I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep, and I’d been warned that breastfeeding would take some time to figure out. But she cried all the time. I had no idea that such a small body could make so much sound for so many hours at a time. I had some experience with babies, though not a ton; enough to be fairly certain that my baby cried more than other babies. When I joined a moms groups in a neighboring town, my baby’s crying would wake up the other babies who fell asleep in their mothers’ arms.
While rocking and shhushing her during my group, I stood up and took a step back from the circle of moms and babies. When I looked back at the center of the circle, I saw a vision of all of our babies, smiling and wriggling happily, but all their clothes had been removed. I could not determine which baby was mine without seeing her in the outfit I had put her in that morning. My chest constricted, and my heart stopped. How could I not know which baby was mine?
(I looked down in my arms, and yes, my baby was still with me. I looked at the circle, and there was no line up of babies in the center. When my daughter calmed down, I returned to the circle but held on to her to keep her safe.)
I asked friends what to do about crying babies. One told me that babies really like warm baths. I thought a warm bath might feel nice. I ran the water, making sure that the temperature was not too hot, because that’s what good mothers do. I undressed her and lay her down on the floor, on top of a several towels and the bathroom rug, so that she would feel softness beneath her, because that’s what a good mother would do. I talked to her and told her that we were going to take a bath, and it would feel so good for the both of us, because providing narrative for baby’s language development is what a good mother would do. I undressed myself, picked her up, and then promptly put her down. There would be no bath.
The both of us lay in the water, me reclining along the length of the tub, her belly down on my chest just like in the moments after she was born – all very peaceful, just like my friend said it would be. And then the water began rising around us. Was I allowing her to slip under, or had I forgotten to turn the water off? And why was I just watching it? Why was I just letting it happen? The water continued rising, submerging her, and then pooling into my mouth, nose, and ears, until we were both under water. It was peaceful. No crying, and no struggle.
(I pulled the drain on the tub and carried her out of the bathroom. I dressed her and put her in her crib, the rails all around her, keeping her safe.)
My daughter was born mid-February of 2002. I spent a lot of time nursing on the couch, the remote control in my hand — a friend told me that there would be intense monotony and silence during maternity leave, and that mindless TV was a necessary indulgence. I watched so much TV — The Today Show and endless reruns of ER and Sex and the City. On March 7 of that year, 3 weeks after my daughter was born, my usual television programming was interrupted for coverage when the defense rested its case against Andrea Yates, the mother in Texas who drowned her 5 children. I watched it all unfold until March 12th, when she was convicted of capital murder*.
I don’t know what I thought of Andrea Yates before I became a mother, sitting on that couch and nursing a colicky baby. Since I had a master’s degree in mental health counseling and was on maternity leave from my therapist job, I suppose that I had some clinically distant understanding which muted the typical, visceral reaction much of the country was experiencing. But as the mother of a baby less than a month old, I thought of Andrea Yates with nothing but compassion. My heart broke for that poor, tortured woman. She couldn’t help it. Andrea Yates had been struggling. Suffering.
My baby liked to walk. I would put her in the front carrier and walk all over the city. She’d nearly always fall asleep, snuggled against me and bobbing to the rhythm of my movement. That much walking took off the pregnancy weight quickly, and my legs were nice and toned. But I was tired, and I wanted her to sleep at home so that I could sit down while she slept. One rainy day I put her in the carrier and walked up and down the hallway that traversed the length of my apartment. I paced from the wall on one side, to the wall all the way on the other side. I’d peek out the windows, just to see the activity of Mass Ave or the back alley down below. She couldn’t settle into sleep, and she began to cry. Her cries bounced off my hardwood floors and ensnared me in sound like a jungle net. I continued my pacing, passing through the kitchen. Looking at the refrigerator, I saw myself open the door and peer inside, where her body lay curled up in a little ball on one of the shelves. I then shut the refrigerator door tightly, leaving her there, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to hear her if she cried.
(Quickly, so very quickly, I put on my shoes, grabbed my keys and an umbrella, and headed out of the apartment to take our usual walk outdoors, where I could keep her safe.)
My husband called my OB. He told her I was depressed. The nurse called me in a few days. She suggested that I let the laundry sit in the dryer, the dishes pile up in the sink, and I should sleep when the baby slept. But my baby didn’t sleep unless I was walking with her. “OK,” I said dutifully. “I will sleep when the baby sleeps.” I was afraid to admit that I wasn’t doing the laundry or the dishes, since all I could do was nurse and rock my crying baby. She seemed satisfied that she had reached me, a task completed.
My husband tried to find me a therapist, but I had no idea how I could keep an appointment. How could I take a screaming baby into the quiet comfort of a psychotherapy room? No white noise machine would cover that sound. Down to one income, my husband couldn’t take time off from work so I could talk about what was happening. And how could I talk about what I was experiencing, anyway? For sure someone would think I had gone completely mad, too far gone to be a good mother.
She nursed well. We could sit and breastfeed in the white rocker in her little room, and I felt like it was one of the only things I was doing right. It was so pure – milk from my own body, made only for her. The closet in that room was a bit of a catch-all storage space, and the door was open just a few inches. On the floor, with the other hodge podge of things, was a hammer. I didn’t take my eyes off of it. For days, every time I sat there in the chair with a suckling baby, I stared at it, making sure it never left my sight. Sometimes it was covered in blood. I would close my eyes and count to 10, taking deep breaths. I would open my eyes, and the hammer would still be there as it should have been, but the blood would be gone.
(That night I told my husband that I didn’t feel safe with the hammer in the room. He hid it, but he kept the closet door open slightly, because I needed to see that the hammer was gone, proof that I could keep her safe.)
I don’t know when it stopped. The incessant crying did stop around 16 weeks, and when the weather got warmer, she liked to kick on a blanket in the grass. Spring and summer came, and I met a bunch of moms in a local park, and we would grab sandwiches and ice coffee and sit in the sun together. When our babies got strong enough to sit up, we would push them in the bucket swings. I never did get treatment, though I think we sought treatment in the best way two inexperienced, shell-shocked parents could. In the end, I was lucky that my symptoms were intermittent, and that they subsided. And they weren’t debilitating — despite what was happening, I was able to bond with my daughter and give her all the attention she needed. Her pediatrician was the most responsive professional we encountered. When I cried in his office, he smiled gently; he told me to bring my baby in once a week to check in. “We can weigh her,” he said, “and you and I will become friends.”
I went on to have 2 more children, and nothing quite to that extent happened again in my postpartum phases. With my third baby, seven years later and already working with perinatal women, I engaged in short term therapy with a baby-friendly provider.
Last night, as a professional service provider who specializes in the emotional wellness of new and expectant mothers, I went to a screening of Dark Side of the Full Moon, a movie about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Through several years and many, many women, I have tried to make a difference in their adjustment to parenthood. Still, despite what I do in my practice and despite what I know personally as a mother, as many as 20% of women are identified as having emotional complications in pregnancy and postpartum. How many women are not identified, because they are too ashamed or afraid? Or because the family, friend, or professional they speak with isn’t skilled or isn’t listening? Intrusive thoughts and terrifying visions like what I experienced are common symptoms of depression and anxiety, and even though they are not the same as hallucinations and psychosis, they feel unspeakable. Thirteen years have passed since my daughter was born, and we still have so much work to do to make sure that every mother is heard, checked-in on, screened, and taken care of in the way she deserves.
*On appeal, Andrea Yates was found not guilty in 2006 by reason of insanity.