briefly discussed here have not been carried out with this aim in mind. to uncertainties and anxieties inevitably attached to it)." Thus. in a world where eating is an infinitely calculable activity along sundry dimensions of price. then. The finding by Crouch and Manderson (1993) that infant feeding and crying are the nub of mothers' postnatal distress is in line with at least some clinical studies of postnatal depression. the insecurity and dependency needs of w o m e n w h o are ill at ease in their early mothering situations. on the demand characteristics of the infant's behavior--which is precisely the prediction that has been deduced from the evolutionary hypothesis of PNSD as presented here. amount. in line with this finding are therapeutic approaches for postnatal depression which include enhancement of the . So a w o m a n w h o breastfeeds is concerned about not being able to "actually see h o w much he has had" (Crouch and Manderson 1993:155). and w o m e n w h o do not breastfeed are worried when they see how much milk (or formula) their bottlefed infants did not have. in consciousness. Dangers lurk in such uncertainties. to increased attention. and number of courses (as well as baby's weekly weight gain). nutritional make-up.The Evolutionary Context of Postnatal Depression 175 dividual history and life-circumstances. An analytic eye jaded by evolutionary thinking will interpret the pervasive unease of these women as a vigilance which is. Chalmers and Chalmers (1986) have also observed that "babycare" is a major concern of women with postpartum depression. For example. For example. qualitative research of the kind described above is both appropriate and necessary for the testing of evolutionary hypotheses regarding dispositional tendencies. rather than assuages. all within the context of cultural practice and meaning shared by mothers giving birth and those that attend them. In general. in fact. Other research can be cited for the same purpose. and Sussman and Katz (1988) report weaning to be a major etiological factor for this condition (leading. an appropriate program of responses to stress. the expressions of which are converted from adaptive actions into internalized and painful reactions that reflect. by extension. in all probability. as it must. but cannot any more effect. the necessarily uncertain business of baby feeds is disorienting in the absence of boundaries. at least initially.

This paper makes no claim that the research cited supports the hypothesis in any substantial way. Instead. Searle 1987. I briefly compare the view of PNSD as advanced here with evolutionary hypotheses of "postnatal depression" that emphasize different operative factors. less frequently. Kumar 1994. as a mechanism of gaining social acceptance for defection from investing in the infant. Like Hagen. Notably. and the links between the theoretical position advanced and selected empirical research have been made to demonstrate the feasibility of the hypothesis put forward. anxiety. Thornhill and Furlow (1998) also focus on parental investment costs in their evolutionary explanation of PPD. Thornhill and Furlow also state that "another purpose of PPD may be the demonstration of need to people likely to respond by changing the environmental conditions that are extrinsic to the offspring but nevertheless lower its reproductive value" (1998:149).176 Human Nature. A more productive approach towards the strengthening of the hypothesis would be through the logic of falsification. Terry et al. 10. The approach has been explicitly speculative throughout.. and depression. Steiner 1990).) Also relevant in this connection is the body of research that demonstrates the importance of close and intimate social support as a positive factor in maternal emotional health and in the quality of motherinfant interaction (as reviewed variously by Oakley 1993. however. 1996). 1999 mother-infant relationship (e. Thornhill and Furlow nonetheless come close to Hagen's position by offering a definition of PPD which emphasizes escape from mothering: "PPD is a form of evolved psychological pain. shoutd decrease the level of its psychological equivalent of vigilance. (These three studies support the hypothesis because mother-infant interaction can be taken to be the active expression of maternal responsiveness. rather than to uphold or verify it. While not using the term "defection" (which heeds the possibility of social repercussion for lapses in maternal solicitude). . an increase in interaction would therefore move maternal behavior closer to the continuous caretaking pattern of responsiveness. Vol. No. but such a process is beyond the scope of the present discussion.g. and this. ALTERNATIVE HYPOTHESES Hagen (1998) defines postpartum depression (PPD) as "threat to defect" that represents a negotiating tactic for securing greater investment (in the infant) by father and kin in situations where the cost of child-rearing outweighs its benefits for the mother--or. 2. in turn. designed to encourage maternal withdrawal of investment from offspring when doing so would have increased long-term maternal fitness in ancestral environments" (Thornhill and Furlow 1998:347).

