In my bottom drawer, under the old ratty t-shirts and worn, candy-cane and Scottie-dog printed pajama pants, scattered like a child’s game of pick-up sticks, lies my collection of positive pregnancy tests. Eight or nine in total, each with second lines in varying shades of pink, my first inklings of motherhood. I’d had two miscarriages in 2011, and there’d been collections of tests then, too, subsequently thrown in the trash in grief, in rage. But in the spring of 2012, those second lines were darker than they’d ever been before. This was real, and it would stay real.
The urge to become a mother was exactly that: an urge so primal and unrelenting it took my breath away. I never believed in the biological clock until it was gonging me awake at night. My body ached with the wanting. From the fall of 2010 through the spring of 2012 I peed on so many pregnancy tests that it felt odd not to be peeing on a pregnancy test. And when it was real, finally real, I felt transcendent with joy. My body was less mine, more ours. The baby’s and mine. I felt like a walking team. Standing outside a coffee shop one morning, I had to call my husband and try to explain: I’m a woman! I said. You know? I ate cream cheese out of the tub with my fingers; I shopped the maternity section at Target weekly; I methodically tracked my baby’s development in the womb; I feathered my nest (the baby’s room had to be fun yet calm. It had to feel like us); my husband and I took classes on breastfeeding and CPR at the hospital where I was to deliver. We obsessed over names. I stared at the sonogram images, trying to see who this baby was. Is that Ben’s nose? My chin? I cried about how much longer I’d have to wait to meet him. Him. This person I couldn’t wait to meet, who I already knew, because he was me and I was him.
I wanted it. I wanted motherhood and familyhood. I prepared the way I prepare for everything big in my life, and I had a supportive partner, a stable income, and a baby-ready home.
In the delivery room, where I’d been for two days waiting for the induction to finally pay off, I tried to quiet my mind, to say farewell to what had been and welcome what was to come. I spoke to my baby; I sent pulses of love to him when my kidneys weren’t feeling stabbed from the back labor despite the gallons of epidural I’d pumped into myself. And when it was time to push, I looked into my husband’s eyes, saying goodbye, but also saying hello. I was doing everything in my power to stay present and aware. I had this fear that if I didn’t, it would all slip away from me. I’d miss it.
Parker was born hollering. He needed no feet tickling, no light spank. As soon as he could take air he used it to yell and yell. They laid him on my chest. Like a stole, I remember thinking, because already I had lost control of my thoughts. It’s Momma, I said. Shh. Momma’s right here. He stopped and listened. He calmed. A warm dribble of pee trickled down my neck and I thought, Perfect. That is exactly what my son would do. Then they took him from me, to wash and weigh him, and my husband followed. My doctor was between my legs, stitching. I’m just going to clean all this out of here, since it won’t be easy for you to go in the next couple days. By this she meant poop, and by here she meant my anus. Perfect, exactly what would happen after I give birth, my brain said, anticipating the time when it would reconnect with my body and I could laugh about it with my husband.
I remember watching Ben, bent over our water-swollen baby as he was measured and swaddled, studying him, talking to him in stops and starts, trying to figure out how to talk to him. Parker, he said, You like that light, huh? He was so far away. They were so far away. I felt stunned. Like I’d nearly been hit by a car. Breathless, dizzy, drug-addled. I felt, for the first time in nine months, totally out of my body. A nurse drifted into my cloud of vision and said Congratulations. Now the hard part begins. I smiled like I knew what she meant, like I was in on it, but I also thought, How bitchy.
Over the next 36 hours we were visited by a nurse or a doctor or an aide, even a hospital-endorsed photographer, every hour. At 2 a.m. a woman wheeled in a machine to test Parker’s hearing. My sleeping, swaddled baby, suddenly blasted with beeps and blips. If he twitched enough, he passed. At one point I asked the nurse if she wouldn’t mind, if it wasn’t too much to ask, if it was okay for her to possibly, maybe, leave us alone. I hadn’t slept since the night of December 29th, the night before we went into the hospital. It was now January 2. Absolutely, she said. An hour later she was back, needing to check my blood pressure. By the time we were discharged, I had come to resent the experience so much that all I wanted to do was take my baby and run, literally run in my slippers, down Fullerton to the highway and finally to the quiet of my home.
I left the hospital in roomy pajama pants and a turtleneck sweater, the jeans I’d ignorantly, naively, brought with me in a crumple in my bag. We couldn’t figure out how to snap the car seat in; of course we couldn’t, there might as well have been a boom mic and a laugh track. It was a typically gray and icy January afternoon, but I was heading home, where Wanda, our beloved dog was, where my mom and mother-in-law were waiting, and where we could finally start our life as a family. Talking to a friend that night I tried to explain how I felt like Parker was both a stranger and someone I’d known all my life. That’s so beautiful, she said, and soon after Ben and I went to bed, Parker in his bassinet in our room and our dog nestled between us. Like normal, plus one.
We had been warned that the baby’s second night on earth is the hardest, because the baby knows he’s not in the womb anymore, and he thus needs a lot of comforting. We had prepared ourselves for a long night, and oh, it was long, but there was nothing that could have prepared us. By the next morning I had finally crashed back into my body and found it a battered, war-torn, exhausted and weeping shell. I held my baby in my lap and cried. I miss Ben and Wanda, I kept saying. I’m right here, Ben would answer, but what I really meant was I miss then. I miss before.
