When Rebecca Traister quit her job to write her second book, she wasn’t prepared for both writer’s block and postpartum depression. She talks with Ann about how she lost herself as a new mother and how she found her way back.
REBECCA TRAISTER: People tell you in a rational way like, it's going to change your whole life! You'll never be the same after you have a kid. And so when you have a kid and it feels like nothing's the same and you can't leave the house, or you can't get your work done, it feels rational. You're like Right. My life will never be the same. It will now just suck.
ANN FRIEDMAN: Rebecca Traister is a journalist, author, and cultural critic, whose most recent work focuses on the political power of women’s anger. She’s the type of person who mapped out a specific life plan, on a schedule. By 35 she’d stop smoking, she would definitely have a savings account, and she would be pregnant. And she didn’t plan to lose any professional ground after becoming a mother. She quit her day job, and signed a book deal—when she was pregnant—to guarantee she’d have a career to come back to after the birth of her first child. But picking up where she left off proved to be much more difficult than she imagined.
I’m Ann Friedman, and this is Going Through It: a show about how hard it can be to figure out when to quit and when to keep going.
On this episode: What happens when you feel like you’ve lost yourself as a new mom, and don’t know how to find your way back?
FRIEDMAN: I want you to take me back to your life in your early 30s before you decided to have your first child. What was your career like? What was your life like? What was going on?
TRAISTER: I was single. I had a terrific social life, a wonderful group of friends. I went to work at an internet magazine called Salon, which was a general interest magazine. And there I was encouraged to start writing specifically about feminism, which was thrilling.
I was not dating. I was out of a relationship that had not been at all happy for me and it was in that way that like when you have a terrible headache and the headache goes away and you feel so great. It was like that for me with men. I just didn't want really to have anything to do with them because I felt like I didn't have a headache for the first time in several years. I moved into my own apartment. It was a period of deep satisfaction.
FRIEDMAN: So you’re a writer for big publications like Salon. Did this feel like the fulfillment of a dream you had for yourself?
TRAISTER: It was a surprise fulfillment. I'm not somebody who grew up with a specific dream.
My ambition has often been around economic stability. There was always the expectation that I was going to have a job, earn money, and support myself from the time that I was 14, which was when I started working at an ice cream shop. And that continued. I bussed tables, I waited tables I worked at Bruegger's Bagels. I worked at Bath & Body Works selling honeysuckle lotion, which I still have like 100 bottles of. [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: Like Freesia.
TRAISTER: That shows my age because people your age don't even remember the era of flowering herbs and honeysuckle. But that was my time at Bath & Body Works.
FRIEDMAN: I just said Freesia.
TRAISTER: OK you did. Right. Right. Freesia does date you. OK. That's true. [laughs]
I just always had a job and I always had a paycheck. Which actually plays into this story and what happened in my mid 30s.
FRIEDMAN: How so? What was going on in your mid-30s?
TRAISTER: I had fallen very hard in love. Again, I had been single. Like a nun—single. And it was so key to who I was, and it was such a shift for me after falling in love with Darius. I was nervous about the fact that I was about to be married, and partnered, and that I was somehow gonna get swallowed up by that being my identity.
And then boom, I was pregnant.
We had gotten married. I got pregnant like, instantly. We had just barely gotten to the point where we were like … maybe… oh, I’m pregnant.
FRIEDMAN: Not supposed to happen that fast. And then what happened next?
TRAISTER: I was working a Salon and I think what was happening in my head then was the pregnancy was making me anxious. Suddenly without having done a lot of pre-thinking about how this was gonna have any impact on my career, I was like, oh shit there's a baby in me and it's going to be out and what's going to happen to my work?
And at that point I was like “I want to write this book about unmarried women.”
So I wanted to write this book. My last book was written in a year and I think felt a kind of urgent need to get a contract for this book, cause then I’ll know I have to write a book. And I’ll still have a career after this baby comes.
