Coping with creativity during the challenges of first-time motherhood and postpartum anxiety
Writing a children’s book has been on my radar from the time I found out that books were written by actual people. I spent countless childhood hours on my parent’s couch getting lost in storybooks, followed by even more hours at their kitchen table creating my own. I’d tuck away in the corners of the elementary school library and get my hands on as many pages possible. The Scholastic Book Fair was my Super Bowl. I can still feel the texture of the thin paper leaflet full of books I could call my own. I went on to take creative writing in high school and even tried to keep the dream alive during undergrad by taking a children’s lit course. Somewhere during that time though, I convinced myself I’d never make it as an author, so I chose a more practical pursuit.
For years, I put my dream aside. I buried it somewhere in the closet of my childhood bedroom, and proceeded down the path of predictability. You’ve heard of this, maybe? Choose a sensible career path. Work hard. Save. Get married. Buy a house. Start a family. The American Dream, they call it? Still, from time to time I'd remember my professor stressing to us the importance of finding the perfect illustrator to "bring your words to life." Even in my hustle to conquer the the white picket fence, that vision always stayed with me. The idea of someone else putting pictures to my words and making them come alive.
In 2016, my husband and I started a health tonic business, Cold Cock Cider, and we needed a logo. He had an exact vision of a fighting rooster wearing board shorts with hibiscus flowers and put-up-your-dukes-bare-knuckle-tape instead of traditional gloves. Anyone that knows my husband, knows this: when he knows what he wants, he doesn’t stop until he gets it. Lo and behold, after many failed interviews with graphic designers, he found a friend of a friend out in Riverside, CA who nailed it on the first go around. Talented, professional, so easy to work with. I remember scrolling through her artwork and wondering what it would be like for her to make my words come alive.
The Land of Magic Gummy Bears
The following summer I was in the midst of my unexplained-infertility-chaos and in desperate need of a time out. I don't think may people plan for problems getting pregnant. I for sure didn't factor it into my Game of Life. Naïvely, I thought it would be simple. I was young and healthy. It'd be simple, like spinning a wheel, pushing around a plastic mini van, and popping in pink and blue pegs. For the record, I know how babies are made. But you get my drift. Not how the actual game of life works. So we hopped on a plane and flew out to Colorado to stay with a close friend.
There’s something to be said for Rockies in the summertime. Crisp mountain air. Breathtaking views. Great company. And… edibles. I actually hesitated to disclose that in a blog post about a children’s book dedicated to my daughter on my health and wellness website, but nonetheless… I am all for telling my story to help others. I also believe spending a long weekend micro-dosing cannabis was the final push that helped me hit the reset button and relax for the first time in months. It is medicinal, after all. Medicine that allows you loosen up and laugh. And laughter is medicine, too. Chalk it up to a win/win. Not for nothing, but I was pregnant with my daughter the following month. Don’t get me wrong, I did a lot of great things for my health leading up to that point— but lowering my stress and laughing my ass off in the land of magic gummy bears, I think, was the proverbial icing on the cake ;)
I bring that up because when I reflect back, that’s where the idea for my children’s book started to take form. Undoubtedly, it's why the book is so existential. In a rabbit-hole conversation about the universe and questioning our existence, I brought up an earlier conversation Nick and I had. It was one we hoped to have some day with a child of our own. In the midst of many early pregnancy losses, we were still optimistic that someday we’d be able to ask our own biological kid, “How did you get to Earth?” Rather than try and explain it, we’d just listen to the infinite wisdom of childhood innocence and confirm that we adults know absolutely nothing.
Then It All Happened
Almost 11 months later, our daughter was born. It was for sure, the most incredible moment of our lives. And the hardest. Raising a baby is no simple task, especially when you’re 5,000 miles away from family. Breastfeeding was a challenge from the start and after each feed I had to pump around the clock. To any mama who has ever had to pump around the clock, I tip my hat. Not only is it physically demanding, it’s mentally and emotionally draining. Initially, waking up to pump while my daughter slept was one of the most aggravating and counterintuitive things to do. Yet, I was relentless in my goal to make more milk, so it's what I had to do. And unfortunately, thanks to our biological hardwiring, the middle of the night is when prolactin levels peak, which means that’s when boob milk is really flowing. Skipping that session meant a lot less milk for me. The silver lining though, come to find, was that’s when my creative juices flowed best, too.
Not many people talk about postpartum anxiety. It’s postpartum depression’s ugly cousin. Truth be told, I’ve been a maternal-newborn nurse for nine years and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it mentioned once in the professional setting. We fixate more on monitoring for the depressive side, which definitely warrants attention. But anxiety can be pretty debilitating, too… and just as effectively, steal your joy. I realized I had it when I began writing more and more in the middle of the night, and noticed it was the only time I truly calm. Writing is, and will always be my coping mechanism. It is my way to make sense of the world around me.
"[postpartum] anxiety can be pretty debilitating, too... and just as effectively, steal your joy. I realized I had it when I began writing more and more in the middle of the night, and noticed it was the only time I truly calm."
