Three days before Christmas, alone in my kitchen, I slammed my dishwasher door so hard I heard the brittle crack of something breaking inside. I thought of opening the dishwasher back up and slamming it shut again and again pouring my frustration out on to every peanut butter smeared plate.
That’s when I knew it was back, the wild anger in my soul that rose from nowhere and blasted through me, from my toes to my fingertips. A tidal wave of outrage, unpredictable as the wind in March. Oh shit, not again.
A week old baby down the hall, finally down for her morning nap, and a four year old hopping around the playroom in spastic angst between having a new sister Christmas on the brain. But my sleep deprivation, hormonal imbalance, and sheer exhaustion from delivering another child into the universe, had resurrected my dormant demons.
I clung to the counter, hearing the broken glass falling between in the ribs of the dishwasher rack. I imagined letting myself slide to the floor, curling up and in and crying as I might have done if didn’t have a child in the next room.
My belly was still sore and embarrassingly bloated. The circles under my eyes were purple, bruise like, and I had stretch marks everywhere. Even my toes still looked distended, like someone else’s feet at the bottom of my body.
My only plan for the morning had been to scour the kitchen, a legitimate health hazard after days of stacking dirty pans in the sink. Oh yes, and I needed to plan a Christmas dinner?
The week before, my daughter had been born on a Tuesday. My husband was back at work that Friday. While my parents lived right down the street, and were usually a source of strong support, my mother was dying. We didn’t say that out loud quite yet, but we knew.
So I bravely agreed to make Christmas Eve dinner. Deep down, I wanted to instill some Martha Stewart calm and poise into my messy reality. I’d make place-tags with my four year old! I’d write baby’s first Christmas on the baby’s pajama top, in glitter. I could create the dinner of my childhood – an Italian seafood platter. I had visions. But perhaps the visions were born from a brief, manic, hormonal high. They were fools’ fodder if my postpartum madness was back.
After the birth of my first child, my son Devin, I’d ridden a roller coaster of euphoria and despair. I paced the house like a crazed lioness convinced the world was threatening my son, then I’d wake at five AM to write pages in my journal about the love that rocked my soul, filling my every atom. Later in the day, I’d find myself weeping on the back steps, the baby finally napping after another two hour colic marathon.
My OB diagnosed postpartum depression after five minutes with me. I refused medications, but dragged myself to a therapist. I did everything she told me to do. I set boundaries with my family, ate more often, hired a babysitter just to take a run. I slept every time the baby did and gave myself permission to do nothing more productive than nurse the baby. After a few months with the therapist, I was not only feeling better, but the woman had taught me a lot about parenting.
Four years later, I told myself I’d sail through having baby number two. But here I was, breaking dishes, crying at the sight of the pile of cookbooks I’d gotten at the library, brimming with guilt because my four year old was watching his sixth episode of Batman. I’d watched the first two of the episodes with him, swaying back and forth while my fussy baby girl hiccuped and squirmed. When she finally fell asleep, Devin panicked.
“Do I have to turn it off?” he asked, his emerald eyes huge with fear.
My child was addicted to bad cartoons. This show was older than I was. Batman still said “pow” every few minutes. Oh Lord, rescue him from my parenting.
“Buddy, why don’t you come in the kitchen while I –
“No!” His wail was loud enough to wake me from my stupor. It could easily have woken the baby, at which point I knew I would have lost it. I felt the sleep-deprived hormonal flush of anger and it scared me.
“OK. Keep watching it. I need to load the dishwasher.”
The next thing I knew, there I was, picking pieces of a broken wine glass from the bottom of the dishwasher, cutting my finger in the process. I watched the blood flow in the sink for a minute, almost relieved to see a sign of normal biological life. And it felt right to know what to do: wash it, put on a band aid. A simple task, unlike shopping for the ingredients of a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner or finding an end to colic.
“Mommy, why are you bleeding?”
Devin, a black cape thrown casually over his Batman pajamas stood at my side. He was still in his pajamas. Had I ever made him breakfast?
“I just cut my hand on something.”
“I’ll help you!” Devin kick boxed his way across the kitchen, theoretically knocking three or four invisible masked bad guys out of the way. “Pow! Ug! Gotcha!” Then, with lithe grace, he scaled the counter, opened a high cabinet and pulled out the Band aids, a handful falling to the floor.
“Did you ever have breakfast?” I asked him.
He shook his head no, as he carefully opened a band aid for me. We worked together at applying it.
“You’re making me eggs, remember?” He pointed to a dozen eggs on the counter. I vaguely remembered taking them out, hours earlier.
The lessons from that therapist floated to mind. Eat Often. Get help. Set boundaries. Get rest. Everything else can wait.
Devin and I ate scrambled eggs together on the couch. I convinced him to let me read him a book, with the TV off. The baby woke up, and together we changed her, dressed her, and went outside for a walk. It was an enormous undertaking, requiring shoes for all of us, blankets on the baby, three layers on Devin. It meant bumping down the five steps in front of our house to the city street, and shivering when we turned a corner and the winter wind hit us. I almost turned back. But in the playground, Devin ran around and laughed, cheeks reddening. He made friends with strangers, and laughed when I pushed him on the swings, the baby in my arms. His joy was infectious. I realized he wouldn’t care how well Santa wrapped things, or what we ate for dinner. The dinner would not, I decided, be cooked by me.
I’d forgotten how a baby levels one to the absolute basics. How advice like “Eat and sleep whenever you can,” is not trite, or obvious. It is life-saving.
I don’t remember who cooked Christmas dinner, or what Devin had under the tree that year.
I remember we spent it with my parents. I remember it was one of my mother’s last holidays, and the baby’s first, and we were all together. I remember I took a little better care of myself with that baby than I had the first time, and did so even more with number three.
I didn’t avoid all of those moments, slammed dishwashers, raised voices, despairing afternoons. They came with the hormones and stress, I was never immune. I was a human, trying to keep several other beings safe, alive, and happy in a full throttle world. At times I was humbled, tired, every drop of nurturing squeezed out of me.
But there were also times, many times, when I reached down for one little hand or another, and just that feeling of my child’s small hand, placed with trust in mine, made me wild with joy, and fleetingly immune to the stresses of the world.
In short, I was a mother.
Joanell Serra MFT lives and writes in Northern California. An award winning creative writer, she has recently published stories in Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine and Poydras Review. She recently finished a novel called Sonoma Stories and is currently writing a young adult novel, Shine. She has also published non-fiction essays, largely on parenting. She is the proud mother of a gaggle of thriving, almost-adults.
The 7th Annual Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health is presented by Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit 501c3 that raises awareness & advocates for more and better services for women who have postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. Please consider making a donation today, on Mother’s Day, to help us continue to spread the word and support the mental health of new mothers.