One winter evening not long ago, my teenager stacked logs in our living room fireplace, the same fireplace into which I once fantasized about tossing him when he was a newborn. I wondered what this cheerful and sensitive young man might say if I told him. What might he think, what might anyone think, if I said that the slate patio we shoveled together a few hours before, was where I once contemplated dropping him from his second floor bedroom window, flinging him out past the curtains with the yellow and green cows?
These menacingly dangerous thoughts lived in my mind, vivid and sharp, moving across my internal movie screen in colorful detail: The baby in the microwave, his nostrils imploding. The baby rolling, bumping down the basement stairs like a pale soft log. I loved my son. I hated being his mother. I wanted to disappear. I wanted him to disappear.
I knew I would never hurt him.
Sometimes I couldn't turn the thoughts off, at two in the morning when I could not sleep, at two in the afternoon when I thought I could not bear another moment of motherhood. They lived in my head, lingering brightly and then dark, and when they did, I kept my baby in the playpen, or in the bouncing walker, or in the crib while I paced, sometimes for hours, until Frank came home. He held the baby and then held me until he convinced me, again, that I was not crazy or a bad person.
I understand now, as I did not at the time, that something else, something other was at work. I was not medically insane or showing latent criminal tendencies at age 35.
Of course, I had postpartum depression.
In 2009, this is so clear, to anyone, to everyone. But I got slammed, hard, by postpartum depression 16 years ago, when it was not popular, not socially acceptable, as it is today. It all happened to me before it happened to Marie Osmond, before Princess Diana first admitted to "postnatal melancholy," before the rain poured down on Brooke Shields, before PPD for Dummies landed at Barnes & Noble. I was not a pioneer, I broke no barriers. It was not me who made things better for women who were being dismissed by their doctors, told by their families to "snap out of it."
Frank and I first talked about having children on our third date. We were getting into his car after seeing a movie in which a couple had had a baby. "So do you want kids?" Frank asked. I knew one of the factors in his recent divorce was conflict over the kids question: He, yes; She, no.
"Sure," I said, and added brightly, "but not tonight!"
"But some day, right?" he said.
We married on Mother's Day and spent we spent the next three and one-half years trying to get pregnant. On my first real Mother's Day, Frank placed the baby's photo in a white picture frame which said "I love Mommy," in red letters. A month later, I deliberately pushed it off a shelf on a day when my monster-child was inconsolable and I was wandering the house looking for things to break, things other than my baby's skull.
The first time I can remember consciously thinking, "I can't do this," meaning be a mother, was when an efficient and blasé nurse demonstrated how to snugly diaper my seven pound newborn son, who was screaming. I said, "He doesn't really seem to like having his diaper so tight and being wrapped up so…"
"Nonsense, all babies like that," she said. And that was that: What the heck did I know, I asked myself, about what babies want? What did I know about any of this? What did I know about being a mother? I knew what my public relations clients wanted, I knew about running a business. I knew nothing about any of this. Twelve hours later, at home with my child, I approached the crib with trepidation and dread. I mentally flogged myself: It can't be right to feel grief, to feel nothing.
The baby was screaming, punching his veiny clamped fists in the air, circling his left leg in a jerky bicycle motion. The volume escalated with each intake of breath, and then lapsed into a terrifying open-mouthed screech, and a blotchy red-purple faced silent breath-holding scream. I picked him up, changed his diaper, rocked, turned on the tinkly mobile music. Nothing helped. It had to be me.
I told Frank, "He hates me. He doesn't even want his own mother." And silently, his own mother doesn't want him. I closed myself in the bathroom where I dripped tears on my stretched out pink cotton briefs and a new nursing bra. Still, the baby's cries ricocheted off the pink and grey tiled walls until I thought I'd scream too, and that's when I had the first idea about putting him outside on one of the snow banks drifted against our garage, because then maybe he would quiet down and maybe I could be normal again and maybe then I could start over the next day and be a good mother after all. Either that, or I wanted, had to get, out.
On our first wedding anniversary, we chucked the condoms. For the next three years what rested in our night table drawer instead were thermometers, charts, a book about fertility-friendly sex positions, and, under the bed, a wedge pillow to raise my pelvis and increase our chances of conceiving. We tried to make it fun, but after the first few months, we dreaded another yoga-like sexual position. There was nothing fun about blood work, swabs, collection jars filled with semen or cervical mucous, or the laparoscopic hystereosalpingogram to check for uterine lesions (which weren't there) or blocked tubes (which were open). We tried to treat the trip to the nearby chapel of St. Gerard Majella, patron saint of motherhood, as a meaningless placating gesture to the elderly aunt who suggested it, but we ended up staying on our knees a little too long to be convincing. We showed up for monthly appointments with the fertility specialist, but along the way my attitude slid from cheery to dutiful, and eventually to impatient and irritable.
