Doing Our Best to Unpack Not Carol: The Postpartum Doco Every Mother Needs to See

When one hears the word “postpartum” we usually think of “postpartum depression.” It’s relatively common in the United States, with about 20% of mothers each year facing depression linked to the birth of their babies. It’s heartbreaking and makes an already difficult time in one’s life even more challenging. Symptoms of postpartum depression include feeling numb or disconnected from your child, fear that you will hurt your child, feeling guilty that you are not a good mother, and anger. Those are scary symptoms for anyone, let alone when you’re caring for a newborn.

Recently, however, I have discovered a new term that has given me even more pause: “postpartum psychosis.” It sounds really scary because it is really scary. I watched a documentary entitled Not Carol, which details the circumstances around Carol Coronado’s postpartum psychosis that ultimately led to the death of her three young daughters. The film explains Carol’s life, her family, background, and her desperate, unanswered cry for help on the day of the murders, followed by her attempted suicide. It was a chilling documentation of how our society is not designed nor equipped to support those struggling with mental illness.  

Postpartum psychosis is rare — it affects about one to two mothers per every 1,000 births. Of that tenth of a percent, only 4% commit infanticide, and 5% commit suicide. These numbers are low, but when the illness does strike, it can be devastating. Symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, hyperactivity, severe irritability, insomnia, mood swings, and difficulty communicating. Most often, these symptoms present themselves within the first few weeks after birthing a child. They can be triggered by things like the inability to breastfeed properly or heightened stress levels, but often arise in tandem and are caused by more deep-rooted issues such as a previous psychotic episode or prior mental health issues/bipolar disorder in one’s personal or familial history.

Carol Coronado received three life sentences without the possibility of parole in a California state prison instead of having the opportunity to get professional help at a mental health institute. It is an unsurprising verdict considering the US prison system is the largest provider of psychiatric care in the country. (That’s right, not hospitals or psychiatric care facilities… prisons.) Some estimates even contend that roughly half of the US prison population is struggling with mental illness. 

And, as one can imagine, our state and federal prison systems are dangerously ill-equipped in supporting the growth and healing of those dealing with mental illness. 

Nor does it seem that they’re very interested in this type of support in the first place, as most prisons in America are privately owned and have shareholders holding them accountable for every dollar.

At the time of the murders Carol was caring for her three young daughters. Sophie was two and a half, Yazmine was sixteen months, and Xenia was just shy of three months old. Her husband, Rudy, worked during the day and wasn’t of the mindset that men should help out with children, or make dinner, or assist with other household duties. So, like so many other women, Carol attempted to do it all. She stayed home with the children all day and prepared dinner, caring for them at night while her husband slept. She was severely sleep-deprived and beyond exhausted, and also had a history of trauma. She was molested multiple times as a child, and during a brief stint in the army, was gang-raped. 

The depression set in after the birth of her second child. While many women get the “baby blues” which is a result of the hormonal flux after giving birth, it usually only lasts a few weeks. What Carol was dealing with, however, was postpartum depression… and then she got pregnant again almost immediately. 

The Coronados lived a very frugal existence. The family of five lived in a converted garage in Compton, California. With Rudy’s car repair business being the only source of income for the family, they were financially strapped. On more than one occasion before the murders, Carol mentioned her financial stresses to friends and family members. It weighed on her heavily, so, on top of caring for her three small children, she started taking online classes so she could get a better paying job. 

While rates of postpartum depression and psychosis vary from country to country, it seems likely that the higher the stress levels a mother endures, the more likely it is that depression and psychosis may occur. These stress factors include lack of childcare or emotional support, financial challenges, and minimal rest.

As American culture shifted solidly to the nuclear family model after WWII, many mothers in cis relationships found themselves solely responsible for the upbringing of their children. While things are slowly shifting towards each partner helping out evenly, it is not happening fast enough. For the majority of humanity’s existence on this planet, childcare has been a communal activity. Mothers would all help each other and care for one another’s children in group settings. But after capitalism took hold in post-WWII America, all of that went out the window. Requiring each family to have its own separate house divided families and subsequently placed more of the child-rearing burdens directly on the individual mother. 

This monumental and endless task was never meant for just one person. Yet our society expects mothers to do it while also holding a job and contributing to the financial needs of the family.  

Societal models in countries such as Iceland and Norway challenge these preposterous American standards. Families there have significant time off from work (which is subsidized by the government) to care for their newborn children. They also have access to ample in-home childcare right after birth and, again, once both parents (yes, both) go back to work. This support enables families to properly bond and for fathers to share in the childcare duties. Not only has this enabled healthier children, but it also creates stronger bonds between father and child — which has yet to become the norm in patriarchal, capitalistic societies such as ours. 

Perhaps if Carol had access to these types of support, her children might be alive and well today. If we as a society are to prevent further stories like Carol’s, we must invest in supporting not only newborns, but also those that care for them, with comprehensive support models like those of western European societies.

For anyone experiencing feelings of postpartum depression, seeking help through counseling, exercise, and healthy eating can help reverse symptoms. Saffron also aids in postpartum depression and has been found in some cases to be just as effective as chemical drugs. Try the fullest’s own Saffron Latte here.

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.

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