I'm delighted to host Kimberlee Ireton on the blog today. I met her at a writing retreat at Laity Lodge, one of my favorite places on earth. When she told me she was writing a book about her bout with depression after having twins, I was intrigued. I couldn't wait to see how she would write about it, especially after I read her beautifully-crafted first book.
In this new project, Cracking Up: A Post-Partum Faith Crisis, Kimberlee has taken the difficult subject of postpartum depression and added a unique and much-needed perspective--Christian faith--to it. I am so thankful she did.
I'm also grateful that she wrote with humor and honesty. I laughed out loud several times while reading, which was surprising given the subject matter. But laughter is healing, as I can attest. Because I lived through two terribly difficult pregnancies and one horrendous bout of PPD, I can also tell you that Kimberlee captured the anxiety, doubt and desperation that stalk PPD's victims with accuracy, bravery, and wit. Her writing is full of nuance and emotion, and the years she's spent honing her craft show. The use of repeated themes and images is understated but compelling. I especially liked the structure of the book, in which Kimberlee tells the story of her suffering within the framework of the church year. And because I'm also a mom who is called/compelled to write, I also identified with her deep struggle to set her own desires, goals and schedules aside when her twins were born.
Cracking Up is both poignant AND hilarious...not an easy feat. I especially loved the reminder that though we may at times feel lost in the darkness, simply looking up and crying "Help!" is an act of faith.
Kimberlee graciously offered to answer questions here, so that you can get an idea what the book is about. I highly recommend you read it, or give it to someone who could benefit from it.
Tell me about the title. Why did you choose it?
I wanted a title that could have multiple meanings. At first, we were thinking about Suck, but pretty much everyone I talked to, even the people who loved it, thought it would be more off-putting than not. So we kept throwing ideas around and finally came up with Cracking Up. With the two eggs on the cover, I think the title has even more ambiguity, which I very much like.
With four kids, when did you find time to write a book?
Whenever I could! Mostly I wrote on Saturdays; my husband stayed home with the kids, and I went to a neighborhood café and wrote. For this book, I had a very strict timetable that I had to adhere to, and I work well with deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed. To be honest, the schedule slipped quite a bit—our whole family was ill for most of January and a good chunk of February this year, so I hardly worked on the book at all those months. Still, from my marching orders to publication was only sixteen months.
That’s a Julia Cameron phrase. It means when you get your next creative assignment. I’d known almost since the beginning of this whole twin thing that I would write about it someday. Then, last May, I was standing in church singing with my community when all of a sudden I had a strong sense that it was time to write this story. In some ways, I feel like I couldn’t have not written it. I showed up every Saturday, and I wrote far more and far better than I usually can. This felt like confirmation of those initial marching orders—like I was being carried along on some inspired wave as I wrote this story.
Your husband gave you one day a week to write, eh? Tell me more about this awesome husband of yours.
Oh. I see you got the version of the Q&A for which my husband wrote the questions. He can get a little cocky at times, but otherwise he’s pretty great! :)
How did you feel when you found out you were going to have twins?
Let’s just say it’s a good thing I was lying down! It felt completely surreal. But you’ll have to read the book to find out all the juicy details.
One of the book’s themes is the struggle between your vocation as a mom and your desire, even calling, to write. Have you found the balance between motherhood and writing?
I wish. I don’t know that I ever will. I’ve been given these four beautiful, delightful children, and it is my greatest joy to be their mom. But the truth is, I’m a much better mom when I’m writing. Right now, it’s 8-10 hours of writing a week and the rest of the time is mothering and managing our home. I’m not sure I’d call that balance, but it’s what works for now.
What was the biggest change in your life once the twins were born?
Oh man. There were so many. I think the rampant anxiety was the biggest change. I’ve always had an anxious temperament, but this was unlike anything I’d ever known. It started gradually enough, but after seven or eight months of sleeping in one- or two-hour snatches, I was pretty mentally ill. I say that sort of in jest, but it’s true, too. Anxiety isn’t just “in your head.” For me, it was a full-body experience. I thought I was dying, which makes me laugh now, but at the time felt wholly believable, even true.
What advice would you give to mothers expecting twins?
Rest. Sleep. As much as you can. Get help. Ask everyone you know—or better yet, have a friend ask everyone you know—to help you. My friend Lori did this for me—she arranged housecleaning and meals for several months. I was a wreck with that much help; I can’t imagine how I’d have survived without it.
What advice would you give to writer mamas with young kids?
Keep writing. Even if it’s just in your journal. Pay attention. Everything is grist for your writing mill. And make sure you’re feeding your writerly self—if that’s by reading or listening to music or painting or doing yoga—whatever feeds your creative self. Make time for that. You’ll be a better mom if you do.
