Postpartum Depression Book Review: A Ghost in the House

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Welcome to Volume 2 of the Postpartum Progress Warrior Moms Book Club!  Earlier this year we began The Warrior Mom Book Club, a partnership between Beyond Postpartum and Postpartum Progress.  Katherine Stone and I have learned over the years of providing peer support that a key force in many women’s recovery has been literature as a resource.  Because one can read at one’s own leisure and pace, books and articles are a steady source of encouragement and education for many women.  We began the Book Club by reading Adrienne Martini’s Hillbilly Gothic.  After a great discussion around that first book, the group is hopeful that what we share about Tracy Thompson’s The Ghost in the House will bring new conversations and ideas that relate to postpartum depression and maternal mental health in general.

The nearly 40-some women who have participated in reading the books and being a part of this group for our first two book club reads are unique and insightful.  They bring a range of pregnancy, adoption, and postpartum experiences, as well as genetic and environmental histories with them as they read and discuss the books.

This review is incredibly close to my heart because The Ghost in the House is a book I read four years ago right as I turned the corner of wellness in my recovery from postpartum depression and anxiety.  Because I had so many risk factors that I hadn’t been aware of, learning more about the impact of family history and childhood trauma on maternal mental health was incredibly enlightening and freeing for me.

The following review is about as honest and raw as any I have seen.  Like the book, the review could present potential triggers.  Please be aware of that before you read.  If you are in a vulnerable state, especially as it relates to unresolved guilt or concerns around the impact of your mental health on your children, I recommend you carefully consider the timing for reading this post and the book.  While I found the book to be helpful in overcoming many of these concerns, several moms in the book club decided after getting a few chapters into The Ghost in the House to stop reading until they feel more steady.  I completely respect their decision, of course. As always, while we will provide general insights into how much we enjoyed the book or whether we recommend it, we don’t intend for this to be a critical literary review.

Amber: This book was difficult for many women to get deep into.  Several decided not to read past chapter four or so, and a few took a break to steady themselves before finishing.  Why do you think this particular book generated that kind of reaction?  Did you read the entire book?  If so, are you glad that you finished it?

JPG: I had forgotten that I had read this book early on in my recovery. I didn’t take much from the book at that time. It is emotionally heavy, and it makes you think about your own family and your family of origin. So in that respect, it is fraught with some emotion. I did read the entire book both times, but I took away a much better understanding this time. I think that you need to be in the right head space to read this book.

BR:  I was one of the readers who read the first several chapters, and then took a break. I wasn’t sure at first that I would be able to finish it, but I am glad I did. I found the first several chapters very triggering. I believe Thompson’s straightforward, journalistic style shocked me a bit, after reading the more personal “Hillbilly Gothic.”. I have, for the most part, stuck to reading memoirs and personal reflections on postpartum depression.  Though Thompson does weave in the voice of her own experience and those of other women, she is also explaining a certain way of looking at postpartum mood disorders, in a theoretical way. Some of the information she shared to frame her theory of maternal depression was a bit too much for me at first. What kept me reading was seeing the comments of other readers that reading this work contributed to their sense of hopefulness. I kept going, after a break and ended the book feeling very hopeful as well.

TM: I’m glad I finished it; because of my OCD tendencies I hate to leave things unfinished (ha ha) but also because I found this book to be more about mothers who are depressed AND postpartum depression and the differences thereof. Her descriptions of her mother’s depression and how she acted/reacted could certainly be triggering enough for women who are going through the same thing or remembering their own mothers/childhoods to need to stop reading.

Amber: Yes, she does talk much about mothering while depressed.  In fact, in the Introduction of the book, I found a compelling and reassuring, though somewhat disheartening fact of motherhood that articulated how I had been feeling, but could not muster up words to describe.  “Because motherhood was work, and I was a mother; my new work was now me. Children do not willingly settle for a piece of you; they want you, the whole deal, including those parts of yourself that you think of as ugly or which you would give anything to hide.  My new job was not something I could use to distract myself during times of depression.  Now my depression had a direct and daily impact on my children–may have begun affecting them even before they were born–and this had potentially profound consequences.”, says Thompson.  What were your thoughts about this statement when you read it?  Did they change after you read further into the book?

BR: This quote is very relevant to me. Before having my daughter, when I was going through a bout of depression or feeling especially anxious, I could retreat into my work. It was an escape and distraction. Now that I am back to work outside of the house, I am able to do that to some extent. However, the moment I am back at home with my daughter, the reality of this quote hits me.  Reading the entire work shifted my perspective. I think Thompson does a wonderful job validating the challenges of the work of motherhood. Rather than looking at this work as a burden, which is what the postpartum depression caused me to do, I look at it as a challenge that has helped me to develop and recognize new strengths and skills that I possess.

BB: I definitely identified with this statement. I told a good friend several months ago that I felt like having depression required a certain amount of energy to deal with on a daily basis. Things like work outside of the home, reading for fun, etc. were ways to recharge that energy. Now that I am at home with the baby, being a mom takes all the energy that normally I would have used to fight off depression and then some; this resulted in the significant issues that I had in the early months, particularly around feeling anxious that I’m not “doing it right.”  Being in recovery has allowed me to notice when I’m starting to be overwhelmed and stay present in the current moment without splitting off into alternate universes where nothing but bad things happen. I’ve been able to effectively utilize a lot of the coping mechanisms that Thompson discusses later in the book.  I do still experience a lot of guilt and regret about the early days of my son’s life, when postpartum depression, postpartum OCD, and postpartum anxiety consumed me. But I am starting to spend more time rejoicing that they only win sometimes, rather than to continue to be sad that they were constantly in charge.

TM: When she says, “My new work was me,” that resonates because I have noticed that everything from my sleeping patterns to how I express myself verbally and emotionally has had to change (for the better) since becoming a parent. I want to model the behavior that I want to see in my child. I want him to grow up to be a strong confident man and I can only show him how by being a strong confident mother who is not afraid to make mistakes and admit she did. This is clear to me because my PPD is mostly over, in the midst of the depression I wouldn’t have cared and felt hopeless.

Amber: Wow.  What an interesting perspective.  Tomorrow I look forward to talking with you all about the demands of being a mom and the cyclical nature of the impact of our mental wellness and stress upon one another.

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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