At night, I walked her. She slept for forty-five minutes and then sprang to with a siren cry. It wasn’t the wail of the tired or hungry or lonesome. There was no pro forma here. This was the big daddy holler reserved for panic or pain. You begin attentive and alert. You offer milk and a clean diaper. You sing a song. You bounce and rock. When this fails, you become passively nurturing—shushing and patting while your eyes fix on a horizon somewhere outside the room. And then, eventually, you are numb and deaf. When your mind stops registering all that input, your nervous system absorbs it. You become a little shell-shocked.
In the rocking chair, I worried about nodding off and dropping her, so we walk, walk, walked, and when we walked, I talked. This stove is where I boil oatmeal on cold mornings; this couch is where her father naps with his head in my lap after a hard day at work; that deck is warm on bare feet in the summer. It was a good place, I said. She’d like it.
I was drunk with tired, wobbling for a straight line like a roadside inebriant. By the fireplace, her head inches from the hard mantle, my gut pitched. I felt her breath through the top of her head and palmed it like a too-ripe peach. Near the top of the stairs, I imagined her falling and held her hard against my shoulder. My thumb rubbed across her downy, still-forming head, over the lip of each fontanel, and I thought of the fault lines that run beneath Alaska, of how prone to rupture the world, and we, could be.
If my body moved away from hers—if she was not nested in my arm, if she could not feel the rise and fall of my breath—she cried. So when she lulled and began to circle to sleep, we curled up on the floor—where there were no blankets or soft mattresses to block her breathing—and once she was quiet, my body hummed. My mind was wired. If I slept, I’d slump over her. If I slept, she’d choke on spit up. If I slept… All night, I stayed awake.
The pelmenis were the color of sand dollars and steaming hot. The whole kitchen smelled of pork and dill. On them, my mother dolloped sour cream. “Takes me back to my Grandma Manda,” she said.
I do not know how to make Eastern European food. My mother said she made blinis once—”A special meal when Seinfeld ended,” of all things. She and my father had been in Alaska since I delivered two weeks ago, and for her, my home was damp and cold; inky black all winter and bright as noon all summer; the mosquitos were a pestilence; the city—all twentieth-century cement and rotted wood—was less than charming. She wasn’t wrong. It can be a hard place, and if the outdoors isn’t a haven, it’s a threat—earthquakes and windstorms and temperatures cold enough to split skin. She came for the baby and me alone. So I bought lunch for us at an Eastern European deli. One she’d like, one she probably couldn’t find in Idaho. She’d stood in front of the pastry case, hands folded at her heart and said, “Ooh, fritule, bishop’s bread.”
Bernice was strapped to my chest, and I wore her like a second consciousness, ever aware of her body, her nose beside but not pressed into my breast, the hollow skull beneath my chin, the familiar bend of her legs between my ribs. She was at the center of everything.
It was a bummer my mother didn’t cook this food for me, that I wasn’t cooking it now. I asked if her mother made food like this. “Mary never wanted to learn the old ways,” she said.
The pelmenis dripped with oil. They were steaming hot and the pork was flecked with chive and earthy spices I couldn’t parse. We flew through them.
“Was Mary the eldest?”
“No,” she said. “The first baby was the one who died.”
She told me her grandmother had thrown a big Croatian baptism. Everyone got drunk and tossed the baby around and no one noticed when he turned blue.
“How old was he?” I asked.
The one-week-old. Loose skin, paddle feet, fine hair coating the back and thighs. Eyes that are milky and wide when they open, which is seldom and treasured.
“I don’t even think they knew they’d done it.”
“They didn’t realize he’d died?” I asked.
“All I know is they wouldn’t name their next son Marco because they thought it was bad luck.” She dropped another pelmeni on my plate and got up to fill her water. My mind stuck on eight days. The newborn is marked by her incompletion—by the unformed bones, the under-developed neck. They are sturdier than they look. They are made to survive, my mother had told me. But when I held my daughter, I only felt a fragility I was charged with protecting.
Through baths and diaper changes and even when she was held, she wailed. She could be clean and warm and fed, but still, there was nothing but that big ol’ cry. I read about colic, when each day a baby is seized by an inexplicable, hours-long crying fit. From noon to 4 p.m., a nurse had told me, My little one hollered and hollered. Then 4 p.m., ding, she was done. But this was not colic. There was no regularity and it didn’t turn off. For so much of each day, she screamed that pained scream. “Like we’re stubbing out cigarettes on her,” my husband said, half-laughing.
