99 Problems

Published on May 25th, 2016 | by Rachel Kessler


Me and You and Everyone We Know and Miranda July and Postpartum Depression by RACHEL KESSLER

I am trying to talk with Miranda July, celebrated performance artist, writer, visual artist and filmmaker, but my uterus is in the way. My female body physically blocked this conversation from happening. To be precise, my vulva. The external organ. Not to be confused with the vagina, which, in fact, is the interior canal. WebMD assures me it is common to confuse these words and the anatomy they point to. It’s embarrassing, as a woman who has given birth, vaginally, to two babies, but I had to look this up. I want to be as accurate as possible. I want to tell you it was my labia majora that prevented me from speaking.

I am not trying to be cute or waggle my militant feminist genitals in your face. But for a long time I tried to pretend that having ovaries didn’t make a difference. I also knew that being oppressed by housework was a construct, a state of mental imprisonment from which I had freed myself long ago.

Having babies shouldn’t change anything. I would write down my profound thoughts while the kid napped, right?

I should have known better—I had babysat kids. I had younger sisters. I unionized daycare workers, for chrissakes. I knew from experience that no baby or toddler simply lies about while its caregiver writes poems. As soon as it can, a baby inside the uterus will look for a vital organ and start kicking it.

Have you ever been by a school when they let the kids out? Try it, and you will understand that what kids are for is to make noise. The most noise possible. Noise that is louder than your writerly thoughts. When the school opens its mouth, the noise bursts forth at football-riot decibels, all hopped up on helium. When one child opens its mouth, it is like that scene in Splash where Daryl Hannah speaks her mermaid name and all the televisions explode.

It turns out that writing a thoughtful, intellectually stimulating essay with an alive, awake baby is like doing your taxes while Prince licks his guitar right behind you. Also, it is your maternal duty to save Prince from being electrocuted. Anyway, the idea of being an artist who happened to be a woman became complicated by the actual, very real presence of the fruit of my loins.

I do not have a solution to how to make art, have kids, and be broke, all at once. I attempted to do this. Did it work? I made some stuff. My kids have not electrocuted themselves, too badly. Not yet.

I did have a nervous breakdown.

RKessler+Sock Puppets

Photo by Betsey Brock

There was not any way I could have prevented the postpartum depression I experienced. My mom told me it was coming. “The Sins of the Generations” was how she described it.

“You think you will remember everything.” She told me over the phone. I pictured her hand flinging the invisible confetti of lost moments. “I can’t remember anything from when you were little! You tell me these memories you have—I guess that happened! The only thing I remember is wearing a nightgown all day, and not opening the curtains for about a year.” I don’t remember this at all. She continues. “I guess that’s what they call the Post Pardon Depression now? Or whatever. I was just fat, and sad. And tired. So, so tired. I’m sorry.” When I protest that I had a happy, loving childhood, she sighs, “Sins of the Generations, that’s what it is, this depression. You can’t get out from under it. That’s all you’ll inherit from us!”

But, like everything my mom warned me about: premarital sex, drinking, driving a car while changing radio stations, wearing short skirts—I wasn’t going to take her word for it. I had to try it out for myself.

I thought I knew everything. I thought awareness was enough. I thought depression was something only the middle class could afford. I indulged in righteous anger when I read in Vanity Fair that Cate Blanchet, an actress I admired, took two years off work after having a baby.

Yelling on phone

Photo by Michael Douchett

For a long time, to Not Sell Out was the most crucial part of maintaining my identity as an artist. For those of you that did not come of age in the ’90s in the Olympia-Seattle-Portland vortex, to Sell Out was a fate worse than death. While living off food stamps in low-income housing, supplementing my one and three-year-old’s diets with food-bank handouts, I worried about being a Sell Out.

I was a moron. My social worker and my parents lectured me about growing up and getting a real job. I should think of my children. This was extremely unhelpful advice. My kids did not suffer growing up in city apartments and ratty theaters. I took them everywhere, including on a mini-tour of my literary performance group to the Bay Area, where several promised gigs turned out to not actually exist. Also, through extensive questioning, I have discovered that my kids remember nothing from before age three.

What was moronic was not how I parented, but how much I worried. I was a good parent who worried about being a bad parent. I worried that worrying about bad parenting was selling out. I worried that worrying about selling out was equivalent to selling out—Artists should not worry. A true artist, pure of heart, wants only to make her art. Things like getting a dishwasher should not thrill, to the point of almost sexual excitement, a real artist.

A true artist will toil in obscurity and be better for it. Getting caught up in acknowledgment was like doing coke. You just want more and more of it. I was no cokehead. I wrote and made art under the influence of government cheese.

But also: the daily struggle of caring for a baby and a toddler is lonely, even when you are not alone. Hanging out at the community center and the playground was a weird, new parenting dating scene. I felt giant and dirty and never remembered to pack snacks. My toddler took to biting the other kids so often I fled, a wake of lost hand-knitted baby hats and plastic bags filled with soiled cloth diapers scattering behind my stroller.

Don’t get me wrong. I had friends. They came over and made me steaks and told me they could see I was depressed. I went for walks, I did some public library VHS tape yoga. Still, the depression hung on. It turns out postpartum depression happens to who it happens to, regardless of socio-economic background. I persisted in my mind-over-matter belief system, in spite of copious evidence to the contrary. Medication was not an option. I was breastfeeding. And what if the meds stole my inspiration?

Eventually things got so bad that I was ready to relinquish whatever rare art-producing mood to get out from under the near-constant dread. I took the medication. And I felt a little better. I went to a therapist and worked hard on developing coping strategies. Still, I blamed myself for depression, for not being badass or organized enough to make everything go the way I wanted it to, to complete my vision of being woman, mother, artist. And in this way, I made everything harder than it already was.

