My second baby turns one today and it’s a big deal. First birthdays carry so much weight. With my son, whose first birthday feels like aeons ago, I was coming face to face with the anniversary of becoming a mother. With him, I always commemorate the biggest of transformations–his birth made me a mother, and the journey I embarked on the day his tiny feet touched the earth for the first time brought me to my knees. I was battered and worn and turned inside out by the intensity of love and anxiety and depression. In the years after his birth I was slowly reconfigured, built back up into the person I am today. I wear motherhood much more easily now. Being a mother has become fundamental to who I am. It no longer feels like an ill-fitting coat, hanging loosely off the skeletal frame of my former self. Today motherhood is in my body. It is in the bones of my back that sometimes aches from carrying my baby, it’s in the slight softness of my belly where my two children grew, it’s in my ragged cuticles that always carry the damage of my enduring anxiety.
My second baby turns one today and I survived the first postpartum year. I not only survived, but thrived in a way that I never did after my son was born. There’s a joy in this, and a sadness too, because I can see what I was deprived of the first time and there’s still room for the creeping guilt that insists my mental illness harmed my son in invisible and pernicious ways. I wait still, with bated breath, for my son to show the effects of my own dark early motherhood. When behavioural issues erupt, when he seems to be struggling, I wonder still if this is my fault. The demons of postpartum depression are not easily exorcised, and they still dog me.
As my daughter turns one I see what it is like to inhabit motherhood with relative ease. I have these AHA moments where I realize that when other mothers spoke of their joy and delight, they were experiencing something real, something stolen from me by PPD/A. I also see that it’s never too late to recover that joy. While my emerging family had a rocky start we are enjoying a renaissance now. My boy is an energetic, confident, hilarious wild child. My daughter is a inquisitive, focused, and chatty toddler. I cherish these early days with my daughter so much more for having suffered postpartum mental illness. I know what a gift the joy is. I know how deep the darkness can be. I take nothing for granted.
My own birthday was just a few days ago as well. My son came running downstairs on my birthday with a card. Inside he had drawn a huge row of houses representing our co-op and a picture of our family of four, all of us smiling. There’s a flower in the background. He writes “Happy Birthday Mommy…I never want us to be apart. I hope you never get hurt.” I tear up because I know that my job is to send him out into the world one day, yet my own birthday wishes are similar: I hope that my children and I will always be close, no matter what physical distance separates us. I hope that we are spared the worst of life’s possible tragedies because I know that run of the mill sorrow is big enough. My mother-self was born of a great despair and the greatest gift I have been able to give myself, and my children, is the strength to overcome. I know this will serve me well going forward.
My last baby turns one today and I am filled with gratitude and remembering. I never thought I would get to the point where I might mourn the passing of infancy. I wished away so much of my son’s baby years. With my daughter I want to hold on. I won’t be making this specific journey again. No more babies, no more soft infant cuddles, no more first words or first teeth. The whole thing seemed so impossible the first time around, but this time I am seeing how fleeting it all is. The days are long, but the years are short. It’s not something that seems true as a first time mother who is struggling to survive, and I know that I didn’t want to listen to the hard earned wisdom of those mothers who had traveled the road before me, but it’s true. The time will drag as if you’re mired in quicksand then suddenly it will move swiftly, sometimes verging on the power of a rip-tide.
Children mark time in such a profound way. They change dramatically as each year comes to a close and they make the transformative power if time visible. I see imprinted on them both the marks of motherhood and family. They are mirrors showing me my own journey, and they are arrows flying away from me every moment.
What I can say to you, those who are fighting through the brambles of postpartum mental illness, is that one day you will feel whole again. It seems impossible when you’re living at your breaking point, but I promise that as the years go by there will come a time when motherhood becomes integrated into your being rather than being something you rail against. I didn’t believe it, and you probably don’t either, but I promise you that it’s true. On my daughter’s birthday I stroke her soft baby hair and squeeze her perfect chubby body tight, and feel that wholeness as the greatest gift one could ever possess. And from that wholeness I can make a gift of my own self. There is finally enough of me left over to give away. And one day there will be for you too.