Guest post by Christina Myers
Author’s note: I joined a support group with Pacific Post Partum Support Society a few months after my son was born, and met a group of women who were all at various stages in their early postpartum journey. As we graduated one by one from the group, we continued to meet. Though we are not able to gather as often as we used to, we stay in touch and earlier this autumn we celebrated our 10-year ‘anniversary’ by gathering in Vancouver for a special dinner. We spent a lot of time that evening (and I’m sure in our own heads before and after) thinking about the changes over the last decade – the transition from where we were then, to where we are now.
It is impossible to gather with these dear friends and not feel the profound gratitude I have for them as individuals, for the magic that came together in our group, and for PPPSS itself as a conduit of support, care and love. Most of all, I know there are women right now, today, who are just starting out at Year 1, to whom I can only say: please know there is a Year 10, and it is a wonderful place to be. With much love to all my sisters in PPD/A, most especially those who have needed help and couldn’t find it in time.
THEN AND NOW
Something is wrong. Something is wrong, but everyone tells me it’s not. Everyone tells me it’s just fine, in fact. They say: you just need to get some sleep, you just need to heal, you just need to calm down, you just need to realize it will pass. This, they say, is normal.
But it’s not normal. I know it is not normal. I know this like I know the lines on the palms of my hands, like I know the sound of my own breath.
I get on the phone and call old friends who have children. I ask vague things, like “how was it coming home from the hospital” and “did your baby sleep a lot?”
What I really mean is: please tell me I’m not alone in this. Please tell me that you spent all day looking at a pile of dirty laundry but the task seemed so confusing it never got done. Please tell me that you sat alone in the dark for long midnight hours, watching infomercials on mute, holding a baby that would not sleep, your body sore in ways you had not imagined it could be. Please tell me that you felt love and you felt anger and sometimes – most of the time – you felt nothing at all, a heavy weighted blanket of nothingness. Please tell me you felt as though you were watching yourself from outside, like the sole audience member of a surreal film in a language you did not understand.
It takes months of planning to work out the details and what begins as a dreamy weekend getaway is slowly shaved down to a single meal. But it’s to be expected: life is full, so full that everyone needs to check and double-check calendars (work calendars and sports calendars and activity calendars and school calendars and social calendars) just to be certain it will fit in. The getaway was a lovely notion but we’re pleased to have found time for something to honour this particular turn of the calendar.
We toss about ideas and settle on dinner. Good food and good wine, definitely. The chance to sit and talk and just be together. But somewhere fancy, we all agree. Hang the expense, we say. Make it something special.
No one says it, but to me it is clear: we need symbolic distance from where we were then – sitting on the dull brown couch in the dull brown building with lukewarm cups of tea in our hands – to where we are now. We need white table cloths and the murmur of quiet laughter and the tinkling of wine glasses and the low, soft light of the kind of place that requires careful consideration of what to wear and how to do your hair.
If we’re to mark this milestone, then let it be rich and decadent and joyful and gracious and beautiful and delicious. Let it be everything we lost, for a time, 10 years ago.
I have nothing to compare this to, no moment in which my capacity to talk, read, learn, organize, or think my way out of a situation is insufficient. I’ve pretended in the past to understand when friends talk about depression or anxiety, but the terms are loose and ambiguous and I have a hard time understanding that there isn’t a solution, because there is always a solution.
I am the queen of pulling up boot straps, the empress of optimism, the princess of problem solving. I am smart and capable and competent and if I can just figure out where things went wrong, I will get it all back on track. Homework: I spend hours poring over a chart from my week-long hospital stay in which I had been instructed to keep track of every wet diaper, every stretch of sleep, every feeding, marking down details on bowel movements, and skin colour and which breast and for how long.
Finally, I spot the problem: Here, I think. Right here. Day 3, he slept for four hours. I was supposed to wake him from his jaundice-deep sleep to feed him every three hours, at a minimum. I let it go an hour longer. It was the middle of the night, according to the time I wrote down. Had I let myself fall asleep? Had I ignored the timer when it went off? Had I just not cared enough to make sure I remembered?
I become convinced that this failure – this single extra hour – is where I went wrong, where it all went downhill, where he started to lose weight, where my failed breastfeeding took root, where every wrong thing that might unfold down the road will find its birth.
