Bitter Sweet

I never wanted another baby. I didn’t desire to hold one. I didn’t get the ‘aww’s and the itch when I’d see someone else’s. I wouldn’t wistfully remember packing them into footies when I saw someone with toddlers preparing to leave a late-night party.

I would bless my lucky stars it wasn’t me.

The very thought of returning to that period rife with anxiety and stress, dark anger and overwhelming feelings made me a bitter, sarcastic person. I was most certainly the old crone in the corner who said, better you than me.

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Jennifer Butler Basile

In fact, just this last summer, a friend and I attended an outdoor concert on the grounds of a winery. As we toasted each other in the camp chairs we’d squeezed into the back end of the event tent to avoid the rain, I thought how lovely it was to get away. We ate our cheese and crackers, we laughed, we reveled in our unfettered evening. As the clouds broke just before sunset, some people ventured onto the surrounding lawn and set up blankets. A stylish young mother in a flowing skirt with dark hair to match, swaddled her baby and rocked to the music. Though we hadn’t said a word to each other, both my friend and I watched the scene; for as soon as I opened my mouth, she knew exactly of whom I spoke.

“Good for her,” I said, in a tone that unmistakably meant – better her than me; taking an infant to an outdoor evening concert, contending with rain; controlling wine intake if he needs to breastfeed; leaving early if he gets cranky.

My friend laughed and, in effect, toasted that sentiment.

The very sight of a mother and child, lovely as it was, brought my back up in disdain, for fear of the anxiety that wasn’t far behind. I was here to escape; I wanted no such reminder of that part of my life I was trying to escape.

And yet, though feelings like this were very authentic, they didn’t sit well with me.

I loved my girls. I welcomed them willingly into my life. I may not have liked or gracefully handled every aspect of my days with them, but I was dedicated to the role and importance of family in the world.

And so, to scorn other people doing the same thing – it did not compute. I knew exactly how hard it was and should have been supportive rather than snarky. And I suppose I wasn’t overtly snarky, but my attitude toward life had changed. I think the snark helped me build a shell around my wounded psyche. I’d returned to real life, but I hadn’t healed. I needed some fail safe so my wounds didn’t weep everywhere while I went about my business.

In September, I got pregnant.

I had referred to number three as a surprise; what a poor example that was compared to this! Six years out from our youngest. All three kids: potty-trained and self-feeding; able to run around without a bodyguard; play dates with friends and some quiet time for us adults.

What!?

I felt really silly when I thought back to that scene at the concert. I’d served myself up a huge slice of humble pie. How could I have made such a remark and then go and do it to myself? But there was no way I could’ve held my tongue in preparation for what was to come. I never imagined it would be so.

In the days following the birth of our third, I slept fitfully while the baby dozed nearby. I awoke at one point in a cold sweat, having dreamt I was in labor, contracting forcefully. When I realized it was a dream, I thanked God it was over and prayed I’d never have to do it again. It was almost a PTSD reaction. (side note: my postpartum depression was swiftly developing and I’d had a traumatic recovery from labor)

Yet, here we were. Preparing to do it all over again. With a strange sense of calm. I’d had a spiritual epiphany of sorts at the start of my pregnancy that set me off on a good foot. But I also had already faced nearly everything of which I was afraid. I’d seen how shitty it could be – and how I’d survived.

Obviously not unscathed, given my snarky attitude, but I think that’s precisely why I find myself in this lovely predicament. This baby is a chance to wipe away all my negative associations with expecting and bringing a child into this world. Does that mean I’ll push out roses and sunshine? Hell, no. It’s going to be a hard road, but I feel this experience will also rebirth my wonder in life. My ability to see love and light in little faces and the tired faces of mothers. To once again give a shit, to stand and support myself and other mothers around me. To say, not only will you survive, but you will enter a place of peace – at some point.

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Jennifer Butler Basile

Four Years a Fourth Trimester

The baby of the family wanted to look at her baby book yesterday. She always wants to look at her baby book. It has become a chore. Dragging the behemoth book off the shelf, finding a place where it can lay supported across our laps, turning the pages for her so they don’t get bent. Like so many things in life lately, it’s a task I don’t want my child/children to do because I have to do it with them. I don’t have the energy or desire to do so. I have other things I’d like to be doing. I have other things I should be doing.

