Writer Jessica Friedmann on postnatal depression and motherhood
Several months into the sleepless fog of new motherhood, Jessica Friedmann took to lying on her bathroom floor between night-time feeds. Cooling her back against the icy tiles, she began to dream of walking out of her Footscray house, across the highway, down the steep hill that led to the Maribyrnong River, and drowning herself.
“Some timely intervention may have saved me a lot of struggle,” she tells me. In hindsight, the symptoms of postnatal depression are easily recognisable – the exhaustion, the total lack of interest in food, the lack of affection for her infant son, the suicidal thoughts. At the time, despite previous struggles with mental illness, Friedmann lacked objective insight into her condition. This is what having a baby is like, she rationalised to herself. Other women do it, so I’m going to do it, too – I’m going to tough it out.
Friedmann, 30, is sharp but gently spoken. Soft curls frame dark features and lipstick, vermilion when we speak, which she has worn daily for so long she can’t remember when the habit became ritual. She has the lithe lines of a dancer – ballet was a childhood hobby and is an ongoing passion. She has built a career with words, as a freelance writer and editor for Dumbo Feather magazine and the literary journal Going Down Swinging.
Friedmann’s postnatal depression, also known as postpartum depression or PPD, is the subject of her debut book, Things That Helped, which collects interrelated essays on motherhood, art, ethnicity and family. “I think postnatal depression is often perceived publicly as just a period of intense sadness,” Friedmann says. “I don’t think many people who don’t experience mental illness firsthand are aware of how severe, and how surprising and incapacitating, the symptoms can be.”
An estimated one in seven Australian women experience PPD, distinct from the “baby blues”, a common and transient period of emotional disturbance caused by the withdrawal of pregnancy hormones after childbirth. Public awareness has grown substantially in the past several years, driven in part by high-profile disclosures. Last year, BuzzFeed ran a listicle naming Drew Barrymore, Elle Macpherson and Hayden Panettiere among “17 Celebrities Who Have Spoken Up About Their Postnatal Depression”. Recently, American model Chrissy Teigen penned a personal essay for Glamour magazine in which she wrote frankly about social isolation, anhedonia and hospital trips for overwhelming physical pain.
Although PPD has achieved greater public recognition, the expected strength of the maternal bond can have a stigmatising effect on mothers who are unable to feel affection for their child. It’s a major barrier to mental health treatment: research from beyondblue has found that feelings of failure and the fear of being perceived as a bad mother delays women from seeking help. “The popular narrative seems to be that shame keeps us quiet about our illnesses, our vulnerabilities,” Friedmann writes in her book, “but where there might be shame there is also a very real and pressing threat of danger.”
Perceptions of PPD are necessarily influenced by the way in which parenthood is publicly represented, which Friedmann believes has become more polarised in the past decade. On the one hand, there’s the “deliriously happy” camp. Friedmann rattles off the emblems: “Instagram photos, all-natural cotton wraps, we’re feeding from the breast for 24 months, we’re enrolling our children in Montessori school, I’ve always wanted to be a mother, look at me baking my banana bread.” None is necessarily bad, but together paint a glowing – and often unrealistic – portrait of what maternity should be.
The counterpoint – which Friedmann finds too cynical – is representations that focus on the unglamorous, hair-rending frustrations of child-raising. She cites Shit on My Hands: A Down and Dirty Guide to Early Parenthood and Reasons My Kid Is Crying. The latter book originated as a Tumblr blog, on which the author Greg Pembroke posted photos of his toddlers accompanied by explanatory captions – gems include “I wouldn’t let him eat Buzz Lightyear’s head”, “He dumped a full cup of water on his own face” and “We wouldn’t let him splash in the toilet”. It swiftly went viral.
Friedmann believes that greater nuance in the public discussion of parenting is warranted – “to acknowledge that it’s ecstatically, deliriously poignant and beautiful and happy a lot of the time, at the same time as being gruelling and awful”.
“We joke and laugh and demystify the grotty parts of motherhood,” she writes in her book, “but we do not talk about these moments: when we dream of running our children under boiling taps or pinching their small noses closed; when the pitch of their constant crying leads us to vivid images of harm; when our rage bubbles over and the thoughts running through our minds are compulsive and unrelentingly terrifying.”
Shocking as they may seem, thoughts of harming one’s child are not rare. One general population study of mothers of colicky babies – albeit with a small sample size – found that 70 per cent had aggressive thoughts and fantasies towards their infants, and 26 per cent admitted to having infanticidal thoughts during episodes of colic. In another study, of mothers to children under three, 41 per cent of depressed participants admitted to having thoughts of harming their child.
“It astounds me that we don’t have a real and established system for making sure that [babies] are not in the care of parents who may be incapacitated,” Friedmann tells me. “Being in charge of another life, at a time when you may not value your own life very much, puts you and your baby in a very, very fraught and scary position.”
