Be(com)ing an ‘Expert’ on Postpartum Depression for #NonficNov

This Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction.

I’m also counting this as the first entry in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I’ll review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself. I have another medical-themed one lined up for this Friday as a second ‘Being the Expert’ entry.

I never set out to read several memoirs of women’s experience of postpartum depression this year; it sort of happened by accident. I started with the graphic memoir and then chanced upon a recent pair of traditional memoirs published in the UK – in fact, I initially pitched them as a dual review to the TLS, but they’d already secured a reviewer for one of the books.

 

Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho

I was delighted to see this prediction of mine make the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Coincidentally, I was already halfway through the book on my Kindle (via NetGalley) at that point, but its nomination gave me the push to finish in a timely manner. Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son, Cato. She and her husband James had gone back to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration for him at her in-laws’ home in New Jersey. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced there were cameras watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in an emergency room, followed by a mental health ward.

Cho alternates between her time on the New Bridge ward – writing in a notebook, trying to act normal whenever James visited, expressing milk from painfully swollen breasts, and interacting with her fellow patients with all their quirks – and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown. Her Kentucky childhood was marked by her mathematician father’s detachment and the sense that she and her brother were together “in the trenches,” pitted against the world. In her twenties she worked in a New York City corporate law firm and got caught up in an abusive relationship with a man she moved to Hong Kong to be with. All along she weaves in her family’s history and Korean sayings and legends that explain their values.

Twelve days. That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory – a terrifying time when she questioned her sanity and whether she was cut out for motherhood. “Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow,” she writes. She captures both extremes, of suffering and joy, in this vivid account.

My rating:

 

What Have I Done? An honest memoir about surviving postnatal mental illness by Laura Dockrill

Dockrill is a British children’s author. Her style reminded me of others of her contemporaries who do a good line in light, witty, warts-and-all, here’s-what-it’s-really-like-to-be-a-woman books: Dolly Alderton, Caitlin Moran and the like. From a labor that quickly deviated from her birth plan due to an emergency Caesarean to the usual post-baby blues to full-blown psychosis, Dockrill recreates her experience with fluid dialogue and italicized passages of her paranoid imaginings. Her memoir resembles Cho’s in its broad strokes but also in certain particulars, like imagining surveillance cameras and hearing a voice in her head telling her she is a bad mum. I skimmed this one because of a library deadline and because of an overload on similar content. I had a greater affinity for Cho’s literary style compared to the more between-girlfriends, self-help bent of this memoir. With the glossary and resources at the end, though, I’d say this one would be more useful for someone going through the same thing.

My rating:

 

Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression by Teresa Wong (2019)

Memoir as letter and as graphic novel. Wong narrates the traumatic birth of her first child and her subsequent postpartum depression in black-and-white sketches that manage to feel breezy and fun despite the heavy subject matter. “I felt lost. I had no maternal instincts and no clue how I was supposed to take care of a baby,” she writes to Scarlet. “Your first two months in the world were the hardest two months of my life.”

For Wong, a combination of antidepressants, therapy, a postnatal doula, an exercise class, her mother’s help, and her husband’s constant support got her through, and she knows she’s lucky to have had a fairly mild case and to have gotten assistance early on. I loved the “Not for the Faint of Heart” anatomical spreads and the reflections on her mother’s tough early years after arriving in Canada from China.

The drawing and storytelling style is similar to that of Sarah Laing and Debbie Tung. The writing is more striking than the art, though, so I hope that with future work the author will challenge herself to use more color and more advanced designs (from her Instagram page it looks like she is heading that way).

My rating:

My thanks to publicist Beth Parker for the free e-copy for review.

 

What I learned:

All three authors emphasize that motherhood does not always come naturally; “You might not instantly love your baby,” as Dockrill puts it. There might be a feeling of detachment – from the baby and/or from one’s new body. They all note that postpartum depression is common and that new mothers should not be ashamed of seeking help from medical professionals, baby nurses, family members and any other sources of support.

These two passages were representative for me:

Cho: “I don’t feel a rush of love or an overwhelming weight of responsibility, emotions that I’d been expecting. Instead, I felt curious, like I’d just been introduced to a stranger. He was a creature, an idea, not even human yet, just a being, a life. … I’d thought I would reclaim my body after birth, but instead, it was now a tool, something to sustain life.”

Dockrill: “If childbirth and motherhood are the most natural, universal, common things in the world, the things that women have been doing since the beginning of time, then why does nobody tell us that there’s a good chance that you might not feel like yourself after you have a baby? That you might even lose your head? That you might not ever come back?”

On this topic, I have also read: Birth of a New Brain by Dyane Harwood. There are more book ideas here and here.

Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish, one of my current bedside books, also deals with complicated pregnancy emotions and the chaotic early months of motherhood.

 

If you read just one, though… Make it Inferno by Catherine Cho.

 

Can you see yourself reading any of these books?

