Review of: Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, edited by Stephanie Sprenger and Jessica Smock
My first attempt at reading Mothering Through the Darkness stopped after three essays. The weight of these women’s struggles seemed overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure I could carry on. It didn’t help that I am in the midst of writing a book about the early days after my second daughter was born three months prematurely, and so was already feeling stirred up as I remembered the rawness of my emotions back then.
The next day, I started again, and in the end, I read Mothering Through the Darkness twice. The first time I read right through so that I could simply appreciate the essays; the second time I took notes, and identified common threads that run through these women’s stories – and that ran through my own story after my daughter’s premature birth.
Mothering Through the Darkness is an important book, and the more I read, the more I realised that. I could tell you about the beauty of the prose in these pages: the many lyrical essays, those where the writers use symbols with astonishing aptness to convey their emotional fragility. I could tell you about the clever techniques some writers use to make their essays read more like fiction or poetry. I could tell you about the powerful images of the women and their situations that formed in my mind and linger after the reading is over and book has been closed.
All those exist, but they aren’t what make this anthology important. It’s not too difficult to write beautiful prose, nor even to create images that resonate, especially when you, the reader have been in a similar situation.
It is harder to write honest words. It is far harder when those honest words expose your darkest innermost thoughts and fears to the world. But, in this anthology, writer after writer does just that. This honesty is all the more important, because, in the throes of depression honesty was what mother after mother avoided. Many of them had an idea of what postpartum depression looked like, and because they mostly felt angry, or because they loved their babies, they told themselves they weren’t depressed. They fooled the mothers they met at baby groups; they fooled their friends. Some of them even managed to fool professionals. As Elizabeth Bastos says in Open Sesame:
“I passed the screening for postpartum depression by lying, saying things like, ‘I feel okay,’ ‘Just tired.’”
And in Light in the Midst of Darkness, when Michelle Stephens has a panic attack in a supermarket she: “managed to fool the people around me into thinking I was just another mom, out grocery shopping for her family.”
Why do that? Why did these women hide their true feelings? What were they getting away with?
Why Women Hide Their Feelings
The last question is easy to answer – nothing.
The first two questions require more complex answers, and for each woman it is slightly different, and yet beneath the surface differences lie the same underlying reasons. They feared telling anyone the depths of their despair because they expected judgment, not comfort. Because they feared their babies would be taken away, because they didn’t think they deserved support. As Eve Kagan puts it in Fragments of a Fractured Mind, they believed: “I am a horrible mother. I don’t love my baby enough.”
Often the mothers didn’t know that what they were going through was normal – not normal in the sense they should just “get on with it,” but normal in the sense that some form of postnatal depression occurs for many, many women. The website Postpartum Progress points out that the figure of around 15% only reflects self-reported cases of postpartum depression. They ask how many women “did not mention they had PPD out of fear or shame?” The figures recorded also do not include antenatal depression or postpartum psychosis, and Postpartum Progress estimates that the true figure in the United States could be closer to 20%, or 1.3 million women annually. That means of every 5 women who has a baby, one is likely to experience some form of depression or mood disorder during or after pregnancy.
Postpartum Progress also says that postpartum anxiety may be more common than PPD, and several of the women in Mothering Through the Darkness write about exactly that. For instance, in It Got Better, But It Took a Long Time to Get Good, Jen Simon talks about a “physical anxiety” that she had not experienced before, and in The Comeback, Kara Overton writes about panic and anxiety that make it impossible to sleep, even when her baby does. She writes: “On a daily basis I resolve to kill the beast but it seems that the harder I fight, the bigger and more powerful it becomes.”
Sometimes a woman’s fear was so strong she couldn’t keep it to herself, and in Fear of Falling, Dawn S. Davies describes her panic attack on an airplane before takeoff. Her baby was six weeks old at the time, a time when: “hormones can be unstable, and lead women to believe things that may not be true. I did not know this at the time. In my mind, I was acting rationally.”
Dawn’s husband didn’t know or understand this either. His response to her panic was: “You’re embarrassing me.”
