Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Book Reviews

On Shaming Other Mothers: A Book Review of “I’m Just Happy to Be Here”

Last January, a video was circling around Facebook of a mother who was putting her children in a grocery cart, in the middle of a winter, in below-zero degree weather…

..and they weren’t wearing shoes.

Oh, the howling that ensued.

Child abuse! That’s the worst! Some people shouldn’t have kids! I would have called CPS on her ass!

That was the general tone of the comments.

Maybe you agree. Maybe you think this woman deserves to be shamed on social media.

I’ve got a book for you.

Happy to Be Here

Janelle Hanchett, “I’m Just Happy to Be Here,” 2018.

Janelle Hanchett is the blogger of the wildly popular blog, Renegade Mothering. (Check out this recent post, “You are Not Going Crazy: America is Gaslighting You.”)

She’s a married mother of four children. She has a Master’s in English. She’s whip-smart. Hilarious. Cutting. Raw. Emotional. Authentic.

And she’s an alcoholic.

With borderline personality disorder.

Say what?

Yeah. Guess what? All of those things can happen together.

And, luckily for us, Janelle was ballsy enough to put it out there for the whole world to see.

This book will make you re-examine your stereotypes of motherhood. It will make you stretch your definition of who can possibly ever be redeemed for the consequences of their bad decisions and years of absence or neglect. It will repeatedly evoke emotional reactions that will force you to consider the limits of your No Judgment Here mentality.

It definitely did so for me.

She shows us how the mind of an addicted person unravels in stages, how an addicted mind can rationalize one step, then the next one, then the next, until you’ve lost everyone you love and you’re living in a trailer, pooping into bags (that’s the extent of my spoilers).

Then she recounts the concerted energy that she put into self-reflection in order to pinpoint the actual thoughts, insights, and specific decisions that she made in order to take back her life.

What Janelle shows us over and over in her book is that shame doesn’t motivate people to change. 

Only love can do that.

And love starts with empathy.


Let me repeat that.

Shaming another mother for her bad mothering doesn’t make her stop being a bad mother. Especially when addiction or mental health is involved. (And let’s be honest, either one or both of those factors are usually involved when mothers go completely off the rails.)

Yes, you’re right: the mother who brought her kids to the grocery store in winter without shoes exercised terrible judgment.

You’re right.

But how does “being right” help those kids?

It doesn’t.

It just makes you feel better about yourself.

Posting videos like this is an exercise in vanity. And as Janelle’s mentor reminded us poignantly in her book,

Do you want to be right, or do you want to be free?

In a twist of true irony, the pursuit of “being right” is often responsible for Janelle’s downfall into addiction. It’s her Achilles heel. She must be right. She cannot be wrongUntil, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter anymore about who is right and who is wrong.

Rarely, if ever, is “being right” the destination on the path to happiness.


Whether or not we want to admit, the United States needs this book right now. The opioid epidemic and all the subsequent outbreaks of substance abuse that have stemmed from it are turning a lot of women into lifelong addicts.

If you’re not one of them, be grateful. Period. Don’t follow that gratitude with a list of reasons that other women did become addicted. (a.k.a. Well, if they hadn’t done this, then that wouldn’t have happened!)

But more importantly, you need to develop some empathy for the mothers who do struggle with addiction.

These women don’t need your shame. Neither do they need your pity.

They need help. They need love. They need friends. Sometimes those all come together.


There is so much truth in this book. And it’s for everyone. Not just women who have experienced addiction. I found myself nodding along in many places throughout this book. Janelle unearths beautiful kernels of truth in surprising moments throughout her difficult journey.

The most powerful moment for me came in the following paragraph, which I read in a children’s museum as my daughter played. There I was, reading this book on my Kindle, in a crowded room, children running and playing, parents scrolling on their phones.

And me, crying.

Of course, I was crying. (Hope it wasn’t too obvious.)

She writes,

I didn’t want the pain to be gone. I wanted it to mean something.

When I found my voice, I didn’t find answers–I found purpose for every moment I had lived. I found power in every blackened room in my mind, every fear, every sad parent, every futile word and nightmare memory.

Because it led me to you, to the place where we are the same, to the place where words draw a line from my bones to yours, and you look at me and say, “I know,” and I look back at you, thinking, Well, I’ll be damned. I guess we’ve been here all along.

