Words for the post-baby blues: Elif Shafak on motherhood, authorship and surviving depression
Essay: Elif Shafak defined herself as a writer above all. Then she had a child, and depression hit. But a new chapter would begin...
My vocation as a novelist thrives upon solitude. In almost all areas of art one has to work with other people during the creative process. Even the most egotistical of film directors has to be good at harmonising his energy with that of others, learning to function as a team. So, too, fashion designers, actors, dancers, playwrights, singers and musicians.
But not fiction writers. For weeks, months and sometimes years on end, we retreat into the novels we write; we stay inside that imaginary cocoon surrounded by imaginary characters, writing destinies, thinking we are God. Self-absorption and an inflated ego are the two most harmful side effects of our profession. That is why we make poor lovers and even poorer wives and husbands. Writers are primarily asocial creatures - though we can easily forget that with a bit of fame and success. "The birthing room of the novel is the individual in his loneliness," as Walter Benjamin once said.
One day, I learned I was pregnant. I hadn't known I wanted to become a mother and it took me by surprise. But I wanted to have this baby. It was as if another part of me – a domestic, nurturing, maternal side – was now rebelling against the part that had dominated all those years. The insurgent forces of motherhood infiltrated the tiny little villages south of my personality with amazing speed and agility, but the vested powers sitting in the capital were still holding strong.
Yet, I didn't want to lose the wandering, independent, carefree spirit that I was. Inside my head there were six voices speaking all at once. Hence I entered this pregnancy with mixed feelings, as if I were being dragged toward the unknown by an undercurrent that was stronger than my heart. It didn't help that I was put on trial during the final stages of my pregnancy due to the sentences a few of my Armenian fictional characters uttered in my novel The Bastard of Istanbul. By coincidence the trial was set for the day after my delivery. Although I was acquitted at the first hearing, and the experience had no bearing on my subsequent depression, those tense days added to the challenges of the entire year.
I gave birth in September 2006, the most beautiful month of the year in Istanbul. Happy and blessed as I felt, I was also perplexed and unprepared. We rented a charming, quiet house on the islands where I could nurse and write. That was the plan. But it turned out I could do neither. My milk wasn't sufficient, and each time I attempted to go back into the world of fiction and start a new novel, I found myself staring at a blank page with growing unease. That had never happened to me before. I had never run out of stories. I had never experienced writer's block or anything that came close to it. For the first time in my adult life, as hard as I tried, words wouldn't speak to me.
Suddenly I was seized by the fear that something had irreversibly changed in me and I would never be the same again. A wave of panic surged through me. I started to think that now that I had become a mother and housewife, I would not be able to write fiction anymore. Like an old dusty carpet, my old self was pulled out from under my feet.
Books had been my best friend since the day I learned how to read and write. Books had saved me. I had been an introverted child to the point of communicating with coloured crayons and apologising to objects when I bumped into them. Stories had given me a sense of continuity, centre and coherence – the three Cs that I otherwise sorely lacked. I breathed letters, drank words and lived stories, confident that I could twist and twirl language in a passionate tango.
All this time my writing had filled the one suitcase I took with me wherever I went. Fiction was the invisible glue that held my different facets together, and when it was no longer with me, all my pieces fell apart. Without it, the world seemed like a melancholic place, infinitely sad. Colours that had looked bright and cheerful were now dull. Nothing was enough anymore. Nothing seemed familiar. I, who had travelled across continents, easily finding home in so many places, could not find the strength or will to go out into the street. My skin got so thin everything started to hurt me. The sun was too hot, the wind too harsh and the night too dark. I was full of anxiety and apprehension. Before I knew it, I had plunged into a severe postpartum depression.
After weeks of watching me cry, my maternal grandmother – a gentle but mighty woman with abundant superstitions – held my hand and whispered, in a voice as soft as velvet, "My dear child, you've got to pull yourself together. Don't you know that with every tear a new mother sheds, her milk turns sour?"
I didn't know that.
I found myself thinking about this image. What would happen if my milk curdled? Would it darken, acquiring a thick and murky texture? The thought of this not only alarmed me but also made me feel guilty. The more I tried not to cry the more I felt like doing so. How come every other woman I knew adapted to motherhood so easily, but I couldn't? I wanted to breast-feed my child as long and best as I could. The image of spoiling milk nagged at me during the day, and attacked me in my dreams.
Then one morning, after months of depression, seclusion and unsuccessful treatment, I woke up with an urge to write again and sat at my desk. It was quiet, except for a few fishing boats in the distance and the baby sleeping in her cradle. There was a scent of jasmine in the air and the sky over the Bosphorus was a blue so pale that it had almost no colour. Suddenly I had this most soothing realisation that everything was okay and had always been so. As Rumi said, the night contained the day. We could start our lives over, anytime and anywhere.
It was okay that I had panicked and could not stop crying. It was okay that I had feared I couldn't manage writing and motherhood at the same time. Had my milk not been as white as snow, that, too, would be okay. If I started to write about the experience, I could turn my blackened milk into ink, and as writing had always had a magical healing effect on my soul, I could perhaps inch my way out of this depression.
That same day, I put the baby in her pram and walked out of the house into the bustling street. At first cautiously, then more daringly, I started talking to other women about their postpartum experiences. I was surprised to hear how many of them had gone through a similar emotional turbulence. Why didn't we know more about this? The simple fact is that postpartum depression is far more common than we, as a society, would want to believe. Interestingly, women knew about this in the old days. Our great-grandmothers were aware of all kinds of postpartum instability and therefore better prepared. They passed on their knowledge to their daughters and granddaughters. But today we are so disconnected from the past that we have no real access to this wisdom.
It is this simple and age-old wisdom that we have lost touch with in our determination to be successful, strong and always perfect. Mrs Weakness is not a popular woman among the members of our generation. Nobody knows where she is now, but there are rumours that she has been sent into exile to an island in the Pacific or a village on the outskirts of the Himalayas. We have all heard of her, but it is forbidden to say her name aloud. At our workplace, school or home, whenever we hear someone talk about her we flinch, fearing the consequences.
None of this is to deny that motherhood is one of the greatest gifts in life. It moulds the heart like clay, bringing one in tune with the rhythm of the universe. There is a reason why countless women say motherhood was the best thing that happened to them. I agree with that from the bottom of my soul.
Nevertheless, a woman does not become a mother the very minute she gives birth. It is a learning process, and for some it simply takes longer than for others. There are those, like myself, who find themselves shaken to the core by the entire experience. I am not claiming that the transition into motherhood is more difficult for creative people, as I have seen women from all walks of life undergo similar trouble, albeit in varying degrees. No woman is absolutely immune to postpartum blues. Perhaps the strongest and most confident among us are the ones who are, in fact, most vulnerable. Interestingly, this psychological roller coaster can happen just as easily with the second, the third or even the sixth pregnancy as with the first.
After all, pregnancies are like snowflakes. No two are exactly alike.
This is an extract from 'Black Milk: on motherhood and writing' by Elif Shafak (Penguin, £8.99) © Elif Shafak
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