“Where is the mother in the discussion?” An interview with Walker Karraa on maternal mental health and infant feeding

Some of you may know Walker Karraa from her comments on our Facebook community page, or from her fantastic posts on Science & Sensibility. But I doubt you’re aware of the full magnitude of her bravery and dedication to issues surrounding maternal mental health. I recently interviewed Walker for a short piece on formula feeding and postpartum adjustment, and was so blown away by her answers – I was only able to use a few of her wise words due to word count constraints, so I’m thrilled she’s agreed to let me post the interview in full here on FFF.

Walker is a doctoral candidate at Sofia University, where she is conducting a study on the transformational dimensions of postpartum depression. She was also the founding President of PATTCh, an organization founded by Penny Simkin dedicated to the prevention and treatment of traumatic childbirth, and is a perinatal mental health contributor for Lamaze International’s Science and Sensibility, Giving Birth With Confidence, and the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) Midwives Connection. Like that wasn’t enough on her plate, Walker also served as social media manager for the Integral Leadership Review, and has her own social media consulting business, On My High Horse, and is currently working toward co-authoring a book regarding PTSD following childbirth with Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, FAPA. 

I’m exhausted just reporting all of that. And did I mention she has two kids and is a breast cancer survivor? Yeah, she’s all that and a bag of reduced fat potato chips.

I hope you guys will appreciate the revolutionary nature of Walker’s discussion here – her opinions, while brilliant, probably seem uncontroversial to those who follow this blog, but they are quite “rogue” in the birth/maternal-child health community. I can’t thank her enough for being a dissenting voice and speaking up for the benefit of all women. 

FFF: Here on FFF, we see stories almost weekly which discuss how a perceived “failure” to breastfeed can lead to depression, anxiety, and self-esteem issues. Do you think the maternal mental health community has recognized how breastfeeding (or lack thereof) can affect the emotional state of new moms?

Walker Karraa

WK: I think that overall breastfeeding is very well addressed in the health psychology, and developmental psychology fields. What’s lacking is the reframe of the research to integrate more qualitative data, and methods, into the consideration of the full range of implications of breastfeeding from multiple perspectives—including the woman’s perspective.

In a 1985 Lancet article on maternal mortality, Allen Rosenfield asked the famous question, “Where is the ‘M’ in MCH (Maternal Child Health)? In the discussions of MCH, it is commonly assumed that what is good for the child is good for the mother.” (Rosenfield & Maine, 1985, p. 83). In many ways this is relevant in the discussion of breastfeeding and maternal mental health. Where is the mother in the discussion? And in what ways do we still assume what is good for the child is good for the mother? For me, this is all about reproductive rights and a deeper issue about our discomfort with women’s sovereignty over their reproductive, physical, and mental health.

The mental health community has responded to the growth in published data regarding infant health and breastfeeding. This has also been the funding stream for a large part of the last 20 years. But maternal mental health has yet to directly address a woman’s infant feeding choice as a part of her reproductive choice, rather than discrete periods of time that occur with as a continuum of events that are inextricably woven through reproductive events—none of which, taken by themselves, gives either the best data on mental health.

FFF: What do you feel needs to change in order for new mothers to be better supported in terms of mental health in general?

WK: I think one of the first calls to action must be for maternal care providers to get support in knowing that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are common and create the conditions for morbidity and mortality for mother and children. This is starting to happen, but still very slow. I think new models of medical care such as Dr. Michael C Lu’s life course model, which places the woman at the center of care, not the doctor. And, she is treated across the lifespan, not merely when she is pregnant. This facilitates better reproductive health in preconception and interconception, and uses a reproductive life plan for women and families from an early age. At puberty, to have a conversation with medical, nutritional, mental health providers as to planning one’s reproduction (girls and boys) would be ideal.

FFF: Many women struggle with the decision of whether to treat postpartum or prenatal depression/anxiety with psycho-pharmaceuticals, especially when they are breastfeeding. Why is there such mixed information and messaging about what drugs are safe, and what the relative risks are (ie, breastfeeding without meds vs breastfeeding on meds vs formula feeding and taking the meds)?

WK: Not having good information is a barrier to care for everyone involved. The OB/GYN or midwife, the social worker, the woman, her partner and family—when we don’t have good information, we cannot make informed choices. And for women in poverty, the risk is twofold. Specifically regarding breastfeeding, but also education across the board regarding psychopharmacology, pregnancy, and lactation. With organizations such as OTIS (Organization of Teratology Information Specialists) and Motherisk, there really is no excuse for not having current evidence-based data regarding risk and benefit of untreated depression and anxiety, as well as risks and benefits of medications used to treat them.