27 responses

  1. I would have devoured any book on PND 15 years ago, Rachel Cusk was my savior, she summed it all up prefectly. Now I’ll do anything in my power to avoid reads like this, as I have trauma around childbirth related to my second delivery. It’s great that there’s so much more acknowledgement and support of how difficult the transition to parenthood can be for women, especially perhaps women who’ve been raised to think they can “have it all” and so anything they want in life without compromise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have no personal experience of the subject, so I can just approach it with curiosity as an aspect of women’s lives and a known medical phenomenon. I can see how for many it would be a trigger, though. The important things, yes, are the encouragement to be honest and the fact that information is out there to help people going through it. I’ve not read Cusk on motherhood (and have struggled with her work in general), but I’d be interested in taking a look at A Life’s Work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I quite like Cusk but lots of people find her writing very sterile I think

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    2. I finally made it through one of her books (Transit) in 2018. It took me three attempts, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. *perfectly – replied on my phone. If she’d summed it up prefectly, Gina Ford-style, I’d probably have thrown the book across the room. which I actually did with Gina Ford’s parenting book

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  3. What a tough subject! Actually, I have the Cho – so I will steel myself to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love mental health narratives and was really intrigued to see how she recreated her state of mind at the time. It always helps to know that the author is fine now!

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  4. Fascinating choices Rebecca on a tough subject. I suffered from it myself after the twins were born and would find all of these really interesting now that there is some distance between the experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Cathy, but I’m sure with the passing of time and a little perspective it’s easier to read about. It’s great to see women speaking out about the subject instead of retreating into shame.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly! It’s such a common experience for new mothers.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d definitely be interested to read Inferno. As you know, I don’t have any children and so can’t speak from personal experience, but the quote from Cho at the end of your post strikes me as quite a normal way to react to having a child, PND or no PND. I’ve always been very suspicious of the ‘rush of love’ narrative, although I’m sure it does reflect some women’s experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s the same as the ‘love at first sight’ trope — it’s not true for most people and thus it’s not a helpful standard to perpetuate. I’ve always suspected I would be quite an ambivalent mother (one of many reasons I don’t have kids), and narratives like this plus graphic accounts of childbirth make me even less inclined!

      I’m sure FMCM would be glad to send you a copy of Inferno to review as they’re keen to drum up interest in the Young Writer Award shortlist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I obviously don’t know this for certain re. having a baby, but in every other area of my life I have always been terrible at feeling emotions I’m ‘supposed’ to feel at a given moment! This particular issue isn’t one that puts me off motherhood, but I’m glad there are books like this talking about it now.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. My guys just turned 11 and I feel like these reads still might be too close to the bone. Inferno though sounds pretty fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Inferno is much more of a literary approach to the subject, and pretty dreamlike in the way she moves with no warning (at least not in the Kindle-formatted NetGalley book I read) between past and further past. I don’t think it would be particularly triggering compared to the other two, which include more medical detail.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s great there are so many more resources on this topic now, so that women can feel a sense of community, even while they (and their friends and family members) might be feeling most alone and need that kind of support. Books about mental health do get into my stack occasionally, but I used to read about it more in the past. (I went to school for social work and read widely in a variety of directions that I haven’t felt drawn to explore again more recently…some of these stories have a timeless feel to them maybe? Or perhaps I’m just lazy LOL)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had no idea you’d studied social work. I thought you had a writing degree (that must have been postgrad). Did you work in that field?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not predominantly, though it definitely influenced my reading habits and still does to some extent. But there were certainly topics that I felt like I exhausted in earlier reading sprints that I now only dabble in,with a lingering curiosity.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for mentioning my memoir “Birth of a New Brain—Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder.”

    “Birth of a New Brain” is the first published memoir about postpartum bipolar disorder, a.k.a. bipolar, peripartum onset.

    Postpartum bipolar isn’t the same as postpartum psychosis nor any of the other perinatal mood and anxiey disorders, although they share some significant symptoms. The book also contains a variety of resources, a recommended reading list, and extensive appendix.

    I’m deeply honored the brilliant Kay Redfield Jamison wrote my book’s cover endorsement:

    “‘Birth of a New Brain’ is a gripping account of the awful juxtaposition of childbirth and the onset of bipolar illness. Her book is an informative and important contribution to our understanding of this triggering of mental illness that happens more often than is generally recognized.”

    —Kay Redfield Jamison
    Author of “An Unquiet Mind” and “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire”

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  9. Rebecca, I hope you don’t mind this offer; please feel free to delete this part if need be.

    I forgot to add that if anyone would like a free PDF copy of “Birth of a New Brain—Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder” please email me at dyane@baymoon.com

    Take care!

    Dyane

    Like

    1. How lovely that you saw this little mention! And what a generous offer. I know your book will be helpful to so many.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction. This is my second entry for the week after Monday’s post on postpartum depression, as well as the second installment in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I review three […]

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  11. Great reviews on an important topic! I think I’m really going to enjoy this series of yours. I’ve had a lot of fun the few times I’ve read a number of books on one topic all together and I enjoyed it vicariously here. I particularly like being able to pick out themes and compare and contrast different books on a topic, so I particularly appreciated your summary at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] Inferno, sounds very grim, however the author came through it and it’s not all darkness. Rebecca described it as a ‘vivid’ read. Finally, there is Nightingale by Marina Kemp, which […]

    Like

  13. […] Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She and her husband had returned to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration at her in-laws’ home. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced cameras were watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in a hospital emergency room, followed by a mental health ward. Cho alternates between her time in the mental hospital and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown, weaving in her family history and Korean sayings and legends. Twelve days: That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory. She captures extremes of suffering and joy in this vivid account. (Reviewed in full here.) […]

    Like

  14. […] life change.” I can imagine this being hugely helpful to anyone going through PND (see also my Three on a Theme post on the topic), but I’m not a mother and still found plenty to appreciate (especially “We have […]

    Like

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