Last December I finished one of the best celebrity memoirs I’ve ever read. Usually the words “celebrity memoir” turn me off immediately, but I feel fortunate to have made time for this one. It is always a small miracle when a famous actor writes a book about themselves and manages to decenter their life and career in Hollywood from the narrative. I loved that Hollywood was on the periphery of the story, and that the book focused on something much more universally understood than the chaotic world of film stars on movie sets. There is no gloss and glamour between these pages; nothing but an honest and heartbreaking account of human suffering, desperation, and eventually, redemption. Brooke Shields describes her very personal struggle to survive new motherhood with clarity and consistency. I feel that she spared the reader no detail in giving the full portrait of her postpartum depression.
In the first half of the book, Shields documents her journey to motherhood swiftly, with a keen, unwavering eye on the critical events that lead to a simultaneous “birth” (her daughter’s) and “death” (what felt like her own.) She lifts the veil on what could essentially be any woman’s living nightmare: having a child and losing everything else. She starts out on her journey with a determined, laser-like focus on achieving fertility. She tries every medical procedure available in order to get pregnant, (which requires patience and more patience, something she admits to having little of), finally gets pregnant (has a pretty calm pregnancy), and has an intensely difficult labor (C-section). When her daughter finally arrives at the end of a long and torturous road, Shields is exhausted and finds herself at a loss for how to care for her new child and herself. It seems the child she so desperately fought for has been delivered at a cost she cannot bear: her sanity.
While slowly recovering from a C-section delivery (which disappoints and relieves Shields at the same time), she realizes that something is very wrong. What at first appears to be general anxiety while learning the ropes of motherhood, soon becomes a major burden for Shields and her family of three. From labor onward, she has felt no connection whatsoever to her child and finds she cannot even look at her new child without feeling strange and deeply cynical. In one section of the book, while Shields is still in the hospital, she admits to staring at her daughter’s face and desperately searching for some kind of bond between the two of them, which in her mind does not exist at all. She admits to feeling as if she had just given birth to someone else’s child, and tries to apologize to her child for her lack of maternal instinct and general, paralyzing fear. Breastfeeding feels to Shields like an exercise in torture, and she struggles with feelings of resentment of the whole situation as well as her fear that her child will sense her “rejection” and reject her in turn. Shields spends several weeks in a degenerative depression that she blames on her inadequacies and partly on her daughter, in her weakest moments. She grapples with thoughts of suicide when the fog does not let up and begins to lose faith in everything that had once brought her happiness and contentment. The two most important people in her life (her husband and her new child, Rowan) seem to be suffering greatly on account of her inability to cope. Her guilt mounts and the walls seem to be closing in. She describes her thoughts on pages 71 and 72:
“I was desperate to have a natural and healthy connection with my daughter, but it was feeling so forced. It was as if I were trapped behind a thick glass wall. I had never felt apathy in my life, and when I had least expected it, it crept in and took over. I couldn’t shake the feeling of doom and gloom that pervaded each moment. I was afraid of myself and felt threatened by the dangerous thoughts running so calmly through my head. They all felt too real. When would I wake up from this bad dream?”
Eventually, the sadness does not pass (she pretty much bypasses the “baby blues” on the way to postpartum depression) and it dawns on Shields that she needs help. The major problem with this recognition is that she doesn’t realize what she needs help for, or how to reach out for it. The initially comforting words from family and friends have morphed into comments of alarm and uneasiness, and her endless crying jags and self-pity parties add up to more depression than she thought humanly possible. She constantly wonders: “Why don’t I love my daughter? Why can’t I express my love for her?”
The second half of the book focuses on Shields’ attempts at finding herself again while remaining oblivious to her diagnosis. Friends give her literature on postpartum depression and it goes unread for the longest time, while she waits for the clouds to lift. When she is finally prescribed an anti-depressant by her doctor, she fears addiction and swears off medication. Eventually, she considers the drug, only after being continually persuaded that she won’t become addicted and won’t be on it forever. After a brief but successful stint on the drug Paxil, she decides she’s feeling better and discontinues it. Her symptoms quickly return, and she realizes she doesn’t know enough about her situation to play doctor. She finally sits down to read the material given to her and identifies with every symptom and personal story she encounters. Armed with the knowledge that she has an actual disorder and isn’t going “crazy,” Shields feels lighter but isn’t out of the woods yet. She finds a doctor who further educates her on the “mind/body connection,” and soon she is seeing a therapist and taking her medication. Things start to look much better for all involved, and her relief is palpable at every new step taken toward repairing the “damage” done.
Throughout much of the book, Shields remains conflicted by the assumption that she should have the strength and energy to be a working mother. While trying medication and therapy, she experiments with both options (working, both with and without her daughter) and finds neither a satisfactory fit. Her guilt over neglecting her work or her child is too much to bear, so she chooses the more important of the options and returns to “mommying” full-time. Her symptoms lessen to the point where she and Rowan start developing in a more natural way, but she fears jeopardizing her progress. She finds a nice balance (working on a formula shoot, a four-hour miniseries, and a few episodes on “That ‘70s Show”) but steadily returns to motherhood with open arms after each project. (This is the kind of validation she has been looking for in the midst of her depression, the sign that being a mother has officially replaced being an actress.)
By the time the New Year rolls around, Shields and her little family are intact once again, and Rowan has not suffered emotionally or developmentally from her mother’s illness. Shields continues her prescribed journey to wellness, and finds that time and a little assistance can mean the difference between coming out from under the covers, or not. She not only closes the book on a positive note of her own story, she also offers information to readers regarding postpartum depression: how it can be predicted and detected, and finally, how it can be treated. She emphasizes the importance of knowing what you’re dealing with (an actual disorder as opposed to exhaustion and/or insanity), and frames the whole ordeal with the hindsight that she saw her situation through uneducated eyes. She ends the book with a few regrets, as only a type-A, managerial personality can, but she also ends with a tried-and-true promise that things will and can get better. For anyone.