Julie Hersh: The Fine Print of Motherhood

Note: the following is excerpted from Julie's new book "Struck by Living"

I lay on our carpet, exhausted, brain-bent, eyes pasted on my one-year-old son. Andrew stood with his back to me, palms pressed against the window. He gazed at the branches outside, arched in the breeze. The light from the window made his oversized ears transparent, the blue veins visible beneath his skin. His body swayed with the sounds he made. "Whish, whish." He turned.

"Meem?" Andrew's word for Mom, his me ever-present.

His face showed the wonder of each new piece of information.

"Meem!" Andrew's eyes begged for an answer.

"Wind," I whispered. "It's called wind."

He tilted his head for an instant, as though he rotated the word in his brain. Then he turned to where he started, his back to me, hands on the window. The trees bowed. "Whish, wish."

I watched in awe. Nothing else mattered.

Nothing else mattered until the day ended and my list of to-dos remained undone. Or someone asked, "What do you do?" Or a friend called from work and asked me how I filled my days. I stammered, unable to account for the hours of my life that evaporated before I noticed.

How did this happen? After Ken and I married, I moved from product marketing into sales. Within a year, I closed a major account worth millions of dollars. The success continued. A few months prior to Andrew's birth, I defined a marketing strategy and presented the ideas to Octel's top management. How did a woman like that become transfixed by one child's motion?

Before Andrew's birth, I planned to return to work, six weeks off at most. I never saw myself as a stay-at-home mom. When childless, I viewed mothers who chose this route as weak. Clearly they didn't have the right stuff to manage their lives. Being a mother brought a whole new perspective.

The endurance required for motherhood made my professional sales and marketing occupation look like kid stuff. My days as a mother held rewards that filled my soul but often slipped through my fingers. In my sales or marketing roles, I might encounter a few rough days or even years, fringed with slammed doors and offensive people. I persisted. Almost always, my focus earned rewards — promotions, luxurious trips, high pay and accolades.

No one cheered my strength of character when Andrew peed in my face or when my breasts swelled so much that Ken called me Bessie. The rewards of motherhood were intangible and long-term. By the end of some days — a lot of days — I looked at my empty hands and wondered what the hell happened.

On the bad days, my purpose as a mother hid in the mist that clouded my brain — the boredom, the repetition and the physical ache. No paycheck, no commission, no vacation, no social or intellectual stimulation, no review, no real training, but hours and hours of investment in a child who might or might not despise me by the time he went to college. Motherhood required more blind faith than I could possibly muster.

Some women thrive on the baby years, intoxicated by soft folds of skin and miniature fingers that probe every orifice on a mother's face. I felt that way too, in ten-minute increments. Then I needed air, and none existed. I loved my child, but he overwhelmed me. My journal says I came to the "dull realization that I'd done something irreversible."

Motherhood might be tiring for most, but I began to think I was the only one psychologically devastated by a baby. Was this postpartum depression? Probably. No one ever made that diagnosis, and I rarely talked about how I felt. My reactions seemed unhealthy to me, unfit for a good mother. So I did what I do best with unacceptable emotions. I buried them. As they bubbled up, I pretended they didn't exist.

Plus, at the time, my biological urge to breed and 35 years of life training collided in a crash that left my psyche scattered in small, irretrievable parts. My parents, from the beginning, never told me I couldn't do something "because I was a girl." That's a good thing, right? My teachers, most of them, encouraged me, painted images of president or corporate leader in my brain.

At Notre Dame, my favorite business professor said I had chutzpah, and I had to ask him what the word meant. "Spirit, guts, grit," he said. "The qualities that make a great leader." At Octel, the president of the company told me I could run the company someday, if I chose to do so. In a period of time when sexual harassment and barriers for women flourished, I had more than my fair share of cheerleaders.

So what went wrong? Why couldn't I have children, hire a nanny and live up to all this highly forecasted potential?

