Published on November 7th, 2019 | by Angela James0
Angela James: Quiet Night
I have always wanted to be one of those artists that could create when I was feeling terrible. I wanted to transform my darkness into work that conveyed depth and beauty — the classic tortured artist stereotype. Alas, that’s not me. I actually have to be in a pretty good place emotionally to write and perform songs. My house needs to be clean and dishes need to be done in order to connect to my muse. Until I had postpartum depression.
My daughter was born at home in our Chicago apartment. It was a peaceful and affirming experience and I will cherish the memories of my labor and delivery forever. However, I descended quickly into postpartum depression only a few days after her birth. Those early days were a blur of breastfeeding complications, mastitis, impossible pumping schedules, sleeplessness, panic attacks and crippling fear. I didn’t want to touch my daughter. I felt like a failure all the time and thought that was normal. It took almost a month of feeling this way before my excellent primary care doctor put a name to what I was going through. This is unfortunately a pretty common story for new mothers, especially ones with a history of depression like myself.
While I may not remember much from that terrible time, perhaps due to self-preservation because the memories are too painful, I can remember humming. At the time I believed it was an attempt to soothe my fussy, always hungry baby, but now I know I was trying to soothe myself. I was composing and coping in the small way that I could, and the humming was keeping me tethered to a part of myself that I thought was lost forever.
I returned to performing when my daughter was about nine months old, but I felt very overwhelmed by songwriting again. Then I realized that I had a trove of new melodic material from those first sad, blurry months of my daughter’s life. I had recorded some voice memos of the melodies I hummed, and I set out to turn them into fully fleshed-out songs. It made sense that they should be lullabies. It made sense that I should invite other parents of young children to play with me and make a record. It made sense that nearly everyone involved in the making of this record should be parents of young children.
Two years later, that record is coming out into the world. My hope is that these songs can soothe children, their parents, and anyone that is tired and stressed (ha, everyone). I chose the instrumentation — classical guitar, vibraphone, bass clarinet and bassoon — to create a relaxing space for unwinding. By being open and honest about my postpartum depression and honoring its role in my creative life, I hope to destigmatize it in some small way. So many women either go undiagnosed or their symptoms are misunderstood. We need to share our stories so we feel less alone and less ashamed.
Women suffering with postpartum depression often don’t know or understand what they are going through, and neither do their families. In my case, even my excellent midwives and the lactation consultant I saw three times missed it. What I have learned is that there is a wide spectrum of symptoms and they can creep up on you or knock you down, or both. They can linger in your mind and make you feel ashamed and afraid to tell anyone about them. So many women I know have simply suffered in silence, waiting for the hormone roller-coaster to slow down. It usually does, but it can take months, and that’s far too long. I can attest that the minute you get help a burden is lifted.
I want the release of my record to be an opportunity to speak more openly about postpartum depression and anxiety. If we have more information, stories, understanding and empathy, more women will feel comfortable getting help and not suffering in silence. You can call the Postpartum Support International Helpline: 1-800-944-4773 and speak to someone who can help you immediately in English and Spanish. They can do the work of connecting you to a mental health professional in your area.
I wrote these lullabies to soothe myself and my family, but they are for anyone that needs to take a break and feel nurtured and relaxed. Postpartum depression became my unlikely muse. My experience with postpartum depression was one of the darkest times of my life, but it gave me some of the brightest music of my career. I’m grateful that my story has a happy ending and that I can share these works of beauty born out of a dark, devastating experience.
Angela James’s record is available on iTunes, Spotify, and at https://angelajames.bandcamp.com/.