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Friday, January 9, 2009

It Can't Have Been Five Years Ago, Can It?

I have few specific, vivid memories of Son's early infancy. Most of the period that was his first four months of life is a blur of groggy recognition.

I know there were diapers changed and bottles washed.

I know that a nurse practitioner in my pediatrician's office saved my nursing relationship with Son by telling me about nipple shields -- which were the only way that my cracked and bleeding self could bear to continue nursing the voracious monster that was my two-week-old. (Think I'm exaggerating? I still have scars to prove I'm not. Scars. From deep craters of wounds produced by the flawed latch of a newborn whose clueless mother couldn't make it better.)

I remember laughing until I felt weak when Son peed on his daddy during a diaper change. He must have been a week or two old -- no more because I was still mostly in bed, and the changing table and cradle were in our bedroom. Husband was doing the honors with the diaper, when I saw the telltale signs of impending drenching. "Oh," I spluttered, unable to find the right words to explain what was coming so quickly, "oh, his penis! his penis!" The warning was, of course, useless. Husband looked down at the little boy just as the floodgates opened. Right into Daddy's face. It wasn't nice to laugh. I know it wasn't. But if you could have seen his expression of utter disbelief...

And I remember saying, in quiet desperation to a Husband who tried to understand but simply did not comprehend the gravity of what it meant, "I have not slept more than three hours in five weeks."

I had a Son who was a slow feeder. He ate what the books called "every hour and a half." Except it took him 45 minutes to eat. So that by the time I swaddled him (it was a frigid January) and put him back into his cradle and fell asleep myself, I had only 30 minutes to sleep before he awoke hungry again. This lasted all night long. During the day, he would take a number of naps. The short ones were 20 minutes. The average ones were 45. Once a day, he would sleep for an hour and a half.

Adults are not made to sleep in snatches like this. Thirty minutes here or there, for weeks on end, is not simply unpleasant. It is actually torture. As in the real kind of torture that breaks political prisoners and makes them talk. As in the kind of torture that drives people "around the bend." In any case, it certainly makes you delirious.

And resentful of the husband who gets to go to work every single day by himself, where he will not be required to try to eat his lunch while jiggling someone else in a chair or to hold anyone else on his lap while he pees.

There were days when that was what I longed for the most: to go to the bathroom, and sit on the toilet absolutely uninterrupted, and completely alone, for as long as I deemed necessary. These are not grandiose dreams. But they are the dreams of a deliriously sleep-deprived mother of a newborn, isolated by the coldest, snowiest winter Michigan has seen in a long time and by her own sense of tremendous failure.

I, you see, had babysat my way through highschool. At $1 an hour, I often banked $150 or $200 per month in the summers. That is a LOT of childcare. I was pretty sure I knew all I needed to know about taking care of a baby. Having managed up to four of them alone for full days at a time as a teenager, I figured that by the time I was older, wiser (and able to drive!), I could certainly handle one newborn alone.

What I did not take into account, however, was that when you biologically produce the baby that you then must care for, your body does all kinds of crazy things with hormones. The other thing I forget to consider was that no matter how many children I babysat all those years ago, I always handed them back at the end of the night. Taking care of four rowdy children by yourself for one long day is no where near as mind-numbingly exhausting as taking care of one tiny infant alone for days and days and days and days without apparent end.

And then, on top of that, I felt so inadequate. Because when you have a new baby that you have been so excitedly anticipating, people who call to chat or run into you in the store always ask the same question, which is some version of "Aren't you just LOVING having a baby?" There is no way to answer "No" to this question without sounding ungrateful, cruel, and like a generally horrible mother. So of course one says "YES! Oh, he's wonderful. He could sleep a bit more..." *lighthearted chuckle* "...but you know how babies are..."

And thus friends never knew how every day I died a little more inside from the combination of exhaustion, loneliness, hormones, and inability to be honest even with myself.

