“What to do about the postpartum period?” a.k.a. “The Birth of This Book: Part 2”
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
I sat at my desk from July to August 2014 writing and writing and writing the narrative portions of Becoming Mother. With my daughter in all-day daycare, I wrote like a fiend. I ate at my desk. When my back and shoulders ached, I stopped to do some stretches, and then I plowed ahead.
So did I just sit there trying to remember everything that happened during pregnancy and the first year?
Well, yes and no.
I started by jotting down key moments that had to be in the book—turning points and epiphanies. And then I pulled out a pregnancy journal I kept for the baby (yeah… I’m that kind of first-time mom) and a pregnancy food and exercise journal (here’s the one I used, if you’re interested) in which I kept track of my weight.
When I was thinking about how to give the book structure, it made sense to use weight gain and loss as a plot arc. In addition, tracking the week of the pregnancy seemed useful to reaching pregnant readers. In fact, the physical aspects of pregnancy and childbirth could carry me lock-step for quite a while. We have ritualized pregnancy and childbirth so much that it’s not hard to imagine how to structure a book about it…
Until you get to the postpartum period.
And then, holy shit, what do you do?
How do you connect with readers when the postpartum period is so messy and so uniquely individualized? Any time I talked to other new mothers, I found that we were all having incredibly different experiences. Okay, sure we probably also had different experiences in pregnancy, but the prenatal appointments and baby showers and gift registries helped to unite us under the umbrella of “the pregnancy experience”—even if that common experience were just an illusion.
I had to make a decision about how to connect with my readers in the postpartum section in a way that wouldn’t make them feel ashamed if their experiences were different than mine.
So I decided to tell the truth—that I was confused and frustrated, humbled and broken. But also that I was so happy that I was sad, and so in love that I was terrified. I decided that the confusing and conflicting emotions that drive every new mother’s experience would build those connections. I knew that I could count on readers to identify with those emotions, regardless of the other ways that their postpartum lives take shape.
However, I still needed plot arcs for the postpartum experience.
As I reflected on that year, I saw that the plot arcs divided into two categories: physical changes in the baby (related to sleeping, feeding, and growth) and mental and physical changes in me (related to identity and body changes). Then, I could see that these plot arcs worked together to contribute to an overarching theme of “separation.”
I visualized this process as cells dividing from each other. Before one cell breaks off into two cells, there are two nucleuses within one membrane. And only through much stretching and straining do the cells finally divide into two. I think our society traditionally believes that this division happens at birth, but I wholeheartedly disagree with this assumption after having experienced those first weeks of motherhood. I wanted to show that this division into two entities is much more gradual and requires both mother and baby to start to move away from each other.
And that is how I came to the decision that this book would also need to have reflective sections in which I analyze and interpret the experience of identity shift from woman to mother. If I only included narrative sections in this book, I wouldn’t be able to dig deeply into the whole experience—which is what I think new mothers desperately want to hear in those first weeks and months. I think they are hungry for someone to acknowledge that what they’re going through is such a deep and hard-to-articulate metamorphosis.
I also drew on some outside research to inform these reflective sections, particularly from books and journal articles that helped me make sense of my experience. Because my goal was no longer to write an academic book, I felt free from having to include all of the research that I read. Instead, I only included the most influential pieces that helped me make sense of this identity shift.