Tonight, I attended the opening session of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. It was a performance called Out of the Mouths of Babes: Mothers Reading to Others. I sat, glued to my folding chair, transfixed by the words of the beautiful women who stood on stage, pouring their hearts out with essays and poems on Motherhood. Many of their readings were in response to a prompt, “What do mothers make?”. I thought I’d take a shot at it.
Mothers are, and have, and make STRENGTH. It took a battle with severe Postpartum Depression for me to realize my own.
I sat, once more a passenger in the car with my Mom, two weeks postpartum, in July of 2010. To me, it didn’t matter where we were going… what mattered was that I was alone with my Mom. No three year old. No husband. No newborn twins. I watched the distorted world through rain spatter on my window, familiar and yet not recognizable. I hoped the car would never stop. I hoped against all rationalization that somehow I was moving back in time towards childhood, away from all that waited for me back home.
We were on our way to see an acquaintance of hers, a therapist/healing practitioner. My Mom thought she could help me. I was a heap of wrinkled cotton maternity mumu and months-unshaven, swollen cankles in the leather seat. My fingers traced the outline of my belly, recently emptied of its contents and now gelatinous and deflated. It occurred to me that even the familiar and usually comforting smell of my parents’ car wasn’t having a calming effect on my nerves. I had had a similar experience the day before, when a hug from my Dad didn’t take away the ache in my heart.
At home, Rob sat with the babies, blurry eyed from lack of sleep and worry about me. We knew that something was very, very wrong. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t feel. My mind felt raw and unfamiliar, my nerves a bundle of short circuiting exposed wires. I felt panicked, in a state of fight or flight, all the time. I felt chills up and down my spine with no provocation, and intrusive thoughts had become my daytime nightmares. I fantasized regularly about leaving. Thought about how they’d be better off without me. What kind of mother has thoughts like this? What kind of mother feels numb? They all talk about this joyous time… where the fuck was my joy??
My Mother drove, a look of concern set into her jaw like stone. Always stoic, my mom has had her share of difficulty, and has always handled it with grace and strength. A pillar of model motherhood, I watch her driving, and I might as well be 14 again.
I’m acutely aware of how little I resemble her in all the ways that matter.
“I can’t do this, Mom. I’m not strong like you.” I wonder if she knows that when I say “this”, I’m not specifically referring to the physical pain that my body is in, after carrying and birthing two babies, or really even the emotional pain of not feeling able to care for those two babies.
Really, when I say that I can’t do “this”, I’m referring to life in general. Postpartum depression has robbed me of every ounce of worth, of joy, of self, in my being.
“What makes you think I’m so strong, Sarah?” she replies.
“You have always been strong. You are stoic. You never even talk about your problems.” And this is true. My mother, a beautifully strong woman, has never even confided in me… never let me see her falter.
“Who’s to say that that’s being strong?”
I consider her words briefly, but I brush them off quickly before they have a chance to settle. Of course that’s strength, I think.
I’m the opposite of strength.
I wear my heart on my sleeve. I keep no secrets, I share too much. My heart is an exposed mass of trailing tendrils that wind every which way, not a self-contained muscle as it should be. I’ve been hurt by the openness of my heart so very many times.
We arrive at our destination, and I meet with my Mom’s friend. She thinks that I could be suffering from utter exhaustion, paired with a vitamin deficiency brought on by childbirth and blood loss. She recommends that I consult with my doctor, and lean on my family for help. She doesn’t recognize Postpartum Depression… and why should she? Even the practitioners who are trained in maternal health have missed it thus far.
My Mom takes me home. I want to chain myself to her car, to her body, to her strength. I CAN’T DO THIS, you see. My Mom, always my champion, cheers me on from the sidelines. “Yes, you can. Yes, you will. Yes, you must.”
A few days later, I call her from Baystate Hospital, where my two and a half week old son is having surgery for pyloric stenosis. I haven’t slept in days. I am crawling out of my skin. I have been given medication, for the first time in my life, but I am petrified to take it. I want to admit myself to the psych ward downstairs. I tell her this. I tell her that it’s for the best. I’m not good to anybody like this. I need her approval, desperately. I need her to tell me that it’s OK for me to leave my family… to leave my husband at my son’s bedside.
The tone of her voice brings me back to childhood in an instant. She scolds me. Yells. Tells me that I need to knock it off. That my husband NEEDS me. That my son NEEDS me. Tells me that I need to be right where I am, no matter how hard it might be. I am sobbing on the pull out hospital cot. My entire body hurts. My heart, my soul throbs aches with emptiness. I am so angry at her. How DARE she? She has no idea how this feels… and yet…I put down the phone and pick up Ben. I rock him, though I want to be rocked myself.
This is how I will mother for the next two months… in the sense of duty. I will go through the motions. I will do what must be done. And, I will find help. It will be harder than it should be. I will lean on my family, and my friends. I will take the medication. But, in the end, it’s me who does the important work. It’s me who pulls myself out of the darkness. It’s me who discovers my own strength.
And I realize that I do resemble my Mother in all the ways that matter, after all.