The most vivid memory I have of those first few months is of the darkest day of my entire life. I had been out running errands. ("Don't you take that baby to the mall!" the pediatrician had admonished me, but what else was I supposed to do? It was 7 degrees out and the roads were piled with snow. So, I defied medical advice and ran occasional errands.) Son was about three months old. That made it April, but it was still cold and slushy out. He was bundled in his carseat, screaming. He hated the carseat. He screamed sometimes from the moment I buckled him in until the moment I took him out at our destination.

We had just arrived home from wherever we had been. His poor little face was red with screeching. I unclicked the infant carrier from the base, brought him inside, and he looked at me and just screamed and screamed and screamed. Something inside me snapped. "Shut UP!" I screamed back at him, as loudly as I could. Afraid I would hurt him, I put him down, carseat and all, safely tucked against the arm of the couch. And then I shrieked like a broken, maniacal thing, "SHUT UP! WHY can't you just stop crying?! Please," I started begging, "just. stop. crying."

In a frenzy, I tripped over a big cardboard shipping box, picked it up, and began shredding it and hurling hunks across the room (nowhere near Son, I might add; something in the back of mind seemed determined to keep him safe). Pieces thudded to the floor in time with my loud pleas, "just - stop - it!" I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. "Why can't you just stop crying? Why? Why?" I took myself out of the room, terrified at the huge emotions coursing through me, afraid I could hurt him or myself if I didn't just get away. I collapsed on the dining room floor in grief and hysterics. The dog, who had witnessed all of this, followed me into the dining room, tail between her legs. She wouldn't leave me, but she also wouldn't let me get close to her. Skirting just outside my reach, shivering, she kept her head meekly down. The sight of my beloved dog so afraid of me completely broke me.

That night, I told Husband that I thought Son needed to go into daycare two mornings a week.

I couldn't explain to him fully what had happened because I was so ashamed of my outburst. I told him I was "so tired" and needed a bit of a break. I was calm, if a little tearful, and my voice sounded oddly reasonable to my own ears in contrast to the panic rising within me. Husband, because I would not let him see the truth, had absolutely no idea how desperate and horrifying that hour of my life had been.

It did not occur to me until another month or so later, when Son was happily thriving in his two mornings out, when I was sleeping a bit more, and when I had fully turned the corner back towards the land of the living, that I had been suffering from postpartum depression. It's true. I hadn't known I was depressed until I wasn't any more. Only then could I say, "OHHHHH...so that is what that was!"

Even now, it stuns me to realize that a well-read, well-educated, otherwise pretty-in-tune-with-herself woman could be that depressed without knowing she was depressed...and without anyone else knowing it either.

Son turns five next week. FIVE years old. It boggles the mind how quickly that time goes. This is the first time I have ever fully told the story of that horrible day in his first April, the day I realized that I was going to have to admit that I did not want to spend every minute of my day with my child, that I did not love the incessant demands, that I was ill-equipped for constant exhaustion. That I was an utter failure as a mother.

I know now, of course, that I was not an utter failure. I was struggling, and I needed help, and I had to ask for help. That is not failing. That is being part of a family and a community. That is what it means to be a new mother.

But I also know that most of the popular images of new motherhood that surround us these days are of quiet, pastel women nursing satiated-looking babies in soothing-colored rooms. The women do not look exhausted. The babies do not look like vampires. The rooms do not look as if they are closing in. There is tremendous pressure (and I will freely admit that much of it comes from within) to prove that just as one can tackle the challenges of a career, one can master the art of mothering. There is a feeling that everyone will secretly judge as "failing" any new mother who is not pastel, contented, and perennially smiling in that dreamy way at her beloved infant.

And so I write this partly because it is time for me to own this story, to admit to myself that it happened, it was ugly, and we got past it. I write it partly because I want to purge these words, and this pain, from myself. I write it partly because I fear that there may be some other mother somewhere in similar pain, and because I know how much it would have helped me to know that I was not alone in my struggles. Not that she necessarily will read this, but that perhaps in launching these words out of myself, a cosmic whisper of understanding might murmur forth the soothing suggestion that not everyone adores life with a newborn. And that it's okay to admit that aloud and ask for help.