That day we had to take Parker to a follow-up appointment with his doctor, who sent us back to the hospital because his bilirubin levels were too high. After Parker’s blood test, Ben and I ate lunch in the hospital cafeteria, him a ketchup-splattered chicken patty and me a plasticky grilled cheese I couldn’t even find the heart to chew properly. We waited for hours to hear back from the doctor, roaming the halls of the hospital, finally settling in the lobby, before my husband declared the situation fucked and we went home. On the drive I sat in the back with Parker. He looks heartbroken, I said. He was me and I was him.
My husband went back to work, and then my mom flew back to Florida, and it was just me and the baby. Alone together, but no longer the us we had been when I was pregnant. Now he was he and I was I, and I was the one whose anxiety prevented her from making enough milk for him, and he was the one still needing to be fed. I began supplementing with formula, allowing him to drift off to sleep at my breast because I knew he could just have a bottle after, and because I either had to keep finding a way to feed him, keep holding him and washing his tiny onesies, keep breathing from moment to moment, or I had to run from him and the home I loved. I’ll just fake it ‘til I make it, I’d said to my mom. Whatever you have to do, she’d said, and I loved her more than ever for not shaming me for saying I needed to fake loving my child, for maybe reaching back to her new-mom self, over three decades ago, and saying what she would have wanted to hear.
The days began to run together like paint in a drain. Motherhood was a brown sludge. Approximately 70-80% of women suffer baby blues in the first two weeks after giving birth. Baby blues are the least severe form of postpartum depression. Those are the facts I heard over and over as the brown sludge blackened. I had heard of PPD but I had never heard of baby blues. Based on what I saw on Facebook and mom blogs, those first weeks of motherhood were exhausting, but the bliss new moms felt eclipsed any sleep-deprived misery. I had never had that moment of bliss. The closest I’d come was that moment of piss, before Parker was taken from me and it all began. The hard part.
I longed for the days when Ben and I could sit and watch TV together; eat a meal without Parker present. I longed for our life before. I wept, and my anxiety filled me like poison gas, and I could not sleep even when the opportunity presented itself. One night, Parker couldn’t latch and became frustrated, wiggling and whimpering, and a thought blasted into my brain like it had been bleeped there by a strange woman and her cart: I hate this baby. I immediately filled with hatred toward myself for feeling hate toward my baby. I couldn’t believe what a monster I had become. Ben was asleep next to me, but I felt utterly alone. Angry that I was sad and sad that I was angry. And most of all I felt shame. I had been given a gift, a gift I wanted so bad that it hacked a hole in me, and now I wanted to send that gift back. I was failing my son. Actively failing him. I felt shame, and I feel shame today, at my own selfishness, that I’d allowed myself to wallow in my own misery when there was a helpless, guiltless being who needed me.
I said all of this to my husband. I said all of it to fellow mothers I knew that I desperately emailed and texted, asking if they’d felt the same way. The answer was always yes. Every mom I spoke with, including my own, struggled in the early weeks of motherhood. Struggled being the polite way of putting it. But is it worth it? I asked my friend Maria. Yes, she assured me. Everything is different and will never be the same, and being a parent is so hard, but it’s all worth it. Maria had been the one who, at the end of my baby shower, placed her hands on my shoulders and said, Listen. The first weeks are going to be awful. But it gets better. I had laughed and thanked her, but could not understand why she would say something like that at such a joyous event. Looking back, I am thankful she tried to prepare me.
One night, as I picked Parker up for a wee-hours feeding, his diaper began dripping. I hadn’t changed his diaper since the previous evening. His diaper! I exclaimed. I can change his diaper! I could do something for him that would be helpful and good. Something concrete and motherly. I could massage cream into bottom, which was red and rashy and all my fault, but something I could solve. I could do something right. An obvious, easy thing, but for me, it was a revelatory thing.
The hormonal surges that cause baby blues began to die down, and I found myself feeling tired but…capable. I would not wish maternity leave in the dead of winter in Chicago on anyone, but despite the drudgery outside, the sludge inside me began to clear. Parker wheeled his arms when they weren’t trapped in a swaddle; he always had a lot to say; he let me take him on long walks with Wanda in the ice, the snow, the gray, the dreary endlessness. He was a really good guy, and I began to fall for him, this absolute stranger who was quickly becoming my son. We went to the record store, the apothecary, the coffee shop, Target. I wore him in the Baby Bjorn, strapped to my front, almost like it was when I was pregnant and we were us.
Slowly, we figured each other out, but those dark weeks are hard to shake. They color every memory of Parker’s first year, so much so that I often feel the need to overstate how much I love my son. To wit: I love my son. Sometimes I worry that, when I’m nibbling on his toes, I will actually take a bite. I’d fight a charging grizzly bear for him. I would murder an intruder with my bare hands if he went near my son’s room. I would cook my own flesh and feed it to him if this were the apocalypse. I often imagine these situations, because that’s what happens when you become a parent: you cultivate a near-feral sense of protectiveness. The love I have for him is the love I always imagined I’d feel: primal, raw, inexplicable. But it was hard-won. Sometimes I think that’s because I never started out feeling like a mother. Or I had assumed feeling like a mother meant immediate maternal know-how, eternal bliss, and above all, grace. That stuff is part of it, but so are the many moments of fear, exhaustion, sadness. New mothers, listen: you are still the you you were before. You are still the you who wanted it so badly, still the you with the bouquet of positive pregnancy tests in your bottom drawer, still the you who had no fucking clue what came next.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.