Going Through It
The version where you love your baby but hate yourself
This is the second monthly guest column from Phoebe Maltz Bovy, who writes a newsletter about reruns and podcasts with Kat Rosenfield at Feminine Chaos. Book Club enthusiasts, The Giver has handily won our latest poll for next book, so I’ll prepare an introductory post for next Wednesday. The Book Club is in its own section, so if you are not signed up for that, do so in your account settings or simply navigate to that section.
In Vogue, the fashion model and feminist author Emily Ratajkowski did a baby bump photo shoot with an accompanying essay where she engaged in some very of-the-moment liberal-parent analysis of what it would mean to have a son: “My friend who is the mother to a three-year-old boy tells me that she didn’t think she cared about gender until her doctor broke the news that she was having a son. She burst into tears in her office.” This was followed by a month of crying. “It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I was bringing yet another white man into the world.”
The unnamed friend also had it in for her spouse: “After a difficult birth experience, she developed postpartum depression and decided that she resented her husband more than she’d ever imagined possible. She told me she particularly hated—and she made an actual, physical list that she kept in her journal, editing it daily—how peacefully he slept. ‘There is nothing worse than the undisturbed sleep of a white man in a patriarchal world.’”
In one interpretation this is girlboss cringe misandry, and maybe it is also that. But I have trouble reading it as anything but tangentially related to politics or discourse. Something jumped out at me: “postpartum depression.” This lady, the friend, was not (as Ratajkowski evidently wanted her to be, thus her inclusion in the essay) engaging in some sort of feminist protest. She was not in her right mind. Yes, when people go through it, they tend to do so in ways specific to their moment, their milieu, and their own baseline personalities. But the anecdote ultimately has as much to do with wokeness as the racist rants that periodically go viral have to do with reactionary politics. The friend once again loves her son and husband, Ratajkowski notes. She was, quite simply, not well. Not that it’s simple.
There’s no raising-awareness justification for my writing this, as everyone is already well aware of the phenomenon. Postpartum depression is extremely common, coming for approximately one in seven new mothers. It is the Karen of mental health conditions. It is not stigmatized, or rather, not in the abstract. (Postpartum psychosis is something else.) The version where you love your baby but hate yourself is only a liability in its capacity to lead to self-sabotage. To things like having a large personal and professional network through your Twitter account and then realizing (and this was not wrong) a few months after giving birth that you’re in no state to be tweeting and then going and fully deleting this Twitter account, losing not merely your blue check (oh noes) but your tenuous connection to the world beyond your household, beyond the people who happen to live on your street and have kids the same age as yours. Maybe it’s unhealthy to be on Twitter but for me, not being on it was a sign of being unwell.
It is impossible to “nobody told me” about postpartum depression (PPD in the forums) because half the writing by women in their 30s is on that topic. Not that you necessarily have the will to pick up a motherhood novel when you’re really going through it yourself. I remember reading (skimming) an essay about nursing, from a very writerly writer who had read novels literally while the baby was latched to her, and then had the get-up-and-go to write about this for a highbrow literary place. I also can tell you the pros and cons of every episode of the 1990s British sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances.”
And yet the point of this is nobody-told-me-ish after all, because postpartum depression does not announce itself as such, nor does it necessarily look like what you might imagine. (Unless it’s your second baby and you know it from the last time.) I had heard about women who only eventually came to love their babies, which was not at all my situation. In both cases, instant. I knew about the thing where mothers are irrationally worried that sometime terrible will happen to their babies. Nope not that either. Mostly, though, I’d read about women with fabulous jobs and social lives, stifled by the isolation of life with a newborn. Which is, I don’t doubt, a letdown, but once again, not where I was coming from.
The new mother, in essays written by professional-class-type women, is someone who had lived this incredible life, some mixture of Carrie Bradshaw and Sheryl Sandberg but edgier, and then had a baby and was shocked at what life is like when you’re no longer a club kid crossed with a corporate lawyer. All jet-setting and management consulting. I was not all that exciting before, so I have trouble making sense of the after. If I am that class, it’s only peripherally. Could I possibly be that miffed about having less time for such activities as French adjuncting and freelance writing? Was it all that special to be able to come and go as I pleased, including in the evenings? Is it really that important to sometimes be by yourself in a Uniqlo?
