Mother's interrupted: puerperal insanity in early twentieth century Australia

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Watts, A 2011, 'Mother's interrupted: puerperal insanity in early twentieth century Australia', paper presented to Mothers at the margins, sixth International Conference on Motherhood, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld, 27-30 April.


Puerperal insanity, was a term used extensively throughout the 19th century and generally is understood as the suffering of mental illness following childbirth. Marland (2004) argues that puerperal insanity was in decline as a diagnosis in the twentieth century. However, my investigation of 30 female mental patient files from Victoria between 1920-1934 reveals that a small but significant number of post birthing women were still committed with puerperal insanity at this time. Cases of puerperal insanity violate twentieth century ideals of motherhood. Yet the medical definition of puerperal insanity, lack of treatment and the public discourses of what constitutes the ‘good mother’ from the 1930s ignore family power relations, social conditions and the material realities of mothering in this era. These issues are consistent with Showalter’s conclusion, who states that ‘the psychiatric definition of puerperal insanity ignored the social problems of motherhood: 'unmarried, abused and destitute mothers and the shocks, adjustments, and psychological traumas of the maternal role’ (1985). The patient histories under examination in this work reflect the gendered discourse of the medical authorities of the early twentieth century who supported, at times, the unrealistic social expectations of mothers of that era. Whilst there has been extensive research into the history of women’s madness, this paper examines the treatment of women who were moved from one institution (the family) to another, that of the mental institution interrupting their motherhood.