I know, Janelle.

Thank you for your gift of this book.

Week 4: Gentle Sleep Training

Now that I’ve used the words “sleep training,” let me disappoint you.

I’m not in favor of trying to “train” your newborn to sleep.

I don’t think newborns are “trainable.”

Newborns are gonna do what newborns are gonna do.

However, the words “sleep training” are the words that everyone uses when trying to figure out how to get their babies to sleep longer.

So what exactly am I in favor of?

Training yourself to recognize and follow your newborn’s sleep patterns.


When our first child was about one month old, I found an amazing book that forever shaped our decisions about how we structured our days with a baby.


I don’t rave about many baby products.

But let me RAVE about this book.

This book removed the mystery about how babies decide when to fall asleep and how their sleep patterns change as they grow throughout the first year.

It’s not a book based on a parenting style or a fancy technique.

It’s based on science. It’s based on human biology.

The Overall Takeaway: If you soothe your newborn to sleep after he/she has been awake for 90 minutes, he’ll fall asleep and stay asleep for a nap.

Dr. Polly Moore, a sleep researcher and scientist, based her advice in this book on the “basic rest and activity cycle,” which states that human bodies function on 90-minute periods of rest or activity. For example, our attention, alertness, and sleep cycles follow these patterns.

At roughly three weeks old, newborn babies start to establish 90-minute periods of wakefullness. As long as the baby is getting enough to eat and isn’t suffering from other physical ailments, you should be able to see these patterns emerge as early as three weeks.

You can’t train your newborn to stay awake for 90-minutes or to nap for long periods of time. However, you can pay attention and learn how your newborn wants to structure his sleeping patterns. By learning your child’s tired signals and making sure he gets all the naps that he needs during the daytime, you are helping him to reach the Holy Grail of baby-dom: sleeping through the night.

You can do this by taking a few days to log your child’s sleep. Like this:


Many of these periods of wakefullness last for 90 minutes. However, some don’t. The night feedings usually only last 30 minutes to one hour. Long enough to eat, burp, have a diaper change, and fall back asleep.

What’s important to see in this list of times is that this three-week-old’s naps are already beginning to follow the body’s rhythms. (Note: Forty-five minute naps = Half of a 90-minute increment and three-hour naps = Two 90-minute increments)

Of course, sometimes naps are cut short because the baby didn’t get enough to eat and wakes up to be fed. Or sometimes, he has a huge poop and wants to be changed. But the older the baby gets and the more established his sleeping habits become, the less likely the baby will cut his naps short in order to eat or be changed.


Last Saturday, we realized that our baby was starting to establish these 90-minute periods of wakefullness.

I remember reading years ago when we were caring for our first child that the first few weeks of a baby’s sleeping habits are unpredictable. I learned that babies sleep a lot in the first few weeks and that they can pretty much fall asleep anywhere. And stay asleep no matter what is happening around them.

Until last Saturday, I didn’t realize that we had drifted into the zone of 90-minute periods of wakefullness.

I didn’t realize that our baby had started to become unable to block out the noise and stimulation around him.

While our friends came over for breakfast, he remained awake. And awake. And awake. Until about 11:30.

Then, he lost his shit.

Screaming. Inconsolable.

We took him out in the stroller and he gave us the thousand-mile stare. At a fork in the road, my husband turned back to go home while I continued on for a longer walk.

Big mistake.

Henry started downright wailing. He screamed so hard his face turned crimson and went completely silent as he tried to scream without taking in oxygen. He coughed and choked to bring more air into his lungs.

They were the saddest screams I’ve ever heard.

I rushed home, but it was the longest quarter mile ever.

Because we deprived him of sleep that morning, he was completely out of whack for the rest of the day. He couldn’t stay asleep. He screamed and nothing helped. By 10:00 p.m., even my husband had written him off and pronounced that there’s nothing we could do to help him.

I took our son and sat in the glider. Then, I placed him on the ottoman in front of me. I let his hands clutch my fingers while he screamed and screamed.

Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes.

I tried all the usual soothing techniques as he sputtered and gasped for more air to continue his wailing.

Then I returned him to the ottoman and rocked him again. This time, his screaming slowed and his eyes rolled back in his head, the way that newborns do.

He had passed out.