I say this with full knowledge of my own hypocrisy—it’s easy to say you need to make time for your creative self and very hard in the midst of the demands of mothering young children to actually give yourself that permission, to give yourself the time to sit and read a novel or thumb through an art book or take a photography class. Still, my own hypocrisy notwithstanding, I aver that it’s important and urge moms everywhere to make sure they’re getting time alone to do what feeds their souls.
What would you say to someone with postpartum depression?
Call your doctor. Tell him or her what you’re experiencing. Untreated, postpartum depression can escalate into a full-blown depressive disorder. You may even want to harm yourself or your children. So get medical help. If you’re part of a church community that doesn’t take mental illness seriously (and sadly, there are many, though I hope that’s changing), don’t let them stop you from getting the help you need, whether that’s counseling or medication or some combination thereof. Your baby needs you to be well. You need you to be well. Get medical help.
What are the symptoms of postpartum depression?
It varies from person to person, but if you feel anxious or afraid, if you cry a lot, if you have trouble bonding with your baby, if you’re not sleeping even when you can, if you don’t feel like eating, if your moods swing all over the place—all of these are symptoms of PPD. While these can simply be normal postpartum experiences, if you have several of them and they last more than a week or two, get help. Don’t wait like I did till the darkness takes over your mind.
How did your church community support you?
Oh my. How didn’t they support me? They delivered meals three or four times a week for almost seven months—from the time I was put on modified bed rest at 33 weeks until the boys were six months old. A woman from my church, Melody, came every Tuesday for four or five months to help me; she made dinner, cleaned my floors, helped me bathe my babies, took my older kids to the park. Two women, on a couple of different occasions, spent the night on my sofa and took nighttime feedings so Doug could sleep all night and so I could just pump milk and go back to sleep instead of having to stay up for hours with fussy, squalling babies. God bless them!
How can churches come alongside new moms to help them?
Make and deliver meals—one for the fridge and one for the freezer is ideal. Put together a cleaning crew and clean her house. She doesn’t have time or energy to keep the floors and the bathroom clean. Do it for her. If she has older kids, take them to a neighborhood park so she can nap when the baby does.
Be gentle and respectful, of course, but in general, women who are postpartum don’t have the energy to know what they need let alone what they want—they probably don’t know themselves. For me, when the darkness got really dark, I just wanted to not be alone, so friends from church came every day just to keep me company, to keep me from living too much in my (sick) head.
What’s your biggest joy in having twins?
Watching their personalities emerge—and seeing how different they are. Ben has the biggest grins you ever saw. They light up his whole face, and he just radiates joy. He’s a talky, laughy, mischievous imp. Luke is quieter (most of the time) and super cuddly. He’s happiest when he’s snuggled up next to me, stroking my arm and sucking his lower lip. But—they both love to be read to. I don’t think I could bear it if they didn’t!
What’s your biggest disappointment in having twins?
The utter lack of personal space. I am a pretty strong introvert, and while having cuddly and super-attached babies (or, now, toddlers) has its compensations, it’s also exhausting to be constantly with other people. Most days I don’t even get to go to the bathroom by myself. Or, if I do, I have to listen to wailing on the other side of the door. But I don’t think that’s exclusive to twins. I seem to recall similar situations with my singletons. And you get used to it. I wouldn’t trade my four for anything in the world, not even a bestselling book. And that’s saying something. :)
Why did you structure the book using the church year?
The church year is one of the primary ways I look at time. I found out that my unexpected pregnancy was twins on Good Friday, and I took my first antidepressant on Epiphany. And since my first book was an introduction to the church year, it seemed like a nice way to provide some kind of connection between the two books, which are otherwise quite dissimilar.
But also, I needed a way to break the narrative into manageable chunks—I was writing, you recall, one day a week—and the church year provided a pretty straightforward way to mark the passage of time through the year and also give me a framework to work within.
Within each church season chapter are a lot of fairly short sections. Why did you choose to write in this almost episodic style?
Partly it’s because a large chunk of the book grew out of journal entries and blog posts I’d written during this postpartum year, both of which were fairly short, the former because I was pretty brain-drained and the latter because of the requirements of the blogosphere, which likes its posts short and sweet.
But it’s also partly a function of my life: I have limited time to write, and I have a strong need for closure; I hate leaving things half-finished. So those short sections reflect the reality of my life right now. I can only hold so much in my head at a time—apparently only a page or two! I remember reading an interview with Alice Munro in which she noted that her stories grew longer as her kids (she had six!) grew older. In this intense phase of parenting young children, my chapters are short like Munro’s early stories.
What’s up with the faith crisis of your subtitle?
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I had the privilege of riding to Laity Lodge last fall in the same car with John Medina, the neuroscientist, and I asked him the same thing: Why was it so hard to believe in God? He couldn’t answer that question exactly, but he said it’s not uncommon for depressed people to find their faith seems to darken with their minds. Why this should be so, that my faith would seem to flee when I most needed it, I don’t know. What I do know is this: my faith only seemed to flee. I had it still, even in the dark, and what is more, God had me.