Husbands (and other relatives and friends) often didn’t know how to support the women going through emotional struggles. Some became depressed too; many couples’ relationships became difficult. Some marriages didn’t survive, though most did.
Many of the women became obsessive, some charting their babies’ every feed, bowel movement and sleep, others worrying about hygiene in ways they hadn’t before. In Life With No Room, Celeste Noelani McLean notices mess from several meals on the floor and knows that, while to many people this might be a sign of a downward spiral, for her it is the opposite – she is recovering. “So when I see the grit, the grime, land on my floor, I am overtaken by a need to kiss my daughter, instead of the fiery compulsion to scrub the whole house anew.”
Several of the women in Mothering Through the Darkness were ill during pregnancy – either with severe nausea or other complications. Many had difficult births that left them temporarily incapacitated or housebound. Still more were mourning the death of a parent or other family member, including a previous stillborn baby or miscarriages. Others were grieving some other kind of loss – for Denise Emanuel Clemen the birth of her daughter came with guilt about the son she’d given up for adoption at seventeen. In My Face in the Darkness she writes: “No wonder my babies didn’t like me. I’d given one away, and this one knew I wasn’t to be trusted.”
Loss of Identity
There is another kind of loss that writers refer to time and time again. This is the loss of self, of identity.
In Here Comes the Sun Maggie Smith says, “I was a mother, an erasure, a poem about what was not there.”
Kristi Rieger Campbell, in His Baby Water Melon Head writes about: “A body that didn’t feel like my own.”
In Fragments of a Fractured Mind, Eve Kagan says, “I knew I was not myself. But I had no idea who I was anymore.”
In Leaving The Island, Randon Billings Noble gives more detail: “I would do anything to distract myself from my fears of being cannibalized and colonized from the inside out. It turns out there was some truth to these fears…I read that cells from a fetus can migrate through the placenta and take up residence in the mother’s body. A mother’s brain might contain her child’s cells. A child’s cells could indeed colonize his or her mother’s brain.” and “My physical self kept growing as my internal self was slowly eaten away.”
In Shattered and Whole: Embracing Ambivalence, Sarah Rudell Beach writes: “Motherhood had transformed me. And I didn’t know into what. I simply knew I didn’t want to be broken, crying on my couch each night.”
In My Face in the Darkness, Denise Emanuel Clemen compares the support she receives after the death of her partner with the lack of understanding she experienced as a new mother and she touches on what creates this loss of self so many mothers with post natal depression experience: “While death is a full frontal attack, birth is a stealthy assassin. Some magnitude of sadness and depression are expected in the bereaved. When a woman becomes a mother, her old life dies, yet she’s expected to rise from her ashes and immerse herself in the jubilation of being completely responsible for a helpless human being.”
Reading this, I wonder if perhaps this is where women with postnatal depression and anxiety need most support – to maintain or readjust to their new identity. My own experience was that I eagerly embraced my new identity of “mother” after my first daughter’s birth. I was in my late thirties when she was born and after years of trying and a miscarriage, I was more than ready.
Perhaps that was what saved me from sinking into depression like the women in this book. I had many of the risk factors – years of infertility, miscarriage, an emergency Caesarean birth, moving several hundred miles a few months after the birth. After my second daughter’s premature birth, the MA in Creative Writing I was half way through was partly what I needed. I also kept a journal, started three days after her birth with the plan that it was for her if she survived, her sister if she didn’t. My experience was (and is) what Kate Kearns expresses perfectly in I Love You, Leave Me Alone: “What helped? I started writing again, and it pulls me into balance, most of the time.”
New Mothers Need Support
Writing pulled me into balance, but I also had support when I needed it most. Like me, several women in Mothering Through the Darkness had premature babies, and so their stories held particular resonance. Of these, Alexa Bigwarfe’s experiences in Breathe resonated most of all, and my heart ached for her as I read it. My baby survived. Alexa wasn’t so fortunate; one of her twins died. I had a toddler to care for too; Alexa had two small children as well as her surviving baby. I pumped milk for most of the four months my baby was in hospital. Alexa was still pumping for her tube-fed baby after five months.
