As an editor and writing coach, I quite happily end up with a lot of books. I’m going to introduce you to some of them. These won’t exactly be reviews, however. I’d say these posts will read more like a response to each book. Today, I’m offering my personal response to Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis by Kimberlee Conway Ireton.
One of my daughters started babysitting for a morning moms’ meeting. The first week, a woman came up to her and asked if she was Ann Kroeker’s daughter. When my daughter said she was, the woman said, “Your mom spoke to our group years ago, and I’ll never forget what she said.”
My daughter expected to hear a profound quote so powerful and life-changing, it was worth holding onto for seven years.
The woman smiled. “She said sleep deprivation is a classic torture technique, so if you’re a young mom feeling like you’re being tortured…you are!”
My daughter laughed as she told me the story later that day.
“You had no idea I was so very wise, did you?” I remarked. She laughed again. My “wisdom” was cracking her up.
For the record, my daughter added that the woman insisted my message helped her get through the early, exhausting days of parenthood, realizing that if she felt like she was being tortured by late-night feedings and lack of sleep, it wasn’t her imagination. Hearing that, I’m glad I talked about torture that day (it was, by the way, just one small point in a larger presentation).
I remember with a shiver those lonely, depressing, sleep-deprived, mush-mind days. Back then, I told people my mind felt no more lively than a bowl of cold, congealed oatmeal. I began to fear I’d never write again. As you can imagine, writers need functioning minds to do their job. Bowls of cold oatmeal offer little to the world.
Author Kimberlee Conway Ireton knows this feeling. When she felt her mind dissolving to mush and her emotions going haywire while her newborn twins consumed every waking (and sleeping) moment, her psychological health waned. She felt like she was cracking up.
Yet, her book Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis provides concrete evidence that even during the darkest times of her postpartum struggles, she could write and laugh. The “Grace Notes” she faithfully scribbled down reflect word artistry and the eyes and heart of a poet. The jokes interspersed reveal the humor that lifted her sagging spirit.
Margie, her spiritual advisor, asks “where has God been meeting you.” Kimberlee says she is grateful for laughter. She tells some stories and she starts laughing so hard she’s crying. ”Oh man,” Kimberlee says, “I have to stop laughing. I’m going to pee my pants.” Then she remembers another story that makes her laugh even more. Margie’s laughing, too, and says, “[D]on’t you see God?”
“Yes, God!” Margie exclaims. “I see God in all of this laughter. So clearly. I see his delight in your laughter…It’s still Easter. I think it’s just perfect that this season of laughter in your life is happening during Easter.”
…I tell Margie, “Anne Lamott says that laughter is carbonated holiness.”
“I like that,” she says, and smiles. “Carbonated holiness. Yes.”(47, 48)
Throughout the book, Kimberlee is open about details associated with pregnancy and nursing mom issues and describes gadgets including the breast pump, nipple cream, and the “baby hugger” support system she wore during pregnancy. Her husband sees her putting on this contraption and says he’s going to miss these days. She knows how unattractive she must appear at that moment. She makes a face at him.
I pull the baby hugger’s suspenders over my shoulders and down to my belly. It’s a bit of a stretch, even for the elastic. When I fasten the suspenders to the girdle, the velcro doesn’t hold. The suspenders fly up and hit me in the face.
Doug laughs again. “Yep,” he says, “I am definitely going to miss this.” (72)
She deals with problems far more serious than being thwacked in the face by elastic suspenders (and teased by her husband). [SPOILER] She deals with health complications during the pregnancy and a neonatal emergency after the twins’ birth, adding stress to an already stressful situation. She and her husband carry this anxiety with them into life at home caring for twins and two older kids.
As her subtitle states, Kimberlee was hit hard. Her depression is complicated by her desire to succeed as a writer (and her inability to do so). She declares quite honestly that she dreams of being a bestselling author (which seems unlikely given that her first book is, in her words, “tanking”). Consumed by 24/7 demands of feeding, changing, nurturing two newborn twins and two older children, Kimberlee wonders if her writing life may be lost forever.
