Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Conversation with Marrit Ingman

A Conversation with Marrit Ingman
Stacey Greenberg

Marrit Ingman’s memoir on postpartum depression, Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health Out with the Diapers, is on the shelves now. The book is smart, funny, and groundbreaking. She writes honestly of her struggle to effectively parent her high-needs child when all she wanted to do was drive off of a highway overpass. I recently talked with Marrit via email to discuss the book, talk about the current state of motherhood, and even make fun of Dr. Sears a little.

Stacey Greenberg: Tell me a little bit about what you are doing now, how old Baldo is, and what’s happening with the book.

Marrit Ingman: Baldo will be four in February. He's doing so much better with his allergies, and he's a much happier, more multidimensional person than he was as an infant. He's even growing out of his eczema, although we did have to deal with it a lot longer than we would have hoped. For a while we were doing UV treatments at the dermatologist's office three times a week and going to an acupuncturist. We did homeopathy. And one day he just stopped having a full-body rash. I still can't find the smoking gun. I should mention that after I finished writing the book, the Tacrolimus ointment we were using that made such a difference turned out to be carcinogenic. That was a bummer. I wish I could go back and pencil that into the book, "But it's carcinogenic! Don't use it!"

He goes to preschool now and is an active, social kid. He wears Vic Firth drummer's headphones because he's afraid of loud noises, but other than that he's indistinguishable from other little kids.

I'm still writing movie reviews for the Austin Chronicle–see “Tony Takitani!”—and I'm also teaching a weekly class on Chinese cinema. Baldo won't watch movies with me yet, though. He's afraid of them. And he says he'll only watch them if there are construction machines in the movie. Sometimes I'll get assigned to see a movie, and I'll go over my notes and find that I've marked down when a construction machine appeared. "Dragline excavator!" That sort of thing.

So far the response to the book has been really wonderful. Yesterday I got a call at home from one of the history teachers at my husband's school—she teaches the eighth grade—and she told me how glad she was that mothers were really starting to speak up about their emotional experiences because she was never able to. Her own daughter is a few years younger than I am, and she's pregnant for the first time. Women of my mom's generation have been really vocal about the book. That's very gratifying because I watched my mom grit her teeth through a lot of the work of raising us.

SG: How does one get to teach a class on Chinese cinema? That just sounds so glamorous.

MI: I have a graduate degree in film studies, and I've been reviewing movies in print for about ten years. Before I had my son I worked an office job during the day, and I'd go out and review movies at night. I got a really great chance to teach a special-topics class at the school I attended as an undergraduate. I like Asian cinema and I like Chinese cinema in particular because it can be so raw and yet beautiful and because it's so political. You have this strict code of official censorship, but the movies that come out still have so much examination in them, but it's sub-textual and aesthetically interesting.

My class is one afternoon a week, and a mom from Baldo's school watches him while I go. We either swap care or I pay her, depending on how our lives are working out and which we need more of, time off or money.

SG: I'm so glad to hear that you are getting a positive response to the book. You know, I have read a lot of your essays in other publications and know you to be a very funny writer, but for some reason when you talked about writing a memoir on your experience with postpartum depression I wasn't expecting such a fun read. Also, I wasn't expecting to identify with it so much.

MI: Some people have read the book and told me that they identified with it even though they didn't have PPD. And then they wonder, "Did I have PPD?" My sense is maybe not, but I think motherhood is a depressing scenario for everyone—at least potentially, and at least at times, even in the best case, when mothers have adequate resources and adequate support. It can be so isolating even for those women. Our culture devalues mothering so much—fathering too, for that matter. We think that parenting children belongs in private. There are taboos against speaking up and reaching out, about needing help. It's a recipe for frustration and potentially for mental illness—which is not necessarily some bizarre pathology, but really just the opposite of "mental wellness."

I go back and forth with myself about whether we should even say "postpartum depression." When we embrace the medical model, we overlook the circumstantial factors that play a role in parental depression. On the other hand, sometimes you need a big red ugly flag to get the attention you need from the people in your world, and "postpartum depression" is a big red ugly flag, especially now after the Andrea Yates case.

When you say "I have postpartum depression," people listen to you—health care providers, people at the park, anyone. In fact, they kind of back off from you as if you might bite. I called one office to interview a therapist once on my HMO, and I told the receptionist, "I have postpartum depression," and it made her cry. Of course she was pregnant, but I didn't know that, and I had to answer her question about why I was calling, right? If you say, "I am a weary and isolated and scared mother, and I need help," you might as well be talking to your own ass. Nobody cares about that. Nobody wants to hear that mothers are marginalized, that mothers are overworked, that mothers are struggling, that mothers have unpaid bills or abusive households or husbands in Iraq, that mothers feel and sometimes literally are excluded from public places. The other mothers already know it, and nobody else really cares as long as you continue to function, usually for their benefit.

And I'm not saying people should feign depression if they're not depressed, but all that shit can build up inside you and literally affect the chemistry of your brain. It can get you to the point where all you can think of is hurting yourself. And you need a big red ugly flag if that happens to you.

SG: I think one of your funniest (and most important) chapters is “Hell is Other Parents” where you make up funny categories of mothers like "Indie Mom," "Sunday School Mom," "Free Market Mom," etc. to make the point that we are not our parenting choices. Someday I am going to re-write Sartre's No Exit with a group of new mothers. Why are we so compelled to judge other moms based on what kind of diapers they use or whether they choose to breastfeed. Where is the solidarity?