“Never seen one so fussy,” my mother said, “But she’ll come out of it.”
I imagined her insides—the sparked web of nerves, the clean lines of ligaments, the spread butterfly of her lungs. Something was screwy in there. Her ureter was bent. She was born, somehow, with gallstones. She was allergic to my milk. My concern was either instinct alerting me that something here was off, or, it was postpartum nerves. Sleep more, go for walks, drink a light nightcap, just give it time.
God bless nursing. When she was at my breast, her body unwound. So we nursed a lot. I downloaded an app that tracked how frequently she needed a diaper, when she slept, how much she ate. Maybe her screams weren’t idle; maybe they were instructive, and this data would illuminate.
During the day, my family took turns trying to soothe her. She spat out pacifiers, recoiled at bottles. My father bounced her on his knee. My husband balanced her on his chest and sang in a whisper. My mother moved with her through the house. She glided with Bernice, and I recognized it as the same steady waltzing I did with her in the night. This, then, a maternal metronome, a rhythm I knew instinctively from being carried this way, a soothing I was hardwiring into her now.
All of the few stories I’ve heard about my mother’s family either frighten or sadden. About her childhood, she’d mostly been silent, but once she said, in an off-handed way, that her earliest memory was of being locked in a car in the winter in Duluth, Minnesota. Mary had been in one of her spells, cursing and slapping her father before locking the two of them in the front seat. “I just remember my father standing at the window saying, ‘You have to bring the baby in. It’s too cold,’ and my mother pointing and telling me he was a bad man and we couldn’t talk to him anymore.” My mother couldn’t have been older than three, but she remembered ice on the inside of the windows. She remembered crying, and she remembered thinking her father wanted her to be warm, and that didn’t seem so bad.
After school, even in winter, my mother had to wait at her own front door. Mary would open it and wait for her to remove her gloves and coat. Then she would wipe her down in bleach, purging all that outside filth. In every picture I’ve seen of my mother as a small child, her hair is coiled in tight curls, her dress is starched and made of heavy silk, and her eyes are wide and sad.
My mother said she thought she had two mothers. There was the calm woman her mother could sometimes be, Mary in neutral. And then there was incensed, raging Mary. “Her whole face changed. She went from this beautiful woman to a grotesque face of fury.” This Mary, when she was done raging, would spend days in her bedroom, smoking, refusing food, screaming at anyone who came near.
I’d met her twice before I was fifteen, when she moved nearby. She died shortly thereafter.
When Bernice slept, my focus pivoted inward. My chest felt corseted, full breaths an impossibility. I remembered mad mothers I’d seen in headlines, women who snapped while caring for their children. Brooke Shields on the Today Show admitting she fantasized of jumping out a window when her baby was near. A woman I’d seen on the news as a kid had three children who had been missing for weeks. I sat at the kitchen counter eating a tuna sandwich and watched the press conference. She cried into the camera, begging the captor to return them. Weeks later, she admitted she had driven them into a lake. As a child, I found my gray cat in the barn loft, a litter of kittens coiled into her. The next day, the smallest had died and my cat crouched over it, eating. Always, I thought of Mary.
I returned to the baptism, to that moment a century ago in a warm house in Upper Michigan when the room went quiet. When my great-grandmother knew something was off. When she took the baby from some drunk cousin and propped him on her shoulder and rubbed his back, balanced him in her lap, bounced a little, pressed a palm to his chest, and felt nothing. I tried to understand my great-grandmother pregnant again, worried mostly about the bad luck a name could carry. I tried to understand how she was relaxed enough to hand off the baby and enjoy a stiff drink. In this insouciance, I did not judge or blame her. I envied her.
The baptism story seemed too short. There was a baby. There was a party. They got drunk and the baby died. This was all my mother knew. But I couldn’t believe that was all. I was sure time had deleted the details. History is highlights and plot points. The emotional interior of an experience seldom survives because it is intimate, subjective, hard to observe. But I wanted specifics. I wanted to know what my great-grandmother’s grief looked like. I wanted to know if that loss ruined her in some quiet but always detectable way. I was sure my great-grandmother grieved. I couldn’t imagine she didn’t worry. But maybe, as my mother would say, it was a different time. Kids died. That’s why they had so many. Maybe mothers were hardier because of the reality of sickness and accidents and lost children. Or maybe this wasn’t just a trick of time but a mode of collective coping. We reduce a brutal experience to facts, a buffering. It’s comforting, I thought. We carried on the hard truth that a baby died, but left behind the gutted sorrow of the mother burying him.