That night, I reread Polly Moore’s book and realized that we had crossed into new sleeping territory now that Henry is a month old. Now, he’s having trouble blocking out sound and light and stimulation. Now, he needs quiet. He needs a lack of sensation to stay asleep.

We followed the 90-minute wakefullness cycles the next day.

Wow. What a difference it makes when your baby has those needed naps.


What I learned from this book is how to determine the best windows to put my baby to sleep. I learned how to recognize emerging sleeping patterns. I learned how to best accommodate my baby’s needs for sleep, including the importance of napping rituals throughout the day that will help a baby establish solid sleeping patterns later.

For us, this means that we don’t take our baby out during his nap times.

Which basically means, he stays at home 90% of the time until his awake periods extend to three hours (around 6-8 months). If we go out, we’ll keep him in the car seat and put on a white noise maker so his naps don’t suffer too much.

It’s a restrictive life, for sure. But he’s not going to be this young forever. I’m willing to make changes in my life for a few months.

For us, establishing good sleeping patterns early on–as we did with our daughter–rewarded us exponentially later on. Our daughter slept through the night regularly (with the exception of teething and sick days) at three and a half months. When she started daycare at five months, it only took her a week to adjust to the new environment and resume her champion napping abilities amidst other crying infants.


Every rule has an exception. Here are two cases when the 90-minute wakefullness rule doesn’t pan out as predictably into regular napping patterns.

Babies who are suffering from medical conditions: like acid reflux, food allergies/intolerances, etc.

Babies who are in the midst of a growth spurt: All babies go through growth spurts and they are notorious for throwing all routines into chaos. Naps suffer. Babies wake up from naps early and have trouble falling asleep. They eat too much or too little. They cry. Nay, they wail. They turn into monsters for several days. In fact, we’re going through one right now. From 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. last night, he was awake, asleep, awake, asleep, hungry, pissed off, asleep, awake, screaming. You get the point.

But when this growth spurt is over, he’ll be pleasant again. And he’ll show us his newly learned moves.


There’s a lot more that I can say about how babies change in their sleep needs from birth to the end of the first year, but I’ll let Polly Moore do that for you.

As I said before, there are not many baby products that I am willing to rave about to the point of spending my valuable time actually writing about them…

But this is one of the rare few.

If you’ve got a baby at home, check it out. Seriously.

Writing the Formulaic Novel: Yes, Please

In a previous post, I wrote that I had a great concept for a new novel while I was writing my last book, Becoming Mother. Of course, I didn’t have the time to pursue it while I was finishing my last book, but I scribbled out some pages in hopes of not letting the idea get too far from me.

Three weeks ago, I went on summer vacation from teaching. This is my time to write. Pretty much my only, luxurious, uninterrupted time to dive into a creative project.

I wanted to make the most of it.

Even with all uninterrupted time, writing did not come easy this time. Every time I would sit to put my characters in a scene, I would get blocked. What would he say? How would she act? What happens next?

And then the dreaded, What’s this story really about again?

Argh. So frustrating.

How could I write this story if I couldn’t even get my mind around it?

I ignored it and plowed ahead, letting the scenes take me where they wanted.

Boy, did I get lost.

I kind of started developing an understanding of the characters that I was writing about, but I still felt like I didn’t really know where the story was going. But worse, I didn’t feel like I could see into the soul of these people.


Last Thursday, totally in a funk, I closed the “Working_Draft_3” document that I was hammering away at. Then, I pulled this book off my shelf.

Marshall Plan

I bought this book several years ago when I was looking for ways to improve my already-written first novel.

I’ll be honest about my first impression: I scoffed at it.

This guy was presenting a “formula” for writing a great novel. It gave you guidelines for how many sections to have in the beginning, middle, and end, depending on the final word count. It pretty much laid out a lock-step guide for crafting a novel.

Great art is not formulaic, I’m sure I thought. And I’m an artist.

Yeah, but I was also a novice. I didn’t really know the first thing about crafting engaging and well-paced scenes inside narrative arcs.

I wanted to break the rules before I even knew them.

And that’s how I ended up with 400 single-spaced pages of plot-gone-wrong.

And a beast of a novel that was far to wily for me to tame after the fact.


When I revisited this book last Thursday, I thought, Yes! This is exactly what I need.

I need structure–badly.

My idea is great. But this book helped me work through some of the biggest challenges in creating an engaging and believable plot and characters.