And I write it because, as I prepare for Son's birthday party, admire the fabulous child he has become, cling to him with fierce love and endless awe, I am so very grateful that those first few months are mostly a blur. A blip. A rocky start to what has become a deep, loving bond with a child so fantastic that he fills my heart with joy. Every day.

(I should add that I was inspired to let this all out by this post over at It's My Life, which is so wonderfully honest about the things we don't tell new mothers because somehow it would be unseemly to do so. Thanks, Jessica, for speaking to my heart with that post.)


Michelle said...

What a brave and honest post. Happy birthday to your little boy.

Karen said...

Thank you for writing this. There isn't one mother who can't relate to at least one part of your post.

For me? I honestly did not enjoy my boys when they were babies. In fact, I didn't really start enjoying being a mother until they were about nine months old, sleeping through the night and into everything. For some reason, I had more patience with their curiosity than with their helplessness.

Write From Karen

Kim said...

I am sitting here at work crying... I relate with 100% of this story (except the nipple shields).. every day I would cry and feel like such a failure. It took me a LONG time to even admit the feelings that I felt lost.

I will say that recently my girlfriend had a baby, and she is very very similar to me in personality. I saw the signs. I saw her hiding her isolation. I called her out on it, and she cried and said she felt relieved that she was not crazy for wanting to give up.

Long story short, she said just knowing she was not going crazy was comforting to get through the next day. and then the next.

Wonderful, brave, truthful post.

Rachel said...

Happy birthday to your little guy and thanks for sharing your story. I had a very similar experience with my firstborn. She truly NEVER slept more than minutes at a time at night and cried and cried and CRIED for hours on end. I still won't say that I was *depressed* (I had nothing to compare it to, then) but after having 3 more babies who are exponentially EASIER and slept wonderfully, by comparison, I KNOW that I was completely and utterly overwhelmed, and much like you, without much support.

Great post.

CaJoh said...

Wish him a very happy birthday. So glad that you were able to recognize what you were going through and to describe it to us.

Congratulations to both of you.

Karen said...

Happy Birthday to your little man!
I never truly understood the idea of it takes a village to raise a child until I had my own. NO ONE should be all alone and ashamed to ask for help. Thanks for sharing, I hope this helps some new mom!

lattemommy said...

Happy Birthday to your little (er... big!) guy! Hugs to him from me.

And hugs to you for your wonderful post. Early motherhood is hard, very hard. I can relate to many of the things you wrote. There were times when I thought I was an irrational, raving lunatic during the Princess' early days. I was ashamed of the way I felt and the way I would sometimes lose my mind and cry and scream until I had let some of the pent-up frustration loose. Now I realize that I wasn't crazy, I was just exhausted and overwhelmed and very alone.

However, clearly I've gotten over it. Or at least enough to have done it again (and to be preparing to do it yet again this summer). Or maybe I'm just crazy. Distinctly possible.

Jaina said...

Happy Birthday Son!

bernthis said...

You're right. You're not alone. I got divorced when my daughter was barely 15 months old. I was alone with no family, my two best friends decided right at that time to leave the state and I didn't know what to do.

Thank you for your honesty. Anyone who says they have never reached that point needs to take a second look back.

Happy 5th to your gorgeous son.

Fawn said...

Kudos to you for getting it out there.

With all the stuff I read about PPD before becoming a mother, I never once heard about how many mothers don't recognize the signs in themselves, or how they try to hide the problems.

One of my dearest friends suffered from PPD for close to 9 months before a nurse asking her about some of the symptoms made her realize what was happening to her. She felt everything had to be perfect all the time and barely even confided her torture to her husband.

When I finally learned about it, I felt like a terrible friend for not realizing she'd been depressed (even though we don't even live in the same town). I don't know what the solution is, but I think better prenatal education for couples might help.

I'm so glad it's such a distant and foggy memory for you now. :)

Happy birthday, Son!

Steph said...

What a great post! I applaud you for your honesty!

Mr Lady said...

A) you're right.

B) you're amazing. And I'm totally proud of you.

OHmommy said...

Oh wow. That was so brave, real, and beautiful really.

It reminds me of the time that I actually ripped out some hair after screaming at my 3 month old first born. The memories are slowly returning, right now. Those were hard times.

