“Writing a letter, to make you feel better…” I swear this is what the headphones on my ears, playing the Hollies (60s SoCal surf rock, like the Beach Boys, but weirder), just sang to me. Listen to the nice hippies, new Mama. “Please read my letter closely. It’s beneficial to you.”
Right now, I’m in a little house in upstate New York, sitting on a vintage sofa upholstered in nubby mustard-yellow fabric in front of a wood burning stove with a warming fire. In the room with me are two of my friends (including our hostess), also typing away on laptops; another is upstairs (she may be napping). We’re all moms and writers. We’re a writing group on retreat!
Before I had my daughter, Clara, three-and-a-half years ago, I’d always wanted a writing group, but it was too hard to organize. People were so unreliable, so busy. Then Clara happened, and I realized if I ever wanted to write again, I needed a group – of people who would understand that a good work day was now broken up into twenty-minute increments. I needed a writing group of other mothers.
About a year ago, I posted on a neighborhood parenting listserv and put this group of five women together. We meet every two weeks, after kid bedtime, at the advanced hour of 8:30pm. While drinking wine and eating cookies, we discuss, quite seriously, each other’s work. In that span of time, I’ve sold a book, two members have published pieces in the New York Times, one of us had her third (!) baby, and another got back to writing for the first time since the birth of her children. We are grateful for each other in ways that only parents understand. This retreat, our first, is an almost unimaginable luxury. On the three-hour drive here, visiting a rest-stop bathroom without small children felt like vacation, and that was before we sat and worked, in silence, in a kid-free house.
I didn’t know if I’d make it here. This is the first time – last night was the first night – I’d ever left Clara. I did need to cuddle a pair of her little leggings clutched to my chest in bed, and couldn’t resist buying her guilt-presents — a tea set and a whoopee cushion — at the local dollar store. Those details don’t alter the most important fact: for the first time since October 25, 2010, Clara’s birthdate, I slept more than ten feet away from her. The night before we left, I lay awake in bed longer than any time since my early days of postpartum insomnia and anxiety.
Have I neglected to mention my postpartum?
I had to take a break after writing those words. They’re such a bummer, especially in this moment, when that time feels so far away. But my postpartum mental illness is why I am writing to you today, on Mother’s Day, for this important, heartbreaking cause. Clara was four months old when anxiety wrecked me. It was terrifying. When I tried to leave the house, the people and sidewalk got melty and I couldn’t breathe. I’d run home, take an Ativan and burrow into bed, crying. How could I take care of Clara? Would I ever write again? What about my marriage? What about me?
I was lucky to get the help I needed, and fast. Therapy, medication, visits and emergency cash from my parents, friends who could tolerate my unbearable panic. Eventually, the meds kicked in, Clara grew, and I came to believe I hadn’t broken her, or us, or our family. I learned to write — and to live — in those twenty-minute increments. Even when the times got longer, little by little, I was still scared. Postpartum anxiety absented me from myself, from my mind and my family. I couldn’t leave Clara, not even for a night. What if the panic came back? How would I find my way home to her?
And now, here I am, on this nubby vintage sofa, in front of the fire, writing for hours, while the rest of my family is home in Brooklyn. Clara won’t forget me, and I won’t spiral away from her. We are connected, across distance, work, and middle-of-the-night fears. No panic can make me not her mommy.
My husband, Danny, sat up with Clara for much of last night, because even though she seemed fine with my absence during the day, in the middle of the real dark, she didn’t like that I was gone. Then she was up at 5:45, so they had ice cream at 9, and are at the playground now. Later on, they’ll watch Frozen, and I hope Danny will catch some sleep, curled up with our girl as she becomes Queen Elsa of Arendelle. Tonight Danny will have to pull an all-nighter to get his own work done. He wanted me to go on this retreat, to feel free and in my own writing brain. He wanted me to come home triumphant, knowing I wouldn’t break – or break anything – by leaving, for even such a brief span of time.
One day, when you get past whatever your this is, you’ll write, go on a trip, take a long walk by yourself in the spring, see a sappy movie with a large popcorn all for yourself, laugh with old friends after bedtime. You, too, will come home triumphant, and unbroken.
“Writing a letter to make you feel better. Please read my letter closely. It’s beneficial to you.”
Elizabeth Isadora Gold
Elizabeth Isadora Gold’s book, The Mommy Group: Freaking Out, F**king Up, and the First Two Years will be published by Atria Books in 2016. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, the Rumpus, Time Out New York, as well as many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and young daughter. She can be reached at her website, www.elizabethisadoragold.com, or via Twitter @elizisadora.
Postpartum Progress, the world’s most widely-read blog on all things related to emotional health around pregnancy & childbirth, is a service of Postpartum Progress Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of postpartum depression and similar illnesses. Please consider making a donation today, Mother’s Day, so we can continue and expand our work supporting maternal mental health. Thank you!