When someone took Bernice, I slept deeply. At 5 a.m, my mother would hold her for a few hours, till she wanted to nurse, and in the afternoon my husband would do the same. I slept fast and hard but never for long. When I awoke, I was a sweaty mess. It was the hormones, probably. But there was also the sensation that I’d swallowed a hummingbird and it was good and pissed and trying to bust free. I came back to the world lit with panic.
Once, I woke to find Bernice buried beneath the blankets. I’d nursed her and, just as I’d worried, had fallen asleep. I propped her on my shoulder and texted my mother.
“How did she fall asleep in here? I thought she’d suffocated.”
She texted back, “I’m holding her in the living room.”
But I was holding Bernice, could feel her belly press into me with each breath. I petted her temples and told her I wouldn’t be so careless next time. My mother walked in the room, Bernice in her arms, and I looked down again. Balanced on my shoulder was a feather-filled corner of our duvet.
In two weeks my mother would be gone.
For all my unease, I was gobsmacked by her feather-fine hair, her long fingers, her taut belly. She had her father’s pale skin and black hair and gray-green eyes and I called her our English rose. When she ate, I admired the full, rosebud lips that appear distinctly her own. I worked my way through my favorite songs, replacing lyrics with her name. In the middle of a dream, I call your name. Oh Bernie!
And as much as her crying turned me inside out, those screams wounded me before they exhausted me. More than relief for me I wanted calm for her. It’s all good, you’re okay, I told her. The fact that my daughter was only soothed by my body was, in one sense, an anvil tied to my neck. I was the only trick we had; there were no reinforcements. But it was also a point of pride. I was the one thing she wanted, and for all the blood and blistering, I was happiest when she curled against my belly and rooted into me.
My husband and I read books about highly sensitive infants—a term her pediatrician bandied around—and bought a fancier white noise machine and stiffer swaddle blankets. We learned to hold her head in our hands and jiggle gently. We rocked her softly, as if rolling two dice, banking on a big win. All this was meant to simulate what she’d felt in the womb—the staticky whoosh of life in water. All this was meant to convince her that this new place, with its barking dogs and breezes and mosquitoes, was navigable. So we swaddled and swung and shushed and tried.
For weeks, the mad mothers persisted. When she slept beside me, I closed my eyes and there were the kids buckled into a sinking car, their mother watching from the shore. There was beautiful Brooke Shields passing her daughter to a nanny and bolting out the door. That mother cat bent over her kitten as if she had a mouse pinned beneath her paw. My grandmother kneeled to her daughter, bleaching her skin clean in the single-digit air. It was reasonable, likely even, that these women who scared me loved their children. Maybe they waited out their pregnancies impatiently, eager to feel the curve of their child in their arms. Maybe they sang the same lullabies their mothers sang them, or palmed their newborns’ skulls, feeling the breath surge through the hollow top, bewildered by the steadiness of this new life. Maybe they savored, just as I’d been doing.
But then all that collapsed, and it was this moment of rupture I couldn’t kick—the when and the how and the why. It was the transformation that frightened me.
My mother sang a silly song about fish. It was mostly made of nonsense words, and Bernice cooed when she heard it. She sang it in my childhood.
“Where did you learn that?” I asked her.
“My mother used to sing it to me,” she said. I tried to imagine Mary singing happy nonsense. I couldn’t. In the few encounters I’d had, she’d never betrayed any gentleness or playfulness, and it didn’t fit the stories I know from my mother’s childhood. But here it was, this ditty about a fish that swam and swam all over the dam, a vestige of my grandmother’s maternal goodness.
I thought of the way my mother and I took long strides when we walked a crying child. This rhythm must have first belonged to Mary.
I asked my mother if Mary ever said she loved her.
“Every day she told me that,” my mom said. “And she’d get panicked sometimes. Like sobbing, just desperate. ‘You know I love you, right?’ and I’d just nod like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know.’”
For the first two months of my mother’s life, Mary was in the hospital. All her life, my mother thought Mary was recovering from a hard labor. But on Mary’s deathbed, she said she’d been in a psych ward. After Mary died, I sat in her closet, boxing up shoes, folding scarves. My mother stripped Mary’s bed and rolled up the sheets. I asked what someone could do after giving birth that would make them lock you away like that, and my mother said, “I’m not sure, but I’d guess say you’ll kill yourself or kill the baby.”
