What does the first year of motherhood look like? For this photographer — and many other women — it was dark and complex

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What does the first year of motherhood look like? For this photographer — and many other women — it was dark and complex

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

In the weeks after photographer Rachel Papo gave birth to her son, Ilan, in the summer of 2013, she monitored herself. She watched for signs of anxiety, insomnia or loneliness, for the fog that had covered her brain for months after the birth of her daughter, Zohar, three years earlier, making it difficult for her to function day to day. .

I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, Papo recalled thinking as the days passed in Berlin, where she had moved from New York with her musician husband, Micah, and Zohar, while she was pregnant. After Ilan’s birth, Papo took pictures of her surroundings, as she always did, of the lightning-lit skyline, rain-soaked yellow leaves, and her newborn sleeping in striped pajamas, his tiny features bathed in moonlight. But uneasiness crept into her text exchanges with family and friends overseas – her hard-earned sense of stability felt fragile.

“Then there was this little obstacle,” Papo recalled during an interview at a cafe in Brooklyn. “I was suddenly worried about something and it kept me up all night. And the next night I was like, ‘Well, I better sleep tonight. I hope it’s not that.’” It was a small worry — about which preschool was best for her daughter — but she didn’t sleep the next night either. “And it was almost like I could feel it developing. I couldn’t control it,” she said.

Papo can name what she felt this time: postpartum depression, which affects about 1 in 7 women in the United States and can seriously affect the lives of pregnant people for months or years. The first time, after Zohar’s birth, Papo didn’t understand what had happened to her until someone else offered the term. She had never dealt with depression before and considered herself generally happy and satisfied with her life.

“And then it hit me. And once it hit me, I went downhill really fast,” she explained. Struggling to keep up with freelance work, her main source of income, she thought she might need more space or greenery than New York could offer. She and her family moved to Woodstock, just over 100 miles north of the city, but her memories — captured in images she took at the time — are “haunting,” she said.

Now, years later, Papo has published the photography book “It’s Been Pouring: The Dark Secret of the First Year of Motherhood,” which chronicles her two experiences with postpartum depression through images and text messages, along with interviews with other parents who are silently the condition.

Stigma and expectations

The first depressive period in New York lasted a full year for Papo, as did the second in Berlin. After homeopathic approaches failed while she was abroad, Papo sought psychiatric help and medication—care she first tried to seek but couldn’t afford in Brooklyn. One day she takes an image of her and Ilan’s reflection after a bath, her foreboding gaze the only clear detail in the steamy mirror. The portrait later became symbolic of the hazy uncertainty she felt and is now the book’s cover.

Although many of Papo’s photos are cellphone images she shot during the first hazy months after her children were born, they are interspersed with photos she later took of other mothers’ daily lives, as well as texts they sent to loved ones. their most difficult moments.

Together they form a searing testament of the physical pain, emotional anguish and disconnection that many struggle with after childbirth, but hide from fear or shame. The idea of ​​what it means to be a good mother is deeply entrenched in society, Papo said.

“You have to breastfeed, you have to dedicate yourself to your child, you have to let go of your old self, you have to not get angry — and you have to love your child immediately,” she said of the pressure. “Everybody expects it to happen, and then it doesn’t.”

Connected stories

When Papo began interviewing the other women, whom she met primarily through a Facebook group for expat parents in Berlin, she noticed threads of connection running through their experiences. Many suffered extreme trauma during childbirth and did not immediately feel a sense of connection with their children. Intrusive, violent thoughts came unbidden, either from severe anxiety or bone-deep exhaustion. The women she spoke to felt lonely and isolated from everyone in their lives. When they couldn’t breastfeed, or their recovery from severe vaginal tears or C-sections was difficult, they felt like failures.

“There is one outfit my family sent my daughter; it’s such a cute little thing. And I remember looking at her in that dress and thinking, ‘I really don’t like you,'” one woman, Miriam, recalled in the book. “You know, this feeling, like, ‘I want to get away from you’.”

Another woman, Carolina, echoed that sense of resentment when she recalled a moment when her husband presented her with a photo album containing images of their newborn baby. “I hated that gift. I immediately rejected it and I didn’t tell him,” she told Papo. “It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t sweet. And there was one particular page I couldn’t stand; my baby looked like a stranger to me.”

There are only a handful of portraits of mothers with their children in “It’s Been Pouring,” seen in reflections, partially obscured, or photographed in shadows. Instead, the women often guided Papo’s image-making by sharing specific objects, places, smells or sounds that triggered their emotions. One photo depicts a series of mantras — such as “I feel safe” and “My body knows exactly what to do” — written on index cards that one of the women, Anita, used daily while pregnant. In Papo’s photo, they are taped to a white tiled wall above a vase with a rose.

“Her (child’s) birth was so brutal and traumatic for her that this (mantras) became like a memory of something that didn’t happen,” Papo said about Anita’s experience. The photographer asked her to divide them into two groups on the wall — one she still believes in and one she doesn’t.

For the women who still felt like they were drowning when Papo met them, she hoped to help them by showing them they weren’t alone—now she hopes the same for readers.

“I was there to keep their heads above water and say: ‘You will get through it’,” Papo remembers of the women she met.

No easy solution

Time has given Papo more perspective on the depressive periods she endured, but the years she spent putting together “It’s Been Pouring” meant she relived the darkest moments of her life – and the lives of others – over and over again. must revisit again. As grateful as she is to recover, the experience changed her deeply.

The book does not offer a neat, uplifting solution, although Papo has not experienced depression since her second encounter with postpartum. (Many of the women she interviewed also improved or recovered, she said, although some have since experienced depression after giving birth again.)

“It’s hard to explain, but it’s like I felt possessed by a dark spirit while I was sick, and then it slowly started to leave my body, and then one day it just disappeared completely and I was like myself again feeling,” she explained in a subsequent email. “For me it was literally an overnight feeling.”

Papo and her family have since moved back to New York City, where she has returned to freelancing, and her children are now 12 and 9 years old. Although she said she still feels “the weight of motherhood,” it’s a very different sensation.

“I would say my life is back to being as independent and fulfilling as it was before … to return to New York, and ground myself and get my job back.

“I want to say that I’m stronger, but it’s really hard to say that with confidence because depression is always something that’s around the corner,” she added. “A few nights of (lack of) sleep can start messing with my head… But I feel that as long as I keep certain things in order or in place, I can maintain the life I have.”

It’s Been Pouring: The Dark Secret of the First Year of Motherhood” is now available through Kehrer Verlag.

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