Celebrity mothers who swoon about baby bliss while detailing how their personal trainer aerobicized them back into their size-2 jeans are a staple of celeb magazines. Last year, Debra Messing gushed to People that she spent the first months of motherhood doing nothing but nursing and “gazing into my son’s eyes.” Kate Hudson offered that she dropped pregnancy pounds with three-hour workouts and a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet. Heidi Klum said she’d heard tell that new mothers are tired and lack interest in sex. Not Heidi. “It’s the opposite,” she told People. “I guess I am lucky.”
Two years ago, Brooke Shields made her mother-baby publicity debut by inviting a photographer from the British tabloid Hello! to tour her Wendy Bellissimo-designed nursery and sitting down with a People reporter to detail the fertility treatments she’d undergone before giving birth to daughter Rowan. Shields refrained from absurdly smug sound bites. But she didn’t hint at anything dark. “I know every mother says the same thing,” she cooed, “but I think Rowan is the most beautiful baby in the world.”
At the time, we now learn in her new best-seller, Down Came the Rain, Shields was clawing her way out of a bout of postpartum depression that at one point made her suicidal. Shields—who was as vulnerable to the cult of motherhood as anyone—gets credit for confessing that she neither loved nor desired her new baby and for taking a little air out of the image of rapturous new motherhood. If only she didn’t feel compelled to write herself a post postpartum Hollywood ending.
“I had always imagined that birth would be the closest thing to grace I’d ever experience,” Shields writes with an earnestness that pervades the book. But graceful it was not. Following seven rounds of in vitro fertilization, she underwent 24 hours of labor followed by a grisly emergency C-section. Out came baby Rowan. She is beautiful, healthy—and, to Shields’ shock, not what she wants. Shields pads around her Manhattan apartment feeling fat, miserable, and whiny and longing to escape into long hot showers while someone else—anyone else—tends to the baby. She can’t bear the smell of baby powder. She doesn’t seem to like her daughter. “I wasn’t afraid she was too fragile,” she writes. “I just felt no desire to pick her up.” At her lowest moment, Shields considers driving her car into a wall. She also imagines her daughter “flying through the air and hitting the wall in front of me … the wall morphed into a video game, and in it her little body smacked the surface and slid down onto the floor.”
Shields assures us she’s no Andrea Yates—she didn’t imagine that she was throwing her baby, just that it somehow happened. But her problems were more acute than the “baby blues” that affect as many as 80 percent of mothers. Shields was among the 15 percent who suffer full-blown postpartum depression, or PPD, which typically lasts anywhere from a few weeks to several months and includes panic attacks, feelings of despondency, and suicidal thoughts. Though there is no consensus on what causes PPD, researchers think the factors that put women at risk include postpartum hormonal shifts, a history of depression and severe PMS, and social isolation.
Shields links her depression to her father’s death weeks before she gave birth, the suicide of a close friend a few years earlier, and her long struggle to get and stay pregnant. For all her wealth and fame, she also felt isolated—her husband, Chris Henchy, a comedy writer, returned to work on the West Coast just two weeks after Rowan was born in New York. And she felt insecure about how hard she found her new role. “I’d always had this idea that women should be able to mother their children without help,” she writes.
Postpartum traditions in the United States only reinforce that self-defeating notion: Mom and baby typically go home from the hospital two days after the delivery; a few friends and relatives come to visit; and then everyone goes on with their busy lives. Compare that with Japan, where many women return to their parents’ home in the last trimester of pregnancy and remain there for two months after they have their babies. Or Mexico, where researchers believe a practice called La Cuarenta, which encourages new mothers to refrain from household work, shopping, and sex for 40 days while relatives help care for the baby, lowers the rate of PPD. Of course, not all traditions are equally helpful. In Nigeria, for example, where in-laws move in and advise new parents on how to raise their baby, the incidence of PPD is similar to that in the United States (surprise, surprise). What women across cultures really need, according to the experts, is better education about the risk of postpartum depression and about what’s realistic to expect from motherhood, as well as emotional support and attention that lasts beyond the first days after giving birth.
As it is, only a small percentage of women with PPD get help. Shields was in the lucky minority because she knew another mother who had suffered PPD and because she could afford the therapeutic ingredients that helped lift the depression: a baby nurse, psychotherapy, and an ongoing prescription for Paxil. That privilege—or more precisely, her celebrity—has also made her book, now in its fourth week on the New York Times best-seller list, a public service announcement. If she weren’t Brooke Shields, the book wouldn’t have been excerpted in People and Good Housekeeping or featured in an hourlong spot on Oprah, where, in Oprah-like fashion, women in the audience cried as Shields described her struggles.
That isn’t a criticism of Shields or her book. Whatever its literary merits (it’s neither poetic nor particularly incisive), Down Came the Rain is more likely to reach a wider audience, and to be useful to its readers, than many of the more lyrical mommy memoirs. Unfortunately, Shields cuts short her self-examination. It’s hard to know whether the actress is guarding her public image or just unable to write with real depth, but she spends far too much time assuring us that now that her depression has lifted, she loves, loves, loves her daughter. I don’t doubt that’s true. But when the book culminates with a scene of Rowan and a joyful, dewy-eyed Shields on the floor singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (“Down came the rain … Out came the sun …” Get it?), I imagine the credits rolling on the Lifetime Channel. Shields admits that she’s a sucker for fantasies—”creating perfect family moments” in her mind, she describes it. And in the end, her book reads like a fairy tale of a mother who emerges from black depression into the bright light of recovery, with far too little gray nuance in between.