The trade-offs between motherhood and a career are tough for most, but I found them impossible. I wanted the best of both, a smooth trick I've yet to see any woman master. My version of motherhood and my definition of a career faced each other in a stubborn game of chicken. Unable to compromise on either role, I quit my job. At the time, I viewed my choice as a personal failure, a lack of discipline deeply etched into my midlife bones.

My six-week leave expanded into six months until all my vacation, sabbatical, maternity and sick pay vanished, right before the holidays. With a queasy feeling, I deposited that last check. Ken wasn't a miser. I didn't fear he'd question what I did, but the idea of asking him for money rankled me. I'd supported myself for over 12 years. Even though the state of Texas claimed him income half mine, I felt like a child asking for allowance. My dependency on him shifted our relationship into a pattern neither of us liked.

Even though Ken's business surged upward, he encouraged me to return to work. I was passive, silent at parties, short on ideas, taking back streets to avoid the highway. Without a paying job, Ken feared I'd lose my sense of self.

"Go back to work," he pleaded. "Even for a little while." He wanted his wife back, that bulldog who feared nothing.

I new I'd never be the same person I was before Andrew's birth. My former edge and my intensity seemed overwrought in the shadow of motherhood. At the same time, I didn't like the person evolving from my skin — tired, financially dependent and indecisive.

Depressed.

Hours passed with me on the floor, analyzing the carpet as Andrew played. Can work help me regain a sense of balance? Maybe Ken is right. I picked up the phone, made a few calls.

I tried consulting and then I attempted a job Octel created for me. I was miserable. At work, I felt distracted, unglued — physically there but mentally absent. When I returned home, Andrew shunned me and ran to his nanny for comfort. While Ken was on a business trip, I called him babbling about Andrew, how I hadn't slept, about a nightmare that erupted when my eyes finally closed. I told him I planned to quit the job Octel had designed for me.

"Are you sure? Are you sure?" Ken paused. The loudspeaker announced his flight in the background. "I gotta go. Just don't hate me later, okay? Don't blame me for what happens." Ken sensed a wrong turn then but didn't know how to change course. The arc and depth of the turn caught us both by surprise.

I gave birth to my first suicidal thoughts nine months after my son first squirmed in my arms. April, an infant, spring, a time of rebirth, and a new mother seem an odd combination fora death wish. Perhaps in winter my inner landscape matched the outside world. By spring, I realized the world healed while I remained broken, uninspired by the sun's warm rays.

My Easter Sunday journal entry chronicled my brokenness, black pen on a white page: … thoughts about suicide for the first time last week. That's so crazy! My life is so full! I have a husband who loves me, a beautiful child. Yet somehow my life feels uncentered.

Thoughts about suicide with no explanation, no shock; I'd described ducks in the pond in greater detail. When I found the entry years later, I was stunned. I had no recollection of being that depressed. Tired, yes. Confused, certainly. But I would've sworn I never experienced postpartum depression.

I never mentioned these thoughts to anyone, not to Ken, not to my mother the psychologist; I never picked up the phone book or asked a friend if she might know a counselor I could see for a few sessions. The thoughts shamed me. I'm surprised I even wrote them down.

In spite of my blues-ridden state, Ken decided we needed out of Dallas for the summer. Ken wanted a chance to relax, gain perspective and figure out the next phase of his business. Ken and his East Coast partner felt a move like this might allow them to transform the business. They picked Santa Fe. I packed our bags with an optimism I hadn't felt in over a year.

After an 11-hour ride with my one-year-old, my enthusiasm remained intact. We reached the house we'd rented, high on a bluff with views of the Sandia, Sangro de Cristo and Jemez Mountains. Close to nightfall, I climbed to the roof.

A vast expanse of desert spread before me in all directions. Storms brewed in the distance, black sheets of rain and a crooked flash of light. The air felt pure and my lungs filled easily, despite the higher altitude.

Somehow the sky that displayed stars and storms simultaneously, the damp smell of rain, the tension of electricity in the air, rearranged my brain. My thoughts changed from "oh well" to "oh my". Oh my God. How lucky am I to be alive, to see the earth? Salvation by scenery? I know the cure sounds too fast, too incredible to be real. Although my problems and life stayed essentially the same, my depression lifted.

