The Postpartum Trauma Plot
And the madness of becoming a mother in America
Trauma is having a moment, and not only because we are living through so much of it. In a recent essay, literary critic Parul Sehgal argued that the trauma plot organizes most of modern culture. On the heels of this piece came another, this one on “West Elm Caleb” and the language of pseudoscience and hyperbole, which is, according to the author, contributing to an assessment of everything as trauma.
I sympathize with the fatigue caused by the over-saturation of trauma—we are experiencing too much of it and probably over-representing it—but I’m wary of issuing a collective sigh in response. Maybe what we’re tired of isn’t so much the use of the term “trauma” as…. Twitter, which confuses and saps of all nuance every topic it touches? But I digress.
I’m much more interested in how we represent trauma, especially the not-particularly overt kind—the ordinary and everyday wounds caused by systems of power, the ones we’ve been taught to normalize and/or that we don’t quite/yet have language for.
One of my areas of research for years has been the representation gendered violence— a category of trauma that is often trivialized or met with those collective sighs. Since the pandemic began, I’ve been thinking especially about the subtle, slow violence enacted on women by way of the institution of American motherhood—how we experience this trauma, how we represent it, how we might rebel against it.
Ushered in by the era of online confession Sehgal alludes to in her essay, the trauma plot and the motherhood plot have often been hard to disentangle. In memoir—a genre itself hard to separate from the literature of trauma—the writer’s impulse has generally been to correct the archive of the “good mother” from a variety of angles. This is something I’ve written about before and talk a lot about in my teaching. Motherhood memoirs, if one can/should cast such a wide net, generally seek to proliferate the archive with as many accounts of the maternal as possible. Often this has meant subverting the romanticism and sentimentality of old motherhood plots with their inverse: many contemporary motherhood memoirs are dispatches from the land of domestic trauma.
I tend to love these books, not just because they feel “true” or “raw,” but because they give us new language for talking about the completely shattering, shocking physical and emotional experience of becoming a mother. Molly Caro May’s 2017 Body Full of Stars gave voice to postpartum rage. 2018, the year of the “mom book,” saw memoirs like Laura Jean Baker’s The Motherhood Affidavits, which explores links between motherhood and addiction, as well as Jessica Friedmann’s Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression. In 2020, Catherine Cho published her haunting account of postpartum psychosis, Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness.
Novelists have also recently been exploring the earliest months and years of motherhood as a time of traumatic upheaval in women’s lives. But writing about the ordinary trauma of the postpartum period presents some particular difficulties with respect to characterization: some of the struggles (lack of sleep, raw nipples, babies crying endlessly) are quite well-trodden; very little happens when stuck at home with a new baby; mothers are sapped of color and personality in the early months and years; the agent inflicting the trauma of new motherhood, beyond the infant, can feel amorphous.
What Sehgal finds most bland about the trauma plot is a trend of over-psychologizing and over-determining characters by relying on traumatic pasts to explain them. “Trauma has become synonymous with backstory,” Sehgal writes. But Brandon Taylor suggests, in his nuanced response to Sehgal’s essay, that maybe “the trauma plot” is just a way of labeling “fiction in which there is simply no there there, you know?”
Creating some sense of there-ness is a conundrum for writers of the postpartum or new motherhood narrative. There is very little there there in the work of caring for a baby. Where exactly are we to go with a protagonist who is trapped in the home, overcome by the labor of diaper changes, breastfeeding, motherese, and a complete dissolution of her own identity?
The assumption that there is no substance to the many-layered, complex, and humanizing work of care of course begs interrogation and isn’t an assumption to which I subscribe. What I mean here is that in the tradition of the novel, ever-rooted in masculine rulebooks about what constitutes narrative movement and there-ness, the new mother, as a character, is already at a disadvantage.
Some writers have responded to this problem by rethinking the novel as a space of confinement and fantasy—a space not unlike the one new mothers are forced to inhabit. Rejecting the backward motion of the trauma plot, which would locate women’s struggles with early motherhood in the individual, these novelists instead explore the structural conditions that make early motherhood feel like its own kind of violence. I’m talking about postpartum plots that stir us in the present, circle the drain of the everyday, ask us to stay right there, as a mother must.
Rachel Yoder’s debut Nightbitch and Julia Fine’s second novel The Upstairs House, both published in 2021 and often reviewed as a pair, are two of my recent favorites in this regard. Each explore maternal suffering through their protagonists’ periods of what some have read as postpartum psychosis: in both books, the protagonists are driven mad by the daily activities of caring for infants. The unnamed narrator in Nightbitch believes she is turning into a dog; Megan in The Upstairs House believes she is being haunted by the ghost of children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown, the subject of Megan’s unfinished dissertation. Their psychotic breaks are caused not by past trauma, but by the abrupt and distressing transition into American motherhood.