We sat yesterday, wedged side to side in the rocking chair I used to nurse her in, with the book stretched between us. I flipped through the pages with her as I usually did: answering random questions with half my attention. I’d seen all this a hundred times. I’d lived it, though it seemed like an alternate reality, eons ago in a fog.

There was a time, a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to create this baby book of hers. I couldn’t peer into the thin nylon parting gift of a bag from the hospital that held all the paperwork and memorabilia. Perhaps opening it up would release the demons I’d stuffed deep inside. Or that I’d carried home from the hospital.

I remember that bag as a turning point. It taunted me as it hung listless from the closet doorknob of the nursery. It twisted and banged against the door as we opened and closed it. It loomed in my eyesight as I sat in that rocker and nursed.

I think I finally emptied the bag because I was so sick of looking at it and its reminders.

Now all those reminders are bound up in that baby book.

That she forced me to look at yesterday.

I maintained psychic distance until I looked closely at the pages of her actual birth. I still search her face for signs of sibling similarity. I still try to pinpoint the moment between the pictures where they lost her bracelets in the nursery. From that point on, is there still sibling similarity?

It’s a tired routine. It’s not as fresh and real as the anguished feelings that drove it in the first place. But I still look. When I force myself to really see, I still look.

I never want to look at the pictures again. I want to box them up and send them with her when she’s grown and going out on her own. I love her as she is. I don’t want to become the person I was when she was born. Looking at pictures of her from that time, brings that me back.

Ironically enough, I bonded with this baby of mine. We share the most loveable, profound moments. I never wanted to hurt her or give her away or wish her out of existence. But somewhere in that hospital room, I split in two. Thankfully, one half was the loving mother who was able to give her what she needed. The other half? That’s not so easy to define. That’s me. Inside out, soft underbelly exposed to the harsh world. Quivering. Questioning. Knowing that she was screwed as the first labor pains hit because, even at the end of nine months of burgeoning, she still hadn’t prepared herself for this birth.

And as much I liked to think it was behind me, it came crawling back in as I looked at those pictures.  Maybe that’s why it’s such a chore to drag that book out.

Will I always cringe to remember that time? Will it always elicit the same feelings, years, decades, lifetimes passed?

chap4-headerFour years is far too long for a fourth trimester.

The Perfect Storm

hurricane

When my husband and I learned of the imminent arrival of our third child, we were in shock.  Yes, we knew how things worked.  Yes, we’d always considered, even expected, a third child.  No, we were not ready for it right then.  After our second was born, we said we’d definitely want to wait until she was older than our first had been before we welcomed number three, which was just over two and a half.    The best laid plans . . .

Our second was eighteen months old when we found out I was pregnant.  In the weeks that followed, we walked around in a stupor.  As I went about my daily activities caring for the kids, I would find myself staring into space, lost in thoughts of third car seats, reconfiguring furniture in our already small house, finances, schedules.  The phone would ring – my husband calling from work – and we would stare into space together, our shock suspended in the telephone lines.  We knew we wanted this child and loved it already, but were totally caught off-guard by its timing.

It was also a difficult time in my extended family.  My uncle was battling a terminal brain tumor.  My announcement to my mother was made by way of my explanation for not visiting the ICU.  He died a few days later.  Four months later, my cousin was killed in a motorcycle accident.  My grandmother’s devastation was complete.  My mother’s own grief was wrapped up in worry for her mother.

Somehow, the days wound on, the months passing.  Caring for two children while carrying my third was starting to take its physical toll.  The usual aches and pains of pregnancy were amplified.  My left hip and pelvis were giving me more pain than ever.  As my due date approached, I felt extreme pressure, a heaviness, different than impending labor.  Having nothing to compare it to, I just assumed it was my body’s worn-out response to doing this a third time.

In the delivery room, my midwife asked me if there’d be a fourth if we had another girl.  “I hope not,” I’d said.  By the time I was pushing, I was sure there wouldn’t be.  Even after two natural births, I’d never experienced anything like it.  I actually uttered the words that infuriate me when I hear them in television portrayals of labor: “I can’t do this.”  But somehow I did.  And the nurses placed a perfect little girl in my arms.

