Mothering Through the Darkness: Anthology of the Postpartum Experience

MOTHERINGTHRUDARK

“My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me. My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating. Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me. Til then I walk alone.”  
– I Walk Alone by Green Day

I felt so lonely as a new mother. Isolated, ashamed, angry, and ungrateful. None of which was appropriate since I had gotten exactly what I wanted – a healthy baby girl.

Looking back, it was shame that silenced me. How dare I be miserable when I was holding what I wanted in my arms? So I swallowed it all, and it ate me up.

I loved my baby. Deeply. During moments of peace, when she was sleeping and I wasn’t crying with exhaustion or despair, I’d stare at her beautiful face and trace her features with my eyes, wanting to memorize every curve, every angle. I relished the shape of her sweet bow lips, the delicate slope of her nose, the way her chin met her throat, the way that throat would undulate with milk, even in her dreams.

I loved my daughter. But I didn’t love myself. Many days I was full of self-loathing for failing at motherhood. For not loving it enough. For not feeling grateful enough. For not excelling at it, acing it, as I had many things in life.

All around me, other women seemed to have it together in ways I did not. As the months went by, and years, this grew more apparent and deepened my shame.

I never sought help and I was never diagnosed with postpartum depression. I answered the questions the midwife asked at my check-up and came out “clear.” But my perceptions of PPD were wrong. Just because I didn’t feel compelled to injure my daughter or myself didn’t mean I wasn’t hurting deeply.

What I needed was the voices and compassion of other women, other mothers, reassuring me I wasn’t alone. I needed the kind of help my father and husband couldn’t offer me, though they tried.

That is why this anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness, edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger of The HerStories Project is such an important book. It would’ve been a lifeline for me.

In a marketplace where there is a glut of books about prenatal and infant care, where are the books about mothers? Where are the books about PPD in all its nuances and variations?

Now there are thirty-five stories, including my own, “Afterbirth.” Writing it helped release years of pent up pain and shame. I cried as I typed, the words pouring forth, as if they had been waiting for a way out.

When the beautiful book finally arrived, I was thrilled, but a little hesitant to read it. Would I be triggered by my co-contributors’ painful stories?

To my surprise, the answer is no. If anything, I am buoyed by our similarities, by the facets of my story that I recognize in theirs. The commiseration that I longed for seven years ago has been gifted to me now.

If you know of a woman in the maelstrom of new motherhood, or recovering from it, please consider letting her know about this book. Or perhaps, pick it up yourself.

No one should walk alone.

Becoming Mother: Book Review

becoming mother cover

“New mothers need to hear the other voices of the postpartum period – ones that talk about the scary, the unpleasant, the embarrassing, and the downright soul-testing. We need to tell these stories because there is comfort in seeing that we are not forging an entirely new path. In fact, we are walking in the footprints that other mother have left behind.”

– Becoming Mother by Sharon Tjaden-Glass

When Sharon asked me if I’d be interesting in reading and reviewing her book, Becoming Mother, I immediately said yes. From what I read on her blog, and through our online conversations, her ideas about motherhood meshed with mine and I couldn’t wait for it to arrive.

But when it finally did, I stared at the beautiful cover and hesitated.

The idea of traveling back to my grief stricken pregnancy and intensely challenging postpartum period was like gazing into a deep well, whose cold dark interior I knew intimately, and for the most part, tried to avoid.

I had delved back there last year when I wrote an essay that is now part of the anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness. But it’s become apparent to me that the transformation into motherhood is not something easily exorcised – and maybe it shouldn’t it be.

When I finally took the plunge and began reading, I became instantly immersed in Sharon’s story of her pregnancy and childbirth. Yes, some of my painful memories rose up, but I forgot about the flip side – how light almost always accompanies the dark.

I remembered lying on the floor after huffing my way through a tortuous pregnancy workout DVD, and how the instructor would say in her adorable lisping French accent, “Now lie down and connect with your baby,” and I felt my future daughter flipping and gliding beneath my fingertips. Reading Sharon’s description of a similar moment, I was transported back to my own magical moment.

That’s why Sharon’s book is not just a guide for new mothers, but any woman interested in stepping back in time. There are gifts of memory and wisdom to be gleaned from retrospection, and realizing the complex and often contradictory feelings of new motherhood are not unique or unnatural, but a shared journey.

The Review

Becoming Mother is divided into six main sections, starting with Pregnancy and going all the way through the first year postpartum. Sharon writes in present tense pausing between sections with a thoughtful reflection. This unique structure keeps the pace brisk and offers the reader breathing room during transitions.

