A friend and new father recently confided in me that he thought his partner was depressed. I am even closer to the mom, and I didn’t agree. This is just the first year of motherhood, I said. Sleep deprivation is literally a form of torture. It gets better, I assured him.
Or would it? The truth is, I can’t diagnose postpartum depression—I’ve missed the signs before with another girlfriend who did experience it. And while teetering on the edge of sanity myself during that first year, crying in pediatricians’ offices and trading bitter barbs with my husband, I never thought it warranted a visit with a psychiatrist, and I didn’t seek out a circle of women sharing the same disorienting journey. You know, a mommy group. I assumed I would just find my own place, and my own friends in motherhood naturally, without the cringe-inducing label.
Even Elizabeth Isadora Gold, author of the new memoir, The Mommy Group, admits that these groups “had always seemed cheesy” to her. Then she had a kid, and became a convert and proselytizer of its saving graces.
“I now believe that almost any group of mothers who meet once a week for a few months, and who consciously go beyond chatting about stroller brands and whose baby sleeps in an organic bassinet, will feel the same sense of sisterhood that we did. And its powerful effects.”
The Prospect Heights writer, whose references and touchstones will feel familiar to any Brooklyn parent, met her group of new mothers first on Park Slope Parents, then in person in the old Tea Lounge (aka “Teat Lounge”). For anyone who has tried to join a circle of moms over a listserv, the fact that they all click, and continue to meet beyond toddlerhood is a bit of a miracle. That friendly, democratic aspect of an online parenting group can collapse once you meet up in person and discover that your cohorts are experiencing the material costs of parenthood much differently than you, or subscribe to wholly different parenting philosophies. (Let’s not even get started on how long you’re going to breastfeed, if you even plan to.) But the benefits of this informal, free group therapy, when very few of us live near our families and have no experience with children until we have one, are palpable. Through Gold’s group, we are introduced to, or reminded of all the various paths your life can take once you become a parent.
One mother’s husband leaves days after their baby is born. Another mom discovers her child has developmental delays. Gold herself is diagnosed with postpartum anxiety, a condition similar to PPD. Many of the couples are fighting, few are having sex. Some have enviously large apartments with washers and dryers, others are living on top of each other in tiny walkups. On the page, these women of varying financial means kvetching at coffee shops can sometimes read like Sex and the City, if Carrie and friends suddenly became obsessed with the amount of sleep they were all getting. But as the book progresses, the value of their friendship and mutual support becomes clear.
In fact, the book might have been even more satisfying if Gold had delved deeper into each of these personalities, devoting, say, a chapter to each woman and exploring her particular experience, because they vary so drastically. Instead the book straddles the line between memoir and reportage, jumping from Gold’s own experiences as a new mom, to her interviews and emails with her own mommy group and others around the country, to her take on the various ways we shortchange modern families. The effect can be jarring at times, as if she hadn’t quite decided on the perfect structure for her subject. And there are a number of details I could have done without (a mysterious feud with the owners of Joyce Bakery comes to mind). But if there is one chapter where it all works perfectly, a section I immediately told my friend about, it’s Gold’s depiction of her postpartum anxiety in Chapter 9.
“What if we actually walked into motherhood with the idea that it would be psychologically discombobulating?” she asks. “That even if you’re not the ‘one in ten,’ the hormonal and life changes will affect you profoundly? What if, as part of our leaving package at the hospital, new families received (in addition to the free formula samples and keepsake tiny hats) referrals to excellent, professionally run group therapy?”
The reality is, we walk into motherhood incredibly near sighted. So many women, myself included, spent the majority of their time in pregnancy fetishizing a natural birth, instead of preparing for a totally new life with a child. (I wonder how many how many more women would ask for an epidural, and how fewer women would feel unprepared for, or lament their C-section if there was less pressure to have the perfect, all-natural delivery that so many books and classes literally push us toward.)
Not only is this focus on a drug-free birth misguided–as Gold points out, “the need for pain relief is nothing to be ashamed of”—it reduces the conversation about bringing a baby into this world to just those 5, 8, 12, or god bless you, 24+ hours of labor.
I don’t think we need to throw out all the birthing books and classes. But we do need more useful, realistic guides to becoming a parent, and The Mommy Group is part of a crop of new books, along with Mama Tried and All Joy and No Fun, that are refreshingly honest about the shit that happens when you become a parent.
“The baby is a bomb that goes off in the middle room, affecting all aspects of home life, marriage, body and sense of self—especially for mothers,” Gold writes at the beginning of her book. By the end, when all of her mommy group’s babies are entering preschool, and many of the mommies are pregnant with baby number two, it also becomes clear: you will make it out alive.