I used to think (secretly) that I was too good to write a formulaic novel.

Nope. I’m not.

I’m not above it at all.

I’ve got a lot to learn, and I’m ready to learn it.

And in that spirit, I’ve plotted out all 48 sections of this new novel, complete with three formulaic surprises and worsening failures for the lead character from start to finish. I also spent time creating characters notes so that I could understand my character’s inner struggles and conflicts.

Now, when I sit down to work on a scene, all I have to do is look at my notes on the current section that I’m writing, review my character notes, and jump into it. I realize that I don’t have to have this all finished before I return to teaching–because I can just look back at my notes and remember where I’m going.

I’m on my way to my SFD–my shitty, first draft.

Pride, swallowed.

Book of Life and Death: A Book Review

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few weeks ago. Two middle-schoolers handed me a grocery sack and said that I could fill it with as many books as I wanted for $5.00. This was one of the books that I grabbed.

Signs of Life

I’m so glad that I did.


Signs of Life is a cogent blend of journalistic investigation and memoir that explores hospice, palliative care, and our modern preference for treating the human body as a battle field and death as failure. But it’s so much more than that.

Brookes shares stunning observations and insight about the dying process and the grief that follows it. He does more than gather facts. He narrates his mother’s last six months as she slowly dies from pancreatic cancer. This bittersweet combination of history, science, and human experience provide a multi-layered approach toward understanding this topic.

I was first struck by one of Brookes’ first arguments:

The more we try to avoid death, the more likely we are to end up with exactly the death that we fear the most: helpless, afraid, in pain, alone. (p. 24)

Brookes combines interviews with doctors and hospice nurses along with his own experience with observing the dissection of a human cadaver to show us the absurdity of treating death as failure even though death is absolutely certain.

Who knows whether our panic and hand-wringing in the hospital corridor are at the thought that someone is dying, or that someone is dying the wrong death, in the wrong place? (p. 205)

This observation, I feel, is key to unlocking some of our modern discourse around death. We all know that we’re going to die. But when our moment has come, we’re encouraged to deny that it’s happening. This isn’t my time. This isn’t the way.


We typically view the concept of living in physical terms: breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity. But this is limited, as those of us who have watched our loved ones fade away piece by piece can attest. In an especially insightful passage, Brooks defines living in terms of our ability to be creative, even in the most mundane sense. As his mother’s health declines to the point that she struggles to continue her silversmithing, Brookes explains how losing this ability to create is a kind of death.

Any action is an act of knitting the past with the present to create the future, of making things that will exist that will have consequences, that, like earrings, will still be there to be given away or shown off. Inaction, the stricture of a sterile environment, severs the connection through time and thus suspends life, as if death had soaked like a beet stain backwards through time and saturated the fabric of life still left. (p. 168)

Our ability to create, then, becomes the vehicle that connects our past, present, and future selves. As Brookes narrates his mother’s dying, we see her selves slowly detach from one another: first, from her future self, and then from her present self. What remains in her final days is a self that digresses further and further from the present world until she is nearly completely engulfed in her past.

It makes me think of what my mother told me about my father in his last days. Suffering already from Parkinson’s and depression, my father died of complications after he fell and broke his C-2 vertebrae. Several days before he passed away, my mother walked into his room in the nursing home and he asked her if she had “his whites washed.” She asked him what he meant. He said that he needed his whites washed so he could get ready for his shift at the bakery. In his mind, he was living in a moment that had happened thirty years earlier.


Brookes also expresses the experience of grief in words that resonated deeply with me. Here are several quotes that need no explanation. They are just pure, simple truth. I underlined them. I starred them. I nodded ferociously.

