top of page
  • Mindy Wara

The Postpartum Collection: Translating Anxiety into Art

Trigger Warning: anxiety, intrusive thoughts, NICU, congenital heart defect

Pregnancy and Possibility

It took 373 weeks after I became pregnant to begin processing my perinatal trauma.

I didn’t even realize trauma was part of my story until my son was five.


During my first trimester, I devoured every book on pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding I could get my hands on. While research usually provides me with a sense of control, the more I learned about potential complications, devastating mortality statistics, and endless decisions to make, the more quickly I spiraled.


This was supposed to be the happiest time of my life?


Only my husband, Jason, knew how much I was struggling. After five years together, he knew my usual anxiety well, but the unrelenting crying jags were new. However, sitcoms had taught us both that this was an expected, hormonal reaction to pregnancy, so we didn’t really question it.


I experienced more nausea thinking about how to tell others about my pregnancy than from morning sickness, so we didn’t until well into my second trimester when I could no longer hide beneath bulky sweaters. Once word was out, it was all the more fragile. There was nothing medically wrong, but I felt it in my bones. Dodging swarms of unsolicited advice and belly touches with humor, I began referring to him as my “spawn,” because calling him a “baby” was too painful to bear.


By the time I could no longer button a coat over my stretched drum belly, threats were imminent. I’d cling to the chain link fence while waddling uphill to my office, petrified of falling belly-first on the icy pavement. Everyday kick counts became private prayer sessions to a god I haven’t believed in since I was a little girl.


Yet -

I was glowing with pregnancy and possibility.

I crocheted a teddy bear, a blanket, a hat.

I played the baby shower games.

I continued reading everything.


Brimming with too much knowledge, but not enough answers, Jason and I learned the husband-coached Bradley birthing method. He felt like the only person I could truly trust and has such a comforting presence, I can’t imagine planning my birth any other way.


That May, armed with 10 copies of an extensive birth plan, I had an unmedicated and uncomplicated labor and delivery. Jason was the incredible coach I knew he would be and I was astounded by what I’d accomplished.


Aside from a faint heart murmur that we were told would likely resolve itself, everything about Oliver and our journey to meet him felt too easy. How had we managed to avoid the tragic fates of so many other families?


Without Explanation

Baby Oliver

He was here. Warm in my arms, smelling of milk and hope, but I was still holding my breath. The last night of my hospital stay, the photographer who had visited the day before brought in a slideshow of our first family photos set to sappy music. Until seeing his big brown eyes that match my own projected on the wall, I hadn’t allowed myself to believe he was ours. In that instant, everything I’d been holding back for the past nine months poured out of me. I sobbed uncontrollably and Jason agreed to purchase the largest photo package available.


The next morning, with the car seat installed and checked and gifts, brochures, and tiny diapers packed, we waited to start our new life together - after one more echocardiogram of Oliver’s heart.


Within the hour and without explanation, he was rushed to the NICU. We were told the cardiologist would speak with us shortly. We waited, clinging to each other and choking on tears. Everything got hazy and I could barely breathe.


We spent the next few days in the NICU, fortunate to stay in a Ronald McDonald House room onsite. Jason explained what the cardiologist had told him: There was a hole between the ventricles of Oliver’s heart that would need to be surgically patched within the year. Tangled in the countless tubes and wires between us, I breastfed my son between tests.


Despite having everything I needed at my disposal, I couldn’t take care of myself. Changing my own blood-soaked pads felt self-indulgent while someone else was changing my son. So I didn’t.


Falling asleep in the quiet bedroom down the hall felt absurd while Oliver drifted in and out of naps to a lullaby of beeps and blinking lights. So I didn’t.


Punishment for letting the pain in.


And nobody noticed.


Underwater


Once Oliver was discharged from the NICU, life carried on; he was a happy, seemingly healthy, baby and our little townhouse was our sanctuary. But I dreaded going out for more than a neighborhood walk. Leaving the house led to assaults of well-meaning questions about Oliver’s health that I couldn’t answer. Not only was it too painful to discuss casually, I didn’t have the answers. Every cardiology appointment made me feel like I was underwater and couldn’t come up for air again until we were back in the car.