I am gripped by the fear of how badly I have failed, of the consequences of my actions, by the enormity of my mistakes – not just this irrational four-hours-instead-of-three thing, but the entire idea that I was capable of this herculean task. I cannot remember why I thought I could be a mother at all.
The big day has arrived.
I linger in the shower: a special shampoo for my hair, and a conditioner that I’m supposed to leave in for three minutes for deep repair. Soap that smells of raspberries and champagne – or so the label says. I shave my legs, and scrub my skin, and I don’t even notice how long I am taking until the hot water begins to run cool.
Finally someone knocks, and the door opens an inch.
“Mama, are you done? I need to …” and she points to the toilet.
“Come in, it’s ok.”
Her brother – my first born – is somewhere upstairs, old enough now to spend hours on his own in quiet solitude, reading Archie comic books or the history of the bubonic plague.
She smiles at me, her eyes wandering over me as I step out of the shower. I have a rule of not covering this body that was so changed by their births – cut open, sewn back together, stretched out, re-moulded. I call it my quiet act of feminist revolution to let them see my imperfections, to behave as though it is the most normal thing to be bold inside my arms and legs and hips and breasts.
She sits on the toilet and watches as I pull the towel around my body and begin to towel off my hair.
“You’re beautiful, Mama,” she says.
I smile, and wink, and tell her thank you.
She smiles back, a beaming grin that looks so like the ones she used to offer as a baby that for a split second I’m back at the side of her crib watching her giggle and coo as she wakes from a nap.
How different her first months were – a casual, easy sort of transition – compared to her brother’s arrival. When I think of it, I I feel a now-familiar and restless stirring, an anger that I know is wasted energy: what benefit to be mad at the universe for what might have been and wasn’t?
Still I can’t help but wonder: did he get as much love as she did? I don’t remember, and trying to pin down specific moments in time from his infancy is like waking and knowing that the dream you believe you can remember is already leaving you.
I’m told he got lots of love, that he got more than enough – that in fact my anxiety over meeting his needs was so acute that I spent all my time looking at him, checking to be sure he was breathing, making sure he was fed and warm and covered. I barely set him down from my arms. Meanwhile, my daughter had to be juggled into the demands of a now-busy household and spent many hours in a bassinet wheeled into the kitchen or the living room or wherever else I was tending to her high-energy toddler brother. She slept, happily, through the noise and commotion and chaos.
Still, I think, he must have known, must have picked up some ghost of my emotions, must have felt my fear and uncertainty as it coursed through my body like adrenaline-fueled lightning. He must have intuited that I was struggling, felt the anxiety that ate up all the room for joy.
I smile at my daughter as she budges in next to me to wash her hands at the sink. Did she get the better version of me? Did she get a softer start? Did she win the lottery of birth by being second instead of first?
My heart aches for what I know can’t be re-carved, re-played, re-done. In whatever way my son has been shaped by those first few months, I was shaped in parallel – and in truth, I would not undo it. I am a better person for my brief window into this strange planet, a better friend to those who live there all the time, or visit there often.
I would not wish this on anyone, but I would not wish it undone from my life, either.
I am grieving. This seems to me the only way to describe it, but when pressed on the particulars I can’t find the right words. I know what they’re all thinking: you have a healthy baby, don’t you? Isn’t that all that matters? You’re so lucky. Be grateful.
I am, I want to say. I am grateful. I am lucky. I know, I want to tell them. I know my grief is selfish and baseless and privileged and without any merit. But still: grief. A deep and endless well of it, though it doesn’t always look like grief, or feel like grief, or sob and wail like grief ought to.
Instead it’s the way my tummy aches when I have not eaten all day. It’s the way my head swims in exhaustion. It’s the way I read book after book about breastfeeding and go to drop-in clinics and pump and pump and pump and pump and still cannot figure out what I’m doing wrong when the baby is getting nothing from me, his weight dropping then rising by grams at a time, his jaundice slow to clear. It’s the way my heart races with every small noise. It’s the way I call my husband and beg him to come home, come home, please just come home – and by the time he does, I am fine again, making banana bread in the kitchen.
My grief is long chilly fingers of dread every time I leave the house, but loathing the isolation that lives behind my own front door. My grief is watching the minutes on the clock as the time passes from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. and knowing everyone in the world is warm and content in their beds and I have formula barf pooled in my bra and a colicky baby who does not know I need to rest.
