First Place, Baby!! Thank you, John Wood Community College!
(Okay, I really think of myself as a glass half full person, but like my beloved Catherine Newman, I can’t help seeing the speck in the milk. And this speck was the little voice in my head as I grinned at the win. It chided me for the pretentious reversal of the second adjective in the title.
“Why not call it a History Brief?” sneered the voice. And my other little voice, the one with a sense of humor, cracks up at the rhyme. “A History Brief of Overdue Grief.”)
Wait, there’s More!
Mom Writer’s Lit Magazine is publishing one of my pieces! (Please don’t say anything about the apostrophe. I KNOW. Oh, there's that speck voice again.)
Their June 21 issue will carry my review of Brooke Shield’s Down Came the Rain.
Check it out!
Since the published book review will be an abbreviated version, I'm including the full review here:
Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression by Brooke Shields. Hyperion, 2005. ISBN 1-4013-0189-4. New in paperback: $11.21
My Friend Brooke
Brooke Shields and I are the same age. The actress and model has always felt familiar to me, as if she was a high school acquaintance done good. I might have seen ten minutes or so of Blue Lagoon, flipping through the cable channels. Oh, and her guest turn on Friends, of course. I never bought a magazine because she was on the cover; it was the person, not her career, to which I felt a connection.
Perhaps it was rumors of her notoriously heavy-handed mother, or the universal criticism of her acting skills. Perhaps it was D-lister Kathy Griffin gossiping in her stand-up routine about Brooke’s wedding. It may have been the casually dismissive comment of a friend’s boyfriend who had a class with her at Princeton: “She’s not even the prettiest girl in the class.” Whatever the reason, I suspect the closeness I felt was akin to the sympathy my mother’s generation felt for brave Debbie Reynolds, abandoned by husband Eddie Fisher for that vampy Elizabeth Taylor.
This affinity continued when we both became pregnant and had daughters in the same year. But when I heard that she had suffered from postpartum depression, I had a sympathetic connection so strong it surprised me.
I luckily dodged full-blown postpartum depression but my baby blues did linger long in a particularly deep shade of indigo. My daughter Mia cried so much as an infant, I feared that she had tapped into the sadness of this wide old world. I felt responsible, as if she had caught one of my moods. Her infancy, during the darkest months of the year, was a difficult time, fraught with insomnia, anxiety, tentativeness. At that time we lived in an old converted bank building on a busy city street. Our home that had served so perfectly for parties before the baby arrived now felt cavernous and cold, echoing with Mia’s wails and often my own.
I made it through that first year, thanks to a couple of supportive mommy groups, long walks along the woody north branch of the Chicago river and stolen naps while the baby slept. Randy and I left the cold tile floors of the bank for a smaller home with a garden. We had a second daughter, mellow and easy.
As news of the birth of Brooke’s second daughter hit the newsstands, I picked up her book, Down Came the Rain, an account of her battle with post-partum depression after the birth of her first child. It was a startling new way to see my old friend.
Writing in an informal, conversational style, Shields speaks candidly about her struggles to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization, an emotionally devastating miscarriage and the joy with which she and her husband, the writer Chris Henchy, finally received the news of a successful pregnancy. “I excitedly began making plans,” she writes. “A girl? A boy? Blue room, pink, or a safe yellow? Showers, maternity clothes! Books to buy! A healthy eating plan!”
After much anticipation and preparation for the baby, including “appearing on the cover of Vogue magazine pregnant and looking like (she) was enjoying true harmony with life,” Shields finds herself knocked off kilter by her reactions to the baby’s arrival. Inexplicable rage and overwhelming fear for the baby’s life, as well as her own, alternate with periods of listlessness, apathy and guilt.
She writes, “Rowan kept crying and I suddenly began to fear the moment when Chris would bring her back to me. I started to experience a sick sensation in my stomach; it was as if a vise was tightening around my chest. Instead of the nervous anxiety that often accompanies panic, a feeling of quiet devastation overcame me.”
Shield’s reasonable expectations for happiness and the unexpected onset of her illness delayed her realizing she had set sail for family life into a perfect storm of risk factors. After the difficult trials of conception, Shields underwent a rushed emergency c-section three weeks after the death of her father from cancer. The baby girl was born healthy, but jaundiced, and with hip dysplasia, requiring an unwieldy ultraviolet light paddle and a harness under her clothes. Every hour and a half, day and night, newborn Rowan cried to be fed in an apartment filled with packed boxes where Shields and Henchy had moved only days before the birth. Stresses such as these can only intensify the hormonal upheavals that doctors believe contribute to postpartum emotional distress.
In her darkest days, the depression detaches Shields to the point where she starts imagining the worst. “I remember looking out the window and envisioning myself jumping. I concluded that it wouldn’t be too effective, because we weren’t high enough. . . . I sat holding my newborn and could not avoid the image of her flying through the air and hitting the wall in front of me. . . I was horrified, and although I knew deep in my soul that I would not harm her, the image all but destroyed me.”
Eventually, with medication (famously criticized by Tom Cruise) and therapy and time, the depression relaxes its grip.
Throughout the book the actress makes casual references to the trappings of a wealthy and celebrated life. Rather than distancing the reader, her stories of homes on both coasts, first class flights, personal assistants and baby advice from Antonio Banderas backstage only underline the fact that even someone with all the resources in the world can be overwhelmed with first time motherhood. Shields does acknowledge her unusually vast support system – attentive friends and family, the financial resources to pay for quality child-care and psychiatric help. In a poignantly funny scene, she tries to gather her wits to interview a baby nurse. After two brief questions, she falls silent, lost. The nurse gently asks, “ ‘Would you like to see my resume or talk to any of my references?’” Shields writes, “I shook my head again, silently, then looked at her and said, ‘Can you start now?’”
Through all this honest and informative reporting, a genuine sweetness in the author’s voice shines through. Perhaps as a result of an over-protected despite highly publicized childhood, she still displays a childlike innocence. I sense it when she describes asking “some friends to help with the beautifying process” to meet the paparazzi cameras as she leaves the hospital. I can hear it when she enjoys her husband’s endless teasing about her many malapropisms and awkward jokes, even about Valentine’s Day over-preparation. “By the time we got to the heart-shaped cookies, Cupid cake and red sugar cubes, I had been completely ridiculed,” she recalls with delight. “Everyone laughed at my expense and it felt good to be back.”
In her teen years this lack of guile floated Shields above the media storms about her highly sexualized film roles and advertisements. When she writes: “A documented life is one of the weirdest consequences of celebrity . . . details about my orthodontist appointments, my first period, and my virginity have all be publicized,” the actress seems somehow untouched by the media’s invasive touch. Her earnest striving to be a good mother also tempers my distaste to her first choice of job after the baby: a baby formula commercial, despite her commitment to breast-feed her own child. But such are the disagreements between old friends.
Of all the misunderstandings our culture sustains about mental illness, the origins, frequency and intensity of postpartum depression may be some of the most confusing. Leave it to a citizen of the pages of People magazine to enlighten her legions of best friends.