*Trigger warning: this review contains reference to suicidal thoughts.*
What strikes me most when reading the heart-wrenching anthology Mothering Through the Darkness is how indiscriminate Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders really are. They can, and do, happen to anyone.
The staggeringly brave women in this book come from many different backgrounds, religions and walks of life. They have different economical status, and completely unique families. Yet they have one thing in common; their struggle with mental illness during or after pregnancy (or adoption in several cases).
Even then their struggles are unique. There are so many facets to Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) and no two people experience the same symptoms in the same way. That’s why it is such a complex group of mental health issues and one that needs the attention and support that stories like these help to bring about.
The writing is absolutely beautiful. This collection encompasses so many different styles that both compliment and contrast each other, which makes for a vivid and engaging read. Every voice is unique and every story is told with breathtaking honesty. I wish I had the space here to discuss every entry but unfortunately that may lead to the longest blog post in history!
Instead, I want to focus on the common themes for people suffering from PMADs, thoughts and fears that I’ve experienced many times myself during my experience of PND, and that these wonderful writers have demonstrated with such painful beauty.
The first thing that often comes to mind when people discuss Postnatal Depression is difficulty bonding with your child or struggling with your feelings towards them. This is not something that every sufferer experiences by any means, but it’s certainly something I can deeply relate to.
In Elizabeth Bastos’ essay Open Season she captures this feeling vividly when she finds herself fantasising about being a “hands off Grandmother” with motherhood long behind her. I can absolutely understand this, the sudden panic of realising the true responsibility now in front of you for 20 plus years. She also talks about the lack of the sometimes-mythological instant bond:
“I felt no balloon of affection expand in my chest. I didn’t even like my son. I watched like a cold-blooded reptile while my husband, swoony with love…”
I love Elizabeth’s honestly here – these are tough things to admit and she does so without fear and with so much strength.
Kate Kearns in I Love You; Leave Me Alone also expresses this well when she writes “Where was that soul-smothering, all-consuming plummet into the rosy Motherworld?”
Kara Overton’s extremely accurate portrayal of anxiety also touches on a common symptom. We often think of PND in terms of stereotypical depression – lack of motivation, tiredness, unable to get out of bed etc. – and, sadly, this is true for many people but for me, Kara and countless others it’s intense anxiety, and all the restless fear that goes with it, that can render you feeling powerless.
“Would I survive the monster that was sucking me dry of what used to be an ample supply of confidence and logic?…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.”
The more you fight anxiety the harder it comes back – a cruel trick of nature. She mentions the “smothering fear” that after motherhood nothing will ever be the same again. This idea terrified me, truly. And if I think about it too hard it still does a little. The only way out is to accept that nothing will be the same but that’s absolutely okay.
Later, Kara writes about how her expectations of motherhood don’t match her reality, something that definitely contributed to my developing PND.
“I’m wearing the same oversized Sublime T-shirt that I wore when I was pregnant the first time. A happy memory of two pink lines, of nervous laughs and giddy phone calls, is tucked away somewhere in my heart. Someday I hope to revisit it without hating myself for being so naïve. The shirt’s dirtier now than it was then, caked in spit-up and mashed sweet potatoes. This is not what I expected it to be.”
And isn’t this the truth for so many of us? Society sets up enormous expectations for parenthood which are often simply unrealistic.
Very closely linked to anxiety is insomnia. So many of these stories talk about how lack of sleep through taking care of a newborn or insomnia caused by depression or anxiety, can exacerbate symptoms intensely.
Loss of identity is threaded through the book too. Alexandra Rosa says “I was lost in my own life and there was no trace of who I used to be left inside of me.” And Jennifer Bullis writes about the day she looked in the mirror and finally realised she had “returned to [herself].” This is key because PMADs completely rob us of our identity to the point that we are barely recognisable, but you can, and will, find your way back.
Perhaps the most painful aspect to read about, but again something I’ve experienced first-hand, is the horror of having thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby. Many contributors touch on this. In The Day I’m Not Okay Jenny Kanevsky wonders “How will I make it another hour, another night, another two?” This is something so incredibly difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced mental illness but sometimes just the thought of existing for a moment longer is too terrible or too frightening to comprehend.
As Lea Grover says; “We say people who commit suicide “kill themselves,” but that’s not always true. What’s true is that a disease kills them— a disease that uses their own bodies and thoughts as the weapon.” This is such an important statement regarding suicide, which hopefully helps to dispel myths about people being selfish for ending their own lives. When struggling with depression you are as much a victim of suicide as a cancer patient is a victim of cancer.
The publishers of Mothering Through the Darkness have clearly done their research. These stories cover all aspects of PMADs, including Jill Robbins’ experience of Post Adoption Depression – a subject rarely touched on. No stone is left unturned and, vitally, no punches are pulled. These women write the truth, straight from their hearts – sometimes it isn’t pretty and it can make for an uncomfortable read but it is so important that honest accounts like this exist.
I know personally from blogging how much courage it takes to talk openly about Perinatal Mental Illness, and the devastating thoughts and symptoms that accompany it, so I must commend the bravery of the women who contributed to this works and the insight of the publishers for choosing such an important and often stigmatised topic.
Despite the difficult themes it covers, the overwhelming message from Mothering Through the Darkness is one of hope and support. These women survived and you will too. You are not alone. I found PND to be such a lonely place – you feel that you’re the only woman in the world who feels this way and the guilt and isolation can be devastating. Sharing stories like these proves to anyone currently suffering that they are most definitely not alone and do not need to isolate themselves.
In short, it’s a great read – engaging and emotionally-charged, plus the format of an anthology means it is easy to dip in and out of because each short chapter is stand-alone. This is important because anyone suffering from depression or anxiety likely doesn’t have a very long attention span at the moment, I know I didn’t. (Please note: some of the content may be triggering for anyone currently struggling but as long as this is treated with caution the message of solidarity wins out).
Finally, I wanted to highlight the fact that this isn’t just a book for parents who have suffered, or are suffering, but is also a very useful tool for relatives of sufferers, healthcare providers and anyone else who wants a moving and informative first person account of this important and emotive topic.
To get your copy of this great collection of heartfelt essays please click here. And if you want to hear more about my own experience with Postnatal Depression visit the posts linked on the About page.