Deciding to put my energy into a creative passion during a chaotic time brought me an immense amount of peace. It gave me little bursts of what Steven Kotler describes as flow state— “the optimal state of consciousness, the place where you feel and perform your best.” I can’t stress the importance of having these moments, especially as a first time parent. We spend so much time worried about our little ones that we tend to neglect our own basic needs. Dedicating time to yourself to feel and perform your best is not only a gift to yourself, your spouse, and your little one- it's a basic necessity.
"Deciding to put my energy into a creative passion during a chaotic time brought me an immense amount of peace."
For Nick’s first Father’s Day, I decided to contact our favorite illustrator about drawing a portrait of our new little family on our favorite beach. The sketch she came back with completely blew me away. From the moment I opened the file, I knew she was the one my old professor told me to wait for. And, as luck would have it, we got to meet briefly in person a few months later here on O'ahu while she visited with her family. I mentioned to her how the portrait inspired me to really want to write a children’s book. Without hesitation she said, "Then you should do it,” and told me she’d love to illustrate it. Later that night, and for many nights, I thought about our Colorado conversation and how amazing it would be to write a book about where our daughter came from— how she made it here to be with us. All sorts of scenes ran through my mind. Lyla was clearly too young to ask, but what if we gave her our best guesses?
Those earlier postpartum months are a blur, but I remember laying awake many nights after I pumped and my daughter slept. In an almost otherworldly way, the words and images flowed through me. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is one of my favorite books. He talks about the idea of Maktub— “it is already written.” So as if to say, our destinies are already written, our life’s journey is up to us to reveal them. That’s the best way I can describe how the story came to me. That it was already written, and my job was to grab the words as the fell out of space. I never thought too hard or stressed it, I just enjoyed it. Rather than dread the 3am alarm, I looked forward to it. It kept me going, both pumping and writing. Not only did it ease my new mama anxiety, it gave me a project I could control, in a strange new territory where a tiny human was calling all the shots. And as ridiculous as it sounds, it made me feel like I was accomplishing something. As if feeding, loving, cuddling, soothing, cleaning, changing, and nurturing a baby 24/7 was not enough.
For anyone looking to self-publish a children’s book, here are the steps to how I did it…
I'm no expert, but it worked for me and was finished in print in less than a year.
1. Find an illustrator. This was the most important part for me. I could not imagine my story looking any other way. I was confident she was the perfect fit after she drew our family portrait— which ended up becoming the cover of the book, with only a few minor edits (one of them— my husband’s request to make his hair longer… you know, for accuracy)
2. Put the pen to paper… or more likely, fingers to the keyboard. No excuses. I did this during the busiest, most chaotic, demanding time of my life… to date. Inevitably, it will only get busier… so if it’s something you want, stop putting it off!
3. Dedicate time each day to writing, and be consistent. Mine was during my middle of the night pumping sessions.
4. After the rough draft is written, put the words on the pages, exactly how you’d like to see them. I did this in Keynote, Mac’s version of Powerpoint.
5. Once the words are in place, add images. I either used actual photos of us, or google images and put them on the page for inspiration.
6. Save it in pdf and email to the illustrator. Decide on book dimensions. I recommend going onto whatever self-publishing site you intend to use, looking at available dimensions, and ensuring you account for bleed edges (adding whatever additional length is needed to ensure there are no white edges upon printing)
7. Approve or disapprove your vision! The illustrations went through a three stage process for approval at each step. First in black and white sketches, next in clean edge, final in color.
8. Request edits if they don’t fit your vision. I did this maybe a handful of times. She was so on point and exceeded my wildest imagination that I rarely had any edits.
9. Find a font that makes your heart sing! I used creativemarket.com . I am such a visual word person that this honestly took me weeks to decide!
10. Research self publishing. I used Ingram Spark because it offers hard cover. They don’t offer gloss pages, but I couldn’t find a self-publisher that did within reasonable cost.
11. Ingram spark was very intuitive to use. Upload the digital file of the book once it’s complete and walk through the steps of writing about the book, categorizing the genre, setting up the ISBN, print specifications, etc.
12. After the file is uploaded, the Ingram Spark team will review and send you an e-proof to approve. Read through the initial first pages carefully and contact customer support if you have any questions. Only approve it if you are completely satisfied! Make sure it’s formatted correctly and that the file accounts for bleeding! I’m stressing this again because we made this mistake the first time around!
13. After everything is all approved for printing, Ingram Spark will make it available for print on demand through amazon, barnesandnoble.com, and a few others. From my experience, barnes and noble does a better job on handling print on demand, so I have been directing friends and family there.
14. Promote your work! Ingram Spark allows you to pay to promote, but self promotion is great, too. Use social media, word of mouth, and walk in to local book stores with a copy to generate interest.
Children’s books will always be my favorite books. I wouldn’t mind if it became a best-seller… but more than anything, I did it for my daughter and for myself. It’s a gift she will always have, and a tangible creation I am happy to share with her and the world. My advice is this— if it’s been on your mind and in your heart, get your story out. Don’t doubt yourself. In this day and age, it’s a lot easier than it seems. Just write. Done is always better than perfect. The world needs your art.
With aloha, Lauren