In comedian (and Huffington Post blogger) Karen Bergreen's latest novel, Perfect is Overrated, the protagonist suffers from postpartum depression. In fact, the protagonist has trouble getting out of bed for years after she gives birth "until mothers in her daughter's pre-school start getting whacked," says Bergreen of her protagonist Kate. "Two years after her daughter's birth, Kate finally perks up. She is comfortable with murder but not a baby."
For some, the transition to motherhood is seamless; for others, it's fraught with chemical changes; for others still there's an adjustment period, often one that lasts for years; and for still others, like the murdered mothers in Bergreen's novel, motherhood means getting whacked. Getting whacked: not the literal murder kind of whacked but the hit-over-the-head-I-don't-know-what-just-happened-to-me-kind-of-whacked. It's the perfect figurative analogy for (most) new mothers, who, after waiting nine months (if not years) for a child, realize that reality is a lot different than fantasy when a screaming, non-verbal creature emerges.
Motherhood not only brings a baby but also a new title a.k.a. identity (and the mourning of an old identity) which for many (again, not all) leaves them whacked, a euphemism for feeling whacked out, crazed, distraught, exhausted, drained and done in.
"There is an idea in our culture that motherhood is the most wonderful experience," says Bergreen, who lives in New York City with her husband and two elementary school-aged children. But the transition to motherhood is, without a doubt, a bit like being whacked over the head: It is the death of something and someone you were. It is also the birth of something you've never been before.
"Motherhood is a transition," says Washington, D.C. psychologist Julie Bindeman, who specializes in transitions, especially for women. "A transition is change; it is also loss. No matter how wonderful a transition it is, the "loss" is what makes transition so difficult. Transition is a shift in identity. It is a fluid event." According to Bindeman, it is also a very individual process.
"I experienced postpartum with both kids," said Bergreen:
Not in the Brooke Shields 'I need meds' sort of way. This was more vague, but emotionally debilitating all the same. I didn't know who I was. I was a terrible swaddler; I had low milk production; I hated Gymboree; black and white toys annoyed me and put me in a bad mood. I was lonely. I was resentful. I was bored. The transition was hard. I was a little older as a mother with a long career before me and I was supposed to love waking up in the middle of the night and changing soiled diapers. But instead, I felt like I'd been thrown into a lock-up. Motherhood is one of the most wonderful experiences, but for many, it isn't that grand right away. I couldn't see well enough into the future that my little guys would be so much fun.
By the time she saw how much fun her children could be, now 6 and 8, it was time to write her second novel about a woman coming of age. "A woman coming of age means a woman figuring out who she is and what she wants," says Bergreen, whose first novel, the critically acclaimed Following Polly, was about a woman transitioning from college life to life as a twenty-something. "I think women may have to come of age a few times. One of those really big times is after they have a true, new identity as a mother."
According to Bindeman, life events such as the birth of a child, marriage and death are macro transitions. They are big life-changing events that one expects but which cannot be truly comprehended nor predicted until the actual experience takes place. Macro transitions are difficult because they are a break from routine, also known as micro transitions. "We are creatures of habit," says Bindeman. "That's why macro transitions are so hard. Micro transitions take place every hour of the day. They are mundane. One goes from home to work; then there are workday transitions, shifts that happen during the workday; then we transition back from work to home. There's waking to sleeping. We handle dozens of transitions a day. The minute those transitions disappear or the minute those transitions change, we feel lost."
"As a lawyer I had a salary, health insurance, free coffee and built-in structure," says Bergreen, who transitioned from the law to comedy to motherhood to comedic-mother-who-writes-novels-and-has-a-law-degree-hanging-on-the-wall:
As a comedian I have no schedule, no pay, no coffee and no structure. That I went to Harvard and clerked for a federal district judge isn't meaningful in the comedy world. Funny is funny. Timing and delivery is key. A compliment from a senior comic is better than money. I have performed in Laundromats, in scary bars, Central Park, South Street Seaport, Starbucks and a grocery store.