Well here's where things start taking a terrible turn. [laughs]
So. I also feel for the first time feeling hindered by my job. So my solution, I felt like, ok I have a solution at hand. I’m going to quit Salon, because I’m not being paid enough and it’s taking up too much of my time. I’m going to sell the book. Take the advance money that I get for the book. Have the baby and then I will work on the book after I have the baby.
FRIEDMAN: Did you have conversations with anyone—
TRAISTER: Nope. That was a mistake.
FRIEDMAN: —leading up to this decision where you floated this idea and were like, what do you think?
TRAISTER: No I didn’t. I mean obviously I told my mom. I’ve either blacked out what she said, which I have to imagine in retrospect was like, “This is very bad idea Rebecca.” [laugh] Or I approached her in a way which is typical of me when I’ve decided I’ve come up with a genius plan which is, “This is what I’m gonna do. Here are all the reasons it all makes sense. Boom boom boom.”
And I have to say, I had been at Salon at that point for eight years. The thing I said at the time—and I want to bang my head up against the table for having thought this. I didn’t want to take my maternity leave pay from them, knowing that I didn't want to go back to work for them when I was done. Like I was sure in my heart that I needed to write this book full time. That this was a massive project and that I needed to work on it full time, and that I could not both work at Salon and do the book and have the baby, and that I was going to need to quit my job.
And the thing I would not be mercenary about, because I was some kind of weird Girl Scout, was, “Well I can't take maternity leave and then just never come back. I can't take their money for whatever their policy was—eight weeks, 12 weeks, I don't remember. I can't take their money and my health insurance for three months knowing that I'm going to quit the job. That would not be nice of me.”
No one said to me, “Hey Rebecca. You've worked there for eight years. You have worked through other people's parental leave.” There was nobody who would talk sense to me about that in a way that I found compelling enough to listen to them.
FRIEDMAN: What did you think that your post-Salon life as a new mother working on this book was actually going to look like in the day to day?
TRAISTER: I think that I imagined that I was gonna spend maybe six weeks in pure maternity leave. My husband was also taking leave from his job. It would be crucial to remember here that he, at this time, was working for himself as a civil rights attorney. So he could give himself his paternity leave, but he wasn't being paid during it.
FRIEDMAN: Oh god.
TRAISTER: I was also not being paid. We were adult people with brains. What were we thinking? I don't know.
My view of what those first few weeks would be like: they’d be kind of blissful. We'd have this baby, and we'd not have to go to work and not have to worry. Super fun. We'd have some time off. Boy that sounded fun. And then I would start working on the book because I'm going to be at home all the time anyway with the baby. And so I'll just start writing. That was the vision, that was the plan, and I felt pretty confident about that.
FRIEDMAN: Do you remember the day or the moment that that confidence evaporated?
TRAISTER: It was... It wasn’t a day or a moment it was... the entirety of my first year.
It was... insanely hard.
I had built a life that I felt to some degree in control of. And then, the thing that I was not prepared for was that having a baby would take everything out of my control.
FRIEDMAN: Are you talking about the kinds of assignments you can take in your career? Are you talking about your social life? Are you talking about your own mental health and physical health?
TRAISTER: I feel very certain that I had a case of postpartum depression. But I did not have the kind of depression that I had read about. I did not have the kind of depression where I couldn't feel love or attachment to my daughter. I felt tremendous love and attachment to her instantly. I did not have that version of depression which is, I think, often the way it's presented as this sort of nightmarish thing.
Instead what I had was a low level but completely pervasive sense of despair about my own existence.
It was entirely about my life, and the fact that I felt like it was in shambles.
FRIEDMAN: What did that feel like inside of your body?
TRAISTER: It was like being trapped under something heavy. It felt like I was seeing the world clearly, and what I was seeing clearly was that my life was never going to be the same. That I had lost myself. I felt like I was living in a body that had nothing to do with the person who'd been in that body up until that moment. And I just was living in this body and living in this life that didn't correspond to the life that I had made.
Like the person who had inhabited me... was gone.
And then my husband would come home from work. He just had a job where he went to an office, and he went to court ,and he went to jails to talk to his clients. He left the house, and I didn't leave the house. It was very hard for me.