I had thought that grief was a sign of lack of completeness, a wailing for the piece of the self that is missing, and as such, bereavement is necessary for us to individuate, to be whole. Now I saw that individuation is a machine’s notion of humanity: we pour into each other like inks in water. To be complete is not to be unaffected, or if we are separate, we are also part of something else, something we have in common, that infiltrates us at every cell. (p. 210)

Somehow grief had given me an exquisite awareness of the difference between the things that were suffused with life and those that lacked life energy, or abused it. (p. 211)

I felt as if I were breaking myself into little pieces and feeding them to vultures… The difficulty comes in the crossover between the inner and the outer worlds, having to deal with the pressures of the material world at a time when we have just been somewhere else. (p. 247)

I didn’t have the energy—and perhaps above all I didn’t want to have to be the one to spell it all out: I was wounded, and I wanted someone else to take care of me, someone who understood it already. (p. 248)


About a year ago, I opened up about my own experience with connecting birth and death in a blog post called “What Labor and Death Have in Common.” In summary, I feel strongly that experiencing the pain of childbirth pushed me into a space where death came up alongside me—and I allowed it to stay. I didn’t panic. I didn’t fear it, simply because there was no time to fear it. I was consumed by the waves of contractions. And so I entered a space where my body and mind went to mute and all I could sense was… quite frankly, God.

This experience was so profound that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wished that there were some way to fully convey what I had sensed during these hours, but language couldn’t fully articulate it. I felt that I had grown a new pair of eyes that could see a whole new view of the world, as if I had learned how to bend light to hit objects in a new way.

I wrote about this in my book, Becoming Mother, but I placed it in a separate appendix at the end of the book, not totally sure that all readers would truly understand what I was talking about, or perhaps be turned off by too much “woo-woo.”

So imagine my surprise when I read Brookes’ account of how he felt after had said good-bye to his ailing mother and accepted her impending death. His description of walking alongside the inevitability of death mirrors perfectly my own experience in childbirth and the first few days that followed.

I was of this world, but not affected by it, my mind unencumbered by gravity. Remarkable thoughts kept occurring to me… It was as if I had burrowed through all the rubble of tedious necessity in my life and found myself in a chamber lit by some unknown source, walls covered with pictures and hieroglyphics… I felt immune to trouble or hardship; I couldn’t imagine anything that could defeat my spirit. It was as if I had an umbilicus to God… The euphoria lasted about five days… (but then) I felt like I had lost my soul: I simply couldn’t think myself back to the state of grace I had known… Being so close to death, it seemed, was offering me wisdoms that I wasn’t using. (pp. 193-195)

I could have written these exact words about my own encounter with experiencing and witnessing life’s beginning.

In fact, in my own book, I write these words:

I felt the presence of God for the first time in the darkness of a shower, hours past sleep deprivation, and in the hardest hours of labor. In those sacred moments, punctuated with pain, I was finally truly aware of a portion of the self that is beyond the body and beyond the mind. My spirit soared into the foreground. And there, in the quiet darkness, as water spilled over me, I was connected to the Divine. Its energy flowed into me, took control, and pushed me forward. It stayed with me for days. It caused me to glow. (p. 274)

After such a profound experience, I also went through an opposing wave of emotion, feeling that I had lost my center. I kept trying to get back to those moments of clarity and spiritual connection, but it just wasn’t possible.

I had a similar experience when my father passed away, though not nearly as profound. And it truly made me a believer that those who draw near those moments of birth and death also enter sacred spaces. Life coming in. Life going out. Life all around.


After I finished this book, I flipped to the front matter to check its year of publication and noticed a stamp from the library on the inside cover. Discard, it read.

I laughed. The irony was too much.

Then I flipped back to this passage:

To talk only of death makes death triumphant. The best thing we can do for the dead and for ourselves is to give them back their lives. It’s a kind of resurrection. (p. 232)

I feel that this is what I’ve done for Signs of Life today, as I retell its story, hoping that it finds even more readers 20 years later.

Book Review: “Mothering Through the Darkness”


If you’ve never experienced postpartum depression (PPD), it is tempting to write off books on the subject, thinking that they are not good investments of your time. I admit that I paused when considering whether to buy this book. I don’t call what I experienced after my daughter’s birth postpartum depression because it was not long-lasting and as soon as I started getting more than two hours of sleep per day, I vastly improved.

But don’t write off this book.

Because this book isn’t just for mothers who have experienced or who may experience PPD. It’s for husbands and close friends, parents and siblings, doctors and nurses, pastors and counselors. It’s for all of those people who interact closely with women during the postpartum period.

Stephanie Sprenger and Jill Smock, editors of The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship (2013) and My Other Ex: Women’s True Stores of Leaving and Losing Friends (2014), have selected and compiled a stunning collection of essays on the postpartum experience that is desperately needed and should be part of the pregnancy literature canon, if there is such a thing.