A few days later, I napped for almost an hour and then came out of the bedroom, my t-shirt pulled up to my collarbone, my arm cradled across my ribs. “She won’t latch,” I told my husband. “It’s so weird. I know she’s hungry, but she just won’t do it.
He put his hand on my arm. “Look, I have her.”
His touch was immediately grounding. I blinked into reality. Bernice was snug in his arm. My parents were sitting on the couch. I was standing in the middle of the living room with my left boob sprung from its bra, trying to feed a baby who wasn’t there.
Aren’t the nights always rough? I thought. Isn’t this what unifies all new parents: the sleepless nights. Mostly, yeah. A friend who had a similarly unsoothable kid texted to see how we were. She called our children our beloved terrorists and joked, “There’s a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture.” She wasn’t wrong. Without sleep, I became a montage of new mom clichés: my messy bun and smeared mascara, my t-shirt tie-dyed in spit-up. Tired Mother puts the dirty glass in the fridge and the gallon of milk in the sink. Tired Mother cries from delirium while chatting with the mailman, folding laundry. Always the room spins as if she’s three tequila shots into a very fun night, but no one is dancing or laughing. When the baby book asks for her birthday, Tired Mother writes 1937. Tired Husband crosses it out and writes the correct year: 1985. After one of her postpartum checkups, the nurse finds Tired Mother struggling to pull up her pants because she put on her shoes first. The nurse pulls off the jeans, removes the shoes, and Tired Mother is too tired to stop her, but not so tired that she misses the acute awkwardness of the situation. Tired Mother says “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” in a rapid loop. At the grocery store, Tired Mother squeezes plums and sniffs cantaloupes and does not realize that she’d forgotten to re-snap her bra and pull down her shirt. Only when the baby cries and Tired Mother lifts her does she realize her indecent exposure. Motherhood, thus far, is basically one long, wild Mardi Gras night. She is dizzy, confused, her tits are out. Too tired to be embarrassed, she laughs long and hard in the produce aisle, the child still fussing on her shoulder.
At night, walking Bernice, I read about hallucinations on my phone. Mistaking something for what it is not—a blanket for a baby—is an illusion, not a hallucination. But seeing something that isn’t there—an infant at your breast, squirming in an empty arm—is a hallucination. Two people died from staying awake to watch the FIFA World Cup. The lack of sleep caused brain hemorrhages. There they were, slumped in their recliners, yellowed in the TV’s glow. The soccer players kept running their long laps without them. Over a century ago, a Russian scientist documented the first known cause of sleep deprivation-induced death. He deprived puppies of sleep and they all died within days. I imagined fat-pawed labs spritzed in the face with water till they keeled over. Those poor dogs.
I would not die from these nights. I knew this. But what might the sleeplessness and hallucinations suggest? I’d asked my mother if she ever hallucinated or if she knew anyone who had. No, can’t say I have, she said. I wanted to ask about Mary in the hospital, what she did, what she said, if she’d ever made threats like that again, but my mother had already told me all she knew or all she felt like sharing.
When researchers denied three hundred and fifty people sleep for one hundred and twelve hours, two percent of them developed symptoms akin to acute schizophrenia—hallucinations, voices, paranoia. Another study found that eighty percent of people, if denied sleep, would hallucinate. I hoped my delirium was more exhaustion than panic. But a small part of me worried on.
I didn’t tell my husband or parents about the mad mothers I obsessed over. I didn’t tell my husband, when he asked me to hand him a beer, that all I saw was the bottle shattered and sharp beside our daughter’s head. I didn’t say this for fear of how it would sound or how they might have looked at me.
At a postpartum checkup, the gynecologist gave me a little survey to screen for depression. In the last seven days, did you laugh, did you look forward to something, did you cry or worry or fear for no very good reason? The survey was an exercise in rationalization. Certainly, I had laughed; absolutely, I felt affection for my child; no, I did not feel as though I would harm my child. Had it asked if I ever feared, overwhelmingly, becoming someone who could do harm, then yes, but that wasn’t the question. I thought postpartum depression meant you didn’t want your child, couldn’t look at her. I was never repelled by her. Just the opposite. The only thing that outpaced my worry was my adoration. I buried my face in her neck and breathed deeply. I mock-ate her cheeks. I longed for her even when she was in my arms. There were stretches in the day when all I did was hold her and memorize her face. The doctor skimmed the sheet and said, “Wonderful.”
