When Nicola Redhouse gave birth to her first child she felt crippling anxiety and debilitating dread. But instead of resigning herself to panic, Redhouse, whose father is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, turned to science, literature and philosophy. In Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind, she delves deep into her personal story while asking: why, exactly, do we suffer from postnatal depression?
Guardian Australia: What inspired you to write this book?
Nicola Redhouse: I wanted to answer a particular question – is there any scientific proof for Freud’s theory of the unconscious? – because I wanted to win an argument with my sister. She’d started a war with me one day by declaring that the work our father does is a pseudoscience. But after about a year of writing it I realised that academic question was a sort of subplot; really, I wanted to know why I had suffered such terrible postnatal anxiety. And it turns out I couldn’t answer one question without answering the other.
Was childbirth a life-changing moment for you?
The curtains came down and I saw the truth: women are a hair’s breadth from death every time they give forth another life. I also felt like weeping for womankind for all that we do, that we keep secret.
Women are often told that having a child will make them “complete”…
I had never fantasised about a sense of “completeness” with a child, but we live our lives expecting every milestone to bring us into proper adulthood and I suppose I expected I would finally feel grown up when I had a baby. Instead, I was crying nonstop, feeling unable to eat, wondering how I would survive, and that was certainly not the new adult motherhood I had pictured. I did feel somehow that I had failed at growing up properly.
Author Steven Amsterdam said: “Redhouse has corralled the ordinary and extraordinary madness of motherhood.” What is the “madness of motherhood”?
There are so many madnesses about motherhood, about parenting. One is that it is an experience mired in unscientific conjecture about human behaviour (and that Google becomes a kind of god). Another is that we all proceed as though there ought to be an answer. Entire baby-product industries exist as though they hold the answer. There’s the collective madness of the silence around the physical pain and bodily recovery for women. There’s the madness around the incongruous social organisation of many societies around the experience of motherhood. And then there is the practical madness, the sleep deprivation, the washing avalanches and the nappy explosions. Those are the normalised and normal madnesses.
You navigate your feelings in the book through psychoanalysis, psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience. How have they helped make sense of what you’ve gone through?
My book is largely about this very question. When I got six months into motherhood and felt the talking cure was not giving me immediate enough relief, I turned to medication. But what did this mean about what had caused my postnatal depression? I wanted to tease out the strands of the biological, genetic and the psychological, and this meant looking closely at how these disciplines approach mental experience. The answer, of course, is that we are both body and mind. The immaterial arises from the material. What needs to change to progress anywhere with our knowledge in mental health is the sharing of knowledge among disciplines. As Professor Mark Solms, the founder of neuropsychoanalysis, has said: “There can’t be a mind for neuroscience and a mind for psychoanalysis. There is only one human mind.”
What have you learned about yourself in writing Unlike the Heart?
I became a great deal more science literate while writing it. I had a belief about myself that I found scientific frameworks boring and I had to split science into some kind of opposition to art. The research I did for the book brought the fields together for me in a thrilling way. I learned that when I turned away from understanding scientific inquiry it was because of anxiety. It shut off my curiosity.
Why the title Unlike the Heart?
It is a nod to something Professor Mark Solms said about the unique qualities of the brain, which functions with subjectivity and changes as we experience life. There is a line in the book where I write: “Unlike the heart … a brain cannot be understood as a static organ.” The heart has been called on in literature to express the organ of feeling, so it acts as a nice juxtaposition to make that point.