The other thing that had happened is that that I had tried—every day I tried to work on the book. And I couldn’t start writing my book.
The babysitter would come over. I would go, I would take a shower. I would go into the bedroom—so what had been my office was now the baby's room and so I would go into our bedroom, which wasn't big enough for a desk. So I would sit on my bed. And every day... I had wound up playing an online Scrabble game. Was it Scrabble? It wasn't Scrabble, it was like, Boggle. At the end of the day I would feel like I—and this was a reality—I’d written one paragraph.
And Darius would ask me like, “So how did it go today?” And just feeling like a burst balloon in my chest.
Like how could I look at this man who is out there earning the only money we had doing incredibly important work, and tell him that in the day that we'd paid some ungodly amount of money to have child care I had managed to write four sentences.
I couldn’t give full voice to the degree to which I felt that I had failed.
It felt like just reality. Not like, oh I’m depressed and overwhelmed by having a baby. This just felt like a separate thing. I wasn't going to get my book done. I wasn't gonna get it done well. I wasn't gonna earn money. Another thing I kept saying to Darius was, “I am not supporting us.”
FRIEDMAN: But you are supporting your family in so many ways.
TRAISTER: It was a true, true, true fear. Because at that point I was also like oh my god the money is just leaving, like it’s just pouring out of us like we're not earning money. I had the book money. But it was not enough money. And that had become clear to me very quickly.
This was a period in our marriage where I would wake up in the middle of the night just crying and screaming. It’s terrible. Imagine 2:00 in the morning your partner pokes you in the shoulder and is like, “Get up, get up!” And he’d be like, “What? What?” And I’d be like, “Everything’s awful! We’re going to have to get out of the apartment. We can’t afford the rent. We can’t…”
I felt so responsible because I was acutely aware of how my choices were the ones... like my choice to do this book, my choice to quit my job. And again it was that feeling of constriction like “I can't go find a job, I have a baby at home.” You know? How am I going to pay for childcare? The job I have has to write this book. But it's the thing I can't do.
FRIEDMAN: Did you ever consider just going to your editors at Simon and Schuster, or being like the book can't happen right now. Did it ever cross your mind to pull the plug on the whole thing?
TRAISTER: Remember that I am a person who is such a Girl Scout in my core that I couldn't take a maternity leave at a company I had worked for for almost a decade, because I felt guilty about the idea that I didn't think I was gonna come back from that maternity leave.
So the idea for me of telling someone I can't do the thing I've committed to doing, it is so anathema. Plus, I was so terrified about money. The only money we'd had was the advance I'd had on this book. And it was gone. It was spent. The idea that I would go to my publisher and tell them I couldn’t do the book, was like they’re going to ask me to give back the money. We don’t have the money. We’re already going deep into debt. We don’t have the money. I can’t give it back.
Did I think about quitting? I didn't think about quitting because I felt like I couldn't afford to. But I did think about failing. I thought about failing every day. In fact I was convinced that I was failing. That I had failed. I had pre-failed. There was no possibility for me to succeed. And that was the feeling that I had, I'm going to say, all told, for over two years.
The summer after I had the baby, we were driving up to Maine, and I turned to Darius and I’m like, “Oh my god, I was so miserable on this trip a year ago.” And he turned to me and he was like “What?”
And I was like, “I was so depressed. It was like the blackest… I felt like I was in a fog. I was so unhappy. And I remember thinking to myself ‘I can't believe I'm going to Maine. It's my favorite thing in the world and I'm so unhappy, I'm so deeply unhappy.’” And he was like, “Why didn't you articulate that to me?”
And I didn’t know the answer.
I was like, “Didn’t you know? You must have known. I was a mess. I was crying all the time. I was waking you up in the middle of the night screaming about money.”
He reminds me he did say a couple times, like “Should we go to a doctor? Are you depressed?” “No, no, no, I'm not depressed!” I was determined to tell everybody that everything was fine.
