Rebecca Kaminsky: What was the evolution of the book — how did it begin and was the journey of writing it one you expected?
Marrit Ingman: The book started out as a joke, of course. The first chapter I wrote — “Me Against the Music” — began as an open letter to Trent Reznor [front man for Nine Inch Nails] thanking him for being crazy and making music I could bounce my kid around to during his reflux period. My husband and I used to joke about sending Reznor a magnum of champagne. Maybe we will after the book comes out.
The other chapters came together around that idea. The book started out as more advisory, like, “I’m dealing with this, and you can, too.” But who am I to give anybody advice? Almost all of the books about postpartum depression are written by subject-matter experts, not by mothers. I also realized I wasn’t necessarily dealing with it as well as I wanted to. So then I’d just let loose and really wail, and some parts of the book reflect that.
The chapter about fighting with my husband was written during an actual argument. The baby was finally napping, and I ran into the office to write, the way writers who are mothers do, and he ran after me picking a fight about something. I just kept writing it down: “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you!” That kind of thing happens to people’s relationships when they have children, and I wanted to document it honestly. My husband is also a writer, and he was fine with that.
RK: What sets your book apart from others written on this topic?
MI: There aren’t too many first-person accounts of PPD. I read and was tremendously helped by Susan Kushner Resnick’s Sleepless Days, but her style and her voice are very different. I felt that her objective was to legitimize the experience of PPD, and I found her account to be kind of detached at times. She’s a freelance journalist, the real deal, and the writing I was doing turned out to be more gonzo, for lack of a better word. The other books are written by celebrities and they have this kind of public-advocacy angle. I think that’s fine, but I think it’s also important for regular people to have access to the publishing process.
There are other memoirs about motherhood, but they didn’t specifically address the darker range of feelings associated with the experience, or the mental-health aspect. Mentally ill mothers are people we talk about. We don’t talk to them; we discuss them among ourselves. I felt some kind of obligation to say, “Here I am. I’m a mentally ill mother, and I’m fighting back against my disease.”
RK: Blogs and memoirs about motherhood (sometimes called “momoirs”) have received some criticism recently in the New York Times and elsewhere. Do you have a response to this criticism?
MI: I think any kind of writing is open to criticism. It should be. I’m a critic, after all, and I’m lining up to take my lumps like any other artist. I do take issue with a notion I hear sometimes and that I certainly heard in the Times: “Why are all these mothers complaining? Don’t we already have books about motherhood?” Parenthood and motherhood in particular are universal experiences. If we aren’t parents ourselves, then we have parents. It’s not as if motherhood is some kind of gimmick. I didn’t glom onto my depression as book fodder. You can walk into Barnes & Noble and find five or six books about the Hong Kong cinema, which is certainly important and worthy of comment, but you’re not going to find five or six different books about the emotional experience of motherhood. You’re going to find lots of books about raising a smart kid with flash cards, or about nutrition, or about pregnancy health, or about discipline. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect generation after generation of women to read Erma Bombeck, great and funny as she was, and be satisfied with that. I think there can, and should, be a body of literature about motherhood. I think there should be open, ongoing discourse about motherhood as both a cultural phenomenon and as a personal adventure.
Journalists are also awfully quick to knock memoirists for being narcissistic, which is to say that they don’t find motherhood interesting enough to merit discussion unless we are mothers and also politicians, mothers and also strippers, mothers and also Olympic athletes, and so on. We have to justify our existence on the bookshelf beyond being mothers. This is precisely the reason why big publishers don’t want to hear from mothers unless we’re celebrities, unless we’ve been in Playboy like Vicki Iovine and Jenny McCarthy have, or unless we’re married to prominent men, like Jimmy Iovine or Denis Leary. We’re boring. The fact of the matter is that if ordinary mothers found other ordinary mothers boring, they wouldn’t be talking to one another, and mothers are always talking to one another — in the blogosphere, in Internet groups, in zines, at the park, in the workplace. If you read a particular book and consider it narcissistic, then say so. But don’t dismiss something out of hand because motherhood is its subject matter. That’s not fair criticism.
RK: Do you consider your book a “momoir”?
MI: I don’t like the word “momoir” because it’s cutesy, and it smacks of trendiness. Motherhood is not a trend. If it is, then it’s the oldest trend in the world. I’ll call my book a momoir if that helps people figure out what it is, as opposed to being a gift book with pastel illustrations or a book about how to lose your baby weight.
RK: I found the book a wonderful balance of straight memoir and personal commentary, as well as a discussion about the status of mothers in society and how that relates to the way we perceive PPD. Did you think consciously about balancing memoir and commentary as you wrote?
MI: I wasn’t able to separate my individual experiences from the cultural context in which mothering takes place, so I didn’t try to do that in the book, either. When I beat myself up for having a fussy baby and having suicidal thoughts, I borrowed a lot of my feelings from what our culture tells us a mother should be. When I’d try to go out into a public place, and I’d have an anxiety attack because I couldn’t quiet my baby. I’d feel furious about the lack of a safe space for parents to meet and interact, and that’s definitely a cultural and even an economic issue. The mall is not a place for parents; it’s a place for retail sales transactions. When I read a parenting manual, and it told me I wouldn’t be depressed if I wore my baby in a sling, I took that very personally and I wanted to hit back against that mystique, to show that it wasn’t true. I couldn’t talk about the culture without making reference to my own experiences, and I couldn’t narrate my experiences without making reference to the culture.