I’d like to say all the shock and worry evaporated as soon as I saw her face.  She was gorgeous, I loved her, but I almost felt like a stranger observing the scene from afar.  I still hadn’t wrapped my head around the idea of starting over again with a third child.  And I wouldn’t get a chance to right away.  In the hours and days following her birth, a new challenge presented itself: getting out of bed.

When the nurse came to get me the next morning, she asked if it was the first time I’d been out of bed.  “No,” I answered, nonplussed, until I saw her face as she watched me move.  My walk was more of a shuffle, getting in and out of bed was slower than glacial melt.  Finally, after many such episodes throughout the day, she said, “Maybe we should send you for an x-ray to make sure you didn’t break anything.”  Break anything?  You’re not supposed to break anything when you have a baby – except your water.  Now she was making me nervous.

An x-ray confirmed her suspicions – and my pain.  I had a slight case of diastasis symphysis pubis.  Thank God it was slight because it meant the ligaments in my pubic bone had separated.  And as slight as it was, it was excruciating.

Once the adrenaline wore off and the soreness settled in, I couldn’t roll over in bed without crying.  It took me 45 minutes to get out of bed early one morning when I didn’t wake my husband or call the nurse.  My father brought me the old karate belt I’d left at their house to lash my legs together as I rotated them off the bed to come up to sitting.  Hip adduction was simply impossible.

My husband had taken two weeks’ vacation to help with the baby.  He didn’t know that, in addition, he’d be doing everything for the other kids, washing and folding clothes, preparing food, and helping me to and from the car like a little old lady.  The helplessness that can afflict a new mother was magnified ten-fold by my handicap.

I told my mother-in-law, “I’m finding it hard not to feel sorry for myself.”

She said, “I don’t blame you.”

Her answer surprised me.  Were things really that bad that I should be feeling sorry for myself?

Apparently so.  I worked my way into some sort of routine with a newborn who fed at no particular time, a preschooler who had to be in school at a precise time, and a toddler who took off her shoes and socks whenever she felt like it.  Weekly visits to a physical therapist worked me through a regimen that gave me a tenuous, yet workable, physicality.  And yet, four months after the baby’s birth, I still couldn’t cope.

I would reach my breaking point over hair elastics stretched to theirs over the top of a dining room chair.  God help the poor soul who dumped out the basket of toys I just filled.  My two oldest would jump when I started screaming at the top of my lungs out of seemingly nowhere over seemingly nothing.  I felt like a pot about to boil over and I was trying desperately to keep the lid on tight.  It was a particularly grueling drop-off at preschool one morning that crystallized everything.

Sleet was just turning to snow as we pulled into the parking lot.  I strapped the baby into the baby carrier on the front of me and moved around to the other side of the car.  My toddler had already taken off the hat and mittens I’d fought to get on her at the house.  I reached into the back seat where the preschooler was seated to depress the red button on her harness, instructing her to unclip the top part while I redressed the toddler’s extremities.

“I can’t, Mommy,” came the plaintive cry from the back seat as she stared out the window at the passing kids.  I instructed her to focus on what she was doing and try again.  This conversation repeated itself over and over like an audio loop, her despair and my frustration escalating each time.  Finally, I lunged into the car, swearing like a sailor, the baby bobbing in her carrier like a cork on the ocean, undoing the strap and telling her to get out of the car.

Then I stopped.  I scanned the parking lot around us for parents going to and from their cars.  Had anyone heard me?  Had they seen this terrible little episode?  Shouldn’t I have known I was getting out of control before it was too late?  Once my oldest was safely in the classroom and the rest of us safely home, I dissolved into tears recounting the story to my husband on the phone.

“I need help,” I said.

A few weeks later, I started a new kind of therapy.  I met weekly with a licensed social worker to discuss and treat what finally had a name: postpartum depression.

At the end of my first visit, I said to her, “So, do I have postpartum?”  In classic counselor speak, she replied, “Would you like me to say you have postpartum?”  I laughed and she joined me.  “I can go through the indicators if you’d like,” she said.  One by one, she ticked off every single one of my circumstances: unexpected pregnancy, death of a loved one(s), stress, difficult delivery, physical trauma, demands of caring for other children, anxiety.  “Does that make you feel better?” she asked.  Oddly enough, it did.  For the first time in months, I felt light leaving her office.  I wasn’t a failure and I wasn’t crazy.

This perfect storm was not forecast, but at least now I had some sort of outlook for the future.

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