Both characters have absent partners and little human contact; both struggle with the draining physicality of caring for an infant. Using elements of fantasy to break out of the constriction of both the trauma plot and the postpartum condition, the narratives also pose questions about how we pathologize women’s responses to their entrance into motherhood. What if the trauma of new motherhood does transform the body? What if motherhood is a form of haunting, a communion with ghosts of our former selves, blocked from them as we are by this new, lonely, all-consuming labor?
Yoder’s narrator is in hot pursuit of meat throughout the book, the spectral quality of her prey one of the novel’s finest devices. Is she trying to maim and kill the system? The other woo-woo moms she meets in the book? Or does she simply prowl the neighborhood at night searching for something that will sate her in a way contemporary American motherhood never could? Whatever it is Nightbitch is after, she’s hungry.
The Upstairs House’s Megan also wants more from her life, gridlocked as an academic who has “surrendered” her writing and research. Fine’s novel is full of a coy sense of literary intertextuality. In a nod to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s madwoman in the attic, Margaret Wise Brown, who Megan believes has taken up residence in an attic apartment above her home, becomes Megan’s double. Confined and unreachable, Brown seems to be a representation of the split self Megan can no longer access.
Given the alienating and demanding version of motherhood these characters experience—both women are also blocked from their creative and intellectual pursuits—the otherworldly states the characters come to inhabit feel more reasonable than the version of motherhood they have been handed.
Both novels depict the postpartum period as a traumatic event—one that is extant and ongoing, rather than discrete. It’s a trauma tied to the volume and isolation of the work, but also to the way the role “mother” cuts women off from the life of the mind. Yoder and Fine use their characters’ madness to explore what happens to the mind in this violent severing of self from self: it gets creative.
Jessamine Chan’s debut novel The School for Good Mothers, just released, extends this gesture by reversing the trope of the psychotic break. The book considers how societal expectations of the “good mother” lead women to question their own sense of reality. Chan’s first-generation Chinese-American protagonist, Frida Liu, is at the beginning of the novel eighteen months postpartum, parenting alone after her husband left her for another woman. Frida is struggling with insomnia, worsened by her baby’s own inability to sleep at night. When Frida is caught having left her child alone at home for a few hours while she retrieved documents from her workplace, authorities question Frida’s history of mental illness, then remove the child from her care and begin monitoring Frida in her own home. A judge then sentences Frida to a year of education at a dystopian government institution created for “bad” mothers who have committed a range of offenses, from coddling their children to throwing them into pits.
Frida is rendered guilty of the ultimate maternal betrayal: abandonment. But Frida is, from any sensible reader’s perspective, a “good” mother. The overwhelm that leads Frida to “abandon” her child is pragmatic. She’s just trying to meet the demands of her job with little support. She is immediately full of remorse over her momentary “lapse of judgment.” Her break from reason feels so obviously fleeting, so commonplace and relatable. She insists she just had one “bad day,” and we believe her. Who hasn’t been there, as a mother?
Frida’s mental health does seem to be fraying, however, when the novel opens—she admits she has a history with postpartum depression. But when she is caught by authorities, Frida is past the window during which she might be diagnosed with a postpartum mood and anxiety disorder—a spectrum of understudied conditions increasingly thought to persist beyond the first year of parenting.
Mental illness exists for the “bad mother” as a nebulous, looming threat—a range of pathologies above and beyond the ol’ female hysteric, of which any woman might be accused, if only she makes one wrong move.
The threat of being pathologized by the state is so well wrought in the novel, even before Frida is sent away to the school, while she is being closely monitored by cameras installed in her home. When Frida returns without her daughter after her initial interrogation, she is horrified to know authorities saw her home the way she left it: without food in the cupboards, a complete mess. Frida’s concern forces us to ask whether she is severely depressed or just an average single, sleepless mother, getting by the best she can.
What makes the novel so haunting, in other words, is not Frida’s own fantastical projections, but rather the projections of the state. Frida isn’t insane—the state’s expectations are insane. But Frida comes to internalize that voice.
At the school, mothers are taught to care for synthetic childlike dolls who run on blue goo and complete series of challenges that test their maternal fortitude. As mothers are driven crazy by these absurd demands, race also becomes a more salient factor in the novel, compelling readers to question their own assumptions about what makes a “bad mother.” To manage the anxiety that comes with the vigilance such a culture of surveillance demands, the mothers create their own worlds, forming romantic bonds with other mothers, with their uncanny dolls, with the few men to which they have access. They fantasize at length about returning to their children.
One quality I see uniting the recent novels that take up the subject of postpartum or early motherhood is that they are often, at least for mothers, hard to read. It’s difficult to look so hard at what we’re already seeing every day.
The American thirst for women’s suffering has also been well-documented by critics like Maggie Nelson and Alice Bolin, each of whom have argued that a hunger for the pain of women and girls is troublingly fundamental to the American cultural imagination. Chan’s book has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV version of which has inspired no shortage of criticism regarding what we seek or gain in another bleak apocalyptic representation of misogynistic violence—criticisms of trauma porn the show has responded to, it would seem, by beefing up the revenge plot in the series.
