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.