This good feeling lasted about a week, but I began to feel trapped again, as I looked out the window or from the roof at three sets of mountains; they remained in the distance, with me stuck inside with my toddler. Catch, blocks and the inane, predictable beat of Big Bird's nasal tone caused a fire at the back of my neck, even though Andrew's head bobbed along in time. Finally I grabbed him, locked him in his car seat for a ride to the local camping gear store. "We're going hiking." Andrew smiled with his blanket crammed in his mouth.

I didn't call Ken. He and his partner had headed out earlier that morning. I knew a call to Ken would result in a long list of questions. Where are you going? Who is your guide? How much water will you take? What about a map? Supplies? According to Ken's plan of life, parenthood, especially motherhood, required preparation, planning and a backup plan.

In theory, I agreed with him. In practice, this version of motherhood choked the life out of me. I strolled into the store, slammed down my credit card for a baby backpack and asked about a decent trail I could hike that afternoon.

The man behind the counter sported a goatee and a ponytail with flecks of blond around his temples. He looked maybe ten years older than me, judging by the lines on his face, but fit. He reached for Andrew, perched on my hip, mussed his hair as though he knew the child. "Whoa there, sister, let's get one that fits." He pulled down three different packs as I glanced impatiently at my watch. Nonplussed, he insisted I try each pack on while he placed Andrew in the pack for fit. Satisfied with one, he took my credit card.

As he rang up the purchase, I asked him where I could hike that afternoon. "You don't wanna hike in the afternoon." He tapped his pen on the counter. "Storms."

I snorted like a bull, not a sweet gasp of resignation. I was hiking a trail that day, rain or no rain, directions or no directions. He could help me or get the hell out of my way.

He must've sensed my desperation or conviction, I'm not sure which. Before I had a chance to respond, He acquiesced. "Okay, okay, there's a short hike not far from here, fairly low, you can't last long with a kid that age anyway."

He pulled a "Map of the Mountains of Santa Fe" from underneath the counter and pointed out the Chamisa Trail. "A little steep at first but a nice walk." He traced the line of the trail with his finger. As I thanked him and turned away, he yelled, "Hey, lady, at least take the map, will ya?"

"Sure." I pulled a few bills from my pocket. "Thanks."

Andrew and I sped out of town, toward the ski basin. I noticed a dirt area with a few parked cars on the left. I turned, parked the car.

I loaded the pack with snacks and water and hoisted Andrew on my back. The trail jutted upward. My thighs strained for the first quarter of a mile, but then the trail level to the nice walk the man described. Pine trees swayed. Dust rose from the rocky trail.

Andrew squirmed in the pack, arms outstretched, fingers pointing upward. "Meem! Whish! Whish!" I felt the wind brush across my face. The strands from my ponytail blew in my eyes. The wind swept through me, in me, my spirit exhaled in time with the sound. A low moan with no pain, the earth's Om.

"Yes, that's what we call wind, my sweet boy." I reached up, grabbed Andrew's hand to my lips and kissed his fingertips. "We've found the wind again."

Julie K. Hersh, the author of "Struck by Living", is a survivor of three attempted suicides.She serves as board president of the Dallas Children's Theater and is an active supporter of the Suicide and Crisis Center. She lives with her husband and two children in Dallas, Texas.

About Katherine Stone

is the founder of Postpartum Progress. She has been named a WebMD Health Hero, one of the fiercest women in America by More magazine, and one of the top 20 Social Media Moms by Working Mother magazine. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

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Comments

  1. Wow. I am not even sure I can come up with words. You have an amazing way of painting a picture with your words, and I thought this was an absolutely beautiful piece.

  2. Amber @Beyond Postpa says:

    Amazing courage and beautiful writing are your spiritual gifts, I do believe. Thank you.

  3. Sarah Pond says:

    thank you for writing this

  4. This is amazing. The deep meaning and imagery are awe inspiring. Thank you for sharing it and doing so beautifully.