I was not open about how miserable I was. I didn't think it was real. I thought it was my own fault. It was my own fault. This is not irrational! Again, these weren't irrational thoughts. I made such poor choices. I couldn't run around being like “We’re broke!” because I quit my job before we had a baby. I couldn't ask for anyone's sympathy because I felt I was in a prison of my own making. I internalized so much of this as having been my fault. I made this mess and I have to clean it up.
FRIEDMAN : How did you end up finally writing the book? Was it literally paragraph by paragraph, day after day?
TRAISTER: I don't have the answer. I finished a draft of that book. That draft was about 700 pages and then it was summarily rejected by my editor. I mean, she didn't cancel my contract, but she was like “Do it again.” It was not like “Oh, we can work with this.” It was like “You have a lot of smart ideas here. This is not an acceptable draft.”
That big manuscript, the big 700 page manuscript—I got it back and then I had to cut it and I edited it and all this. And it began to take some shape. And I was like “OK there is a book in here.”
FRIEDMAN: Was there anything anyone said to you that you held on to to help you through this period?
TRAISTER: There’s one person who said in a kind of casual conversation—she’s a friend of mine, the novelist Meg Wolitzer. We were at lunch and I was… I certainly wasn't confiding in her my misery or anything, I was just saying something about having a baby, and the difficulty of working and having a baby. And she, who had two children who are pretty much grown at that point, said to me, “Oh it's so funny. When you're in the middle of that, it feels like every choice is the most important and every decision is the most important. And it's so long-lasting. And then—you realize in retrospect it's like five minutes of your life.”
It was this throwaway line and I don’t even think I reacted to it much at the time. I hung onto that for so long because I was like, “This will someday feel like five minutes of my life?” And I don’t think I’m quite there yet. [laughs] It’s still fresh enough that I cringe and I get very sad thinking about how sad I was and how paralyzed I felt.
I should also say: myself came back.
I really do wish that somebody had said that to me in a more direct way. But again, I wasn't being open enough with people to ask them to explain these things to me. I wasn't letting people know how bad it was in a way that might have given them the opportunity to help me see that I would come back to myself.
But I did. It was like my I re-entered my own body.
I have two children. My life is very different from how it was before when I was single, before I had a partner, before I had kids. The circumstances of my life are different, but I am the same person. Who I was. I am a continuation of the human being who built her life on her own. I am that same person.
FRIEDMAN: Rebecca Traister is the mother of two children, and the author of three books, including Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, published in 2018.
FRIEDMAN: Going Through It is an original series from MailChimp, and I’m your host, Ann Friedman. I’m cropped to just the perfect length by producers Eleanor Kagan, Megan Tan, Gabrielle Lewis, and Claire Tighe. This episode was edited by Joel Lovell, and scored and mixed by Hannis Brown. Thanks to the consummate bro-fessional Max Linsky, and everyone at Pineapple Street Media.
FRIEDMAN: On the next episode of Going Through It, how do you stay focused on making big change when you know you probably won’t see results in your lifetime?
AUDRI SCOTT WILLIAMS: It was like something just came up my spine. And I stood straight, and I knew I was doing something really important. I didn't understand it—but I knew I was doing something important.
FRIEDMAN: Audri Scott Williams ran for Congress in one of Alabama’s more conservative districts, and she talks to me about going through it when you’re playing the long game.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
Antje Danielson was fired by her best friend.
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Soledad O’Brien’s dream job wasn't a dream at all.
Jessamyn Stanley couldn't stop saying "I'm sorry."
Samin Nosrat wanted to be a writer, not a chef.
Glennon Doyle fell in love with someone who wasn't her husband.
Claressa Shields was told to put her Olympic dreams on hold.
Hillary Clinton almost dropped out...of college.
Cameron Esposito got her big break...and then it fell apart.
Amanda Nguyen took Congress to task for survivors’ rights.
Rebecca Traister went freelance and almost went broke.
Audri Scott Williams ran an unlikely political race.
Kathleen Hanna hated being the face of Riot Grrrl.