Menkedick is a skilled storyteller and her accounts of women from varied socioeconomic and racial backgrounds drive home how little society has to offer mothers. One told Menkedick that she’s “terrified of everything”; another wore ankle weights to keep herself from sleepwalking and hurting her baby; yet another was placed on a 72-hour hold at a psychiatric ward geared toward people detoxing from drugs because there was nowhere else to put her. None received proper help until they either found it themselves or hit dangerous levels of anxiety.
Menkedick’s own postpartum anxiety started with an obsession over mouse poop that filled her with a “hot tingling of horror.” The anxiety bloomed into a fear of toxins — food preservatives, glyphosate, lead. “My whole life felt like a held breath,” she writes. Yet it took two years for her to finally be diagnosed with severe O.C.D. “I couldn’t separate it out from the set of ‘normal,’ culturally and medically and socially solicited behaviors appropriate to new motherhood. I couldn’t draw a line where my fear crossed over into the darker territory of illness,” she says.
Yet she is less interested in exploring the line between what’s “normal” and what’s illness than in showing how fear and anxiety have long been used as tools of oppression — often by so-called experts — to police, blame and silence mothers throughout history. “Fear is the principal means used to hold women to specific societal standards as mothers,” she writes. “To question fear would be to question everything, the entire institution of American motherhood.”
Her wide-ranging narrative touches on everything from neurobiology to politics and psychology, and it mirrors what anxiety feels like: starting in one place and then spreading and spreading until it colors everything, like a stain. We learn about the ancient world’s view of motherhood as a source of power, inextricably bound with war, death and famine. We’re told how the brains of mothers adapt and grow in size postpartum, especially in regions associated with processing emotional reactions, leading to increased alertness to stimuli, like the sound of a child’s cry. Menkedick contends with the legacy of slavery and its mark on the bodies of black women, who today are three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes and have double to triple the odds of developing postpartum depression. She tackles psychoanalysis and hysteria; witches and midwifery; the origins of welfare and the creation of the Social Security Act; forced sterilization and the rise of the American eugenics movement.
You can understand why Menkedick admits in her acknowledgments that she worried the book would be “too big.” Sometimes it is — her disparate threads sometimes feel like digressions and occasionally fail to cohere — but more often than not that bigness is a virtue. What you won’t find is a prescription for change. “Ordinary Insanity” offers little in the way of solutions. Menkedick’s goal, she writes, is to give a voice to the stories that have long been suppressed or ignored.
On her daughter’s third birthday, Menkedick weeps as she lies next to her. “For her, but more, I believe, for myself: for a resilience I never knew I had.”