The Ghost of Postpartum Past



These are my grandparents, Frank and Madelin Raven.  They were young and newly married in this photo, with no idea what life had in store for them.  WWI was won, my grandfather safely home, and the hard times of the depression were not yet visible on the horizon.  It was a happy time for them.  They were in love, married just over two years, and finally expecting their first baby.

When the big day finally arrived, it was not at all like they had imagined.  It was a traumatic event; the details of which are enough for a whole other post. Suffice it to say that in a day when most births still occurred at home, my mother was delivered by Cesarean section with complications, and managed to survive.


My mother, Doris, being held by the neighbor who raised her for a year.

I do not have any record of what the first weeks home with her new baby daughter were like for my grandmother; I only know that she was recovering from an unplanned Cesarean with a scar that ran from her navel to her pubic bone, and caring for a newborn that they didn’t think they would be bringing home.  Did her milk come in okay after all the trauma?  Did the baby feed well? Did she have any help? Did they have enough to eat?  Our verbal family history is very, very limited on this whole topic, and I have discovered over the years that much of what my mother was told about her childhood was in fact incorrect.  The only thing I know for sure was that just about a month after my mother was born,  the week before Christmas, my grandmother Madeline was admitted to the NJ State Hospital at Trenton  with a diagnosis that today would be called Postpartum Psychosis.

During this era, the medical director of the NJ State Hospital at Trenton was the infamous Dr. Henry Cotton.  Dr. Cotton ascribed to a theory that mental illness was caused by an infection somewhere in the human body, and if he could find and remove that infection he could cure the mental illness.  So search he did.  After the initial standard removal of all her teeth, they moved on to remove her uterus  (known as a hysterectomy because of its historical use as a cure for female “hysteria” )

Six months later, still admitted to the State Hospital, my grandmother underwent another surgery.  The report from that surgery can be read below.  It’s apparent that there was some type of abdominal infection going on, possibly the result of previous surgeries?  I don’t know for sure, but this surgical report gives us a snapshot of my grandmother’s life seven months after giving birth to my mother.  During those six months my grandfather was trying to hold it together. He was working for Dupont, living in a tiny house in the company town. A neighbor down the street was raising my mother. My grandfather would visit with her when he could, and take her on the 60 mile trip to see my grandmother some weekends. I don’t know how my grandmother responded to her baby during this time. I don’t know if she was capable of engaging with her, or if she even wanted to. I don’t know how they paid for her medical care. I don’t know how long they worked to pay off medical bills. I don’t know how much of a struggle this all really was for my grandfather, but I can certainly imagine.

Madeline with Doris 1923 enhanced

Madeline holding Doris shortly after her return home.

After just more than a year, my grandmother was released from the hospital.  She returned home to raise her daughter – who was now walking and basically a stranger.   They visited with the neighbor down the street at first, but ended those visits because my mother would cry and reach out for the neighbor whom she saw as her mother.  They changed my mother’s middle name to Minerva, to honor the woman who cared for her, but my mother never saw her again until after her mother’s death well over forty years later.

So is this the end of the story or the beginning?  How did my grandmother build a relationship with my mother? How did she process and integrate her birth and her illness into the woman she was now?  How did she cope with the grief of having her women-hood and future children taken from her?  Was she really better at all, or had she learned how to manage her thoughts and depression? How did this illness and the loss of the ability to have more children impact their marriage?  My grandfater died before I was born, and in fact was hospitalized for depression at the time of his death.  I can’t help but wonder if it was related to all of this., and how my fragile grandmother dealt with young widowhood.  Because I only learned of my grandmother’s story after her death, I feel as if I never really knew her at all.   She was so quiet, so reserved.

Nana I wish I could hold your hand and tell you I understand.  I wish I could have listened to you tell your story.  I’m sorry that you had to live through such cruel and ignorant treatment.  Nana, things are better for women now. Every time I care for a new mom I will think of you; do it like I was doing it for you.  I promise that I will do what I can to keep making birth and the postpartum period a better experience for all women.

If you are struggling with a difficult postpartum experience you are not alone, you are not broken.  Reach out and ask for help!  Your place of birth, your medical provider, your family – heck, call me!   There is help available.


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