For Mexican Catholics, la Virgen de Guadalupe symbolizes maternal femininity and the mother of all mothers. In some traditional folklore, there are also negative symbols of femininity, such as la Llorona and la Malinche, both portrayed in traditional stories as women that failed as mothers. The socio-religious norms give a lot of power to the mother, but also encompass guilt as a very strong component. There is a belief that people inevitably suffer, and that suffering involves physical and emotional pain. Pain will redeem and suffering will take you up to heaven. In some Latino cultures, there is a period after the birth known as la cuarentena. To cope during this time, family members prepare purgantes (home remedies) to help the mother eliminate any impurities from the birth. It is commonly believed that postpartum depression will not occur if these purgantes are taken. Women are cared for by other women, but are expected to care for their newborn on their own. Some new mothers are discouraged from taking showers for several days, and are also discouraged from getting out of bed for the first few hours after birth. Traditions have been passed down for generations and learning how to be a new mother is provided by other women in the family.
Most Latinas do not go outside of their family circle to talk about their problems. A family member is often designated as the “surrogate therapist” to whom family members go first for advice. If no one in the family has this role, they will go to the mother, followed by others in the extended family. The next option is to talk to a family priest or someone in the church before seeking outside help. One of the obstacles to seeking help is being given permission. A Latina mother may never visit a doctor unless it is recommended by a priest or family member. In most cases, a doctor’s visit revolves around somatic symptoms, such as headaches or “nerves,” and signs of depression are rarely revealed. This may very well explain why many cases of postpartum depression are not reported and why many Latina mothers suffer in silence.
The new research cannot be ignored. Latinas are reported as being 37 percent more likely to suffer from postpartum depression than the general population of women – almost 15 percent higher. Most women will experience postpartum depression to some degree, but, as we have discovered, Latinas are more at risk and often start developing symptoms as early as the onset of pregnancy. The best solution is for health care professionals to be aware of the importance of their traditions and cultural beliefs about pregnancy and childbirth. To meet the needs of the new mother, cultural barriers to a mother’s spending time away from a new baby and recognizing the limits of her ability to take on child care alone need to be addressed. We also need to provide resources and treatment that are realistic for a new mother. The best form of preventive care comes through education and coaching. Most new Latina mothers need good information on what to expect during pregnancy and after the baby is born. Bringing awareness and education to new Latina mothers can ameliorate the common occurrence of postpartum depression. Health care providers are responsible to make education, coaching and support available, not only for the mother, but for the entire family, so that the condition can be recognized and treated before it reaches calamitous proportions.
Dr. Shannon Chavez is a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s sexual health at SHE Sexual Health Experts in Gilbert, Arizona. Dr. Chavez earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a Master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.
Dr. Chavez is a member of the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health, the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and is an active member of the East Valley Psychological Association. Dr. Chavez practices a variety of modalities, including psychodynamic therapy, attachment-oriented psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, sex therapy, sex coaching and psychosynthesis. She also provides education and workshops, therapy groups, and lectures on women’s sexual health and clinical sexology.
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