Review of Dear Scarlet, the story of my postpartum depression by Teresa Wong
Dear Scarlet is Teresa Wong’s first graphic novel, her postpartum chronicles. The Canadian author calls Dear Scarlet her graphic memoir, revealing the autobiographic nature of it. “Graphic” because illustrated but also “graphic” in the sense of “detailed”: raspberry-nipples and grape-haemorrhoids come as starters. The author warns regularly: "not for the faint of heart!"
The narration takes the form of a letter to Scarlet, the author’s first born daughter.
Scarlet, this bright red, colour of fresh blood, colour of the maternal haemorrhage that took place after Scarlet’s birth. Red, like the apples Teresa dreams of: she visualises them raining down over her body at the grocery store, burying her into a bin. Red is symbolically the colour of extremes: love and violence. Red represents that bloody contradiction: the joy of meeting this innocent baby and the inadequacy, the uneasiness of being a new mother. Teresa delivers her deeper feelings to her daughter, to her readers. She questions the maternal instinct, the pressure to perform. She recalls her dreams as a child, her aspirations as a woman. Spoiler alert: becoming a mother wasn’t initially one of them.
This is raw, funny, emotional, heart-breaking, heart-melting and so sincere! We witness the first signs of depression, the self-doubting, the guilt, the excessive crying, the anger, the fantasies of vanishing, the impression everyone is staring, the emotional rollercoasters, the moments of relief, of hope too.
Just like in a fairy tale, the protagonist encounters obstacles (a long and traumatic birth, a postpartum depression), opponents (the nurse calling her “emotional”, the doctor dismissing her symptoms of depression) but also adjuvants (her supportive husband, her nurturing mother, the comforting lactation consultant, the non-judgmental postpartum doula, postpartum counselling, little thoughts from family and strangers). In the end, we wish the heroine gets self-confidence and realises all the powers reside in herself. I appreciate a lot the depiction of the traditional Chinese “sitting the month”: a one-month postpartum confinement sponsored here by Teresa’s mother (Poh-poh). The grandmother comes to take care of her daughter, feeds her (pickled pig feet, red date soup, poached chicken and pork liver soup), and cuddles with the baby while Teresa can sleep.
It seems that Teresa has a love-hate relationship with these traditions: wearing a hat indoors and not washing her hair are not her favourite rituals. Nevertheless, she understands what it means for her mother who travelled from China to Canada to meet Teresa’s dad, worked in a factory and learnt English while pregnant and spent her first month postpartum all alone.
Matrescence, we call it. This is a real time for metamorphosis, just like adolescence. A time for vulnerability. Teresa Wong was not a professional illustrator, initially. Her friends convinced her to use her own illustrations, simple and fresh, to reflect that vulnerability and sincerity. This is her, strong enough to show the world her “naked”, raw and real drawings.
In different cultures, the postpartum first forty days are often described as an open tomb, some kind of limbo. Your old self dies and you are born again. The transition can be scary, painful, destabilising. All your marks are shuffled.
“I wanted to show you that you don’t always have to be strong. And that you can come back after losing yourself.”
This books comes with an original soundtrack that you can sing in your head starting with Anthem by Leonard Cohen and ending up with Calendar Girl by Stars.
The introduction of the grandmother comes after a short anecdote of a tiger mother and her cub. I can’t help thinking of the tiger parenting phenomenon. Strict parenting can lead to socially prescribed perfectionism: the belief that one needs to meet unrealistically high expectations, possibly resulting in higher risks for depression and anxiety. I also think back to Rachelle Seliga’s class about postpartum dis-ease, weeks ago: perinatal mood disorders are the symptom, not the problem. Postpartum depression can be a healthy way of expressing, releasing one’s emotions that have been prisoner for too long. The teacher talks about disturbed birth, obstetric violence, postnatal depletion, lack of community support, true nurturance, separation (dyad or families) and intergenerational trauma. So many subjects to investigate, fight, resolve, heal.
Do you suspect you suffer from postpartum depression? Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale can help you identify it. Seek help as soon as possible.
In Finland, you can contact:
A public or private doctor or psychiatrist
Psychologist or psychotherapist
Psychiatric polyclinic or emergency cover
Family counselling (Perhe neuvola)
Äimä ry’s peer support or any postpartum peer support group