Published on April 4th, 2016 | by Elizabeth Isadora Gold0
AT THE END OF EVERY ENDLESS DAY: Elizabeth Isadora Gold on Motherhood and Mental Illness
At the end of every endless day, my husband, Danny, took my baby daughter, Clara, out of my arms after her last feeding and nestled her down in a bassinet in his office. She slept peacefully there, swaddled tight, surrounded by his piano, scores, and books. When we were ready to go to bed ourselves, I dutifully took my Ambien and Ativan. Danny walked into our room, snuggled with me for a while until my medication kicked in, and then headed out for the couch and the night shift. We all reunited in the morning when he brought Clara into bed with me to nurse again.
This system was expensive, in various ways: my lost hours of work in the evening, extra childcare, therapy costs. A few friends dropped out, as if my fritzed emotional frequency was too much to handle. After Danny told his department chair about our extreme circumstances, the guy decided he needed tough love or something, reducing Danny’s course load (and therefore his salary) for the next semester.
My Mommy Group did not indulge in such bullshit. “I hate it when people pretend all you need is a hot bath and a night out with your husband!” Jane said to me when I called her one night, weeping. “You are dealing with a major chemical imbalance. A chocolate croissant is not going to fix this.” She paused. “But it will help.”
My parents also came through even better than I could have imagined, traveling to Brooklyn from Philadelphia every other weekend (and helping us with cash for extra babysitting during the week). Before this, when they’d held Clara, I couldn’t tell if they were comfortable with her. Their last intense contact with such a small baby had been me, some thirty-seven long years before.
Perhaps now that my need was an established fact, Momo and Lala (names they spent much of Clara’s gestation refining) took over. My mother stocked the freezer with soups and quiches; my father sang Clara made-up songs in the loudest possible voice, delighting her in spite of our repeated admonishments for him to calm down.
Amazingly, my illness seemed to affect Clara not at all, other than to make her even more social. While many babies screamed if anyone but their mamas tried to hold them, our girl chuckled and blew spit bubbles for her father, grandparents, and our cast of babysitters.
Clara grew, learning to roll and sit up, singing what we were sure was the tune to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” when she was six months old. If the village was raising her, they were doing a damn fine job. And if sometimes I felt a little left out, I reminded myself, “I’m still Mommy. Letting other people love her is the best parenting I can do.”
I missed my old life, especially the easy intimacy with Danny. Though he reassured me repeatedly that he still loved me. I couldn’t imagine why or how.
“You had our baby,” he said, holding me as I wept, night after night. “You’re taking one for the team. How could I not love you more after this?” I heard his words, but they didn’t quite penetrate.
In one of my early sessions with Ellen, my therapist, I recounted my birth story and how I’d yelled “Is that my baby? She needs me!” “In my heart, I didn’t believe my own words,” I told Ellen, sobbing. “When they finally put her on my chest, she was clean and swaddled in a blanket; she could have been anyone’s baby.”
Even as I spoke, I wondered what was wrong with me.
Ellen let me cry. When she finally spoke, it wasn’t from a cool, professionally reserved point of view. “This is not right,” she said. “Our system failed you. You may have needed a C-section, but you deserved a better experience.”
“What about once the birth was over?” I asked. “Isn’t it my job to be a mother without alarm, without issues?”
“No,” Ellen said. “It is your job to love your child and take care of her. Which is exactly what you’re doing by coming here.”
The Mommy Group were the ones who finally convinced me.
One day, when I was feeling particularly weird and shaky, Renée met me in the park. She didn’t ask me anything, but let me talk when I needed to. Her quiet calm felt reassuring and almost maternal. Another morning, Anna ordered me out of the house: “Sometimes you have to push through the cobwebs and get in the sunshine.”
Their gentle support, in bulk, was so powerful for me. She was right. Day by day, and sometimes hour by hour, I started to feel better. However, like childbirth itself, postpartum mental illness forever changed me.
Essay is excerpted from The Mommy Group: Freaking Out, Finding Friends, and Surviving the Happiest Time of Our Lives by Elizabeth Isadora Gold. Reprinted by arrangement with Atria Books, Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Isadora Gold
Here’s some praise for The Mommy Group from another MUTHA: “This vital and comprehensive book is effectively a mommy group unto itself: a glorious, harmonious, companionable chorus of voices. It’s a consciousness raising, a rallying cry, the drum of a collective heart. It’s also an essential reminder that the struggle for reproductive justice encompasses much more than birth control. Gold has done humankind a solid. Are you a mother? Did you have a mother? Read this.” —Elisa Albert, author of After Birth