MI: I'd like to see No Exit with new parents. That would be trenchant. Miriam Peskowitz has a great book out now called The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars. In it she talks about the socioeconomic and cultural reasons why parents judge each other: basically, we do it because none of our choices are really free choices. We all just do the best we can with a set of pretty limited options. It seems like mothers are quick to turn on each other. Maybe we are. But even the luckiest among us, or the most privileged, still have to make hard choices. We feel stressed and anxious and guilty, so we go on the attack.

Let's say I'm a mother who's really concerned about the environment: about peak oil, about mercury pollution, about things that are just enough out of my control to make me an anxious activist. I use cloth diapers, and I'm pretty dedicated to that. So when I hear another mother say, "I tried to use cloth but I couldn't," I really get my back up, and it comes across as an attack on her. And she already feels like crap for her choices and is angry—maybe I can afford a washing machine, and she has to schlep to a laundromat, or maybe she's got a kid with reflux and is already doing laundry all day, or whatever. Or maybe I'm overhearing a mom who stops breastfeeding because there's no clean, private place for her to pump during her work shift.

We all make sacrifices and concessions to do the things we are able to do, and we have a right to feel proud of ourselves no matter what our choices are. And no matter what our other circumstances and obligations are, we're all doing the unpaid work of caring for our children. In our culture that's considered shit work. Sometimes I think our anger about that gets translated into judgment of one another. Trite as it sounds, I think the answer lies in compassion and understanding. We need to be gentle with one another and angry at the real cause of our problems.

I have major Snack Guilt, for example. My kid has a bunch of food sensitivities, and I really "should" be giving him stuff without high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors, which is not always possible because natural foods are more expensive and less easily obtained. If I need duct tape and crackers, I'm not going across town to the co-op because the crackers are twice as expensive and there's no duct tape there. Austin is the kind of place where some schools don't allow you to bring snacks with artificial shit in them. And you might get a lecture at the playground if you have rainbow goldfish crackers. Why don't we focus that energy on getting the artificial shit out of our foods or getting affordable natural foods into our neighborhood supermarkets?

And that's where solidarity comes in. I think every mother is responsible for supporting other mothers to the best of her ability. We need to think of ourselves as co-workers, as members of a big-ass mothering team that's only as strong as its weakest link. A big part of that is suspending our judgment and not being afraid of our differences. Too often we go out into the world in search of Mothers Like Ourselves, when mothers not like ourselves have so much to teach us. We need communities of support, sure, especially if we don't have a lot of personal privilege. But we also need to stop fearing each other and display as much trust as we can.

SG: Wanna talk about Dr. Sears for a minute? It took me a long while to take him with a grain of salt. I think it was when I read in the Gentle Discipline book that he started helping ol’ Martha out after baby number 4 or 5 arrived. What a schmuck.

MI: Yeah, I'm afraid I'm not a fan of Dr. Sears. I think that if individual parents practice and benefit from the tenets of attachment parenting, then of course what's to argue about? You make the choices that work best for the individuals in your family arrangement, including the parents and siblings.

But I don't think Dr. Sears really understands the extent of his own sexism. The form of attachment parenting he espouses puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on women, and as a pediatrician he has no concept of adult mental health. To say that "babywearing prevents depression" or that “breastfeeding relaxes women so much that they don't need antidepressants” is medically irresponsible. It really concerns me that mothers and fathers are reading these statements and taking them as gospel, and they're feeling like failures because they don't measure up to the Sears standard—which in turn makes them more anxious and depressed. I lived and died by The Baby Book for the first six months of my son's life before I realized that Dr. Sears doesn't have all the answers and that in fact some of his answers are wrong. Some parents--parents of multiples, single parents, two-earner families--can't do all of the five Bs or whatever. I've never seen anyone sling twins. I'm sure it's possible, but just because something is possible doesn't mean that every mother can and should do it and sucks as a parent if she doesn't. If you are depressed, reasoning qualitatively about all this dogma is really hard for you. Let mothers make their own choices and don't make them feel like shit if they're Not Martha.

There was a mom at a reading last week who told me—no kidding--that she is in therapy because she's gotten into "AP martyr mode" and it's making her crazy. Her problems probably don't begin and end with Dr. Sears, and in previous generations mothers probably went batshit over not being able to get their babies on schedules or whatnot. But I'm pretty much over these ironclad parenting directives being handed down by men who aren't primary caregivers for their children.

SG: How do we start building strong, supportive mama communities?

MI: Build strong and supportive communities any possible way you can, one mother at a time. Use the Web. Start a group and make wheat paste and flyers. Tell your story to people, whatever your story is. When you see a mother in public, tell her she's doing a good job. If you're at the grocery store or in a restaurant and there's another family there, talk to them. Talk to businesses in your town about doing family-friendly special events; make sure working and poor parents aren't excluded. Reserve the event room at your library and organize a clothing or book or toy swap. If you have room where you live, host a party once a week and invite mothers, tell them to bring their friends and their kids and put on music and let everybody go crazy playing with shaving cream or playdough on the kitchen table. I have one crazy friend who will literally accost women with strollers who are walking in her neighborhood and invite them back to her house for coffee. She's awesome. It sounds silly and coffeeklatschy, but this sense of comradeship is exactly what is missing from our lives as mothers. You get mothers together, and they will talk about what's bothering them, and it's usually heavy stuff once you get past the small talk.

SG: What are you working on now? What's next?

MI: Right now I'm working on shilling for the book. I mean that semi-facetiously. Promotion is time-consuming, and a lot of other things had to get shelved. I have a couple of projects I'd been working on intermittently during the time I was writing and shopping Inconsolable. One of them is fiction, and I'm really excited about that because I haven't written fiction in ten years. I don't know what's going to happen with any of that. On the other hand, I feel grateful for every day I'm able to just manage freelancing and taking care of my son. I'm looking forward to taking showers more regularly.

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