“Wake up,” I say, as I push my hands into my husband. “I can’t breathe.”
“Wh-a. . .What?”
I’m shivering and wet with sweat. I gasp while he telephones for help with the children. We have to go to the hospital.
I’m going to die.
“Breathe with me,” my husband says as we rush out into the cold night. Inhale only when he does. Now.
There’s not enough air in the car. This. Is. It. “Drive faster!”
The oxygen in my blood is too low, the ER doctor says. They will keep me overnight for observation, the nurse says as she places the oxygen tube in my nose.
How I got here does not seem to be a point of interest. The doctor uses a pulse oximeter. It measures only oxygen. He doesn’t question me closely. Now I’m in the hospital. And I will leave without a diagnosis.
What will happen to us? My husband needs to go out of town on a project. His new business and the baby are both two months old, with the business in the basement and the baby in what used to be my office. Thinking about the baby causes a letdown.
I’m wide awake with cool air filling my lungs. I can think straight. I look out at a line of pink at the horizon.
We were once a proud one-child-only family. We were 40 years old. Then I got pregnant, just when I was getting my writer self back. Sometimes I don’t want you, I confessed in my journal and checked my underwear for the smear of this hateful thought.
I have to account for the baby’s conception myth, an opening to my husband in an almost Biblical manner. Like I never had before. Something could come of this. I was writing a play, loving it, but by the end of the performance, I knew what else was coming.
In 2005 when Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields is published, a celebrity’s description will make postpartum depression a matter of public discourse—an outcome of birth, something natural, something to watch for. What is wrong with me? It is 1988 and I have my journal for details and self-incriminations.
The baby never stops being fussy. At the store, at the bank. I offer my breast, but he acts bored. I’m shoving food at him. He cries in the stroller ride around the block. If I can’t appease him, what good am I?
One night I drink two glasses of wine and feel my arms and hands weaken. I could drop him.
I snap at my husband who wants to comfort me. “Go to bed, I want to read.” Disappear: Everyone.
The short respite in the hospital is as close as I get to the lying-in period that my grandmother had or, for that matter, my mother had for four weeks after each of her five children were born. And she did not leave the house. And women came in to help her.
A friend will tell me, years later, how in 1960 after her second child was born, she spent whole days in bed unable to nurse him, too tired to be a mother. The guilt she felt led her to start a chapter of Nursing Mothers Counsel. Her story hints at something still troubling her at 83: Did her son’s learning disabilities have anything to do with that dead time in her life?
In the morning my best friend brings the baby to me. Childless by choice, she carries him high in her arms like a big puppy. I listen to her cooing at him and drowsily think she’s talking to me. I want to stay here in simplicity.
“You’ve had a hard day. Rest,” my husband says as we pull in to the house later that day.
Everything pricks me, but I can’t come home to my skin.
I stroke the baby’s cheek to tease a smile from him as he sleeps—he seems so responsive as I watch myself watching him.
Where is there time for everything I want to do?
In a day, the baby = 9.5 hrs of laundry, feedings, and stimulation. His sister, 1 hr; my husband, 1 hr; the house, 1.5 hrs; eating, 1 hr; personal hygiene, 1 hr. Bookkeeping for the new business plus my freelance writing = 1 hr.
I have to add in hours for sleep. My husband is dreaming of a warehouse full of food, and he has to fix some torn bags that are spilling out everywhere, and then he’s at a buffet with huge pieces of rare beef and a very small plate. Deer are following our daughter, nibbling at her toes; hamsters find her bed and taste her hair. I go down long grocery aisles in complex, sweaty searches.
Against this schedule, I list my accomplishments of the past year: the play, a story prize, two short biographies, and some freelance work.
When I tell a former professor that I have to give up writing, I can’t seem to do it anymore, she says: “You’ll always be a writer. For as long as I’ve known you, for 20 years, that’s what you’ve been. This is writing, too.” She means the nursing, decisions about schedule, and picking out the new lights for my husband’s office.
A writers’ group friend sends a note: “I bet you haven’t even let yourself realize you have a baby. Take care of yourself. Let go of the extras. Read, reflect, do whatever recreates you.”
Madeleine L’Engle in snatches: “Sometimes the very impetus of overcoming obstacles results in a surge of creativity.” Salvific words but can I believe them?
A friend asks me to preach his ordination sermon. “I want an ordinary person from the pew,” he says. “I want a storyteller.”
Telling him “No,” sets off a surge of energy and then leaves me bereft. Don’t ask me to do anything. Don’t.
My husband and I quarrel about moving the business. Used to having us to herself for six years, our daughter hides out in her room that night. Later I find a note under the baby’s blanket: mad at you. Taped to the vaporizer hangs another: business are boring. On the belt of my bathrobe: more messages.
Just as the daffodils are opening a month later, a friend telephones. Could she take the baby for five hours once a week so that I could write? Her children are grown up, she’d enjoy having a baby around again. I send her off with plenty of breast milk. Five hours feel like five days. I write down what I say when she returns. “Well, it all came back again.”
“Well, this did, too,” she says, laughing.
Avowals I make demonstrate how much I believe a right attitude will change things:
I will do this parenting.
I will dissipate the rage I feel.
I will not be victimized by a preconceived idea of a role.
I will let my friends help me.
Attitude by itself does not save. My women friends, not sense of duty or throb for husband or children, are finally what keep me in my life. The gifts of their hours and care.
Slowly things change. In a new living space made out of the porch, I sit in the green rocker I used when my daughter was born and feel some continuity between then and now.
I begin to feel lucky to be alive.
But I want to stop swallowing the howl that would scare everyone if I let it out. Just as the baby is turning one year old, I seek out a psychotherapist. “I don’t know how to raise a son, I’m blocked as a writer.” She shows me how to breathe into a paper bag for my panic attacks. On and off across the six years I see her: I will need a lifetime to become the writer and mother I want to be.
Later, much later, when my son is a teenager and we’re arguing in the car about his going out with friends during the school week, he says in a choked voice, “Sometimes I wonder if you love me.” I catch my breath. At the edge of my line of sight are his legs folded and cramped. He’s breaking me apart. “Of course I love you,” I say as the light turns green and we drive up the hill toward his piano lesson. He’s becoming himself with that voice; both of us, ourselves becoming more freshly true.
The 7th Annual Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health is presented by Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit 501c3 that raises awareness & advocates for more and better services for women who have postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. Please consider making a donation today, on Mother’s Day, to help us continue to spread the word and support the mental health of new mothers.