Mothering through the Darkness is not merely a collection of facts about what women experience during periods of postpartum depression. This is an articulate and engaging collective narrative of thirty-five essays that take the reader through a kaleidoscope of postpartum experiences, ranging from postpartum depression, anxiety, and mood disorders as well as the lesser known post-adoption depression. Some writers sought help while in their darkest hours; others struggled through without help and lived to regret it. But all of these stories succeed in connecting the reader with the foggy inner world of the postpartum period. It is this book’s ability to take the reader inside the mind of the mother that makes it a great read for those who are close to postpartum women.

In the book’s first essay, “Here Comes the Sun,” poet Maggie Smith says, “…we all come into this world unfinished, still stitching ourselves together” (p. 13). The essays that follow uphold this same spirit of honorable incompleteness. The dignity of process and ongoingness. Each essay ends with an understanding that one is never complete, never perfect, never fully finished.

What readers can find in Mothering Through the Darkness are common threads that stitch essays together to create coherence in a chaotic topic. Through Smock and Sprenger’s arrangement of these essays, readers can identify several major themes that emerge throughout the book.

Identity Shift

Not surprisingly, identity shift takes a central role in many of these essays. The struggle of women to redefine themselves as mothers is an extraordinary and monumental transformation. Such transformation is expressed in Denise Emanuel Clemen’s essay, “My Face in the Darkness,” in which she recalls how the birth of her first child created a new reality where “the world was turning upside down” (p. 159). She confuses a rocking chair for a wheelchair. She sleeps at the foot of her bed to watch the baby. This complete upending of her world leads to her profound loss of self.

“I’d lost my old self somehow. The self that persevered. The self that could hold everything in. The self that could ferret out solutions” (p. 162).

This same loss of self emerges in Jennifer Bullis’ “Recovering My Stranger-Self.” After a difficult pregnancy and postpartum period forced her to resign from her tenure-track position at a prestigious university, Bullis sees herself two and a half years later in a mirror and finally feels that she has returned to herself—yet she acknowledges that this new self is, “Not… (her) previous identity, but… someone (she) recognize(s) as capable… as a mother” (p. 119).


Perhaps the most robust theme among these essays is a sense of failure. In “The Breast of Me,” Suzanne Barston narrates a string of perceived failures before her baby is even born: difficulty getting pregnant, early delivery because of low amniotic fluid, and no euphoric feelings of love for her son once he was born. Soon after that, postpartum depression sets in. In Barston’s words,

“…all I could give him was breast milk. Not love. Not laughter. Not focused attention. My only job was to feed the baby, and if I failed at that, I’d be rendered completely irrelevant. I couldn’t give up” (p. 145).

Katie Sluiter’s essay, “Sometimes There Aren’t Enough Bags of Chips,” shows just how devastating a sense of failure can be when it is coupled with complete physical and mental exhaustion. In her case, her feelings of inadequacy, “turned into a blinding rage directed mostly at (her) husband and (her) mother” (p. 100), culminating with her throwing a bag of chips at her husband while cursing, “FUCK THIS HOUSE AND YOU AND THIS FAMILY” (p. 102).

Emotional Paradox

Women who experience the postpartum period understand the reality of simultaneously feeling multiple, conflicting emotions. Joy, guilt, and terror. Contentment, worry, and gratitude. Sadness, confusion, and wonder. With each emotion vying for its own space to stretch its wings, women can easily fall into the trap of believing that it is not normal for both positive and negative emotions to exist at the same time within the same mind. Not understanding this can drive mothers to feel like liars, impostors, or drama queens.

This is where the essays of Mothering through the Darkness can normalize—perhaps even recreate a new paradigm for—postpartum experiences. Maggie Smith (“Here Comes the Sun”) and Jen Simon (“It Got Better But It Took a Long Time to Get Good”) both refer to the haunting feeling of needing to be away from their babies while simultaneously needing to touch them. Both writers settle on the analogy of a phantom limb to explain how they felt about being away from their babies. Needing and not needing at the same time. The lightness of freedom and the weight of guilt.

Celeste Noelani McLean’s “Life with No Room” not only acknowledges these paradoxes, it shows how identifying these paradoxes helps her move through quandaries that would strike most outside observers as illogical.