My husband encouraged me to continue to write and make art with my collaborators. In fact, he forced me to.

He knew Miranda July had been trying to get in touch with me through mutual friends.

“C’mon, let’s just bring the kids to her art opening,” he said, stuffing snot-encrusted babies into their rotting food-stained car seats.

Nursing Hamster

Photo by Debbie Girdwood

“You are a hard woman to meet,” Miranda said as we shook hands. I sweated into her hand. I was pretty sure I had begun to leak breastmilk, too. Anything remotely interesting or smart I had to say evaporated as a small, furry creature’s movements triggered my peripheral vision. Glancing over discreetly, I recognized the crazy blonde hair of my one-year-old waggling like antennae as she scooted along the gallery floor. I was going to let that go, compartmentalize, and pay attention to being an Artist and communicating with my fellow artist.

Miranda July was showing photographs collaged with garage-sale dots. Not to price them, but as art. As I dragged my eyeballs away from the baby of potential danger scuttling without supervision, I glimpsed my other kid, the three-year-old, curiously picking at a dot on a far wall. Garage sale dots were in her repertoire of art supplies.

Although we went to art openings more when we had only one immobilized baby, it turns out that art openings with toddlers, and mobile babies, like everything that is not a wide-open field or a barricaded trampoline, suck. Taking a toddler to an art opening is like taking a donkey to an art opening. A frisky, bored donkey. At first, people might think you are exciting because of the novelty of your donkey, but sooner rather than later, the kicking starts up and nobody wants to talk with you or help you. People give you a wide berth. Toddlers do worse things than donkeys, like throw-up, which never fails to shock art-world folk. Here is a lesson learned: some things are not for donkeys. But sometimes you can’t afford a babysitter and you haven’t pressed past the sticky door of your apartment out into the world in days. Sometimes you are that woman with her hands full and her mind gutted at the art opening.

While I telepathically slapped down the little hands of my small kid who was destroying art, a lack of movement from the scooting baby registered on my radar.

Quiet-and-still baby sounded alarms because it meant one of two things: 1) baby is unconscious or dead, or, 2) baby is currently engaged in touching or ingesting some thing that will result in option 1. I gazed at Miranda’s lips as they formed words, but I couldn’t hear what she said. I had to peek; to be sure my baby was not dead.

Fortunately, my baby was quiet and not moving because she had found a fascinating object. Miranda July carried a huge handbag, which she had placed on the gallery floor a few feet away when she came over hug me. There is nothing more motivating to a baby learning to crawl than a purse lying unattended on the floor. Except maybe an unattended purse full of choking hazards.

Miranda July’s purse had been taken over by the baby, who had pulled out every single item and spread them on the floor around her. If you have ever wanted to know what Miranda July carries in her big purse, I can’t tell you. In my panic, I focused on the money. The big potential choking hazard I noticed was dollar bills. Many of them. Great wads of cash. I think some of them were twenties, possibly higher denominations. I didn’t actually sum up how much cash, but I’m pretty sure my kid had about $100 in Miranda July’s money stuffed in her mouth, while another $50 was clutched in her fat fists. She giggled and gurgled, kicking at the crumpled bills all around her, digging into the vast bag in front of her, pulling out even more money.

Before I could signal inconspicuously to my husband to ixnay on the olenstay ashcay, or distract the baby by calling to her like one would a puppy, a terrible pain ripped through my genitals. My toddler, grown bored of destroying art, had crept in from behind, slipped a hand up my skirt and now yanked on my labia like the hunchback of Notre Dame ringing the church bells. A death knell. Many children tug on their parent’s sleeve to get their attention. Maybe she had already attempted this, and I was too busy being an artist in the world to respond. Or maybe she was just quick and smart and knew how to get my attention right away.

It worked.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Miranda July. “I have to go.” I scooped up my bellringer and the pickpocket and got the hell out of that art gallery.

Miranda July and I did not meet again.



I hear that Miranda July has a baby now. My kids are now old enough to be left on their own, and the fog of early childhood parenting has lifted, allowing me the time and space to write this. Having kids grounded me, physically, and emotionally, at a time in my life when I thought I might float away and nothing would ever come of my ideas. The day-in and day-out of caring for a helpless human taught me compassion and stick-to-it-ness. My relentless insecurities were forced to take a backseat to the screaming toddler in front of me. What a relief to be distracted from my angst by the very real situation, often involving someone else’s bodily fluids, by fundamental and mundane blocks of time where play and eating goldfish crackers were necessary for survival. The practical demands of mothering put pressure on my art-making—being young and dumb and broke complicated this. I had no idea who I was or what I was doing.

My daughters made me the writer and artist I am today. Without their unconditional love and neediness, I would never have had the gumption to make the weird performances and write the terrifying things. I used them as armor, and as excuses. This is the way it went down for me. I think it might be different for someone who has already arrived as an artist than it was for me as a baby poet and performance artist, different for someone who knows what they are capable of, but I do not doubt that every mother adjusts her identity as a kid comes along and displaces the family structure, restructures her experience of time, and radically alters priorities.

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About the Author

Rachel Kessler is cofounder of poetry performance collaborations The Typing Explosion and Vis-à-Vis Society. Her work appears in The Stranger, Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Poetry Northwest, The Open Daybook, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Frye Art Museum, and concurrent with the 50th Venice Bienale. Her Public Health Poems can be found in public restrooms throughout Washington State. She teaches creative writing in public schools and lives with her partner and their two kickass teenage daughters in Seattle. Author photo by Kelly O.

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