She writes: “These sweet children deserved so much more. This must be why God let Kathryn die. I couldn’t handle three children. How could I have ever handled four?”
She also says: “Maybe I would just leave. I fantasized about getting in the car and driving somewhere far away.”
Alexa felt like a monster because of these feelings. So did I at times. But one week after my daughter’s birth, a nurse spoke to me about mothers’ feelings after giving birth prematurely. Because of what that nurse told me, I knew that I was normal. That helped hugely. Alexa eventually got support from other mothers online and came to understand that she wasn’t alone, and she wasn’t a bad person.
This is what all the mothers in the anthology needed to know. That they weren’t alone, and that they weren’t bad mothers.
Conflicting Thoughts and Emotions
Writer after writer expresses the conflicting thoughts and emotions they experienced.
It’s there in some of the essay titles: I Love You, Leave Me Alone; Shattered and Whole: Embracing Ambivalence.
It’s there in the essays. Celeste Noelani McLean sums up the thoughts: “I want and do not want this baby. I want and do not want this entire life.” And Kristi Campbell perfectly describes the emotional tug of war: “I remember feeling simultaneously content and desperate.”
My sense is that because new mothers think they should be joyful (and society agrees) women push away feelings or thoughts to the contrary. They judge themselves on the “bad” thoughts and feelings, not on the “good” ones. But as the writers in this book clearly show, we are all a mix of both. In the book The Mindful Way Through Depression, Willams, Teasdale et al explain that negative emotions indicate our “flight or fight” response is activated and that judging ourselves for those emotions intensifies that response. So it stands to reason that by judging herself as a terrible mother, a woman is going to feel more imprisoned in PPD, not less.
Some essays point the way forward. There is no doubt that women need more support and understanding; they need to be able to talk freely about the ambivalence they feel, to be heard without judgement and to be reassured this ambivalence is normal. I think Alexa Bigwarfe has it correct when she says, “It wasn’t for lack of love, but rather a lack of connection.”
The Need for Connection
Women need to be supported to feel that connection. Again, my experience after my daughter’s premature birth shows the difference this can make – early on, a nurse taught me to massage my baby and how to hold her skin-to-skin in a way that comforted us both. Our bonding wasn’t straightforward; at times I felt it, and at times I felt guilt, shame and a lack of connection, but the support I received was undoubtedly a large part of what got me through. Every mother needs this.
In The Savage Song of My Birthright Blues, Estelle Erasmus writes that she expected to get postnatal depression because her mother had it. Estelle’s pregnancy was difficult and by the third trimester, she was having night terrors and panic. A friend suggested a doula – “Someone who can help you navigate through your pregnancy and then be there as you deliver.”
The doula encouraged Estelle to make lifestyle changes and to discuss concerns with her husband, and Estelle escaped PPD.
The Savage Song of My Birthright Blues was one of the essays I most enjoyed reading, as were others in which the writers found a way to become stronger. For Laura Haugen in Cranes, it was recognizing herself in a flock of cranes stumbling bewildered through an unseasonal snowstorm and later seeing a photo of these cranes migrating that brought the change. For Michelle Stephens, it was a mix of feeling her children’s love for her and taking photos of the good moments to sustain her through the bad.
There is no magic formula, but each new mother needs encouragement and support to find her own formula for healing. Editors Stephanie Sprenger and Jessica Smock of HerStories Project have done a fine job of selecting essays that will help new mothers to feel safe enough to do that.
Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of Mothering Through the Darkness, and an essay of mine will appear in So Glad They Told Me, an anthology She Writes Press will publish in spring 2016. However, my policy when reviewing books by people with whom I have some connection is that I will only publish a review if I can write a wholly positive post. I have no doubts about publishing this post. I am not an affiliate of She Writes Press, but I am an affiliate of Amazon, so if you buy Mothering Through the Darkness
through this link or the one at the top of the page, I will receive a small commission. Thank you!