Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It Sucked and Then I Cried, by Heather Armstrong

If you know who "Dooce" is, then you already know all about this book. If you don't know, then I don't know how you found out about this book. How DID you find out about this book, anyway?

Heather has made a successful career from her blogging, and this is a real career, with real income, and real non-blogging ventures into things like television and design. And she does it because she has been uncommonly brave and forthcoming and funny about things that would have sent me into a cave of self-doubt and shame. I believe I am not alone in admiring her ability to say the things that happen, that are honest and \
human, if not particularly cut out for, say, White House dinner parties.

Much of this book has appeared--in daily journal form--on the blog. And the book hasn't entirely broken free of the blog form, while at the same time, it has sacrificed some of the immediacy and impact of the daily immersion you get from reading a blog. (Even--or especially--if you gobble up months and months of entries in a single greedy and ravenous gorge-fest of reading. Totally immersive.)

This book is a couple of years old now. I've had it forever, and couldn't quite bring myself to read it. I too suffered from a form of post-partum depression--possibly more accurately, depression triggered by pregnancy hormones that was turned up to 11 by life stress, financial stress, job stress, and then post-partum chemical imbalance. This book came out after I had more-or-less negotiated that on my own, and I wasn't sure if reading it would be like having a girlfriend who totally understood what I was going through and could give me some hope, or if the whole thing would be like a PTSD flashback to some of the darkest days of my life.

In the end, it was a little of both.

But to be fair, by the time she wrote this, Dooce herself had moved on and gotten some healing and some perspective, and so, unlike the blog, we already know the ending of the book. In fact, if you read the blog, you know that Leta does stop screaming, Heather does get to sleep again and gets her shit back, and even goes on to have another child who is currently three. (Three-ish?) So in some ways, the book is like a less successful version of the blog, because it condenses so much, is so clear about the looming happy ending. It's the same thing narrative of labor stories--it was horrible at the time, the hardest thing I had ever done, and I didn't think I could possibly survive it, but then I did, and it's kind of hard to recreate what made it so hellacious at the time.

This is parenthood.

The book covers a lot of ground, from the biological clock aspect of wanting to get pregnant to coming out the other end after getting treatment for PPD and confronting the ongoing problems of parenting. But because it covers all these things, the book feels like a mash-up of several genres, and never quite does any of them justice.

For example, Dooce writes a lot about pregnancy and it's effects on the body: the way your body suddenly (and I mean suddenly!) morphs into something you don't recognize and can't control. Food cravings, the incredible increase in pee-production and the simultaneous bladder shrinkage, the fear, the inability to sleep, the way clothes can stop fitting during the course of the day while you are wearing them. Pregnancy can be wonderful, but it can also be an experience that entirely warps your perception of reality, and it's very hard to recreate that experience over the course of a couple hundred pages.

Then there is the labor and childbirth, which are themselves entirely unlike anything you have ever done either. Then you get released from the hospital and you are trapped at home with a tiny alien being who you love distractedly, which demands all your time, energy and attention, and you still can't sleep, still have food cravings and now you're recovering and you still can't get any perspective. Again--this is hard to convey, especially as that time recedes, but it is fundamental to understanding why Dooce ended up voluntarily entering a psychiatric ward at the hospital in order to get help for the PPD. She was there for four days--which isn't all that long, except of course she had no idea how long is would be when she went in, and having to voluntarily self-identify with the people who were already there was itself a form of disorientation.

You can see how this book seemed like a winner--a memoir with a clear arc of wanting a baby, to struggling with what it takes to get there and then be a parent, capped by a trip to a mental ward and then recovery. but the book doesn't move in a straightforward fashion, but gets sidetracked by interesting stories, or funny turns of phrase, and so it feels like it's trying to be too many things at once. Part of it wants to be a book that throws you into the crazy world of sleep-deprivation, anxiety, and depression, so you can see just how hard this job is, and maybe you can be a little bit nicer to pregnant ladies and new parents. Part of the book seems to want to be a "Girlfriend Guide to Pregnancy and Parenthood," a book that will talk you through the things that nobody tells you about the whole experience. Part of it wants to share the genuine joy Dooce takes in life and it's absurdities, in the clever turn of phrase and awkward experience. Part of it is a love letter to her daughter and her husband (which is itself awkward, because we blog readers know they have separated, that Dooce asked him to move out.)

And so, having been such a fan of the blog, I have come to see the difficult person that Heather B. Armstrong is, while also seeing what makes her worth all the trouble, and seeing how much she struggles which makes it clear that she is frankly heroic for doing all she does and keeping any kind of sense of humor about it. So I am happy I bought the book, because this is a person who deserves all the support she can get. She is living a vividly difficult life with transparency, which serves to show the rest of us that we are not alone in our struggles, and that's good for everybody.

But I like her blog better.

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