“This is the truth. I loved my daughter from the moment I knew that she was inside me. But I also did not love her when she was born. I was tired, ragged, overtaken when she was born. There was no room in my life for me. Knowing this is the truth, that I was not making any of it up, doesn’t fix it. Doesn’t make me love my daughter anymore. But it does make me hate myself a little less” (p. 33).

In fact, McLean’s courage to acknowledge her own suicidal thoughts actually contributes to her ability to overcome them. In simple, powerful words, she explains how.

“I want to be dead, and I admit to this in a way, and it is so embarrassing to admit this. But also, it is a relief. I have spoken these words and I have not died” (p. 33).


Perhaps the most poignant essay that addresses isolation and depression is Randon Billings Noble’s “Leaving the Island.” By comparing her journey through the postpartum period to the story of Robinson Crusoe, Noble demonstrates the loss of perspective and disorientation that new mothers can feel when they experience PPD. Although the representation of depression as an island is not new, Nobel’s description of it adds fresh insight.

“It is a place where logic fails…[and] where the laws of gravity are more powerful than any other force. It is a place almost impossible to revisit or describe once you’ve left” (p. 107).

Alexa Bigwarfe shows how feelings of isolation can further intensify PPD in her essay, “Breathe.” With two children, a new baby with a feeding tube, a husband who works all day, and a regimented pumping schedule to keep up her milk supply, Bigwarfe compares her days to house arrest. What saved her was medication and blogging.

“Through the comfort of strangers, I realized I was not alone and I was not a bad person” (p. 228).

Inability to recognize postpartum depression

This last theme is especially heartbreaking in Dawn S. Davies “Fear of Falling,” in which she describes the rift in her marriage that deepens as her husband’s lack of concern and compassion drives her deeper and deeper into depression. Davies recalls her attempt to exit a plane with her baby just before take-off because of her certainty that the plane would crash. When her husband growls at her to sit down because she is embarrassing him, Davies realizes that she must keep her irrational thoughts inside unless she is ready to accept the shame of sharing them.

It is this same tendency of women to soldier through tough times as a testament to their strength that Dana Schwartz takes issue with in her essay, “Afterbirth.” Schwartz opens with the story of her first birth and the large amount of blood that she lost from it. She says,

“I felt a strange sense of pride recounting the story, as if bleeding signified strength, as if almost dying but not was something to be proud of” (p. 39).

But this strength wanes when her baby develops severe colic that keeps her and her husband awake for months. Moving from powerful to powerless upsets her entire world and drives her to a key realization.

“Endurance is not strength; hardships are not badges to be earned. Blood loss is just blood loss, and too much of it will kill you” (p. 42).

 The Final Word

Mothering through the Darkness does not leave its readers with feelings of powerlessness. It is full of hope, but not the Hope as seen on Etsy, carved attractively into a wooden frame and then displayed above the mantle like a greeting card that never got sent.

In her essay, “We Come Looking for Hope,” Alexandra Rosas gives hope a more authentic definition. When a nurse recognizes the symptoms of postpartum depression descending on Rosas, she intervenes. The nurse assures her that she will get better because she has seen other patients get better after they got help. Rosas explains that through her postpartum fog, she had to make a decision—between believing that she could get better or being swallowed by depression. She credits this nurse with saving her life. As a result of this dire situation, Rosas creates a new definition of hope, one that rings desperately true.

“Hope is not a continuum—it’s not measured on a spectrum by degrees. It is a complete giving in to a desperate belief in something when you have nothing else left” (p. 171).

There is such truth in the absoluteness of this statement, the way it throws the reader out into the darkness, arms flailing, hoping and praying that there will be something there to grab on to. It’s this kind of candid truth that resonates most deeply with readers.

Although I haven’t mentioned every essay in this review, nearly every essay in this book caught and carried my full attention. They explored themes like the conflict between expectations and reality, healthy and unhealthy coping strategies, antenatal depression, and the darkest thoughts of self-harm and harming others. Their courage to write and share their stories will not only help you to recognize depression, but also to rethink how you can help a new mother who is experiencing PPD.

The writers of these essays do not look away. They look directly at you. They make you see who they are.

They make you see the face of the postpartum experience.

And for that, I thank them.

Buying Information

  • Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience.
  • Edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger
  • She Writes Press: Berkeley, CA. 2015
  • Available on Amazon in print and soon on Kindle.
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