RK: Much of what you write is very personal and poignant, about your own struggle, about your relationship with your child and your relationship with your husband. How did you go about deciding what details to reveal and what to keep private?
MI: I kept nothing private. I wrote things in the book that I didn’t even tell my husband until they were on the page. I’d send him into the office: “Honey, you should really know about this.” I can’t think of anything I didn’t say. I used a pseudonym for my child because he’s entitled to a certain amount of privacy — not that he’s actually going to get it — and because I wanted to make clear that he’s not always going to be a fussy infant. He has his own personality. He’s not at all the creature he used to be. And the book is not really about him; it’s about my perception of him when I was mentally ill. The difference is significant. I intend to always make that clear to him. Other than those considerations, I saw no reason in the world to hold back. PPD is ugly, and I wanted to allow myself the freedom to write ugly things because they are real.
RK: How did humor help you explore such an outwardly serious topic?
MI: I think humor helps everyone. Thus the jokes about sending champagne to Trent Reznor. Sometimes we’d be so sleep-deprived and weary that we got punch-drunk. We couldn’t help it. Your body will make you start laughing so that you can get some dopamine in your system.
Sometimes I’d write a chapter and show it to my husband or another writer, and they’d say, “God, that’s so funny.” And I had no idea anyone would find it funny. Other times I’d set out to be funny, and I’d fail miserably.
RK: In the book you talk about the judgment mothers have of one another’s parenting. Did your perceived judgment by other mothers at the time of your depression affect your recovery from PPD? Do you think that these judgments affect how we perceive ourselves?
MI: A hundred times yes. I went into labor as a very judgmental person, and I came out of it with a surgical birth, and in my community that’s considered a failure. I’m a middle-class white person living in a politically progressive community, more or less, and I think there’s a lot of pressure on families to stick to the model of “I don’t vaccinate, and I had a homebirth, and we have a family bed, and we eat organic food from the farmer’s market” or whatever. When I wasn’t able to do some of those things, I felt like even more of a failure. We forget sometimes that it’s hard to reason qualitatively when you are depressed. It’s hard to reason qualitatively when you are tired and you have an infant, and you are making decisions that you think are going to make or break your child as a human being forevermore. We have no idea whether we are successful as parents of very young children except by comparing ourselves to other people.
RK: In terms of writing the book, did you think about how people, especially other mothers, would judge you? If so, do you think it affected your writing or choice of content?
MI: At times I think I went too far the other way, that I adopted this attitude of “If you don’t like my parenting choices, then fuck off and take your sustainably-grown produce with you.” That attitude is just as dangerous. I’ve seen this “bad mother” zeitgeist bear fruit and ripen with books like The Three-Martini Playdate. At first my book fell into that “mothering on the edge” concept as far as marketing was concerned, and my editor and I put a stop to that right away. I think it’s divisive and only pits mothers against each other further. Plus I really don’t know what a “bad mother” is anyway. I think dealing with depression and staying in the game make someone a good parent, not a bad parent. If I could write the book over again tomorrow, I might not be so in-your-face.
RK: Do you see a difference between how PPD is generally perceived and your personal experience of it?
MI: I used to think that PPD meant that you cried for no reason, that you looked at your sweet baby’s face and said, “Why am I so miserable?” I knew why I was miserable. I couldn’t get my kid to stop crying and he had a giant rash. You could take any sane, regular person off the street, put him or her in a house around the clock with a crying, rashy baby, and create a textbook depressive. I didn’t realize the role that stress and anxiety play. I think most people don’t. We think that PPD is related to hormones. If that were true, adoptive parents wouldn’t experience it, and they do. So do men.
RK: How, if at all, did coming to a political awareness concerning how mothers and PPD sufferers are treated by society have an affect on your personal recovery and your decision to write about it?
MI: When I recognized the role cultural factors played in my feelings, I got mad and I fought back. “You mean it’s not just me?” That was a huge realization, and it came the instant I realized my husband was also depressed. I wrote the book in part because I can — because I don’t have as much at stake as does a single mother, for example, or a poor mother, and she might not have access to therapy, and she might not be able to come out and say that she’s suffering from depression because she might literally be at risk of losing her baby. She needs to hear from other mothers telling her, “It’s not just you.” What else does she have?
RK: Did having PPD influence your decision about whether or not to have more children?
MI: My husband had a vasectomy because our one child is plenty for us. Having PPD is a big scare, and if you’ve had it before, you’re statistically likely to have it again. But what clinched it for us was the fact that our child is incredibly smart, verbal, energetic, intense, and allergic. I was shopping for cotton-footed sleepers — we put our son in them year-round because of his eczema — and a mother of four struck up a conversation with me in which she said her highly allergic, asthmatic child was more work to raise than the other three combined. I listened to that wisdom. We just have to be realistic. Also my husband and I are both only children. It’s not weird to us.
RK: What do you think are the most important things for a woman who suspects she might be suffering from PPD to know?
MI: Stop reading and get your ass some help. See a podiatrist if you have to. Raise the red flag. You’re going to get better, but you have to fight back. Do whatever you have to do.
If you or someone you know suffers from PPD, here are some helpful resources:
UCSF – Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic
State of California:
Postpartum Health Alliance
Nationally and Internationally:
Postpartum Support International