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What does the first year of motherhood look like? For this photographer — and many other women — it was dark and complex

<i>Rachel Papo</i><br/>Papo had connections to many objects that triggered difficult emotions
Rachel Papo
Rachel Papo
Papo had connections to many objects that triggered difficult emotions

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

In the weeks after photographer Rachel Papo gave birth to her son, Ilan, in the summer of 2013, she monitored herself. She watched for signs of anxiety, insomnia or loneliness, for the fog that had blanketed her brain for months after the birth of her daughter, Zohar, three years prior, making it difficult for her to function day to day.

I’m doing OK, I’m doing OK, I’m doing OK, Papo recalled thinking as the days passed in Berlin, where she had moved from New York with her musician husband, Micah, and Zohar, while pregnant. After Ilan’s birth, Papo took photos of her surroundings, as she always did, of the lightning-lit skyline, rain-saturated yellow leaves and her newborn sleeping in striped pajamas, his small features awash in moonlight. But unease crept into her text exchanges with family and friends overseas — her hard-earned sense of stability felt fragile.

“Then there was this little stumble,” Papo recalled during an interview at a café in Brooklyn. “All of the sudden, I was worried about something and it kept me up all night. And the next night, I was like, ‘Well, I better sleep tonight. I hope this is not it.'” It was a small worry — over which preschool was best for her daughter — but she didn’t sleep the next night either. “And it was almost like I could feel it developing. I couldn’t control it,” she said.

Papo could name what she was feeling this time around: postpartum depression, which affects around 1 in 7 women in the United States and can severely impact the lives of pregnant people for months or years. The first time, after Zohar’s birth, Papo hadn’t understood what was happening to her until someone else offered up the term. She had never dealt with depression before and had considered herself generally happy and content with her life.

“And then it hit me. And once it hit me (I) went downhill really fast, actually,” she explained. She struggled with keeping up with freelance work, her main source of income, and she thought she might need more space or greenery than New York City could offer. She and her family moved to Woodstock, just over 100 miles north of the city, but her memories — captured in images she took at that time — are “haunting,” she said.

Now, years later, Papo has published the photography book “It’s Been Pouring: The Dark Secret of the First Year of Motherhood,” which chronicles her two experiences with postpartum depression through images and text messages, alongside interviews with other parents who silently battled the condition.

Stigma and expectations

The first depressive period in New York lasted for a full year for Papo, as did the second in Berlin. After homeopathic approaches failed while she was abroad, Papo sought out psychiatric help and medication — care she had tried to seek out the first time but couldn’t afford in Brooklyn. One day, she took an image of her and Ilan’s reflections after a bath, her foreboding gaze the only clear detail in the steamy mirror. The portrait later became symbolic of the hazy uncertainty she felt and is now the book’s cover.

Though many of Papo’s photographs are cellphone images she shot during the first blurry months after her children were born, they are interspersed with pictures she later took of other mothers’ day-to-day lives, as well as texts they sent to loved ones in their most difficult moments.

Together they form a searing testament of the physical pain, emotional anguish and disconnection many grapple with after childbirth, but hide out of fear or shame. The idea of what it means to be a good mother is deeply entrenched in society, Papo said.

“You have to breastfeed, you have to dedicate yourself to your child, you have to let go of your old self, you have to not get angry — and you have to love your child immediately,” she said of the pressures. “Everyone expects this to happen, and then it doesn’t.”

Connected stories

When Papo began interviewing the other women, whom she primarily met through a Facebook group for expat parents in Berlin, she noticed connecting threads running through their experiences. Many had undergone extreme trauma during delivery and didn’t feel a sense of connection to their children right away. Intrusive, violent thoughts came unbidden, whether from severe anxiety or bone-deep exhaustion. The women she spoke with felt lonely and isolated from everyone in their lives. When they couldn’t breastfeed, or their recovery from severe vaginal tears or C-sections proved difficult, they felt like failures.

“There is one outfit that my family sent my daughter; it’s such a cute little thing. And I remember looking at her in that dress and thinking, ‘I really don’t like you,'” one woman, Miriam, recalled in the book. “You know, this feeling, like, ‘I want to get away from you.'”

Another woman, Carolina, echoed that sense of resentment when reflecting back on a moment when her husband had gifted her a photo album featuring images of their newborn. “I hated that gift. I rejected it immediately and I didn’t tell him,” she told Papo. “It wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t sweet. And there was one specific page that I could not tolerate; my baby looked like a stranger to me.”

There are only a handful of portraits of mothers with their children in “It’s Been Pouring,” seen in reflections, partially obscured, or photographed in shadows. Instead, the women often guided Papo’s image-making by sharing specific objects, places, smells or sounds that triggered their emotions. One photograph depicts a series of mantras — such as “I feel safe” and “My body knows exactly what to do” — written on index cards that one of the women, Anita, used daily while pregnant. In Papo’s photograph, they are taped to a white tile wall above a vase with a rose.

“Her (child’s) birth was so brutal and traumatic for her that these (mantras) became like a memory of something that didn’t happen,” Papo said of Anita’s experience. The photographer asked her to divide them into two groups on the wall — ones she still believes in and ones she doesn’t.

For the women who still felt as if they were drowning at the time Papo met them, she hoped to help them by showing them they weren’t alone — she hopes the same now for readers.

“I was there to hold their head above water and say, ‘You’ll get through it,'” Papo recalled of the women she met.

No easy resolution

Time has given Papo more perspective on the depressive periods she endured, but the years she spent assembling “It’s Been Pouring” meant revisiting the darkest moments of her life — and others’ lives — again and again. As grateful as she is to have recovered, the experience has deeply changed her.

The book doesn’t offer a neat, uplifting resolution, though Papo has not experienced depression since her second encounter with postpartum. (Many of the women she interviewed have also improved or recovered, she said, though some have since experienced depression after giving birth again.)

“It’s hard to explain, but it’s like I felt possessed by a dark spirit while I was sick, and then it slowly began to leave my body, and then one day it just disappeared completely and I felt like myself again,” she explained in a subsequent email. “For me it was literally an overnight feeling.”

Papo and her family have since moved back to New York City, where she returned to freelance work, and her children are now 12 and 9 years old. Though she said she still feels “the weight of motherhood,” it’s a wholly different sensation.

“I would say my life is back to being as independent and gratifying as it was before… coming back to New York, and grounding myself and getting my work back.

“I want to say that I’m stronger, but it’s really hard to say that confidently because depression is always something that’s around the corner,” she added. “A few nights of (lacking) sleep can start messing with my head… But I feel like as long as I keep certain things in order or in place I can maintain the life that I have.”

It’s Been Pouring: The Dark Secret of the First Year of Motherhood” is available now through Kehrer Verlag.

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