again necessarily. Underlying this difference is the explicated evolutionary view of maternal responsiveness in this paper which clearly implies its antecedent status in relation to PNSD. gloss over many relevant intricacies and complexities of the psycho-social and cultural spheres that might be illuminated through a different analytic prism. is also the case. The converse. For example. . perhaps more studies of PNSD might be explicitly guided by evolutionary thinking if it were realized that such an outlook would not necessarily compete with theoretical standpoints that emphasize social and cultural factors. from a sociological viewpoint.The Evolutionary Context of Postnatal Depression 177 The understanding of psychological pain as an adaptive response evolved to secure attention and help from others is common to both of these hypotheses. since there are no obvious contradictions among the predictions that can be drawn from them. . The unraveling of these conceptual differences may well be an appropriate project for future theoretical endeavors. as well. of course. as well as the stress that may be inherent in the structure of society and constantly impinging upon women's lives" (Thurtle 1995:419). Logically speaking. and it also underlies the view of PNSD as put forward in this paper. Nothing in this statement is contradicted by the evolutionary view of PNSD. this contrasts with the understanding of responsiveness as operational "investment" as put forward by both Hagen (1998) and Thornhill and Furlow (1998) with the strong implication that this investment is a consequent (upon "assessment" of offspring's fitness potential) condition. One possible area of disagreement may develop with respect to psychological pain. THE WAY F O R W A R D ? With respect to empirical research. However. which in the present paper receives greater emphasis because of its postulated primary function as an aid to maternal responsiveness whereas both Hagen (1998) and Thornhill and Furlow (1998) see it as an inducement for the withdrawal of investment. one of the . The discussion in this paper is testimony to the fact that an evolutionary hypothesis about human behavior and action must necessarily include considerations regarding the cultural and social dimensions of human action and experience. these hypotheses can therefore be regarded as potentially complementary--though it is equally possible that further elaborations of the positions involved may reveal rival conceptualizations. "post-natal ill health can be seen as the response to emotional and sociocultural stress on the individual w o m a n . Therefore there is some overlap among all three positions. this statement could be both simplistic and trite without explicit recognition that the evolutionary line of thought would. the three hypotheses are not necessarily competing ones.

5. in the context of the present discussion. Much could be said on this point. current social circumstances. 1985:315). domain-specific. Their detailed. Her main interests are in the interface of "culture" and "nature" in h u m a n experience. 1999 a i m s of this p a p e r has b e e n to s u g g e s t that a n e v o l u t i o n a r y v i e w of P N S D brh~gs to a t t e n t i o n intricacies a n d c o m p l e x i t i e s of h u m a n i n t e r a c t i o n t h a t are n o t a l w a y s seen or e v e n e n v i s a g e d f r o m s t a n d p o i n t s w h i c h e s c h e w e v o l u t i o n a r y premises. affective disturbance in depression [Kleinman and Kleinman 1985]) and the way in which these are socially u n d e r s t o o d . somatization vs. in all probability. .A.. No. The term "postnatal stress and depression" has been adopted by an informal interest group of practitioners and academics formed in NSW in 1994 to promote research.g. If it is accepted that macro-social and bio-psychological variables are different contexts in which various patterns of forces operate on one another (Marsella et al. 4. culturally variable disordered states--variable in both their manifestations (e. education. The question of cultural variation in mental illness symptomatology is a vexing one.178 H u m a n Nature. the mother enters a period of considerable vulnerability which is the direct result of her increasing physical and emotional entanglement with the infant. 3. Mira Crouch (B. and sympathetic comments have helped me develop and clarify the ideas presented here. 10. Vol. 2. l-Iowever. both empirically and logically. relevant considerations must be restricted to a global comment to the effect that. "Biological" here subsumes "social" insofar as the inherent sociality of humans has been a constant feature of the evolution of the species. beginning dramatically with childbirth." This broader view of postnatal depression has come out of a workshop on the syndrome held at the University of Melbourne under the auspices of the Research Advisory Committee (Australia: Department of H u m a n Services and Health). in a m o s t g e n e r a l sense this i n v o l v e s c o n t e m p l a t i o n of the exigencies of h u m a n existence as the basis for i n v e s t i g a t i o n s of select characteristics o f the species. 2. Her current research project conceres the implications of menarche for the subjective sense of the end of childhood..) is Senior Lecturer in the School of Sociology at the University of New South Wales (Sydney. as Cosmides and Tooby (1997:288) might argue. a culturally imagined entity which springs from this vulnerability that is simultaneously embedded in. and denied by. NOTES l. The "bonding" that is so valued as an emotional commodity in western societies (Crouch and Manderson 1995) is. T h u s the p o s i t i o n t a k e n h e r e is far f r o m b e i n g red u c t i o n i s t since it rests o n the possibility of c o n s i d e r i n g different levels of o r g a n i z a t i o n of h u m a n action in relation to o n e a n o t h e r . It is possible that such reactions are a specialized. contentimparting mechanism. I would like to thank the three reviewers of the first version of this paper. and support services in relation to "postnatal depression.m a y in fact have at least some bio-psychological factors in common. careful. Australia).

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