My grief is the palm of my hand running over a row of staples in my abdomen, my body waking in a pool of sweat that has drenched the sheets and the blankets and even the mattress, the pain behind my eyes as I take another dose of some pill that’s meant to make my milk come but brings only migraines.
My grief is relinquishing control over every part of my body, being aware that none of it belongs to me anymore. My grief is strange hands squeezing my breasts to make them ‘work’ and endless exam tables and infections that burn and another doctor and another clinic and another set of instructions. My grief is the soft lectures from people who had ‘better births,’ the admonishments from strangers that I’d have had a better outcome, too, if I’d stayed home, had a doula, refused the c-section, made this decision instead of that one. My grief is a body that has been touched and examined and sewn back together a little differently than before.
My grief is people coming to visit and telling me how good I look, how easily I have taken to motherhood, how lucky I am, how happy I must be. My grief is wondering if anyone will ever see that something is wrong, but working hard to keep it hidden. My grief is soft reminders that others have wanted it more, and were not able to; my grief is the implication that if I am suffering a little perhaps it is only a small payback for my easy fertility.
My grief is knowing that my son is perfect in every way, except for one: that he has been saddled with a mother who is no good at mothering, a mother who did not expect she would fail so easily, so quickly. My grief is constant, a desperate wish to unspool time, to start again, to return to some moment before this, before me, before anything.
I spend an hour on my hair, and another 45 minutes getting dressed: a lacy bra and stockings under a dress so bright and vibrant and red that it is Christmas and Valentine’s all rolled into one. I choose earrings, and a necklace, pull on high heels. I stock my purse with change for the train, with three lipsticks, with a spare pair of hose – just in case. I feel gorgeous. I feel smart. I feel like me, again; me but better, somehow. So much has changed in these 10 years.
I meet the friend who lives closest to me on the platform of the SkyTrain and we admire each other: nice shoes, that’s a lovely jacket, you look great. I am already struggling to keep the lump from my throat, to keep my eyes from getting shiny and my cheeks from turning red. We gossip all the way downtown, swap stories, and underneath, unspoken, is the knowledge that some days we are still surprised by the normal imperfection of our lives, because there was a time when it seemed nothing would be normal again.
My first support meeting: I sit on a dull brown couch in a dull brown building, and someone offers me a cup of tea. By the time I remember to take a sip, it has cooled. Still, it’s something to do with my hands.
They tell me there’s a tradition, a de facto protocol, when a new member arrives: each of the women will tell their stories, first, and if I want to share at the end, I may do so.
I don’t know what I think will happen when the circle begins, but I am not prepared for this: my words, my heart, my grief, my anxiety, my body, my birth, my breasts, my scars, my life, played out over and over and over again from each of their mouths. The details are different, perhaps, the finer points unique to each of us. But all I can hear is this: Something was wrong. Something was wrong. Everyone said it was just fine, but something was wrong.
I sob, handfuls of tissues up against my eyes, shoulders shaking. It takes every bit of my power to stay upright.
I am not alone. I am not alone. I am not alone.
We gather at a long table, stand for greetings and hugs and laughter as each new member arrives. We mull over menus for 10 minutes, 15, 20, a rush of conversation pulling our eyes away from the choices. Where was that trip you went on again? How is your mother doing? You got a new job where? I love your dress! Where did you get this purse? I’ve missed you. And you. And you.
Pressed by the waitress we make decisions at last – sangria and martinis, pricey wine and plates of cheese and olives and bread, meals fit for a king.
We are missing three: one who is home sick, one who is away for a wedding and one who is no longer with us altogether. We wish they were here, know it is incomplete without them, raise glasses in their honour, and in our own, and try hard not to cry.
No tears. This is a celebration, after all. Something was wrong, then. And here we are, now. We made it through, as if by magic which is no magic at all: it was just a dull brown couch in a dull brown building, a cup of lukewarm tea, and a chorus of voices:
You are not alone.
You are not alone.
You are not alone. Not now, not ever again.
Christina Myers is a mother of two, a former journalist and a writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, anthologies, online and on the radio here in Canada. She attended a peer support group with the Pacific Post Partum Support Society after the birth of her first child. Find her on Twitter, @ChristinaMyersA or online at www.christinamyerswrites.wordpress.com and christinaplus.wordpress.com.