For all my silence, I could not hide my worry. There was no ease to my mothering. It was all hovering and checking for breath and clutching. Bernice and I were isolated in our anxiety—she was a creature made to cry, and I was made to stress over those cries. My nerves announced themselves each time I handed her to a grandparent, reminding them to support the neck, each time I triple-checked the bath water for excessive heat, each time I rode in the car’s backseat just to be sure she was breathing. Each night, unable to sleep beside her, my worry was a flashing neon arrow.
There was no satisfying conclusion to the baptism story. My mother had said all she knew, so whatever details of my great-grandmother’s grief—how she recovered or didn’t—remain unknown. But consider the nucleus of my worry: it was always my daughter’s breathing—fear of smothering her, hallucinations of her suffocated in a duvet. Maybe I heard a story about an eight-day-old jostled from life and overcorrected. Maybe, as an extension of that fear, I’d fixated on Mary, the captain of my manic mother squad. I carried women I never knew within me.
I opened the app and looked at the little graph of her activity. She nursed nearly seven hours a day and averaged nine hours of sleep. Most babies at this age, it alerted me, slept an average of seventeen. My hummingbird flapped hard.
I could not become the woman who shushes a blanket she thinks is a baby, who struts her naked body before people she can’t see while trying to feed a child she isn’t holding. My husband plugged in a velvety swing that played white noise and jiggled gently. He swaddled and strapped her in. We switched sides of the bed and my husband promised me an impossibility: that he’d be sure she breathed all night. I believed him because I had to. In the swing, she slept for three hours—an unimaginable, delicious stretch—and I did not wake until she cried for me.
Predictably, sleep healed most things. The app told me we had bumped hers to twelve hours a day. Twice a day, I lay beside her in my bed and we nursed and then dozed for thirty minutes in a house full of light. The hallucinations stopped. After she was bathed and strapped in her swing, my husband and I leaned into each other on the couch and poured a nightcap and dipped golden purses of crab rangoon into plum sauce. We licked our fingers clean.
The day my mother left, I nursed the baby while she boiled water for tea. Bernice was nearly a month old and we were learning that with the white noise and swaddling and constant movement, we could sometimes settle her. There were nascent coos and a strengthening neck and plumped thighs.
My mother filled the freezer with a meatloaf, turkey burgers, lasagna, enchiladas. She stocked our laundry detergent. She wrote down directions for reheating the dinners, reminded us to use the baby detergent and hand-wash the plastic bottles. I nodded and thanked her. She sat across from me and stirred sugar into my cup and we drank our tea. Bernie finished eating and was awake but quiet. My mother closed her hand over mine and said, led only by her instinct, “You are gentle and kind.”
My mother, the pediatrician, the gynecologist: all quick to assure us that everyone and everything was fine. Some babies cry. This one did it a lot, but that’s okay. New mothers were tired. I was very tired, but that’s okay. Though our first month of parenthood was marked by extremity—the relentlessness of our daughter’s anguish, the off-the-charts sleeplessness—we found a rhythm. At the end of the day, we tucked her in the swing and blasted the white noise and I cracked the door and pulled beers from the fridge. Our first night without my mother, my husband mixed aioli and boiled an artichoke.
He turned on some late-night comedian and we laughed through the monologue. My muscles unwound. My head dropped back. But somewhere pulsing beneath all that relaxation was a quiet nagging. Maybe it wasn’t all fine. Maybe this baby would never settle. Maybe her crying was not a thing to be snapped out of. There on the couch, the artichoke hot between my teeth, on some level, I believed this. But whatever intuition tugged at me was weakened with hope and denial. I slumped harder into my husband. I savored that quiet, merciful space of unknowing.
Bernice was a spring baby, driven home from the hospital in a late blizzard, the kind of snow that was gone before it landed. That time of year in that part of the world, Chinook winds rolled warm and heavy. Trees shook off skins of snow. The roads were shelves of ice thinning and moving away from each other. Most Alaskans call this the break-up, but this nomenclature never sang to me.
I preferred the crack-up. I liked that it said something not just of the outside world but of the psyche. Think of Fitzgerald’s story, “The Crack-Up,” which begins, “Of course all life is a process of breaking down.” And the term’s broader connection to madness certainly felt on point. By the end of an Alaska winter, people are frenzied from too many puzzles and long conversations. And crack-up was the more accurate designation for what happened outside—the world opening and changing, but not really severing. To me, break-up failed resoundingly. No ties had been broken. Winter would still come back. This was a respite, not an ending.
Rumpus original art by Rosie Struve.