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Cruise Vs. Shields: Overcoming Postpartum Depression

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January 14, 2013

After watching the Golden Globes last night, I felt inspired to dissect a Hollywood debate that relates to reproductive justice. Everyone remember when Tom Cruise attacked Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants to treat her postpartum depression? No matter how attractive you may think he is in his tighty-whiteys (Risky Business), it’s no secret that Tom Cruise is a little nutty – when I say a little, I’m being kind. For this reason, I usually just ignore his ranting and raving. Unfortunately, I really let his opinions on psychiatrics and postpartum depression get under my skin.

Medical News Today defines postpartum depression (PPD), also referred to as postnatal depression as “a type of depression that affects some women after having a baby.” The article goes on to say that “typically, [PPD] develops within four to six weeks from giving birth, but can sometimes take several months to appear. There is no clear reason for the depression. Some men also develop postnatal depression. The patient may experience fatigue, sadness, reduced libido, episodes of crying, irritability, anxiety, and irregular sleeping patterns.”

After giving birth to her daughter, Rowan, Brooke Shields used the anti-depressant Paxil to treat her postnatal depression. The Suddenly Susan actress discusses this difficult period of her life openly in her book, Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression.

For some reason unbeknownst to me, Cruise decided that he needed to publicly weigh in on Shields’ memoir and psychological battle. The scientologist actor criticized Shields for turning to anti-depressants rather than vitamins or exercise, and added that he was “disappointed” in Shields. Here’s the infamous quote from his 2005 Access Hollywood interview with Billy Bush:

“These drugs are dangerous…I have actually helped people come off. When you talk about postpartum, you can take people today, women, and what you do is you use vitamins. There is a hormonal thing that is going on, scientifically, you can prove that. But when you talk about the emotional, chemical imbalances in people, there is no science behind that. You can use vitamins to help a woman through those things.”

We can go ahead and skip past my “you’re a man, so what gives you the right to tell a woman how to be a mother?” rant and move on to the larger social implications of his statement.

Interestingly enough, while researching for this piece, I found relatively few articles addressing (or criticizing) Cruise’s statement, while my searches yielded twice as many articles focusing on his apology and on Shields’ rebuttal. So firstly, I would like to acknowledge that by being a white, upper class male, Cruise was immediately awarded a get-out-of-jail-free card and forgiven – but not by me.

Secondly, I think this says a lot about the general public’s understanding of and attitudes toward postpartum depression. In her memoir, Shields bravely depicts herself in an honest and admittedly negative light as she writes about wanting to kill herself and her child. She writes about how her child felt like a stranger to her and that nurturing did not come easily to her for some time. I cannot and would not criticize or even weigh in on Shields’ negative depiction of herself as a mother suffering from PPD. However, I can and will say that her feelings of self-hatred are at least in part rooted in the way our society views PPD. In our society, we seem to have this idealistic and binary view of mothers: the good mother or the bad mother. The “good mother” loves and nurtures her child(ren), and these feelings and behaviors come natural to her. Conversely, the “bad mother” does not meet these qualifications. It’s really difficult for a lot of people to grasp that it is possible for new mothers to simultaneously love their children and hate their lives.

However, a big positive that comes from the Cruise-Shields debate is consciousness-raising about postpartum depression. Much of the backlash against Cruise came from critics with opinions similar to this one: If PPD is a disease, then women who have it shouldn’t be accused of being bad mothers. This means that more people are starting to recognize PPD as a medical condition that requires medical attention.

This leads me to the conclusion that more education and openness about this mood disorder could widely foster change. It would change the way our society views mothers who deal with PPD. This in turn would take some of the shame and self-hate out of the already emotionally tumultuous situation. And it would help mothers (and those around her) to recognize the symptoms of PPD; to understand that they are not alone, crazy or bad mothers/people; and to realize that help is available for them.

The Afterward of Down Came the Rain offers resources and additional reading for women with PPD. If Shields’ memoir interests you, you can read an excerpt from her book at The Online PPD Support Group. This site also offers great resources and reading materials.

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