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Gender + Sexuality

A Mother’s Load of Depression, in Graphic Detail

Teresa Wong’s ‘Dear Scarlet’ shares a common postpartum experience. Many women should read it.

By Dorothy Woodend 26 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Contact her here.

There are many things they don’t tell you about childbirth. If they did, any reasonable person would say, “That sounds nuts. No thanks!”

The perpetuation of the human race is predicated on women’s ability to withstand not only pain, but also gross stuff. By which I mean blood, fluids, cracked and raw nipples that resemble raspberries, and hemorrhoids the size of grapes.

The other thing they don’t tell you about childbirth is that you might get very sad.

Postpartum depression affects some 7.5 per cent of women in Canada, and symptoms can range from the moderate to the profound. A drug to treat it was recently approved in the U.S., but other solutions are more homespun.

Calgary’s Moss postpartum house, for example, offers new mothers a place where they can get the services and support they need in one location.

A great book can also do wonders.

Teresa Wong had her first child at 33, and two more kids in the span of five years. She also endured a period of serious postpartum depression with her first baby, which forms the basis of her new graphic novel Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression.

When we spoke on the phone from her home in Calgary, I look at my list of questions — How soon after you had your last child did you start writing the book? Was it difficult to revisit certain parts of the experience? What has the reaction been from other women? — and mentally toss them out the window.

All I really want to do is talk about what it feels like to have a new baby and a terrible sadness at the same time.

The power of Wong’s book is that it comes with a sense of almost overwhelming familiarity for so many mothers. The details may differ, but the feeling — the confused, painful and numbing sense of knowing that something isn’t right, but not knowing what to do about it — reverberates.

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Teresa Wong endured a period of serious postpartum depression with her first baby, which forms the basis of her new graphic novel Dear Scarlet. Photo by Ken Hurd.

Dear Scarlet is composed as a letter to Wong’s first baby daughter, and the immediacy of the experience leaps off the page.

Wong explains that the idea for the book came while she was pregnant for the third time with her son. “During the first trimester, as I lay in bed thinking about this experience, the delivery room, the memories resurfaced and made me cry, and I realized I wasn’t done with it. I didn’t do it right away, it took a while, I had another daughter and a son.”

The words came first, she says. “I drafted a storyboard and did some sketches. I was looking for an illustrator to collaborate with me. When I did the first draft I was working at a design agency. I circulated it to my colleagues who suggested that I do the drawings myself, that the simplicity of my drawing style was very vulnerable and personal.”

Rendered in black and white, shades of grey and the occasional pop of colour, Wong’s drawings are exactly the right way to tell her story. Intimate, personal and, yes, graphic in places.

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Excerpts from Teresa Wong's Dear Scarlet. Dear Scarlet (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019).

Those with an aversion to gory details like blistered nipples may run screaming. But the truth of the experience is captured in clear lines that reach up off the page and gently encircle you.

Wong had never illustrated such a large project. She googled how to write a comic and came across the blog entry of a young graphic novelist who outlined her process. “I followed it step by step,” she laughs.

Was illustrating the most challenging aspect?

“It was supremely challenging!” she says.

We talk about how your writing brain and your drawing brain might live alongside each other but are two very different creatures.

“The process of editing, the writing part was very therapeutic, it was a way to work through those emotions. To create some perspective, to step back. The drawing part was much less emotional.”

I tell her about my own reaction reading her book and wonder if she’s had a similar response from other women.

“The reaction from the women who’ve read it, they really relate, there is a degree of universality in this story about the things that they’ve also experienced. Some was specific to my experience, but the details are relatable. I had my first kid when I was 33 but felt like I was in my mid-20s.”

Dear Scarlet comes with a level of honesty that is itself a kind of comfort. The darker moments of inadequacy, of fear and sadness, and thoughts that can’t simply be pushed away — like “Why am I so bad at this?” “She’d be better off without me.” “Babies are really boring.”

Here they are in black and white, clear as day. It’s something of a relief to know that someone else has had them too.

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Excerpts from Teresa Wong's Dear Scarlet. Dear Scarlet (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019).

One of the hardest things to admit is that this period when you ought to feel joyful, when you finally have the child you wanted so much, can be so different from the expectation.

In Dear Scarlet Wong references the Cantonese word “ngai.” Although there is no English equivalent, the term embodies the idea that sometimes you simply have to wait out the darkness until the light breaks through again.

As Wong slowly found her way back, with help from her mother’s traditional recipes (pork liver soup and pickled pigs’ feet with ginger) and the support of a postpartum doula named A.J., the smallest things had an enormous impact — time out of the house and a good counsellor.

“Pick whatever works best” is Wong’s advice, but asking for help is the first step. “How many people have had this experience and never told anyone? That made me very sad.”

Dear Scarlet tells the truth about childbirth, both the darkness and the light, with a good dose of humour and deep compassion. After reading it I immediately wanted to share it with every woman I know.

It’s a hand held out to the darkness, to offer recognition and a way forward. Or as Wong says to her baby girl in the book: “I hope you never go through depression, postpartum or otherwise, but if you do, please know that I know what it’s like.”

Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression will be released April 1 by Arsenal Pulp Press. In the interim, see more of Wong’s lovely work by visiting her Instagram page, where she documents in delicate, often very funny drawings, the daily stuff of bringing up kids.  [Tyee]

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