Words: Heather Gallagher
Pictures: Liz McGrath
Wombat Books, 2014
Perinatal, or post-natal, depression (PND) affects one in seven new mothers and one in 10 new fathers in Australia, according to the end notes of this book. 'Happy Pants', written from the perspective of a child, shows how the illness impacts an entire family; that support and understanding is needed; and that there is no quick-fix. But this is not a clinical examination of the illness - it's written from the perspective of a child, who knows Mum isn't her usual self but doesn't know why.
The story begins with a boy and his mother having fun while she wears her 'happy pants' as she progresses through pregnancy. After baby Darcy comes along, “her happy pants stay in her wardrobe”. Dad explains that Mum is feeling blue, and the son attempts to connect with his mother through hugs, food, and offering his toys as comfort, but she is unable to respond.
The page where he gives her his teddy bear and she “just cries into his fur, until it's soggy” is particularly moving, and the bear remains a silent but important participant throughout the story.
The son accidentally rips Mum's happy pants – and notes he doesn't even get in trouble – and Gran looks after the children while Dad takes Mum to the doctor.
This story demonstrates the impact of PND on all family members in – most importantly – a blameless way: Mum is ill; Dad is supportive, caring and concerned; Gran helps with the children; and the son struggles to understand what's going on. This is simply a study of a family living with PND, for, as in the case of all forms of depression, it is not just the person who is diagnosed who lives with the illness.
McGrath's engaging illustrations use muted blues and greens, and also bright, warm colours, to show Mum's emotional state, and the subtle way in which baby Darcy grows to a toddler demonstrates PND is not a short-term illness. This reinforced when Mum returns to the doctor and is not 'cured', showing there is no instant solution.
The story ends on a positive note – the son knows he is loved – but the family still has a long road ahead.
While written specifically to address PND, the themes in this book also translate to other depressive illnesses, whether long-term or just to show everyone has a 'blue day' occasionally.
Through 'Happy Pants', Gallagher has drawn on her own experiences to create a story that, coupled with McGrath's illustrations, is moving, engaging and accessible to children, and presents a realistic portrait of a family living with PND.
Read my interview with Heather Gallagher here.