Calgary writer Teresa Wong portrays postpartum fog in graphic novel 'Dear Scarlet'
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Calgary writer Teresa Wong portrays postpartum fog in graphic novel 'Dear Scarlet'

Teresa Wong poses in this undated handout photo. On social media, the early days of motherhood might seem like a time of uninterrupted bliss. Photos show women swaddling sleeping infants in their arms, beaming with parental pride, as if caring for a newborn were the most natural thing in the world. Calgary-based writer Teresa Wong paints a starkly different picture of this milestone in her new graphic novel, "Dear Scarlet," about her struggle with postpartum depression. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Ken Hurd *MANDATORY CREDIT*

On social media, the early days of motherhood might seem like a time of uninterrupted bliss. Many posts show photos of women swaddling infants in their arms, beaming with parental pride, as if caring for a newborn were the most natural thing in the world.

Calgary-based writer Teresa Wong paints a starkly different picture of this milestone in her new graphic novel, “Dear Scarlet,” about her struggle with postpartum depression.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on mothers to put out an image of motherhood that is all joyful and kind of slick,” Wong said in a phone interview. “A lot of mothers who don’t feel that way, who don’t really love taking care of a small baby, or even feel a little bit of regret at what has happened in their life, you feel like you need to hide that.

I think it might be helpful to those mothers who don’t love it right off the bat, for women to see kind of all types of images around having a baby and becoming a mother. It can look different for everyone.”

Wong said the idea for the story came to her as she lay awake in bed while carrying her third child, dreading the darkness that had followed her previous pregnancies, particularly her first.

Images came flooding back to her. The vivid nature of her memories lent itself to a graphic memoir, said Wong. Having never drawn professionally, she intended to team up with an illustrator, and decided to sketch out her vision for the project as a starting point.

She drew the pitch black of the hospital room after she passed out from blood loss after the birth of her eldest child, Scarlet; the clock ticking as she tried to bounce the baby to sleep on an exercise ball, waiting for her husband’s return to relieve her loneliness; her dreams of climbing into a bin at the grocery store and being smothered by a sea of apples, the prospect of never-ending sleep seeming like the only escape from her sadness.

After looking at her panels, friends with artistic backgrounds told Wong that the story would be more personal if both the words and drawings were her own. The shaky lines conveyed her character’s vulnerability, and the dark cloud of depression that permeates the book seemed to resonate with people.

In “Dear Scarlet,” Wong shows how she fumbled her way through her postpartum fog by relying on a variety of supports — seeing a psychiatrist, taking medication, exercising regularly and getting a doula to help her navigate the challenges of childcare.

Wong also followed the Chinese tradition of staying home for a month after the baby was born, which she said in some ways contributed to her isolation, but also gave her the time and space she needed to heal.

When Wong’s postpartum depression returned after the birth of her second child, she already had systems in place to steer her towards the other side.

Despite her fears, when her third child came, Wong said she stroked her son’s tiny head while he nursed, and finally experienced the overwhelming happiness those other mothers talked about.

Wong said she wrote her novel as a letter to her daughter because she wanted Scarlet to know that motherhood doesn’t always bring immediate joy, but through seeking help and hard work, there are ways to find it.

“Motherhood is a truly life-changing experience, and with that can come really intense feelings that can turn negative pretty easily,” said Wong. “I think if you’re aware and you’re not caught off guard, then it takes away some of that shame and loneliness around it.”

“Dear Scarlet” hits bookstores on April 1.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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