I am grateful to add another voice to this space. Teresa Wong’s graphic memoir, Dear Scarlet*, depicts her experience with postpartum depression (PPD). In a letter to her firstborn daughter, the Calgary-based author shares a message of believable hope. That enduring can be worth it. I felt connected with her story, so I couldn’t be more grateful to actually talk (!) with her. Here she answers questions about motherhood, the impact of our formative years, women’s health, and cultural approaches to childbirth.
Q. What sort of connection do you feel towards your own babyhood and the impact it may have had on your mother? Has your relationship with that time changed since having children? Has your understanding of your mother changed?
A. I often wonder if my mother had postpartum depression. She was a new immigrant to Canada, didn’t speak English, had very little support from my father, and was extremely poor. Chinese parents very rarely talk to their children about mental health issues though, so I don’t think I will ever know for sure. But, yes, having children of my own has given me greater sympathy and admiration for my mother and how she raised me and my brother.
Q. Is there any connection between first-time motherhood and postpartum depression? First-borns are often stereotyped as high-strung. Do you think there is a nurture effect at play with that stereotype? What are the ties between birth order and a child’s personality?
A. I’m no expert, so I don’t know if there’s a correlation there. I do know many high-achieving women who have experienced PPD (regardless of birth order), and I sometimes think that women who are naturally hard on themselves and perfectionists may be more likely to experience depression.
Q. I appreciated your depictions of pregnancy and childbirth. I think we often joke about odd pregnancy cravings and the father getting nervous during birth and the mother screaming at him to shut up, but then when the comedic moment is over, the mother is always fine. But you dealt with a challenging birth and lingering consequent health issues. How did these issues affect your mental state at the time?
A. I am certain that my postpartum hemorrhage contributed to my depression. Often, I was too tired to even sit up and feed the baby a bottle. But I blamed myself because I didn’t understand what the blood loss had done to my body. I felt like other mothers had no problems bouncing back from labour and delivery… why couldn’t I be that way? And then those feelings of shame and inadequacy just snowballed.
Q. Have you struggled with depression outside of PPD? What characteristics of PPD distinguish it emotionally from other types of depression? In what ways do the intrinsic ties to motherhood make it easier or harder to deal with?
A. I have had bouts of depression since I was a teenager, although it largely went untreated. I think, while depression generally feels the same whether it’s postpartum or not, everyone took it more seriously when there was a baby involved. Once I was diagnosed, I received treatment quickly and friends and family were mostly sympathetic. I believe that, sadly and unfairly, if my depression were unrelated to having a baby, people would not have been so quick to respond and help.
Q.Your Rainer Maria Rilke quote resonated with my own fumbled navigation of personal relationships while depressed. I felt as if my loved ones were at once my only hope and a cavern of guilt. Usually we get asked this the other way around, but how did your relationships, not only with your daughter but with everyone in your life, affect your depression?
A. I was inundated with support after my diagnosis, so I was lucky that way. My friends and family became my lifeline.
Q. I found when you asked whether the baby knew you were sad, to be the story’s most intimate moment. But babyhood ignorance aside, you decided to tell the story anyway. Why do you want to share this story? What do you hope Scarlet specifically can takeaway from it?
A. My daughter has always been a very sensitive little girl, so I suspect that one day she may go through depression as well, whether it’s postpartum or not. If she does, I want her to understand that I know what it’s like, and that there is a way out of it.
Q. I loved your mother’s role in the story, and learning how other cultures approach childbirth. What can Canadians learn from Chinese traditions regarding motherhood? (Side note – why isn’t the mother supposed to shower for a month?)
A. I love the Chinese tradition of confinement. Although it was isolating, it also gave me the time and space to recover from childbirth. It is treated as a very sacred time of healing, and I respect that. The no-showering thing is supposed to prevent the mother from getting a chill and falling ill. I’m guessing it was de rigueur in rural China, where there’s no central heating and a cold, wet body could easily get sick?
Q. Your comment on mother’s abandoning their babies made me chilled. I could feel the desperation of these women coming off the page. What can we do to better support new mothers? How do you think the idealization of motherhood ties into larger narratives about womanhood? What’s the connection to how women’s pain is treated overall?
A. There is so much pressure on new moms to be perfect and to embrace motherhood as this wonderful, naturally joyful experience—and if you feel any bit of regret, you feel ashamed and alone. I think we need more alternative stories of motherhood out there. It can look different for everyone, and I believe that the more stories we tell from a variety of perspectives, the better.
Thank you, Teresa! Check out Dear Scarlet here.*
Teresa Wong is a Calgary writer who had three children in less than five years. At first, she feared motherhood would destroy her, but is pleasantly surprised to find herself continually remade. When the kids are asleep, she writes and draws pictures. When she is asleep, it’s never for long.