Byatt et al. (2012) did a wonderful grounded theory study regarding community mental health provider reluctance to providing psycho-pharmacotherapy. 28 obstetric care providers (nurses, OB/Gyns, etc.) shared how they perceive community mental health practitioners as obstacles to psychopharmacology for perinatal women. The participants felt community mental health providers “99% of the time” discontinued a patients’ medication, and put women at risk of relapse. Secondly, Byatt et al., (2012) reported that participants perceived a lack of collaboration and communication between community mental health care providers and OB/Gyn providers, and that pharmacists also “further impede or delay depression treatment by not filling needed psychotropic prescriptions, often exacerbating women’s mental health symptoms” (p. 3).

FFF: Why do you think so many women express grief, guilt, and feelings of failure around the subject of infant feeding?

WK: Because that is their experience! And I attribute all of it to social constructs that are completely ingrained in medical, social, and mental health systems that have been made for and by men. The intentions of those men is not necessarily nefarious, and not really the point. It is that the constructs we have to measure ourselves (abilities and weaknesses) are made by men. We tell women from the get-go that they need us to be good mothers. They need our insight, knowledge, treatment, book, video, technique, services, product to be taught how to mother. This is so ironic, because so many of the birth movements have evolved from a call to empower women. But to empower, we have just made more systems of knowledge that mimic the ones we refute. That is not very popular to say, but it is true. The messages still given to women is that if they “know” something analytically, they are devoid of femininity, and if they “know” something inter-subjectively, they are devoid of ration.

Shame is a powerful force for women. And at no time in her life is a woman more susceptible to shame than early motherhood. If they are lucky enough to find a safe space to share their feelings without judgment, such as your blog, they are given the gift of voice. They can speak their truths.

FFF: Any tips for a mom who is having a tough time reconciling her use of formula?

WK: You know, when I was a doula, I had clients ask me to go buy formula for them so they wouldn’t be seen in public. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the birth of my second, I underwent two mastectomies before she had turned one. I learned that my body parts have nothing to do with my inherent ability to love her. My breasts were gone—off of my body, one in one hospital and another at a hospital down the road. I fed, nurtured, attached with, loved, and parented without them…and still do! So my advice is to write down on a piece of paper: My breasts have nothing to do with my love for my child. And keep it where you can see it. Memorize it, know it.

About the Author:

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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7 thoughts on ““Where is the mother in the discussion?” An interview with Walker Karraa on maternal mental health and infant feeding

  1. Again I am disappointed to see yet another week where formula feeding is not “fearless” but a painful and unfortunate compromise or a failure that is comparable to PTSD and requires rehabilitation, etc. There are women who feel that way and need to be helped/treated for that. But where are the fearless formula feeders? I was 37 when I began to TTC. I went off my medications about six months prior (I have suffered from insomnia, anxiety, depression, and mild OCD since childhood.) and that was a disaster. And so I wound up treating myself, putting TTC aside and getting stable again and trusting my wonderful psychiatrist and OB regarding the use of medication during pregnancy. While I had hoped for a medication free pregnancy I have no regrets. My child is absolutely 100% crazy strong and healthy. I never intended or even considered breastfeeding. I had absolutely no desire to do so on one hand, and legitimate reasons why it would not be a good choice for me on the other (freedom to take medication as needed, the knowledge that I would feel like a cow (I do not see women breastfeeding as being cow like, it’s just me), coping with the demands of breastfeeding on top of all the other demands of an infant would just have been too much. But really the bottom line is that I didn’t want to breastfeed, ever. And I watched my mother breastfeed my sister for two solid years. It’s natural and doesn’t bother or disgust me. I see formula as an equally valid food source and think that it’s ridiculous how it is treated. I am a fearless formula feeder because I wanted to formula feed, I do not feel guilty or shameful or selfish or anything else for choosing to formula feed. They both have pros and cons. As my son is now 19 weeks and has yet to be sick, etc., I feel like whole debate is even more ridiculous than I thought it was in the first place. That is fearless formula feeding. I understand if being unable to breastfeed has been a traumatic experience, that is absolutely valid, but it belongs on a website that is a support group for women who were unable to breastfeed to their satisfaction, not on a website that is supposedly composed of women fearlessly choosing formula because it is an absolutely legitimate choice.

  2. I consider this a personal choice that does not have a black and white answer but personally I think formula is a much better choice for my child than drugged breast milk. He does not need to be medicated for illnesses he does not suffer from.

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