Defense against the darkness

“Welcome, everyone,” the instructor said, her legs folded into a neat lotus position, her face beaming a peaceful, earth-mother glow. “Let’s start by going around the room and sharing what brings you joy.”

It was my second day at postpartum yoga, one of countless mommy & me activities I’d joined shortly after Mac was born, and I was the first of 15 or so new moms, sitting in a semi-circle of yoga mats, to take up the question.

Mac takes yoga class very seriously.

I’ve never been comfortable with public speaking, even in an environment as safe as this one, where half the audience didn’t speak English yet, and the other half was consumed with the newborn beetling on a blanket in front of them. So I was relieved that this, at least, was an easy question, one that I’d developed a stock answer to years ago.

So much easier than last week’s “What has motherhood brought into your life?” (My answer: uh, a baby?)

“I love to swim in the ocean,” I said confidently, keeping one hand on four-week old Mac as though she might suddenly decide to get up and run away, “especially when the water is warm and there are beautiful fish to look at.”

Nailed it, I thought, relieved that I’d redeemed last week’s poor performance.

Mom #2: “My daughter’s laugh just lights up my world.”

Mom #3: “Getting to share in my son’s learning experience.”

As the sharing rippled around the room, my anxiety ratcheted up. Every other mom in that room shared something about her child as her source of joy. I was the only one who said anything even remotely unrelated to family.

Dammit. Another F in the grade book of motherhood.

The first time I saw Mac in the NICU—really, the first time I saw her, save a few blurry seconds on my chest right after her birth—I remember a feeling of utter detachment. Foreignness, not familiarity.

When we brought her home, I knew I was supposed to talk to her, to find joy in this new life in my charge. I knew I was supposed to sing and cuddle and nest, but my nonsense songs sounded phoned in, my narration of our daily activities forced. I wasn’t quite sure to make of this creature whose arrival had shattered the sense of self I’d spent over 30 years cultivating. I felt reduced to cracked nipples, a deflated belly, and various traumatized body parts to be poked, measured, stitched, consumed.

All around me, I heard my peers singing the joys of motherhood.

Parenting a newborn bored me out of my mind.

They reveled in the gifts of maternity leave.

I itched to sneak back into my inbox.

They spoke in rapture of the unmatched love they felt for these squishy new lives.

The strongest feeling I could muster was ambivalence.

As soon as I was able to leave the house, I found myself taking long walks with Mac in the stroller. I didn’t know what else to do with her, or with myself. We walked against the darkness and against my raw emotional state and through the long still hours of the day.

I had nothing left that was mine, and, I believed, nothing to give. All around me, the darkness closed in, and it left me ragged and brittle. I couldn’t summon the reserves to return calls from loved ones and perform the happy new mom dance. The red badge tallying up new voicemails from friends inched upward, unchecked. At least once a day I’d dissolve into tears for no apparent reason. Over and over, I counted down the minutes of each monotonous cycle of nurse-nap-now what?

I was sure I could muscle my way through it, through sheer force of will. I signed up for every mommy & me group I could find. I went to postpartum depression support groups. Postpartum anxiety groups. Homebirth* and babywearing and stroller fitness classes. I set a record for answering icebreaker questions wrong. I kept adding more and more activities to my calendar, all the while hoping I’d uncover a diagnosis for my disinterest.

If I could name it, maybe I could find a way to cross that threshold into feeling like a mom.

They say the first three months—the fourth trimester—are the uphill battle. I’d say eight months is closer to when I began feeling like I might come out the other side of this reasonably intact.

There has been no watershed moment, just a series of small cracks in the darkness. The moment when I hear Mac and Nathan playing in the next room, and I find myself thinking, spontaneously, “That sounds like fun,” and wish I were in there. The moment when her happy shrieks make me laugh harder than I have in months.

I wish I could say that I wasn’t still emotionally raw. There are still jagged, brittle days, when my resilience is whisper-thin and the darkness closes in over my head. There are still mornings when the prospect of leaving the house or checking even one item off my to-do list leaves me feeling defeated.

I’ve found no salve, no drug, no practice, no magic cure. It’s just time. Time that I’m still taking. It’s finding my mom tribe, whose company helps me feel less broken. It’s getting creative with making space for myself. It’s letting Mac’s smiles and babbles start to knit together a defense against the darkness.

I’m 16 months postpartum and I’m still finding my way through.  

*Luckily for me, just intending to have a home birth means you’re welcome at these groups. So I got my cake epidural and ate it too. 😉


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13 Replies to “Defense against the darkness”

  1. I am so proud of you for writing this post, Alyse. It’s raw and honest and beautiful. Everything isn’t always easy and I think this post is going to help another mother realize that they are not alone! Thanks for sharing!