To compensate for my guilt and the constant dread that his blood oxygen level would dip too low, I set impossible, Pinterest-worthy standards of motherhood for myself. Within weeks, I had filled the first of many notebooks recording his naps, diaper changes, milk intake, and milestones. By July, I had crocheted a stack of hats he would outgrow before he’d seen his first snow. By September, I had sewn his first Halloween costume. In this way, I managed to fool doctors and family members into thinking I was thriving; but most days, unless there was a chance someone other than Jason and Oliver would see me, I struggled to shower, get dressed, or brush my hair.


The surgery was scheduled for November.


Against an October backdrop of golden leaves, we took what I worried would be our last family photos. Jason and I designed my birthday gift: an arrow tattoo, for my right arm; a skin-etched promise to my son that we’d move forward together, no matter what.


The morning of his surgery, while the surgeon covered procedure details with Jason, I hugged my baby close. With his paper gown crinkled against my chest, I smoothed his wispy blond hair, fought back tears, and said a silent goodbye. We returned to the waiting room filled with family members ready to sit with us during the longest day of our lives.


The First Bloom


Oliver’s surgery was successful and he recovered much more quickly than expected. My boy grew stronger over the next several months, but I didn’t. Jason suggested that I sign up for an art class to begin recovering the pieces of myself that I’d lost.


After too much consideration, I enrolled in a weekly watercolor class. With a curious toddler exploring the house, it seemed like the safest medium to have on hand; and, having dabbled in oils and acrylics years before, I arrogantly assumed watercolor would be easy to pick up.


Much like in the early months of motherhood, I was immediately humbled, frustrated, and in love. Mesmerized by the first burst of pigment to crawl across the water to the organic blooms left behind once it dried. Painting became my nap time meditation. I was still struggling, but I was creating for myself again.


As Oliver outgrew the need for naps, more of my time was spent on playdates than painting. The anxiety and intrusive thoughts became so faint that I could almost ignore them if I stayed too busy to notice.


Then the world shut down in 2020, just before Oliver’s fifth birthday. It was harder than ever to stay busy and everything I thought I’d quieted flooded back in a dissonant crescendo too loud to ignore. I left a tearful message for a therapist I’d never met. After a few weeks of even more tearful sessions, I picked up my paintbrush again.


Foraging for Inspiration


When I was accepted into my first art exhibition in 2021 and asked to create a body of work that reflected on the parallels between my identities as an artist and mother, I didn’t know where to start. My earliest attempts, paintings of Oliver that still hang in our home, were lovely, but too bright, pretty, and clean to capture my own experiences.


Foraging for inspiration, I leafed through newborn and ultrasound photos. I contacted the hospital to request the echocardiogram images taken before Oliver was admitted to the NICU, but I still can’t bring myself to open the envelope they sent.


After several uninspiring weeks, I set aside my paints and pulled out a box of charcoal sticks I hadn’t touched since college. In the pages of a discount sketchbook, abstracted forms began taking shape. When I transitioned back to my painting desk, the guilt, anxiety, and fear I’d carried for so long stared back at me, translated into gritty black strokes, stark against the white of the paper like nothing I’d ever painted before.


Over the next several months, I worked, in therapy and in my studio. Some pieces came to me quickly and intuitively, others I labored over for weeks, fussing over details and waiting for next steps to reveal themselves.


Resonance and Healing


It took 373 weeks after I became pregnant for my Postpartum Collection to come to fruition.


While confronting my traumas through the creation of this series was therapeutic in many ways, the sharing of this work has brought about the most resonance and healing. Like many birthgivers, my journey has been a quiet one, traveled in isolation; but artwork has the innate ability to connect the artist and the viewer, validating both our experiences - even if we never meet.


View the Postpartum Collection at mindywara.com/postpartum-collection.


22 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page