It's hard to even say what the relationship is between the postpartum and depression pieces, when it’s not that you’re sad about having a baby, quite the contrary. Or rather it’s extremely basic: sleep. There are other things going on, both general physical ones common to all women who’ve just given birth (a baby—or babies!—must get out of your body, which yeah has an impact; you go from being pregnant to simply looking pregnant) and whatever is happening more specifically in your life that might compound this (I do have some boundaries so I will simply ask that you not interpret my refusal to spell these out as evidence of their non-existence.) After several months without sleep, nothing makes sense. And then you get some sleep and suddenly you see everything you’d set aside: your messy house, your messy self.
You would think postpartum depression would start when you’re the most tired, and I do remember crying a lot from exhaustion. But that was something else. No, it first manifests itself, once the sleep returns, as intense clarity. Clarity, that is, about all of my flaws, all of my low moments, past and present. It doesn’t feel like being sad. It feels like everything suddenly makes sense about my being the worst person in the world. What I want from life but don’t have is salient, not what’s objectively going well. The parent-acquaintances who prefer one another to me I think about, not the ones who’ve asked for my contact info so we can meet up for coffee. I become immature, caring a way I had not thought I was capable of, past age 12, what people I don’t particularly like think about me. I am an unpopular middle schooler but one who is well into her 30s and would probably benefit from—but not deserve—Botox.
Deserve, or have the money for. It gives me a weird relationship to spending. Sometimes I buy something I don’t strictly speaking need, but that I imagine will perk me up but then sit there in my credit card statement like, dress, $80, what were you thinking, you just want to wear a big tee shirt and sleep shorts. More often—good for my bank account but bleak—it’ll mean a self-flagellating non-spending, where I do things like cancel a long-booked highlights appointment, a once-a-year $120 splurge, because I deserve neither the hair salon visit itself nor the alone time that was always at least as much the point there. And then, fearing that I will become weak and rebook this appointment (if it’s even available), cutting myself bangs, an unwise move in the best of circumstances but particularly ill-suited to one of those two-minute bathroom visits one gets with a baby and a toddler. I end up in some loop where the more I think I’ll enjoy whatever it is (a coffee out, say) the less likely I am to purchase it. A kind of financial masochism, maybe. Who knows.
They say depression is indifference to the things you used to care about, but if the things you found compelling are a bit ridiculous to begin with, it can come across as enlightenment. I am now above caring about culture wars, is how I have presented it to myself. When I went off Twitter I told myself—and others—it was because a new baby and a toddler didn’t leave time for it. Which was a partial truth. But it wasn’t that I decided, nobly, that social media was a waste of time. It was far more about a sense I had that Twitter was for the people who were in the game, who counted.
As I write this out, I’m torn between thinking maybe I’m an oversharing fool, but also, how tame this all is. It’s self-sabotage of the boring kind. It doesn’t involve paranoias or ever being truly out of control. It’s more that the mood is not compatible with the modern project of showcasing one’s best self online. Picture the LinkedIn version: hire me for your thing, me, the person least qualified at life to ever exist.
As for its impact on parenting itself, it means I’m crankier than I should be. For some it does, but for me it does not, involve any kind of lack of enthusiasm for my children themselves. They are spectacular. Their mother, less so. Also—to be extra basic about such things, extra unoriginal woman who grew up in the 1990s—it means that at mealtimes I find the prospect of fetching things from the kitchen for children and self too overwhelming (this despite a spouse doing plenty of this fetching as well) that sometimes I simply cannot be bothered to take food for myself as well. And then not only do I feel worse from not eating but am one of those terrible mothers who is not modeling good eating for her daughters. But the postpartum bit also contains within it the motivation to get well, the people for whom I’m responsible.
As for what this, this getting well, entails, there are a few schools of thought. One is that the problem is patriarchy (new moms feel down because nature didn’t want women having careers). Another, that it’s modernity (we should be living in a communal matriarchy where women are somehow both liberated and available at a moment’s notice to look after other women’s babies while those women are off doing whatever). These share the flaws of other attempts to blame mental illness on society’s overall structure. Some of it is situational, some certainly feels hormonal, and I’m pretty sure the hormonal changes inherent to human reproduction predate our times.
Therapy is I’m sure helpful to some. But if part of the issue is that your weeks do not have alone time in them, any answer with available time a prerequisite has certain drawbacks. If it were the only option I suppose I would have to make time, or do the thing I have heard of but cannot begin to picture where you bring the baby (or I suppose Zoom with the baby) in the sessions. It is not the only option.
This was a lot of words to say that while the antidepressant I’m on has made a huge difference, I need to call my family doctor and switch to a higher dose, the one that fixed this when it played out exactly like this the last time around.