As she went through this identity shift, Bergreen saw herself as coming of age. Call it what you like, transition, coming of age, rebranding, it happens over and over for everyone.
Not unlike herself, Bergreen's Perfect is Overrated protagonist, Kate, has skills that don't translate. "Kate transitions from a super-confident Assistant D.A. to super unconfident mommy. She is lost. All of the things that made her a great prosecutor are useless to her as a mother. And she doesn't understand how all of the other mommies are so seemingly competent," explains Bergreen.
Kate is not alone.
Cynthia Steele, a former TV reporter in Philadelphia (WTXF-TV) and TV anchor in Washington, D.C. (WTTG-TV) is rebranding herself right now. "Instead of going back to school, instead of learning something I don't know, instead of going into PR and learning a new though similar field, I'm focusing on the skills I have, on what I do know." Rebranding has helped Steele, who lives in Virginia, with her transition. "Whatever we're capable of is what we should do."
And so, Steele has found a niche telling stories, a skill she'd always had, a skill that led her into her career as a reporter. Working with a variety of different real estate companies and independent production crews, Steele produces, writes, edits and voices (with standup) house tours for homes on the real estate market. It's a hit, not only for Steele, stunning at six feet tall and capped with blonde hair, but also for the real estate companies who hire her. Executives from as far away as Japan have purchased 2 to 5 million dollar homes based on Steele's house story. "I clarified in my mind that I had certain skills. I knew I couldn't be a reporter because I cannot work full-time right now. I'm the point person for my young kids as well as my aging parents and I just need to be around."
"Everyone handles transition differently," says psychologist Bindeman, who explains that a lot of factors go into the "transitions recipe." When it comes to women and men, "there is evidence that our brains are wired differently. Women tend to act more emotionally during transitions." Temperament (innate disposition) as well as life experience (external) factors in as well. As does "someone's perception of life transitions," says Bindeman. For example, those who had a parent in the military knew that every few years the family would have to move. They developed life skills for these transitions. For others, a move could be highly traumatic. Even for a military child, depending on his/her temperament, moving every two years, expected or not, could have had a traumatic affect. And finally, there is preparedness. According to Bindeman, being able to prepare emotionally or to find assistance and support can be helpful when it comes to transition.
Preparation is something Susie Hadas, 53, didn't have when the self-named serial entrepreneur, quite suddenly found herself transitioning from child-bearing to barren at age 47. What Hadas, who lives in Long Island, New York, did have was the disposition or temperament for transition. Hadas has rebranded herself over and over for more than two, if not three, decades. But her most recent rebrand came about as the result of a life event that forced itself upon her and came as a shock. Some would have faltered; but, as a woman who always faced transitions head on, to Hadas this was yet another challenge.
"It was menopause and it hit early and hard. During one particularly hot flash, a 28-year-old male executive pulled me aside and asked if I was flirting with him," recalls Hadas laughing. "Apparently, he thought my hot flash behavior was meant to get his attention. During the meeting I had taken off my jacket, repeatedly flicked my hair from my neck to cool off and played with my blouse and collar. But, I was just trying to cool down! Flirting was the furthest thing from my mind. I was hot flashing!"
A "transitioner" by nature with a "cool" temperament to boot, Hadas faced menopause head on and without pause. After a particularly heated hot flash during which she was doing the "hot flash shuffle" (hair flick, jacket off, collar play), Hadas left her job and started "Personally Cool," a company with a personality not much unlike her own -- headstrong and not afraid to make a splash. "Personally Cool," is a gel pack that fits in a case the size of an eyeglass case and discretely fits anywhere one needs to help them cool down. Unlike a bag of frozen peas that cool well but melt and look out of place at a board meeting, Hadas' product can be slipped into a bra or held in a hand.
It's the perfect transitional object.