When the baby was 10 days old and I could take it no longer, I texted my sister from the toilet, aka parenthood refuge, “OK, I feel can confess this ONLY to a sister…” (Would she be awake at 4:30 a.m.? Probably: her kids think dawn needs a welcoming committee.) My bladder sphincter was shot from my VBAC, and my tear ducts were shot, too. I wedged the newborn’s floppy torso over my shoulder, secured her with my chin. I was trying to rip the shame Band-aid off the bad feelings, but I didn’t really have a free arm. Who does, after having children?
“… Are you there? … These dark feelings cannot swallow me, can they?” The baby’s arms dangled ramen-style down my back. Newborns always look eager to give up; I was, too. 100 percent. While I waited for my sister’s response, I considered Googling, “grief after birth of my second child” but didn’t want to land in some defunct 2003 Yahoo! message board auto-messaged by Hallmark bots.
Why hadn’t anyone told me it could suck like this? Why so much grief?
We had wanted this baby. Would I seem ungrateful, unfit, if admitted I felt like someone (who?) had died? What about the moms who actually had lost a baby — would they scoff, you don’t know REAL grief, REAL loss? Or what about that mom who drove her mini-van off the cliff — I wasn’t at that level, was I? A danger to myself?
No, I was just unbearably f*cking sad. I stroked the baby’s hunched back. Hi, baby Aria. She didn’t, couldn’t, answer back: “You’re doing the best you can, and I know it.” She just cried.
I looked at the baby closely, her scrunched face speckled with white milia, red papules, to see if confessing my true feelings, even only over text, might make eraser marks on her soul.
I hoped my 3-year-old, Ro, would not wake too early before I got my sister’s support.
With Aria’s birth, I was stepmom to two, and now bio mom to two. There was a lot of re-constellating happening, as Ro raked me over the coals of his own emotions. My baby might have been growing a digestive system, but I was growing my sense of self-as-parent and how many people simultaneously could claim that prime real estate in my heart. The stretching of those tissues, emotional and physical, hurt. I felt I had to evict Ro to admit Aria. I would have rather given my arm.
My iPhone flickered the comforting speech bubble, “...” She was there. She was typing, but I couldn’t hold back now:
“… Aria is in weird newborn phase. I can see Ro's beauty so clearly, but I feel I can't see hers.”
Straddling the toilet, I unburdened myself of pee and ache, knowing she was iListening. Sometimes just to be heard, as we are, makes everything bearable and human:
How far could I take this? “I think it is only by contrast but it’s disconcerting…”
Actually, it was making me feel like I was newly widowed, apathetically attempting to date.
And then the plea: “Any experience w this? It makes me a little sad.” TELL ME I AM NOT ALONE, SISTER. WHY DID NO ONE F-IN WARN ME? WHERE WERE THE SAD MOMS TO WELCOME ME?
“A little sad” was an f-in understatement, but we could start with that and work up to superlatives.
It was one of those “throwing a fish hook out to the universe” text messages, the first of many I’d send over subsequent days, opening the vein of guiltsorrowconfusion. Those vulnerable texts needed a quick response, lest you imagine the recipient can’t handle your limbic system. I clarified:
“I am bonding w her, I love her and want to care for her… It’s OK if I traded my bladder function for her. But this is niggling at my heart. And making me want to cry.” AND CRY AND CRY AND CRY AND DID I SAY CRY.
She went on to say as time went on, it changed. And also that she went to a group specifically to cry about it weekly.
When my phone finally lit up with her response, I felt that dopamine surge for which we all criticize phone usage when we’re not busy depending on it: “Yup!!” She wrote.
SOLIDARITY. ALREADY CONSOLING.
“The love with N” — her first baby — “was all consuming. I remember thinking it was amazing when she pooped? With O” — her second — “I was like, I love you. I want to be with you and care for you, but it wasn’t the same.”
She went on to say as time went on, it changed. And also that she went to a group specifically to cry about it weekly. Wait — went somewhere just to cry? (Would that involve leaving the bathroom though?) I heard: grief, been there.
She continued: “I’m pretty sure my heart broke every day for the first few months. Then we settled in.”
“Mama!” Ro banged on the door. “STOP PEEING. Let’s go to the Living Room. The Room that Lives!”
And maybe that was what I was: just “a room that lives,” a mother-again full of incongruous heavy feelings that contradicted what I thought this postpartum moment would be.
While Ro picked books, I sent off the pleading text to another friend, whose second baby had arrived three months before Aria,
“Isn’t the delusion of new motherhood that you think your newborn is the most beautiful amazing thing in the world? I can’t see this in A yet...” (My husband’s observation that “All newborns look like weird aliens” wasn’t helping.) It was a strike against me, as if my shoulda-been-besotted doe-eyes had been hit by a hearse.
She replied so quickly (warp mom speed):
“YES, I couldn’t even tell if I was attracted to my baby until he started smiling…”
OK, when did the milestone of smile happen, again? I hooked my future on it. The baby’s current smiles were all emissaries from her intestines.
But eventually, like the moms promised quietly, the feelings changed. My heart unclenched; my sphincters cinched. The baby fit in my cherishing with no more discomfort than a raindrop entering an ocean.
I wanted to say, watch out, the grief might clobber you. But what did I know?
And then I had my chance. When Aria was four months old, and we had long reached the other shore of our configuration, and love was flowing with familiar ease, I ran into a pregnant acquaintance pushing her toddler in the park. SHIT. MY TURN. She rubbed her belly and asked me (EXPECTANTLY) how it was going with two.
How does one ever answer that? I wanted to say, watch out, the grief might clobber you. But what did I know? Why project onto her experience, notarize her worst fears? So instead I chose something safer: “My son felt like a giant after the baby was born. Very Alice in Wonderland.” She nodded, poker-faced.
Then I floated the invitation: “I had to reach out to a lot of moms about my feelings — sharing them was vital.” I knew, like most things, this option might only surface in her mind at 4 a.m., on the toilet, heart like a bowling alley without bumpers, pins toppling, ramen-baby on her shoulder. But that would have to be enough, someone out there knew what it was like, and she, stretching herself unfathomably like the rest of us, would move through it with time.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.