Not unlike active labor.

One thing I particularly appreciated is how the book maintains a sharp focus on the mother’s experience even after the baby is born. Instead of the mom getting shunted off to the sidelines while the newborn takes the spotlight, we remain with Sharon as she processes her physically and emotionally taxing labor and delivery.

With eloquence and clarity, she explains the ramifications of her doctor forcibly breaking her waters (without permission) and another doctor’s cold comments while stitching her up. These moments leave scars, as deep as any C-section, yet invisible to the naked eye. Sharon boldly pokes holes in the popular yet condescending mantra, “all that matters is a healthy baby” with her honest and wrenching account.

While she opted for, and succeeded in having, a natural birth, this book in no way fits tidily into any single style of mothering. In fact, Sharon blows up the assumption that mothers should opt for one style over another, encouraging women to pick and choose what works for them and their babies, and to honor flexibility over any dogma or parenting camp.

We follow Sharon into the heady and delirious days of new motherhood and for her in particular, the painful struggle with breastfeeding. She goes into great detail about this specific challenge, and what initially feels like failure.

A relatable and painful subject for many women, but any mother will certainly understand the hard-earned lesson of reality knocking against theory.

When we’re pregnant we make decisions and proclamations that often get thrown out the window when the baby arrives, thus, the crucial need for flexibility and self-forgiveness. It’s okay to change your mind, or your mindset.

Sharon captures the beauty and awe of new motherhood, as well as the less glamorous aspect of anxiety and loss with thoughtfulness and clear-eyed intelligence.

The first year of motherhood is trial by fire. No matter how much preparation or research you do, nothing can truly prepare you for the change in lifestyle, change in self, loss of identity, and the need to forge a new one.

Yet most of us try to find answers. We take classes, read books and blogs, and ask friends. Pregnant women, and their partners, are often desperate for knowledge. But most stories we hear tend to be on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

There’s the horror story variety: “My labor was 37 hours long and I almost tore in half,” and of course the classic, “You’ll never sleep again!”

While the other side oozes with pure joy and positivity: “I fell in love with my baby right away!” and, “I can’t imagine life without children.”

Neither extreme – no matter how true for the teller – is helpful for new mothers, most of whom are craving realistic answers that fall somewhere in the middle.

On the last day of my childbirth class, I remember one father asking our instructor the question on all of our minds. “But what is it like?”

We all knew what he meant by “it.” He wasn’t referring to the topic being addressed; he wanted to know what being a parent looked like, felt like. He wanted details, minutia. The truth.

I remember people laughing a little, nervously, because we all knew the question couldn’t be answered, certainly not in a few pithy lines on our way out the door. Yet we listened and hung on every word, hoping for some wisdom to carry us to the other side.

This is what Sharon’s book does – she invites the reader to come along with her on the journey of pregnancy, childbirth, and new motherhood and doesn’t hold back. She gives readers the truth, her truth, of course, but with universal sentiments and her own hard-earned wisdom.

“It’s not about being a good mother. It’s about being the right mother. For this child. In this moment… seek to be the right mother. Every day. And if you can do that, you can find peace in the chaos of motherhood.” (page 266)

Becoming a mother is not something that happens in an instant when the baby arrives. It’s something that continues to happen, for years, maybe for the rest of our lives as our children grow up, and one day, grow away.

Motherhood is Obliterating

Why didn’t anyone tell me this? Is it too much of a buzz kill to mention that possibility in childbirth class?

I’m pretty sure I would’ve benefited from a head’s up.

I was, utterly, unprepared for motherhood.

But that’s pretty much all of us, isn’t it? No matter how many classes we take on birthing a baby, or that useless one about infant care when they teach you how to diaper a doll, we’re all air dropped into a foreign country when it comes to new motherhood.

This November, an essay I wrote about my post partum experience will be published in an anthology aptly titled, Mothering Through the Darkness (She Writes Press, created by the HerStories Project). It’s now available for preorder.

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For months I hesitated to write my story, let alone submit it, because I didn’t know if it “counted.” Sure, I had a hard time as a new mom, but I hadn’t been diagnosed with postpartum depression. I hadn’t sought help.

Looking back, it’s clear I needed it. I wonder if I had read some of the essays in this collection, if I would’ve reached out instead of holing up. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m proud to be part of an anthology that broadens the spectrum of postpartum distress.

