This is a personal essay I wrote and submitted for an anthology on maternal mental health called Mothering Through the Darkness. My essay was not accepted, so I am publishing it here instead. I haven't written longer pieces like this in quite some time, but this one just might help someone out there, so here it is.
I came unraveled.
In Mexico postpartum women wrap their stomachs tightly with thick ace bandages and tape, or with wraps specifically made for this purpose of turning us back to our better, flatter selves, called fajas. This daily ritual of laying down on the bed while my husband twists the wrap around me, pulling and tugging at it until my mid section became a stiff cast-like mound, made me feel inferior, inhuman, weird.
For five months my entire being was squeezed - shoved - into this faja, until one day it snapped and I literally unraveled.
It started slowly, a gradual fixation with my lack of sleep, lack of free time, lack of semblance of my life before baby. I loved him, but did I like him? I loved my son, but did I like being a mother? Postpartum bodies are fragile, and people bring us soup so we can breastfeed on the couch for hours. But, postpartum minds are like crystal chandeliers, hanging from a vaulted ceiling by a thin wire embedded somewhere the eye cannot see. My mind wandered places I had never been before; frightful and dark places. Fortunately, my baby’s dimples brought me back each time.
In the mornings I would force myself to stand outside on our miniature balcony that overlooked a busy Guadalajara street, a shortcut between two major avenues, where people flew over the speed bumps, the undersides of their cars protesting like grumpy toddlers. There was a popular gym across the street, and I would watch the people park their cars hastily and bounce down the sidewalks in their bright colored sneakers and hip hugging yoga pants, seizing the day like normal, happy people.
My baby was on my hip, satisfied to people watch as the sun warmed our bodies. I would drag out his changing pad and lay him on it in his diaper. His thick sausage legs would kick happily, his arms flapping, and his petite rosebud mouth overflowing with coos. Why am I miserable? I thought to myself. Why can’t I sleep? Why is something so natural for everyone else, so unbearably hard for me? I began to resent everyone I saw. The sun became annoying, too warm and too bright, such a contrast to my aching insides.
Dawn gave way to morning gave way to afternoon gave way to dusk gave way to nightfall. And I would do it all again and again and again and again.
We took a red-eye flight from Oregon back to Mexico in January after spending the holidays with our families. The night before our travel day I obsessively watched the clock. I moved to the bedroom farthest away from my baby, downstairs on the other side of the house. I took Melatonin and put earplugs in. I played classical music softly in the background. The entire night I did not sleep. I went into panic mode, and there was no turning back.
From that day forward my body would fill with dread as the afternoon turned into evening. Like a child afraid of the dark, I would curse the moon outside, the soft midnight hum of a city going to sleep. I feared more than anything those endless hours of isolation and darkness when time seemed to stand still. My mind raced, as the rest of the world rested, inventing scenarios for the following day; in each scenario I lost, I failed, I fell short. In each scenario I was afraid, anxious, a terrible mother. The night became my enemy, convincing me I was never meant to do this one sacred thing. And yet, my baby would rise with the sun, without fail, and his wails would call out to me, his mother.
I didn’t know anybody who had ever felt like I did after having a baby. I was desperate to understand, to make it all better, to somehow end my 10 hour daily nightmares. In a stroke of luck, I found a support group online, and I devoured their words, hungry for companionship, even if it came in the form of black letters on a 13 inch computer screen. It’s ironic, and perhaps dramatic, but in a way, the internet saved my life. At my darkest hour, most afraid and most alone, those strangers were there for me.
Another mom on the discussion board read in my profile that I was living in Mexico, and she private messaged me. She was Mexican, living in a state to the north, and wanted to help me if she could. Yes… Please. I needed a medical provider. What was I supposed to do? Open the yellow pages to “Shrinks” and randomly pick one? She said she would ask her doctor for a recommendation in Guadalajara. Okay, I wrote. Gracias. I was both terrified and relieved at the same time. Being drug into Urgent Care by my exasperated husband was one thing, but voluntarily going to a psychiatrist was another. It was admitting that there was something wrong with me that I could not control and that I could not fix.
For type A-ish perfectionist goodie goodies like I was, this was rock bottom.
In a few days she sent me the doctor’s phone number. I knew I couldn’t hesitate or I would lose the nerve to call. The receptionist scheduled my appointment, and then I asked for the address of the office. She told me the street number and neighborhood, including the closest cross street. I choked back tears, and managed to squeak out a “bien, gracias.”
I fell back onto our couch and stared at my trembling hands. I struggled to swallow. The psychiatrist’s office was two doors to the left of our townhouse. Two doors down. In a sprawling metropolis of six million people, my psychiatrist was my neighbor. I closed my eyes and exhaled slowly. Is there serendipity like this in every sad story? I wondered.
After five intense months, I finally began to heal. Postpartum depression and anxiety broke me but also somehow restored me to a more complete version of myself. For me, the journey from brokenness to wholeness was not vertical or horizontal. In fact, I am uncertain if I can refer to “it” in the past tense, yet, or ever, because are we not always at work to restore our scarred selves? I may always feel an inexplicable ache deep within at the sight of a baby bump, and newborns though pure and sacred, may forever frighten me in a way that I can’t quite explain. Perhaps I will always compare myself against the mother of five, of four, of three… the mother who had natural births, the one who home schools, who doesn’t raise her voice.
My firstborn son is six years old, strikingly handsome and kind. He has big brown eyes and thick eyelashes like me and my pointy nose. His attention to detail and desire to please people comes from his daddy, and he’s the best big brother. He always wants his daddy over me, and I understand that’s because of the months I spent hiding in the back bedroom trying to cope with my anxiety while daddy cuddled him to sleep. My heart aches at what I lost, but it is what it is. I try to be happy that they have the relationship they do, and remind myself that he loves me, he loves me, he loves me. Becoming a mother was not the bravest thing I ever did. It was mostly a blind decision, an instinct, the next step after four years of marriage. I remember sitting in the backseat on the drive home from the hospital with my baby on my lap, clutching his tiny body against my fresh uterine scar as we weaved through Guadalajara traffic. I felt so small.
The bravest thing I’ve ever done is give my firstborn a brother; to risk another spiral into despair, knowing it would be worth it, somehow, someday.
We named him Rainer, which means warrior, because we would both have to put up a fight. It was not easy, as having a child is never easy, but it was the gift of a second chance.
We recently moved back “home” to Oregon after eight years in Mexico. We all left pieces of ourselves there, and rediscovered other pieces here that we didn’t know we left behind. I’m re-learning how to properly recycle and be on time to parties and drive politely. I’m overwhelmed with the amount of choices and resources for every aspect of life. My boys are flourishing as they make new friends who have already taught them new English slang words.
The other day I found myself googling “postpartum support in the Columbia River Gorge,” and ended up emailing Postpartum Support International to ask for an application to be the coordinator for my region, which was lacking one. Where are you in your postpartum journey? the application asks. Six years, two children, and an international move later, I’ve come full circle. Am I completely healed? I suppose it depends on how you look at it and how you define healed. But, I don’t think it really matters, because it’s our brokenness and imperfection that draws others in. It took me a long time to realize that.
Now I’ll be the one typing those words to the woman so very afraid who finds me inside her computer … You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will be well. I know, because it happened to me, too.