From a very young age, we are taught the basic framework for a ‘perfect’ life. Indeed, thanks to countless books and films, we are constantly reminded of the fairy tale we all ought to be signing up to: get married, have a baby, live happily ever after.
Of course, nowadays we know that set narrative isn’t for everyone. And, even if motherhood is for you, it doesn’t mean that things will necessarily turn out as expected.
Some 1-2 in 1,000 women experience postpartum psychosis (PP) after childbirth. However, it’s a mental health condition which is hardly ever spoken about in antenatal classes or baby books. And, as such, we’re usually only ever confronted with the words when reading horror stories in the news about mothers murdering their children.
This lack of visibility around PP means that those women who are affected are left to battle against a hugely damaging stigma and lack of understanding around what is happening in their own minds. And that’s why, in May 2019, Louis Theroux decided to shine a light on maternal mental health in his critically-acclaimed documentary, Mothers On The Edge.
In the show, Theroux visited two specialist units where 24/7 treatment is offered to mothers struggling with their mental health until their condition is either cured, under control or “when the baby turns one”.
Theroux met with a number of different women in the documentary. The one who stood out to many viewers, though, was Catherine.
“I don’t feel I can be his mum, he deserves better than me, someone should be looking after him that can love him,” she told the documentarian.
Later in the episode, it was revealed that Catherine had terminated a pregnancy at 17 weeks a year earlier after a foetal diagnosis of Down Syndrome and, still traumatised by the loss, she found herself unable to bond with her newborn son, Jake.
“There was a rush of love for the last baby and there wasn’t that feeling for Jake because there was always the feeling that something was going to go wrong like it did the last time,” she explained.
“If I am not that attached to him and something awful happens, then I feel I won’t be hurt.”
Catherine, who was revealed to have attempted multiple overdoses since Jake’s birth, added: “There’s huge guilt that I don’t feel the way I did for the last baby. I want to feel something for him. I want that rush of love and I want to feel the overwhelming urge to protect him.
“The feelings for him are completely different.”
Of course, every case explored in Mothers On The Edge was unique. However, every single woman interviewed voiced that same crippling fear of not living up to society’s expectations of what a “good mother” should be. Of not being able to emulate the “perfect” families seen on Instagram. Of the enormous pressure placed upon them to love their babies.
Indeed, Theroux himself admitted that he occasionally “struggled to comprehend” how anyone could feel anything other than absolute, unconditional love for a newborn child. And that’s one of the reasons why he decided to shine a light on PP in the first place.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of the condition, particularly men, and over the last few years there’s been a gradual sense that mental illness in general should not be a stigmatised condition,” he told Stylist’s Sarah Biddlecombe.
“We need to do more to let people know there is nothing shameful or embarrassing about mental illness – it’s an illness like any other, even though it might not be as visible. And we can give families from the wider world a bit more of an understanding of what people with postpartum psychosis and postnatal illness go through.”
If Theroux was hoping to promote a “bit more understanding”, then he achieved just that with Mothers On The Edge: the show debuted to a slew of 4 and 5-star reviews. And it wasn’t just TV critics lauding Theroux’s work, either: many women who had struggled with maternal mental health issues came forward to thank the documentarian for his work.
One such woman was author Laura Dockrill, who shared a photograph of herself and her baby boy to Instagram.
Alongside it, she wrote: “Louis Theroux… is raising awareness on postpartum psychosis. THANK GOD
“Please watch it. Tell your friends. It’s so scary and the tiniest bit of light shed on this horrible illness could save somebody’s life. Nobody warns you.”
Dockrill added: “I never thought I’d have a Louis Theroux episode that related to me. Never been in a gang or done crystal meth, and I’ve no plans to go on death row anytime soon, but turns out none of us are immune. And here I am. If I had seen this documentary before I would not have felt so in the dark and alone.”
It is for this reason, then, that Stylist’s Under Her Eye team is recognising Mothers On The Edge in their 2020 Mental Health Awards. Thank you, Louis, for making PP sufferers feel less alone, and for using your platform to smash unhelpful taboos around mental health.
Louis Theroux: Mothers On The Edge is available to stream not on BBC iPlayer.
Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch.
If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at email@example.com.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.