When I was pregnant I used to watch this ridiculous baby show on TLC called, “Bringing Home Baby.” There was something comforting about watching the new parents return home psyched but frazzled. The cameras followed them as they basically lost their minds.

But they always ended the show the same way, about six or eight weeks later, with everyone looking and sounding like they had gotten their act together. Every now and then I’d catch a glimmer in the mother’s eyes, a primal flash of fear, but then they’d cut to the cute gurgling baby batting at a mobile in her crib or sleeping in a bassinet. All was well. Show over.

But life doesn’t work like a TLC show (thank goodness, really TLC, you have gone downhill). It doesn’t wrap up neatly as the credits roll and the parents take their sweetly reclining baby on a stroll around the block.

Mine certainly didn’t, and I suspect, most don’t.

The early days with my baby girl.

The early days with my baby girl.

I still have no idea if I had postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety – an ailment I didn’t even know existed back then. But I do know that new motherhood kicked my ass. Hard.

Do you want to know what I wish I had known? (Hint: It has nothing to do with breastfeeding, vaccinating, sleep training, or any other hot topic parenting topics.)

How completely I would lose myself.

Not temporarily, but forever. The woman who left for the hospital with a baby contracting in her belly did not return that evening. A different person arrived in her place, holding a baby, with aching breasts and a sore battered body.

Perhaps if I had only known about the irretrievable loss of my old self and the necessity of forming a new one, maybe life after birth wouldn’t have felt so bewildering. Maybe.

Of course I’d heard the warnings, the catch all, “Nothing will be the same,” but people said that in relation to physical things, like my body and sleep.

The insinuations were that my life as a mother would be different than my life as a non-mother. I knew there was no going back to my single unattached self, but I assumed I’d slowly collect the pieces of my shattered identity as time went on.

I’d be able to write again, go out at night, visit with friends, and go on vacation with my husband. All this would be returned to me when the baby got older, learned to sleep (ha, try never), or went to school.

But what became apparent as time went on was that there was no milestone that would return me to my old self. I had to forge a new one.

This sentence in the August 2015 edition of Harper’s magazine article, “The Grand Shattering” by Sarah Manguso (author of Ongoingness, a book I just bought) sums it up:

“[Motherhood] is a shattering, a disintegration of the self, after which the original form is quite gone.”

Maybe other women realize this sooner, or maybe this isn’t a lesson everyone needs to learn. I imagine that some women find their way intuitively, or that the new self that motherhood creates is one they fall into like a warm embrace.

In an NPR interview, Jenny Offill, the author of the brilliant book, Dept. of Speculation eloquently states what I felt and continue to feel, which is that the conversation about motherhood is a little narrow.

She explains that when women speak about motherhood, the only other option besides pure bliss seems to be ambivalence. But for the women she knew who had become mothers, it was more complicated than that, “especially for women who had a great passion for some kind of work.”

“They were struggling to bridge the person they used to be with the person they were now, and that maternal love, which is quite fierce can be obliterating of what came before it.”

This line of the interview struck me with such force, as it gave voice to what I had been holding onto for years, the shameful admission that motherhood did not feel like bliss.

I loved my baby and my new life as a mother while simultaneously mourning the loss of my old life and struggling to reconstruct my identity.

I feel as though we are just at the cusp of this conversation about motherhood in the 21st century. I’m grateful to authors like Jenny Offill, Sarah Manguso, and Sarah Ruhl’s, whose book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write, inspired my first post on this blog, for shedding light on the many nuances and complexities of modern motherhood.

If you’re a mother, how did you come through the other side? Did you feel the need to start over, or were you able to integrate your new identity in a different way?

Mothering Through My Darkness

I have exciting news to share… I’m proud and honored to be included in this important anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, coming out in November 2015, and edited by the wonderful women behind the HerStories Project.

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The essay, which I wrote days before the deadline, came pouring out of me, as if it had been in hibernation. In a way, it had. I never believed I had postpartum anything. I didn’t feel that my pain warranted help. I wasn’t in deep enough, my darkness wasn’t dark enough. But now I understand that the spectrum is broader than I believed, that the lines are not black and white.

I believe this book will help de-stigmatize postpartum pain, and remind those who have suffered from it, or continue to suffer, that they are not alone.

It has helped me already, the writing of it, and I am eager to read the stories from my co-contributors, and glean wisdom from their experiences.

Have you or anyone you’ve known suffered from postpartum depression/anxiety/pain? Did they seek help or go at it alone?