Unfold: Poems of Postpartum Depression

I’m so happy to welcome Warrior Mom Rachel Barenblat to Postpartum Progress today, sharing her poetry around postpartum depression. 

When I look back now, I can’t believe it took me so long to recognize the postpartum depression for what it was. Sure, I felt hopeless and overwhelmed and I cried a lot, but I was a new mother, sleeping in 45-minute increments; surely that was how every mother of a newborn felt? My old life was over and would never come back; I just needed to accept that, or possibly to grieve it for a while. But the grieving didn’t end, and the acceptance didn’t come.

Before our son was born, I had been a poet and rabbinic student. I struggled, once he was born, to figure out how to hold on to those identities. When he was two months old I would enroll in one single rabbinic school class. But before that, I wrote poems. Not very many of them, but I wrote them. This sounds melodramatic now, but when I was writing them I felt as though I was saving my own life.

I had spent some years writing weekly Torah poems and posting them on my blog, Velveteen Rabbi. Each week I would study the Torah portion of the week and would write a poem arising out of that Torah portion, and by the end of the week I would call it “done” and post it so I could move on to the next one. My first book-length collection, 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011), came out of that journey. So when I became a mother, that first week, I wrote a poem about new motherhood.

That poem was called “El Shaddai (Nursing Poem).” El Shaddai is a Hebrew name for God; it’s related to the Hebrew shadayim, which means breasts. That poem begins, “Was God overwhelmed / when Her milk first came in / roused by our thin cries / for compassion?” I wrote it during that first week, in between my milk coming in and countless feedings and diaper changes and tears.

The next week I wrote a sestina, a poem which uses repeated end-words to highlight the interplay of repetition. (What could be more repetitive than a week with a newborn?) In week three, the poem was “Night Feeding,” which riffed on the psalms (“as a hind longs for water / my soul longs for sleep”) and ended with my son’s cries “which summon in equal measure / my milk and my tears.” By then, the one-poem-a-week discipline was a lifeline. I kept going.

Rereading those poems now, I’m amazed that we didn’t see the postpartum depression sooner:

Seven weeks in

I am rubble, strafed

by a round-cheeked pilot

who attacks at random

with his air-siren wail…

 

(That’s from “Besieged.”) I share that poem aloud at readings now and a laugh moves through the room, and I want to say: sure, it’s funny now, our kid is three and he’s tall and chatty and hilarious, but it wasn’t funny then. I honestly didn’t think life was ever going to feel better.

And then my mother and my husband asked me to get help for PPD. And though I didn’t believe the help would make a difference, I did as they asked. The week I started taking antidepressants, I wrote “Belief,” the poem from which the collection would take its title:

…and this small blue pill

will banish anxiety, restore to me

the woman I only dimly remember

 

laughing in photographs

with her hand on her round belly

hope curled inside, waiting to unfold[.]

 

When I encounter pregnant friends now, I’m caught between the desire to press Waiting to Unfold into their hands — as if to say: postpartum depression happens, it happens to people you know, and it is survivable, it’s not a sign that you’re somehow unfit to mother — and the awareness that I shouldn’t project my own experience onto everyone else. Just because we had a tough first year doesn’t mean everyone does.

But I’m grateful that the poems are out there. And I hope they find their way to every mother crying silently while her child nurses or takes a bottle or sleeps on her shoulder only to wake with a wail as soon as she dares to move. They chart the journey from amazement to despair to joy. I don’t wish the despair on anyone. But if you’re going through it, know that there’s a path out — that other women have been there, and we can help you find a way.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s latest poetry collection is Waiting to Unfold, a collection of mother poems written during the first year of parenthood. She holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington, and rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She blogs as the Velveteen Rabbi.

About Katherine Stone

is the creator of this blog, and the founder and executive director of Postpartum Progress. She has been named a WebMD Health Hero, one of the fiercest women in America by More magazine, and one of the 15 most influential patient advocates to follow. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

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  1. howshedoesitallnnifer says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these–as part of my recovery, I found myself inexplicably writing poetry. Couldn’t stop. I never wrote before, but I almost felt compelled during the worst times. I am so grateful for that drive because I think it gave me the outlet I needed. Your poems ring absolutely true to me and I appreciate them.