  2. You do it all so well and so flawlessly. It never seems like you’re anything but rockin’ it at motherhood. From a non parent “outsider,” it seems to me that new parents – well, new moms in particular –
    have so much pressure on them to do everything right – and just like with anything else, you just have to do what’s right for you. If it’s swimming in the ocean to find joy, then fucking swim in the ocean and be proud that it brings you joy. It’s better than having no joy at all or finding it in ways that are unhealthy. Just because other moms are saying it’s their babies smile or squishy bodies, doesn’t mean it’s 100% accurate. They could just be fearful of exactly what you’re fearful of…being wrong.

  3. Oops. I didn’t finish. Mac seems like the happiest baby there ever was so I’m pretty sure you’re doing things right….especially when you’re loving swimming in the ocean and being amongst fish.

    1. Thank you Jamie <3 thanks for always having my back and being my bulldog - especially in those moments when I most need a push and a protective bestie. Love you.

  4. Thank you for sharing this! I, too, struggled with this. With both kids, actually. When my son was born 4.5 years ago I felt exactly the same way. I couldn’t attach myself to him. I felt the need to care for him only because I grew him. But nothing else. My PPD and anxiety were awful and I couldn’t wait to get back to work. 15 months ago when my daughter was born I felt that immediate connection is previously yearned for. But my PPD still reared its ugly head. But somehow I’m still finding my way out of it too..

    1. I’m so sorry you went through that, Rachel. Everyone warns you about PPD but you never think it will happen to you… and I had no way of imagining just how debilitating it could be.

      I’m so glad to hear your experience with your daughter was different, and I hope that dumb PPD stops rearing its ugly head. <3

  5. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m almost 6 months pregnant and I’ve told people to their shock and horror that I don’t love being pregnant. In fact most of the time I feel preyed upon, like my body has been taken from me forcefully. I feel less like a horrible mother after reading your experience, so thank you

    1. Oh I feel you, so hard. I had zero connection to Mac when she was on the inside, and I constantly felt like I was performing some excitement about being pregnant / having a baby. (though toward the end I started appreciating being pregnant, just because everyone’s so incredibly nice to you!). Hang in there, you are an excellent mother already, and no matter what you’re feeling, you are not alone!

  6. Alyse, I wish I could reach in thru the interwebs and give you a hug. A huge warm lasts for an uncomfortably long time hug. Does it help to tell you I have been there? Because I have. That despair where you feel like no one else could possibly understand what you are going thru with THIS baby. Not your husband who doesn’t have a vagina. Or breasts that the hospital says you have to use to feed that child. Does it help to tell you that it never stops? That my kids are 9 and 7 and I still feel despair. It might help to tell you that there are days when you feel like you nailed motherhood. Days where their smiles break your heart and fix it all at the same time. But there are also days where you feel like you don’t remember who you are beyond Mrs. Child’s Mother. I have no words of wisdom except to tell you that you have a sister mother of the heart and I know. I have been there. You will get there. Hugs, long uncomfortable ones from me to you!

    1. Thank you, Smitha, thank you. I will take that hug. Anytime, all the time. I’m so sorry to hear you still feel the despair, but I appreciate the solidarity. Just knowing I’m not alone might be the pretty bow I was looking for to tie up this post. Sending you lots of uncomfortably long hugs in return. <3

  7. Alyse, you mermazing woman, you are a constant inspiration. Thank you so much for opening up about something so personal and vulnerable. I truly could never see anything but a badass ladyboss take her badassery to motherhood. To echo Jamie, Mac never seems anything but the epitome of a happy baby, a huge credit to your mothering! You are an amazing women, mom, friend, wife, colleague, athlete, and you balance all of your hats so well. Can’t wait to squeeze you tight soon! xoxo

  8. Oh mama, I know exactly how you feel. When my son was born I was all like, “uhhh… now what?” Ha! I didn’t know what I was doing. Good news though — 7 years and two kids later and I *still* don’t know what I’m doing and I *still* yearn for my pre-children days. Is that good news? Maybe not…

    But my point here is this — I love my kids. They’re awesome. My son makes me laugh, cry, and want to pull my hair out — all at the same time. My daughter is freaking adorable but damn can she be a diva! And she’s only 4…

    Do I wish I didn’t have kids sometimes so I didn’t have to be responsible for another human life? Absolutely. I miss being able to go out for dinner with my husband, or go to a movie with my friends. Buuuuuut… my kids have grown on me. They’re awesome and hilarious. And stressful. And beautiful. And LOUD!

    I wouldn’t change a thing.

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