For Friedmann, PPD was an isolating experience. A diagnosis of depression is often conflated with a total, unwavering absence of pleasure: how do you explain private suffering to someone who has seen you laugh, be lively or appear content? “There are little high points of joy that you can find within the disease, but they take it out of you,” Friedmann says. She only began to confide in friends when a prescription for escitalopram, an antidepressant, began to lift the fog. She was prescribed the drug when she returned to hospital for a scheduled follow-up – a complicated Caesarean section had led to multiple uterine infections. By that time, Friedmann’s mental health had deteriorated severely, to the point that she was barely speaking, and constantly thinking about the Maribyrnong River.
As her PPD worsened, Friedmann’s language ability deteriorated. She found herself unable to concentrate enough to read or write. The loss became the genesis for Things That Helped. “I realised how dangerous it was for me to have so much of my identity bound up in one thing,” Friedmann says. She immersed herself in other creative spheres – dance, visual art, the music of Anohni, making textiles – that aren’t “contingent on finding the right words or forming an intellectual argument”.
On these subjects, Friedmann now writes with a fan’s fervour and the shrewd eye of a critic. She relishes art in all forms: she deconstructs Center Stage, the 2000 film about aspiring ballerinas; is captivated by Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter often referred to as India’s Frida Kahlo; and, having learnt how to weave, can discern by touch the difference between alpaca and merino wool.
Friedmann becomes impassioned when I bring up the underfunding of arts organisations and workers. “It pisses me off when politicians try to frame [art] as something that is only accessible to or of interest to ‘elites’,” Friedmann says. “Everyone reads books, or newspapers or magazines; everyone listens to music. Most people go to the movies; most people tell their children bedtime stories or go dancing on Saturday night. This idea that the arts is something rarefied and refined is just so fucking bogus.”
Friedmann was a precocious student: as a youngster, having read the books on offer in her primary school library, she was granted special permission to borrow books from the senior school. She was educated at St Catherine’s School in Toorak, in Melbourne’s inner south-east, where she won a senior school scholarship. She finished her year 12 literature units in year 11, and enrolled in an extension program at the University of Melbourne, where she read Habermas, Foucault and Barthes.
Friedmann is Jewish on her father’s side and, despite their Ashkenazi congregation not recognising patrilineal Jews, she attended synagogue as a child with her paternal grandmother due to her father’s contrarian agnosticism. Her parents steered her away from Judaism. “I don’t believe in God per se, but I do feel very strongly Jewish,” she says. As a child, they celebrated both Easter and the Seder; their house was decorated with both a Christmas tree and a menorah. “It didn’t occur to me until I was older that that’s not the way that most people grow up.”
Her grandfather survived the Holocaust, as did five of his eight siblings. One sister died at Auschwitz. With Friedmann’s grandmother, her grandfather escaped over the border, and waited nine months at a refugee camp in Austria before being granted a visa to Australia. After coming by boat, they set up a shop in Footscray during the first wave of migration to the suburb. A severed pig’s head was left on their doorstep, so they relocated to St Kilda.
The rise of the alt-right terrifies her, and calls into question aspects of ethnicity, assimilation and the shifting targets of racism. Not many in modern Australia would look at Friedmann and categorise her as ethnic, even in view of what she calls the “strong Hungarian planes” of her brow and nose. “…Within a generation, for the most part, we have forgotten that Ashkenazi Jews ever were anything but white,” she writes. Yet the label of whiteness feels precarious to her, and guilt-laced. “We could only have obtained its protections while the nation’s punitive racial agenda was bearing down elsewhere.”
Friedmann’s son, Owen, is now four. In December 2015, the family relocated to Canberra for a three-year stint – Friedmann’s husband, Mike, works in the air force. From time to time they hike up Mount Ainslie, which has a view overlooking the city and Lake Burley Griffin. “It’s beautiful to wake up in the morning and see the mist over the mountain,” she says. They live beside the nature reserve; kangaroos bound through the suburb at night.
Recently, Friedmann has started experimenting with wool dyeing. Natural dyes are completely different to the hue of their sources, she tells me. Eucalypt leaves produce camel, raspberries dye an acidic yellow, black beans turn fabric lilac.
“I’m on a very even keel these days,” she says, though since moving she’s developed a homesickness that hasn’t abated. “I’d really like to come back to Victoria.”
For the first time, they have a traditional suburban backyard with a Hills Hoist and a garden, where Mike grows tomatoes, radishes and herbs. From the kitchen window, Friedmann watches Owen romp around outside, taking a torch out when it gets dark, exploring the worm farm. They tell stories, mould Play-Doh figures, make sock puppets. Sometimes Owen wakes her and crawls into the bed while she reads.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2017 as "Mother load". Subscribe here.