For the first few months after my son was born, I called him The Baby, or sometimes just Him with a capital H, huge proper nouns to illustrate how completely he took over my life. Is he eating, not eating? Pooping, not pooping? What color is the poop, how long ago was the poop, did I mark the poop on the spreadsheet? I had spreadsheets. I had stuff—white noise CDs and magnetic blocks and this super high-tech video monitor with a remote wireless screen and night vision, which made The Baby glow electric green in the dark like he was a CIA target. It was a little unnerving, actually. It had two frequencies, an A channel and a B channel, in case you had two kids in separate rooms, and what’s interesting about this is that one of my neighbors must have owned this same monitor, because on channel A, I saw my baby, and on channel B, I saw someone else’s.
And if I could see someone else’s, then someone else could see mine.
We live in a third-floor walk-up in Uptown surrounded by other third-floor walk-ups. Jumping onto a neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal isn’t much of a stretch, so perhaps the fact that I could toggle between babies shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was. It was huge. I was obsessed. On one hand, it was totally creepy—stalking, even—but on the other? It was sort of magical, like walkie-talkies and CB radios when you’re a kid: connecting with someone across the void, adding your voice to the collective unconscious, feeling less alone in this crazy world, and who knows who might be listening?
Who knows who’s in that Uptown condo on channel B?
A baby, to be sure, but it wasn’t the baby I was obsessed with.
It was the mother.
My imagination went wild when I thought of the mother. Did she sit there, watching my kid in the dark? Did she question his bedtime? Wonder where I got his pajamas? How might she react if I left a sign in his crib that read: STOP LOOKING AT MY BABY, YOU DIRTY VOYEUR!
Or this one: YAY NEW FRIENDS! DO YOU WANT TO MEET UP AT THE PARK? Or the truth: I AM TERRIFIED. I AM SO TERRIFIED THAT SOMETIMES I CAN’T EVEN BREATHE.
Any winter in Chicago is a force to be reckoned with, but 2008 was particularly awful. The Baby was born three weeks early, middle of the night, middle of a snowstorm. My poor husband had to dig out our buried car, shovel the alley, and navigate Lakeshore Drive through a whiteout blizzard, and that relentless, pounding snow stayed through January, February, March, and into April. I’d taken those months off from work, and my husband, a web designer, had picked up extra projects to cover the difference, so for the most part, The Baby and I were alone in our tiny Uptown condo, beyond which, in my mind, was the ice planet of Hoth. Remember Planet Hoth? From The Empire Strikes Back? Luke almost freezes to death, but Han Solo pushes him inside a dead tauntaun for body warmth? That Hoth.
I joke about it now, but here’s the truth: I was scared to go outside. The Baby might freeze. I was scared to fall asleep. He might suffocate. I was scared he wasn’t eating, wasn’t latching, wasn’t gaining, wasn’t doing what the books had said he would do, and every morning, when I looked in the mirror, I wondered who that girl was looking back. We all have things about ourselves that we know to be true, and suddenly, I couldn’t remember any of them. I was unbrushed, unwashed, wearing the same yoga pants and empire-waist shirt every day. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t feed my kid. At the time, my understanding of postpartum depression was primarily shaped by Brooke Shields’s memoir Down Came the Rain: crippling depression, suicidal thoughts. But since what I was experiencing seemed heavy, but not that heavy; dark, but not really that dark; scary, but not, you know, like that—it didn’t occur to me to ask for help. I mean, I wasn’t going to hurt my kid. I wasn’t going to hurt myself. Right?
Now, four years later, I know that the symptoms and intensity of PPD are as varied as the flowers in a greenhouse. I wish I’d told someone. I didn’t need to feel that alone: just me in the frozen Chicago winter with my tiny, fragile baby. And channel B. Whenever The Baby would fall asleep, I’d stare at his Day-Glo body on the monitor, making sure he wasn’t choking—or levitating or exploding or whatever horrible thing I’d imagine—and then, assured of his safety, I’d flip the channel to see how that other mother was doing. I bet her kid was eating. I bet she changed clothes occasionally. I bet, for her, snow wasn’t a terrifying apocalypse but rather a Hallmark-like sprinkling of picturesque flakes—”Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” if you will. And yes, I know, it was completely intrusive and unethical and above all, ridiculous. Why was I comparing myself to this woman? I never even saw her! Mostly, there was just an empty crib. Sometimes there was a baby, wiggling and doing baby things, but the mother was a total nonentity. Until one night, I flipped over to channel B and heard crying. Not from the baby—he was fast asleep, an angel—but somewhere in his room, a woman was sobbing: heavy, gaspy, gulpy sobs.
They went on. They went on and on. I shouldn’t have listened. But it was the first time since my son was born that I didn’t feel alone.
What finally changed things was this: spring. Birds! Green things! Grilling on the porch! Frozen blender drinks! Short skirts! Outdoor seating! SPF! Lemonade! Which you can get any time of year, but it tastes better in the sunshine! Sunshine! My God, how desperately I’d needed it! I’d wager most Chicagoans feel this way in spring, but for me, May 2008 was a godsend, a great, mammoth hand reaching down out of the clouds and pulling me to my feet.
That May, The Baby became Caleb, smiling, laughing, responding, four months old and learning about the world outside my lap. I’d strap him in a backpack and walk through Uptown—Broadway to Argyle, down to the beach and back up Montrose—finding magic in everyday things. Plastic grocery bags? Amazing. Tapping a glass with a spoon? Kick-ass! Water in a dish? Fun for hours! One morning he reached for a yellow street-cleaning sign stapled to a tree, and all at once I saw yellow as if I’d been blind to it for years: Brake lights! Parking lanes! Flowers in the neighbors’ yard! Taxis! More taxis!
And in that moment, we passed a woman with a stroller. She was pretty, early thirties, wearing yoga pants and a yellow empire-waist shirt. She looked nice. And tired. And interesting, like there were all sorts of secret things about her that were set on pause for the time being. She looked like how I saw myself. We nodded at each other in solidarity. This, I had newly discovered, is the way moms do it: acknowledging the fact that even though you don’t know each other, you’re still a part of this great cosmic team. And then you check out each other’s kids. Hers was grabbing his toes in the stroller—so sweet. So adorable. So… familiar, and not in that All Babies Are Alike sort of way. I looked closer: yes, I knew this kid, and suddenly I saw him not face-to-face on Lawrence Avenue, but electric green on a tiny, hand-held screen.
I looked back at the mother. “You know—“ I started, then stopped, ’cause, really, what would I have said? STOP LOOKING AT MY BABY? YOU WANT TO MEET UP AT THE PARK? How’s about the truth: YOU HELPED SAVE ME.
“Your baby is beautiful,” she said.
“So’s yours,” I said.
We stood there.
We stood there long past what is appropriate for strangers. I like to think it’s because she was thinking the same thing I was. That maybe she, too, had flipped channels in the middle of the night, trying to connect with someone across the void or feel less alone in this crazy world. Maybe she’d overheard me crying in Caleb’s bedroom, months ago when everything still seemed so cold, so impossible.
“How are you?” I asked her. I wasn’t just saying it. I really, really wanted to know.
She smiled. “I’m getting better.”
“Me too,” I said. “I’m getting better.”
It was something about myself that I knew was true.
Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.