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. 😉