Her fears intensify far beyond the baby blues. Kimberlee’s story reveals a mom in the midst of postpartum depression unable to recognize her need for medical intervention. Though she seems to have revealed to family and friends glimpses of the mounting anxiety she carried, I’m guessing no one knew how bad it was.
Tears drop onto my hand, onto Ben’s little swaddled back. How do I hold those things in tension? The goodness of my life, the many gifts I have, and the fact that I still find my life so difficult? And the most sobering fact that it could easily be so much harder?
…My tears fall harder, and my heart feels like it’s cracking right open and all the fear and unfairness and suffering is leaking out my eyes. And then, it fills my mouth, and I want to scream, but I can’t—I’ll wake my almost-sleeping babies, I’ll scare Jack and Jane who are in the living room waiting for me to read to them—so it erupts in a silent scream of pain, anger, anguish, as if I could rid myself of those things simply by opening my mouth wide enough, by crying hard enough. (Ireton 194, 195)
Thankfully she has help. Her husband, her mom, her sister, her spiritual director, and her friends step in and help carry her burdens in tangible ways, listening, bringing her meals, and keeping her laughing and praying. This network of support impressed me, as does the way they steer Kimberlee to truth in a way that does not offend or seem trite. As fear almost paralyzes her, she clings to threads of faith.
Life is precious, each moment a gift, and my best self—the self that I long to live out all the time—believes that God holds each moment, eternally present before Him, and when we stand before Him face to face, we will get those moments back, purified and perfected. We will. And if we don’t, God will have something even better for us—something more than all we can ask or imagine.
I believe. Oh help my unbelief.
Oh Jesus, cast out my fear. (177)
[PROBABLY THE BIGGEST SPOILER] Finally, fortunately, after months of sleep deprivation and postpartum hormonal flux, she gets the medication she needs to balance out her system. The twins start also to sleep through the night.
She’s medicated. She’s rested. She’s back. She’s believing. She’s writing.
She’s going to make it.
[END OF SPOILER] Kimberlee’s humor throughout the book offers occasional respites from the weight of her struggle, but it’s scary at times to read about her fears and anxiety, her soul-echoing emptiness.
Nevertheless, I recommend that people read this book to better understand postpartum depression and how it sets in and grows. And if you know someone with a newborn, especially twins, assume that she is sleep-deprived and needs your help in practical ways. She may also need you to discern her level of anxiety and depression.
When you drive over to drop off a meal and rock the baby, bring her a copy of Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis, as well. Leave it with her. It’s a sobering read, but her humor and quality writing make the topic accessible. Later, ask if she feels like Kimberlee. And if she sort of deflects it with humor, shrugs a little, or breaks out in tears, get her help. Pick up the phone and make the appointment for her, if need be. Help her load the kid(s) into the car and drive her to the doctor’s office, for her to get a diagnosis.
Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis is a reminder that postpartum depression is no laughing matter. It’s more like torture. Kimberlee handled it with humor and grace, but she struggled and suffered, and no one needs to feel that, carry that, try to survive that alone.
Kimberlee writes for two online organizations I’m part of: The High Calling and Tweetspeak Poetry. As an editor of her work, I can assure you Kimberlee’s got her mind back. And her faith. But she needed people to step in and help her see what to do.
You can be that person for someone like Kimberlee. Let her story change other women’s stories. Maybe even your own.
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If you would like a copy of Cracking Up for yourself or to give away, I’m going to send my copy to one lucky commenter. If for some reason you don’t want to be in the drawing (maybe you already have the book, for example), let me know (but feel free to leave a comment anyway!). To be included in the drawing, leave your comment (with some way to contact you) by 8:00 p.m. ET Friday, December 20, 2013. I’ll do the random drawing and announce the winner on Saturday, December 21.
Conway Ireton, Kimberlee. Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. Seattle, WA: Mason Lewis, 2013. Print.