Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month and so the perfect time to consider two memoirs of postnatal depression, one that was just published this month and another that is newly out in paperback.
Birth Notes: A Memoir of Recovery by Jessica Cornwell
Cornwell comes from a deeply literary family: the late John le Carré was her grandfather; her uncle is writer Nick Harkaway; and her father is a screenwriter. She published one high-profile historical novel, The Serpent Papers (2015), before writing this memoir. Birth Notes shimmers with visceral memories of delivering her twin sons in 2018 and the postnatal depression and recurring infections that followed.
my body had become a festival of decay … Birth shattered me, cutting through my world like a knife, severing all sense of connection.
The details are precise and haunting: the miscarried foetus she placed in a jar, just days before her wedding on Menorca; her mint-green hospital room in North London. These twine around a historical collage of words from other writers on motherhood and mental illness, ranging from Margery Kempe to Natalia Ginzburg. “Seeking answers, I gathered fragments.”
Childbirth caused other traumatic experiences from her past to resurface: a car accident, sexual harassment, rape, two miscarriages, and her family’s home in California burning down in wildfires.
In birth, we too contain multitudes: past, present, future selves, and if the labour of coming into motherhood is too excruciating, too unbearably eviscerating, we can be left in ruins.
Numbness gave way to rage about the gendered treatment she received from male doctors and the omission of a potentially life-threatening condition from her birth notes. She only found out when she returned to the hospital to go through these notes with a midwife that she had been diagnosed with placenta accreta, which led doctors to advise her not to have more children.
How do we cope with trauma? For Cornwell, therapy and writing went hand in hand. “We narrate it into a corner.” Hers is a moving book, vivid and resolute, and perfect for readers of Catherine Cho, Sinéad Gleeson, and Maggie O’Farrell.
After the Storm: Postnatal Depression and the Utter Weirdness of New Motherhood by Emma Jane Unsworth
Unsworth’s son was born on the day Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Six months later, she realized that she was deep into a postnatal depression and finally agreed to get help. The breaking point came when, with her husband (Ian Williams, a doctor and graphic novelist) away at a conference, she got frustrated with her son’s constant fussing and pushed him over on the bed. He was fine, but guilty what-ifs proliferated, making this a wake-up call for her.
In her succinct, wry and hard-hitting memoir, Unsworth exposes the conspiracies of silence that lead new mothers to lie and pretend everything is fine. Since her son’s traumatic birth, she hadn’t been able to write and was losing her sense of self. She couldn’t even admit her struggles to her fellow mum friends. But “if a woman is in pain for long enough, and denied sleep for long enough, and at the same time feels as though she has to keep going and put a ‘brave’ face on, she’s going to crack.”
The book’s titled mini essays give snapshots into the before and after, but particularly the agonizing middle of things. Therapy, antidepressants and hiring a baby nurse helped her to ease back into her old life and regain some part of the party girl persona she once exuded – enough so that she was willing to give it all another go, with her daughter born late in 2020.
While Unsworth mostly writes from experience, she also incorporates recent research and makes bold statements of how cultural norms need to change. “You are not monsters,” she writes to depressed mothers. “You need more support. … Motherhood is seismic. It cracks open your life, your relationship, your identity, your body. It features the loss, grief and hardship of any big life change.”
Cornwell and Unsworth are to be lauded for speaking out from the isolation and silence of postnatal depression after a traumatic birth. Their work makes maternal mental health crises visible, sharing what helped and setting out what still needs to change in our society and healthcare systems.
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer who writes for the TLS and Wasafiri and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Jessica Cornwell, Birth Notes: A Memoir of Recovery (Virago, 2022). 978-0349014296, 448 pp., hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link.
Emma Jane Unsworth, After the Storm: Postnatal Depression and the Utter Weirdness of New Motherhood (Wellcome Collection, 2022). 978-0349014296, 160 pp., paperback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link.