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The Breaking Point

How I Threw My Mental Health Out with the Diapers

By Marrit Ingman
Seal Press, 2005

Review by Jessica Smartt Gullion

I'll never forget that night, when my son was just a few weeks old. He was in his first growth spurt, and was nursing in three-hour bouts. All I wanted was a break, a break from sitting on the couch nursing, a break from the neediness, some time for myself, some time alone. Whenever I would put him down he would cry. I was completely exhausted and tapped out.

He had fallen asleep in the swing, and my husband was going to watch him while I relaxed in the tub. I mixed lavender bubble-bath in the water and lit some candles, eased back into the hot water and started to read, when his cries pierced my carefully constructed silence. I felt my throat tighten and my stomach turn. I felt anger, frustration -- all I wanted was to take a quite bath! I was mad at the baby for being so needy, mad at my husband for not being able to comfort him, and mad at myself for being angry with a tiny, helpless human (my son, not my husband). I tried to continue the bath in the hopes that my husband could get him settled down again, but no luck.

I angrily toweled off and watched the bubbles slide down the drain. The baby howled with rage in the other room. I grabbed an empty wine glass off the counter and flung. Glass shards spayed the bathroom floor, reflecting the candle light in a shower of prisms. And somehow that made me feel better. I shoveled the glass out of the way with my book, got dressed and calmly went back out to the living room, to comfortably nurse the baby in my ass-groove on the couch.

According to Postpartum Support International, approximately 15 to 20 percent of women experience depression during pregnancy. Nearly 80 percent of women experience "baby blues" that begins during the first week after the baby's birth. Much of this is attributed to changes in hormones and fatigue. Between 15 and 20 percent of mothers experience postpartum depression and/or anxiety, and 10 percent experience panic disorders. A small percentage develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (between 3 and 5 percent), and a handful experience postpartum psychosis.

Despite this, few mothers talk candidly about their experience with postpartum depression. It is a subject that Marrit Ingman tackles head on in her newly published memoir, Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health Out with the Diapers.

Some of the reviews of Ingman's book I've read remark that it was difficult to read about what the author was going through. She is breaking a taboo, exploding the myth that having a new baby is all roses and happiness. It is, but for many of us, there is also darkness and misery. The ambivalence of having a baby is something we are taught to ignore, but we are not "bad mothers" for feeling this way.

In the introduction, Igman states that she wrote this book to reach out to other mothers who are experiencing postpartum depression. Her son "Baldo" was born two weeks after I had my son. I think of the two of us both going through postpartum depression at the same time, and wonder how many other mothers were out there doing the same. But new motherhood in America is so isolating, and postpartum depression is something mothers generally don't talk with each other about, and so we suffer alone.

As a sociologist, I have to wonder how much of postpartum depression is related to lack of social support. If we could, as Ingman suggests, have a ritual to celebrate the birth of the mother, with at least a month of strong community and support, would the numbers of us with postpartum depression be reduced? Instead, we don't talk about it. That is, we don't talk about it until someone cracks. When a mother kills her child. Ingman writes:

Until those of us who battle it and win -- or at least cope -- speak up, parental depression will enter public discourse only when the unthinkable happens. When a person loses her mind entirely. When reality slips away from her and she believes that, as surely as these words are printed on a page, something evil has possessed her family and must be banished with extreme measures. When she becomes psychotic.

We need to be able to reach out to each other. If you are in the middle of PPD, please talk to someone. If you aren't, when you are talking with a mother, ask her how she's doing. You never know, that woman who is confidently nursing her newborn third child may be on the edge -- PPD is not just for first time moms. The best thing anyone ever said to me in the midst of my PPD was that I was doing a great job, even though I felt like a failure.

For many women, becoming a mother challenges them to re-examine their identity, and in some cases, to recreate that identity. While a major focus of this book is PPD, Ingman also explores her sense of self, of identity, as a mother. The sappy baby commercials tell us that having a baby changes everything, and in some real sense this is true for many of us. Having a baby may be exactly how you imagined it. It may be nothing like you imagined it. Either way, you are changed. You are a mother. And for some of us, that transition may be rough.

mmo : december 2005

Jessica Smartt Gullion is mama to two children, and has happily moved
beyond infant weepiness to toddler insanity. She makes a point to always
ask new moms how they are doing.

Also of note:

Postpartum Depression, Reflux, and the Sex Life of Ms. Frizzle:
An Interview with Marrit Ingman

from mamazine

Baldo, Marrit Ingman's blog

Suburban Playground, Jessica Smartt Gullion's Blog

On the MMO:

Soccer Mom Wannabe
Welcome to postmodern child rearing: I watch my son at daycare over the internet. He is growing up in Technicolor, right on my screen.
An essay by Jessica Smartt Gullion

PPD information and support:

Postpartum Support International

Depression After Delivery, Inc.

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