In film, the most compelling narratives about new mothers processing their traumatic initiation into American motherhood are also, at least for me, those who move beyond the archetype of woman-as-victim—the kind of woman who simply moves along a plot otherwise helmed by a male hero. These heroines often take cues from revenge narratives.
In False Positive, Ilana Glazer plays Lucy, a mother desperate to get pregnant despite fertility issues. When Lucy gives birth, she finds the fertility specialist who was meant to help her conceive has impregnated her with his own semen (in collusion with her own husband no less). She also realizes the doctor has aborted her female fetus, rather than her male twins, during a selective reduction procedure, despite her explicit desire for him to do the inverse. (The film is crazy.) In a rage, Lucy violently beats the doc and his assistant to death. The film closes with a disturbingly empowering scene of Lucy “nursing” the dead female fetus she once imagined herself mothering.
The allegorical quality of the film is amazing and spot-on: In False Positive, it’s not just the trauma of becoming a mother that drives Lucy mad, but rather the realization of who is in control of her maternal experience. Even in motherhood, men are always in the background, pulling the strings.
The revenge fantasy is exorbitant, cheeky. But it’s no more unbelievable than a woman turned feral by the isolation of American motherhood, or a mother losing her grip on reality, haunted by an unfinished dissertation, or an Asian-American woman incarcerated for her inability to meet racially-motivated standards of the “good mother.”
These narratives also retool the hackneyed plot that has women flailing against a contextless pain that seems to come from some unlocatable existential ether. For me, this is how they escape blander versions of the trauma plot. They disrupt the tragic sentimentality of films like 2021’s A Mouthful of Air, based on the 2003 novel by Amy Koppelman, who also directs the film.
A Mouthful of Air is moving and beautifully rendered. I enjoyed moving through the story, maybe because I needed to tap into my own sadness when I watched it, but it made me almost irretrievably depressed. (As did Koppelman’s 2015 I Smile Back, though I would argue that film gives a much more complex picture of mental illness, maternal suffering, power, and addiction.)
A Mouthful of Air offers a clear example of a new-mother plot that relies almost exclusively on a tragic backstory to explain the main character Julie’s postpartum mental illness. Julie attempts suicide after giving birth to her first child, and the film offers a slow reveal of Julie’s childhood abuse at the hands of her father, who is understood to be at least one cause of Julie’s debilitating postpartum anxiety and depression.
Julie, played by Amanda Seyfried, is at times frustratingly helpless. Yes, this feeling mimics the sensation of witnessing anyone struggling with suicidal depression, but it also limits Julie’s character development. She is surrounded by men—a starry-eyed husband, a frequently monologuing psychologist who references Sylvia Plath’s suicide, an OB who says, “that wasn’t so bad, was it?” after Julie gives birth. These characters are a promising tell regarding what really goes wrong with Julie’s postpartum care, but everyone is the film is otherwise just a little too flawless.
Despite devastating anxiety and suicidal ideations, Julie is the perfect mother—a children’s book author who decorates her home with colorful paper dolls and keeps an immaculately clean home. There is little indication that Julie struggles to balance her creative work with her maternal and domestic labor. She is a saintly wife who moons over her husband and seems to dream only of having children and writing stories for them. All Julie’s pain, in other words, appears to come from within.
The film is, nevertheless, gutting. It, too, uses fantasy to motion beyond the limited trauma plot. Cartoon drawings of the book Julie writes while attempting to go off her medication are mixed with close-range shots of Julie’s fragile state. It all emphasizes her childlike suffering. After creating a hand-bound book telling the story of her pain in fable form, Julie successfully takes her own life in a gut-wrenching, almost sickeningly sad scene (really, I thought I was going to throw up after watching, not because it’s graphic, but because it just hurt so much).
So here’s another way to approach the madness and sadness of new mothers: the endless echo of a mother’s fatal sadness. This stands in stark contrast to the plots in which women avenge the violence inflicted on them by the institution of motherhood, rather than suffer tragically at its hand.
I would not say I favor or disfavor an aesthetic experience that destroys me over one that offers a little hope, but there does seem to be a tendency for the postpartum trauma-tragedy to emphasize the uniqueness and individualism of maternal suffering, rather than point toward the conditions of power that make that kind of suffering feel intentional, commonplace, and widespread.
Suicide looms in Chan’s novel as well, but the book ultimately ends with revenge. Frida’s rebellion against the state is tinged with its own kind of sadness—the kind that comes from knowing one is damned to a brand of motherhood sure to destroy the self—but the gesture toward taking back one’s power makes the novel more pleasurable, without feeling all “let's go girls!”
Maybe more importantly, the motion toward revenge centers the source of mothers’ pain—the real social, political, and cultural conditions that make us hurt, then call it madness. The pain of new motherhood doesn’t come from within—from some disconnected prior trauma or failure of the mind. It’s out there, all around us.
In their protagonists’ efforts to overthrow the violent will of the institution of motherhood, such plots also motion toward the real-life difficulty mothers continue to face in their own strained efforts toward such a coup.