Happy soon to be birthday. For the both of you.

BusyDad said...

As a dad in a mom blogging world, I can confidently chime in about pretty much anything my female counterparts write about (and YES, I have even chimed in about THAT). But in reading this today, I realized that although we share many of the trials and drama that moms face, it's these moments that illustrate to me that being a dad is so so so different from being a mom. No matter what, we can distance ourselves emotionally because we never had that physical connection to our kids that inevitably intertwines the emotional elements of our shared existence with our children. This was just raw. A raw that I never could or would experience with my boy. Wow.

I can, however, identify with the coolness of your boy turning 5. Happy birthday, kid!!

Rose said...

This was a fabulous blog post. Honest and true. Really amazing. I'm honored to have inspired it.

My breaking point came in the middle of the night when the baby was about 5 months old. It wasn't pretty and I think I scared my husband more than ever before! Could be because I started hitting him while he was sleeping... (You can read the sordid tale here: http://snurl.com/9q9o4)

Thank you for linking to my post. I wrote it for a friend who is in the trenches right now. I wanted her to see that she was most definitely not alone in the dark. I'm sending her the link to your post ASAP.

LceeL said...

Wow. Just WOW. This is just another example of what it is I so admire in women (besides the obvious) - the strength and courage and endurance that I'm sure most men could never, ever get to.

Anna Lefler said...

First of all, any mom who denies that she's had a day like that is a big, fat LIAR.

Second, thank God our dog can't type.

Thanks for visiting my blog today - I really appreciate that. I look forward to reading more of your posts...

Take care and happy birthday all around!

:^) Anna

anymommy said...

Incredibly honest and so well written. I nodded and cried with you. It's so isolating. You are amazing for telling it like it is - or was then - the ugly and the beautiful.

Auds at Barking Mad said...

What a beautifully brave and honest post.

My baby sister is due to have her first baby, a girl, at the end of this month. I'm going to link this to her because it's so compassionately and wonderfully written that it would be a shame not to.

Thanks for sharing this moment in your life with us.

Karen is right...I don't think there's a mother anywhere that can't relate, on some note or other, to something in this post.

MommyTime said...

I have tried to email all of you back personally, to thank you for your heartfelt and supportive comments. But the Blogger comment form doesn't always result in me getting a valid email address for you -- so if I didn't write you back (Anna, Lceel, Fawn, I know this includes you), please know how very much I appreciate your jumping into this conversation with such kind and thoughtful words. It really means a lot to me, even now, to have such confirmation that I wasn't just crazy back then.

Thank you all. So deeply.

MEP said...

I'm chiming in late, but I really appreciated your post. I have a three year-old and a six month old. When my first son was born, I found the first six months really, really difficult. I was completely overwhelmed, incompetent (or so I thought), likely depressed, and then guilty on top of it all that I couldn't say I was just, as you mention, "loving having a new baby." Now, I always try to support and encourage new moms, but most of them don't seem as lost as I was, which makes me feel bad all over again, in some ways. Luckily, my second one is an "easier" baby.

Thanks so much for your honesty.

Notes from the Island said...

I read every bit of your story and as a mom of 2 I understand the intensity that a first time mom feels--and I think in part because you rarely do hear about the raw emotional intensity of motherhood it comes as a shock! Reading your story, I cried and it felt good to share that moment with you. We could all benefit from facing our worst moments and seeing them for the real human moments that they are! thank you :-)

Stephanie said...

I just stumbled across your blog today. Thank you so much for this...I can totally relate. My son will be 5 in 2 weeks and the first year sucked for me...and no one else knew it. I have a 2 year old also, and wasn't depressed with him (but was so scared I would be). I am 8 weeks pregnant and hope the depression stays away after this one. I feel like I stole something from my oldest son's infancy because I was too stubborn and depressed to admit that I was...depressed. Thanks for putting out there what so many of us are afraid to admit.

SexShoppingandGreed said...

I hate to admit it but my youngest (and last) daughter had colic and I didn't like her very well for the first few months. Now, she is the light of my life.


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