Clamping my hand over my left boob, which was leaking a slow and deliberate drip-drip-drip into my nursing bra and then into my marled gray t-shirt, and then onto my hand, I galloped up the basement stairs, taking two steps at a time, my body needing to feel my baby’s body. My first baby. I had left him for two hours with a neighbor girl named Kristy so I could go first to the grocery store and then to the dentist. It was a momentous occasion of almost bewildering autonomy.
I opened the door to the kitchen, my face plastered with an eager, expectant smile, to see Kristy, supporting Charlie’s weight on her hip with one hand, and wiping away tears (her tears) with the other. Her face was red and mottled. Charlie dangled from her hip in a resigned sort of way, having no other option than to hang on.
Quickly removing Charlie from Kristy’s arms, I tried to quell my horror that his round baby bum was soaked, the urine seeping through his diaper, through his bright green onesie covered with little white dump trucks, onto my hand. I shot my eyebrows up in angry shock and tried to make the shock look like sympathetic wonder.
“What’s wrong?” I crooned, playing the role of sympathetic adult to Kristy’s crying girl-child.
Kristy babbled through a maze of a story that included a phone call from her disapproving father, bad math grades, and just a total lack of “fairness” or “understanding.” I tried to listen because I think of myself as a good person, but my heart was racing in a panicky trot. Why is she sobbing while taking care of my baby? Why does she think this is ok? Why do I need to take care of this?
After murmuring some semblance of empathetic words, pretending that I cared about Kristy and Kristy’s math grades, I shooed the girl out of the house, stuffing a wad of money into her hand, with a vague agreement that I’d call her again (!) if I needed more help.
I definitely needed more help.
As my husband Brett rubbed my back that night, which pulsed up and down in tandem with my sobs (it was a rare day that something didn’t jolt tears into my eyes), he assured me we would find someone to help, someone we would love, someone we could trust, someone to help me navigate the perils of new motherhood so I would stop feeling so unmoored, so laughably unqualified, so fucking scared.
Holly was a delightful rainbow of a human being I had known in grad school. She was smart and warm and curious and funny and cool. I ranted about the impossibility of finding a good babysitter, and she told me her mother was between jobs and loved kids. Brett was all in with the idea. “Think about it—she’s an actual mom. She’ll actually know what she’s doing.”
I was a bit dubious about having to be “the boss” of someone older than me, but the thought of someone who knew what she was doing coming to save me from myself was tantalizing. I spent a typical day watching the clock between naptimes; scheming to figure out how to put Charlie down without him wailing in protest; pumping to increase my milk supply; Googling ideal infant sleep schedules; and reading asshole books (books can definitely be assholes, and baby books are more likely to be assholes than any other type of book) like Bringing up Bebe, in the hope that some French know-it-alls might teach me to be a happy, successful, less exhausted mother. (Sidenote: “Le Pause” is not a sleep-training method. It is bullshit.)
My own mother had only recently escaped my clutches after being forced into indentured servitude for the first three months of Charlie’s life. She had intended to stay for a few weeks. My mother had helped me organize my emotions, teaching me to separate valid fears (mastitis) from invalid fears (that letting my infant nap in a swing might stunt his growth)
Every week, we discussed her eventual departure, and when departure day arrived, I would dissolve into an abyss of frantic despair, from which only my mother’s continued assurances that “it’ll get easier” could save me.
I only allowed her to leave because she told me she was just returning home to “visit” my dad. I sucked in the lie like a milkshake, and stood barefoot in the driveway, the dry dust of tar rough under my feet, yellow maple leaves falling in a slow drift around me, and watched her black Subaru fade from view.
After being alone with Charlie for a mere month, the black noise of my postpartum depression (which had only recently lifted) felt dangerously close to returning. Boiling the pacifiers; listening to the grinding wheeze of the breast pump push and pull and drag the life out of me; hunching over to stop Charlie’s endlessly grabbing hands from clutching our Norwich Terrier’s bunny tuft of a tail; getting a parched throat after labeling a bottle “5 ounces, October 13”; feeling a surge of irrational rage when Charlie emptied his bowels immediately following a bath and a fresh change of clothes; peeking at the clock and seeing 10:23 am, instead of the-day-is-finally- over-now-you-can-drink p.m. The drudgery felt more profound without my mother. I was not yet hardened to the reality of baby care: the dullness, the monotony, the enslavement to routines.
Before the Zoloft, before the therapist, before the questionnaire that made me cry with the question “When was the last time you laughed? a) in the past few days, b) in the past week, c) can’t recall”—before all of that, there was the bubble of alienation, of fear, of panic. There was the heaviness of dread that crushed hard against my chest every day as five o’clock approached, as the golden hour lit up the pines and the birches and the oaks, as people (everyone else, I thought) shed their work and cares and settled down for the evening. There was me trying to play a role I had wanted all my life, trying to fit my shrinking self into something called MOTHER, something that was too big, too voluminous, too much for me to inhabit.
So yes. Another mother. Holly’s mother. This was what I needed…
Purchase MQR 57:5 or consider a one-year subscription to read more. This story appears in the Winter 2019 Issue of MQR.