It’s a warm spring afternoon and I am at the playground with an old friend and her neighbor, a woman I have met a few times. Between us we have five boys, who are making good use of the equipment while we sit in the weak sunshine and chat. Two of those boys are mine–the older is four, the younger ten months old, and I am five months pregnant with number three. The neighbor is a new mother, her only child approaching one year. I have been around her enough to know how shaky she feels about her parenting abilities.
“I don’t know how you do it,” she marvels. “You just seem so calm, like it’s nothing. You have it all together.” Her tone indicates that this “togetherness” is in sharp contrast to her lack thereof. For a fleeting moment, I consider taking the compliment graciously, like I am indeed a pro at this mothering thing and worthy of her praise. But that would not be right and I hasten to let her know two things. “First,” I say, “I do not have it all together. I have just let it all go. And second, don’t worry. When my first was a year old I was busy crying all the time and just generally going to pieces.”
It’s true. My first baby was what Dr. Sears calls a High Needs baby, or as I lovingly remember him, Rosemary’s Baby. He was born with no ability to self-soothe whatsoever, so the task fell to us, his lucky parents. Nursing him for hours on end was somewhat effective, but at times even the magical boob did not work and we had to try other things to calm his incessant crying. He pretty much cried full time for the first three months of his life, then cut down to half time. Luckily for all of us, I’m a fairly calm person. I am not the type to worry and doubt myself and feel like I am doing something wrong. I felt in an instinctive and uncharacteristically spiritual way that this child had a damaged, fearful spirit. The universe had sent him to me for a reason, and I would rise to the task of showing him that life is good.
Unfortunately, understanding why your world has been flipped inside out does not make you immune to the effects of having that happen. I loved my baby and I was ready to give him all that I had. I believe strongly that when you have a baby, you are agreeing to put that baby’s needs first, no matter what. What I failed to recognize was that I had any needs to put second. I had always thought of myself as possessing boundless energy and the ability to take anything in stride. Seriously. So when Calvin was approaching the one-year mark and I started feeling a little off, I didn’t get it. He was actually getting easier, so what was my problem?
I can still remember the day my husband came home from work and knew instantly that something was wrong because I was not talking—a sure sign. He pleaded with me to tell him what it was until finally I blurted out “I feel like I don’t exist. I feel like I’m no one, like I’m just not even here. I feel like I’m dead” and burst into tears. He was stunned to hear that even though I was not unhappy about any aspect of my life, I never felt happy either. “Never?” he asked. “Never.” I hadn’t realized it until I said it out loud. I was depressed.
Over the next several days, as we discussed the way I was feeling, I saw my husband’s empathy give way to suspicion and fear. Was I saying that I was not happy with our life, that I might be thinking I wanted out? I reassured him that this was not the case and tried to make him understand the way I felt. “I wouldn’t change anything about my life,” I told him, “I want to be married to you, I want the baby. I just want to feel differently about it. It’s all in black and white right now, and I want it in color.” I’m not sure he ever really understood, but he did his best to be supportive.
At the time, I was a public school teacher and the system had recently set up an employee assistance program to provide free counseling services. I decided, for the first time in my life, to seek professional help. Part of me thought it was silly, but I knew I needed to do something. I made the appointment and went to the session. The program was structured so that I could have a set number of sessions with one counselor, and then if she felt I needed it, she would refer me to a private therapist whose services would be covered by my insurance. I talked to her about a lot of stuff from my past, about the way I was feeling and my fears about what those feelings would lead to. By the time she wrote my referral, I was tired of talking about it. I decided not to go to the therapist.
I did, however, have a personal breakthrough as a result of all that talking. The counselor had not done much besides restate what I said to make me feel like she was listening, but I had said some things out loud to her that I had never admitted, even to myself. I realized that I had shed my old, somewhat unhealthy and definitely not mother-like identity, but I had failed to fashion a new one. Aside from being the mother of this very demanding baby, I was no one. I had stopped writing and even reading books, which had been a lifelong passion. I’d lost touch with all but a handful of friends who also had babies. There were other things that I had thought of as defining qualities and actions that I knew were better left behind, but they still left a hole. The toughest thing to admit was that on a very crucial level, I did not trust myself not to return to old self-destructive habits, which would be all the more devastating now that I had so much to lose. I was just waiting for it to happen, as if I had no control over my own actions.
To complicate matters further, I was just coming to realize how much importance I placed on my appearance. For as long as I could remember, people had treated me as though I were special because I was “such a pretty girl.” In my depressed and inactive state, I had started to put on weight. I looked exhausted, like someone who wasn’t taking care of herself, and I felt that people were treating me differently because of it. This added to the sensation that the old me no longer existed, but it was also an eye opener. I had understood that others placed too much value on my looks, and I had used it against them. Now I had to face the fact that I had bought into my own beauty myth.
Admitting these things to myself, and eventually to my husband, allowed me to get some perspective and start to move forward. Of course I was capable of controlling myself, especially with so much at stake. I had a great marriage and a beautiful, healthy baby, and I was not going to sabotage my own happiness anymore.
Gradually, I started to feel better. I had fallen into the trap of thinking I was too tired to do one more thing, even if it was something I enjoyed. I forced myself to fight through my apathy and exhaustion and start doing some things for myself. Nothing big—a girls’ night out now and then, a juicy novel to be read over the head of my nursling. It helped a little. The main thing was just to keep going.
Eventually my needy baby turned into a gentle toddler who was much calmer than the others we knew, for which I was imminently grateful. He was also very verbal, which allowed me to relate to him in the way that came most naturally to me. He was still fearful and painfully cautious, but bit-by-bit, he began to embrace life. Once he turned three, he blossomed into a barely-shy, playful, happy little boy. Only then did I feel ready to have another baby. That second baby presented his own challenges, but I felt better able to handle them. I had learned not to let the task of mothering overwhelm my spirit. I never did recover the old self that I grieved that first year, but I had begun to excavate a truer self, one whose identity could not be lost to crying babies or extra pounds.
Looking back, I do not think anything could have made that time in my life easier or helped me avoid it. It’s such a stupid cliché and everyone says it when you are pregnant, but having a baby really does change everything and there is just no preparing for it. Not everyone has to go through what I did, but I did have to because of who I was before and the way I had always seen myself. I don’t think motherhood affects any two women in exactly the same way, but it affects all of us with equal force.
Flash forward again to my third pregnancy, later that same spring. Two friends of my husband have babies approaching the one-year mark, and they have invited us over to cook out with their families. The guys are off in the backyard somewhere, and I am in the kitchen with the two wives. They are both in that unmistakable, unavoidable New Mother adjustment period. They look from my four-year-old to my crawling baby to my growing belly with a mixture of horror and gratitude that it is me and not them. “I don’t know how you do it,” one of them says, shaking her head. “I know you won’t understand this,” I say with a smile, “but I would much rather be where I am now than where you are.” And it’s true.