Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience

  • Edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger
  • She Writes Press
  • 280 pp.
  • Reviewed by Melissa Scholes Young
  • May 8, 2016

Humor and honesty punctuate these compelling essays about the not-so-rosy side of parenting

Six months after the birth of my first daughter, I mentioned a few concerns at my follow-up doctor’s appointment. “I’m having trouble sleeping,” I said. “I’m worrying about the baby a lot. Is that normal?”

“Baby seems fine,” the doctor said. “You do, too.”

“But I feel like something is wrong. My emotions are all over the place.” We were living in rural Connecticut. I’d quit my high-school teaching job to stay home. My husband was a graduate student at UConn. Groceries were a reach. So was daylight. In New England, the sun goes down on winter days by 3 p.m. I watched Oprah — which was the extent of what I could intellectually manage — in the dark, with a full glass of wine.

“The sun will come out soon. Everything will be better then.” He patted my knee and opened his office door. “You’re fine,” he assured me again.

In Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger, 35 writers tell their stories of the joy and devastation after birth. They use their voices even when they are dismissed.

The anthology is the coming-of-age motherhood tale not often told. These writers speak about the unspoken: depression, anxiety, regret, and rage. In the foreword, the editors challenge the reader: “Imagine having a baby and becoming paralyzed by illness.” Through provocative themes, readers and writers often emerge stronger for the telling.

The essays in this collection have depth, even in their brevity. They are poignant and easily digestible for busy readers: new moms facing similar sentiments, doctors rushing between postpartum patients, or partners struggling to offer support.

The writers ask hard questions. If one in seven women experiences postpartum depression, why do so many go undiagnosed? If research shows that time off improves both the baby and the mother’s wellbeing, why do we not have universal maternity leave? Why is motherhood so isolating? Can writing about the postpartum experience create a conversation that sheds light on the reality of new parenting? The editors and authors hope so.

In “Leaving the Island,” Randon Billings Noble identifies with the protagonist in Robinson Crusoe, “a novel that explores what it is to be an individual in isolation.” She masterfully weaves the literary plot through her own fear of the unknown and the surprise of twins.

“But depression is a different kind of island,” she writes. “It is also isolated, but its resources are inaccessible.” Pregnancy and motherhood have a way of separating us from our former selves, but like Crusoe, we find our way back to something new and reassemble the pieces of identity.

Kristi Rieger Campbell’s essay, “His Baby Watermelon Head,” explores a different kind of rebirth as an older mom. With sharp wit, Campbell reveals how punishing she was to her pregnant self: “I knew that I didn’t deserve to be a mother.”

The unknown was overwhelming until she fell in love with her new baby and transferred all of her anxiety to him. Her community wasn’t sympathetic. Instead of meeting depression and anxiety with kindness, Campbell “heard words like ‘selfish’ and ‘wacky’ and ‘fucking crazy’ instead.” Amidst the judgment, she judges herself again for not sharing more, for not seeking help, for not even knowing the questions to ask.

Like Noble and Campbell’s stories, Eve Kagan writes about the shadows long before she sees any light. In “Fragments of a Fractured Mind,” Kagan declares herself NOT like her depressed mom, who had to be dragged to a shrink. Through clean, eager prose, Kagan admits how broken she felt: “I knew I was not myself. But I had no idea who I was anymore…I was an actress. I was an educator. I was a writer.”

It’s the “unpredictability of motherhood” that overwhelms. How can anyone prepare for such a task? How can a new mom ever mass the qualifications for this job? Through personal reflection and internal dialogue, Kagan realizes that the real struggle of depression and anxiety is that they never fully go away. Like motherhood, they become part of your new way of living; all that is left is to confront them, breathe through them, and let go of the story you told yourself before birth.

Myths about the mental health of mothers and how things should be make the writing task even more challenging. The voices in Mothering Through the Darkness write through the pain. They are brave storytellers and activists trying to make a change that’s been a long time coming.

[Editor’s note: Jessica Smock, Eve Kagan, and Randon Billings Noble will read from Mothering Through the Darkness at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, on Saturday, May 14, at 6PM. Click here for more info.]

Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, and other literary journals. She’s a contributing editor for Fiction Writers Review. She teaches at American University in Washington, DC, and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @mscholesyoung.

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