I spent the better part of the second act of Miss Saigon in the Broadway Theater ladies' room. The fake smoke and the roar of the realistic helicopter blades on stage were making me sick and I stayed there, peeing every three minutes and nervously weighing how to tell Frank: I was done. No more treatments. I would not be keeping my appointment with Dr. Scott the next morning. We were happy, weren't we? I felt queasy and lightheaded anticipating the conversation we would have over coffee after the play. Before the coffee arrived, I nearly fainted, which we blamed on the traffic-clogged Lincoln Tunnel and an overheated car. We cancelled the cheesecake and went home to bed. I was quiet and melancholy but the next morning, I was at Dr. Scott's, early as always for my usual 9:15, and I did the usual – peed, undressed, and started counting the daisies in the poster someone had taped to the ceiling in the examination room.
Suzanne, a nurse I liked, charged in, grinning. “Congratulations! You’re pregnant!” she said, holding up a strip of pink paper. I remember it was pink because months later, I recall thinking, for many other reasons, that it should have been blue.
Que sera, sera, my father used to sing when I was a child.
Be happy with, my older sister's hippie friend chanted in the sixties.
You have everything you need, a new-agey client advised.
I was dismissive of all of these chestnuts, but the thing is, I believed them. I believed that things always had a way of working out – apartments, men, where to go on vacation. Life would all be good, either way, any way. So when I said "yes, someday," to Frank on that third date, what I probably meant was, yes, if it works out that way. Yes, having children would be great, and not having them would be just fine too.
Never, during the infertile years or even during my pregnancy, did I think, even for an instant, that I had to be a mother, that if I didn't become a mother, I would feel robbed, or unfulfilled, or less of a woman, or that my marriage was missing something. Instead, I thought, if it works, if not, I will be all right. Having a family, to me, was just another way things might randomly and surreptitiously work out.
So was I being punished for my ambivalence now? Why weren't things all just working out? Surely they would, for someone more deserving – a woman for whom motherhood truly mattered, who was not worn out with unrelentingly absurd worry: Would the baby get abducted from the car while I put a quarter in the meter? Fall off the changing table even though I held him securely? Aspirate a dust mote and develop pneumonia? Had I veered from baby blues to the black hole of insanity?
My son was born two days after Christmas, and so the first day that Frank returned to work and I was alone with the baby was January 2. A new year. I could do this, I told myself. "Call me if you need anything," Frank said. "I'll be in the office all day." That meant he would be just five miles away instead of on the road, sometimes 100 or miles afield.
That day was not much different than all the rest that would follow that bitterly cold, grief-streaked winter. When the baby squirmed and screamed, when his gastric reflux spewed out another four ounces of putrid smelling half-digested milk, I sorted through my options: the fireplace, the microwave, the basement stairs. I took stock: I lacked the nurture gene. I had no urge to cuddle my baby, and this distressed me not because I longed to feel motherly, but because I urgently wanted to feel something, anything. My baby was a blob to me, a blot.
Mothering was odious, a chore, one I would gladly trade back. I disliked not so much my son, as the idea of something needing me, sucking at me, wanting me. I hated myself, hated my situation. Yet I was not upset that this, that I, was abnormal, only that things were horrible and I wanted it all to go away – the baby, my husband's pleading expression, everyone else's puzzled looks. I often wondered if, on my next trip to FoodTown, I ought to keep driving until New Jersey slipped into Pennsylvania and motherhood loosened its viselike grip or until I found a big enough concrete wall at which to aim my car.
As winter turned to spring, I wanted to believe we just needed more time – one more day, another week, one more month -- to adjust to each other and all would be well. When the snow stops. When the rain stops. When the baby is weaned. When summer comes. But the days went on and nothing was okay and little changed. Months passed even, and they felt like years, and eventually it was years, almost two.
By then, I was so far beyond anything resembling the baby blues or simple new mother jitters, and my bottomless dark mood did not lift when my son had a few good hours or even when he and I had a few good days. I did not think I had postpartum depression because no one ever brought it up. I would not stumble upon the phrase myself until my baby was nearly a year old, which for a resourceful person like me, someone who had years of journalism training and plenty of experience digging up information seems, in retrospect, a very long time indeed. I could have figured it out sooner, I guess, if I had been searching for a reasonable psychological explanation of why some women react to postpartum hormonal shifts with severe depression.
The thing is, I wasn't looking for logical answers. I was looking for reasons why a well-balanced, intelligent, professional woman in her 30s would suddenly be wondering, a few times an hour, if infanticide, followed by suicide, were reasonable responses to motherhood.
My son, the one whom I did not burn or microwave or desert in the snow, the son in whom I was once not interested, couldn't care for and didn't know how to mother, the son who is now a lanky, jokey teen, is asking me something. Should he light the fire? As the flames flash up, I notice that they send an eerie light across the gorgeous curly hair and solid chin where the first stubble of hair has recently appeared, and I notice something else too: how still I am unlike most other mothers, who at a moment like this might think back to how needy and small and helpless their child once was, and wonder fondly where this manchild has come from. Instead, I am thinking about how needy and small and helpless I once felt, and wondering where this grown-up mother could have possibly come from, and if the love, flowing back and forth, mother to child, stronger than iron forged in fire, could have ever not been just exactly as it is right now.
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