Last summer, my son's teacher, Gillian, had a baby. I'd known Gillian and her husband for five years. From my vantage point -- minivan, overdue library books, early bedtime -- they always looked sweetly inexperienced at being adults. Although our friendship remained tethered to the classroom, I felt protective of them, and then excited when I heard news of the birth.
Two days after Gillian delivered, I sent a note saying that should she need to talk about how bad things were, she could talk to me. I couldn't help it. In my experience, having a new baby was a lonely trial, friendless, sunless, sleepless.
My sons today are 12 and 8, our relationships blissful and complicated in a dozen different directions, but my first winter months as a mother still have the residue of a curse, a haunting. By choice, I lived thousands of miles from a difficult family, and few of my friends had children. I was without a guide, and every demand of the baby's felt overwhelming.
I delivered my first son in late November. Right up until we arrived at the hospital, my husband and I were in love and in love with everything. Then I labored for more than two days, pushing through nameless hours as the baby's shoulder lodged in the birth canal. After Ezekiel was born, I stayed two extra days in the hospital, craving the solicitous hands, the sitz baths, the food that appeared. Outside, historic snows muffled the streets. The day we were leaving, the baby screamed and writhed on the bed. A nurse came in and tightened a blanket around his spastic limbs, and he fell asleep. I didn't want to leave, didn't know how we'd do the blanket at home.
Those first weeks, the baby shredded me with his hunger, his presence a magnet of need. My sloppy, undone shirts carried the odors of sweat and spitup. With my husband gone for work, I couldn't pay a bill or section an orange, cemented into one chair by the nursing sessions. I always had to pee. That's what I remember -- how cold my ankles were as I sat in his room at dawn; how little I cared to know my husband's experience, our marriage reduced to negotiations and terse reminders.
On one of my first outings with Ezekiel (who was, by then, 6 weeks old), I picked my way over hardened berms of snow on a walk to town, one hand on the BabyBjörn. When I came to the bridge that crossed the river, I stood and looked at the black water. I had the impulse to throw him in. His drop would end in seconds, and the swallowing river would take him. My power warmed me, overwriting the numb history of the past weeks. I quivered between responsibility and excruciating urge. I moved my feet: move, go forward, walk into the next moment, which will be better than this one. I continued across the bridge and didn't look at the river. My hands craved the baby, and I cupped them around his body. I loved him, and this was how hard it was.
No one named postpartum depression for me, nor would I have let them, determined to live with the consequences of the bleak separation from family, of my withdrawal from my friends and husband. When Ezekiel was 8 months old, I stopped nursing, a tortured decision I made in desperation to restore balance to my life. The hormones did their peculiar dance, and the depression lifted. I could at last delight in my baby's entire being, share wonder again with my husband.
A few months later, a friend had her baby and came to visit. She sat on my couch, and she paid no attention to her infant, who was asleep in her lap. She stared hard at me, trying not to cry, and I leaned forward and held her hands and said, "It's going to get better." Amazed, I watched the effect of these words, the wash of relief and exhaustion. For years after, she'd remind me what a help I was, and I'd get to feel like a hero.
I wanted to see Gillian so I could tell her I knew what a sordid time life was with a newborn. We picked an afternoon when my kids were at school, and I went to her house. She opened the door, beaming wide, the baby propped over her shoulder; but I noticed the wood floor, sun shining onto it through the French doors, dust-free, crumb-free. Her hair was clean. Her laptop stood open on the empty dining table.
I had brought lunch, burritos to eat one-handed. I remembered being only one-handed, impaired for months, it seemed. Gillian set a bouncy seat atop the kitchen table. We sat with our plates, eye level with the baby.
"How are things?" I asked with gravity and empathy. Gillian poured hot sauce on her food and described her relaxed days and the dinner she'd cooked last night for her in-laws.
"I don't want to tell my friends," she said, "but she's sleeping six hours at a stretch." Her gaze found her daughter over and over. She praised her in-laws, so helpful and available, told me how excited she was for her mother's next visit, listed the nonstop help of friends and acquaintances. Her story of becoming a mother was about family and support and glorious spring and strength and new pain and two pushes. Two pushes. "Don't tell anyone that," I said, meaner than I meant to be.
Gillian scooped up her daughter, and we went out for a walk. Still focused on giving her the relief I had wanted so badly, I offered to carry the baby. She felt heavy, her squirming limbs demanding, which set off a small panic in me. I returned her. Gillian was talking about the baby's fits of evening crying and how sad she felt when she couldn't figure out what to do. "But you do know what to do," I said. "You're an amazing mother."
Back at the house, Gillian fell into the couch and lifted her shirt, bringing the baby up against her, looking lovely and drowsy. I let myself out. I'd expected her to feel alone and desperate, and she didn't. I'd expected that she'd need my support, that no matter how many good minutes she had, the bad hours would overwhelm her. I needed her to be like me, so that I could be the wise one now, the healed and the mighty; then my loneliness and depression wouldn't have been for naught. I wanted to be the one to teach her that it would get better.
Instead, she reminded me of what I'd never recover, opening an ancient grief. In the intervening years, I've tried to spin that trauma into a necessary trial, one that made me more compassionate. But the unadorned truth, freshly confronted in Gillian's house, is that motherhood's first months gouged a terrible pit in my heart. Becoming a mother was nothing like I'd anticipated.
As I walked to school to pick up the boys, I thought about everything my sons and I have built together. In that hole in my heart, my sons have conjured sunrise, carved magnificent canyons. I know the loss will always be part of me, but my children, too, will always be part of me, stronger and more beautiful than anything I could have planned.
Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of the memoir Her Last Death (Scribner). She lives in Montana.