By Aileen Weintraub
It was the morning of my son’s eighth birthday and I was having trouble getting out of bed. In three hours, fifteen family members, including grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, would descend upon my house to celebrate. I pulled the cream colored sheets up to my chin and then tucked the thin tattered quilt firmly around my shoulders to make sure I was wrapped tight. It was a habit I had retained from five months of pregnancy-related bed rest leading up to the birth of my son. The last eight years seemed to have flown by, but when I think about those five months, it still feels like a life sentence. I ignored the familiar pang in my chest that accompanied the memory. Even now, so many years later, I still struggle with remnants.
I had made a promise to myself all those years ago: if this baby survived, no matter what, I would will myself out of bed every morning to care for him. By now I knew that I could face the day, as long as I eased into it. I ticked off a list of to do items for the party: prepare crudités, defrost burgers, clean bathrooms. I gave myself two more minutes under covers, watching the shadows dance on the wall, another habit I had picked up from what I came to refer to as bed rest purgatory. Maybe it was the way the light hit the wall this morning or the fact that we had come so far, but something inside me triggered details I had tried unsuccessfully to cast aside.
It was right around my twenty-ninth day of bed rest, at which point I had become an expert on two fronts: light patterns on varying surfaces and the direction in which dust swirls before it settles. That particular afternoon was a hot June day, and I lay in bed watching the sun streaming through the window making rainbow prisms on the wooden floor. The pressure in my lower belly was unbearable and I raised my hips up onto a yoga block in a poor attempt at relief. Even now, thinking back, I can almost feel the summer’s breath caress the curve of my neck as it passed between the crinkled white curtains. What made this day different than the previous ones is that by then, all the hoopla of bed rest had died down. The phone had ceased ringing, there were no packages in the mail, and I was undeniably alone. The hustle of setting up my space and receiving visitors had held the sadness at bay for the first few weeks. But then, the house fell silent as all the well meaning people went back to their workaday lives. I was unsettled because the very next day would mark the one month anniversary of the emergency sonogram that showed I had three monster fibroids invading my uterus.
Fibroids are bulbous growths that form on the uterine wall. One of them was pressing up against my cervix causing early effacement. Most of the time they are relatively harmless, unless of course they are trying to escape. There was a battle inside my belly, and I was told in no uncertain terms that the fibroids would likely win. The doctor, whom I now only remember as a bleached blond with Louboutin heels and bright red lipstick told me with her head still between my legs that I’d be lucky if my baby made it to twenty-four weeks. I had been eighteen weeks along at the time. Go to bed. Don’t get up. Wait. That was the only treatment she offered. And there I was on that twenty-ninth day, just skimming the surface of the first full month.
The initial shock and fear eventually simmered, leaving in its wake a hollow shell of guilt. In the space of the silent afternoon, just around the time when the light pattern darkened on my bedroom wall, I began to obsess. I worried what people thought of me and I judged myself against other pregnant women. No matter what anyone else had to say, at the time, there was only one way for me to see this. I had failed at the very essence of womanhood. I was an incubator, a stationary vessel in the truest sense.
My mother, in her well meaning way, told me to keep busy, and, to get my mind off my situation, she would send care packages. But once the mail had already arrived, or the UPS driver hadn’t shown up on his morning run, I had nothing left to look forward to for the rest of the day. The afternoons were ruthless.
I had dubbed the hours between 1:00 and 3:00 ‘the endless’ hours. Not a single car on the road drove by, television became a wasteland of soap operas and reruns, and this is when the sadness hit the hardest. I struggled to distinguish the physical pain of the fibroids pressing up against my cervix from the emotional pain that dug a deep pit in my middle. I could drown during those hours, turn deep inside, and never come up for air if I allowed myself to slip. By 3:00, I could muster energy enough to reach over and click on the television remote to watch talk show hosts crack jokes that left me cold.
Each day after that twenty-ninth one I continued to observe the slow and relentless disintegration of my body as if it were detached from me entirely. At every turn, something new failed me: first my uterus, then my cervix, my blood sugar, my joints, the list goes on, and soon I had a small army of vitamins, pills, needles, and medications. For the first time I could sympathize with elderly people who lived inside flesh and bones that just could not keep time with their soaring spirit. I realized what it meant to be in pain every single moment of the day and how it could change your entire personality. I imagined each little joint, artery, and nerve ending, blessing them and saying silent prayers that nothing else would fail and that this baby would thrive. Even now to this day I say a prayer, thankful for my life right down to my smallest blood vessel.
It took a while to realize, but sometimes there is simply no pill or procedure, or anything else. Sometimes it’s just you and whatever or whomever you believe in trying to figure out how to get through the next moment. Unlike other people suffering from depression, by the very nature of this beast, I could not change my environment. I could not “take my mind off things” even if I wanted to. It was a test not only of emotional and physical endurance but of mental acuity. It would have been so easy to follow the darkness in its entirety, to go deeper.
My husband was dutiful, making me a cooler packed with food in the mornings and leaving it bedside, calling once a day, and even stopping by with the occasional chocolate ice cream shake or other goody. But he had just bought a lawn and power equipment dealership that, it turns out, we had no idea how to run. As a matter of fact, we closed on the business the very day I was sentenced to purgatory. How’s that for tear your hair out stress? He tried to hold it all together, juggling a sick wife who cried all day and a fledging business. Mostly he came home and vomited from stress.
In the evenings, once he had shoveled a handful of cashews or almonds into his mouth, probably his only dinner, he would make his way into the bedroom and stand over the bed, his tall, slim figure casting a looming shadow. One night he asked me how I was holding up. I didn’t know how to answer so instead we made small talk. Our marriage was fresh and new, and we were not well equipped to deal with the impending tragedy of a child lost. But then again, who is? That night he watched me with love in his eyes, but tempered by a look of pity and concern. That was when I knew he felt as hopeless as I did. From then on, I began to sleep away the days, but even that was not without hesitation because my dreams were riddled with nightmares.
Once a visitor, depression rarely leaves entirely. It waxed and waned like the summer moon and there were days I could mask it or bury it, looking outward instead of toward the messy haze of webs inside my head. But mostly, malaise set in and every book, every Netflix movie I ordered, every person I spoke to, including the telemarketer trying to sell me homeowners insurance had a story to tell about their darling babies, their families, their children, and though I tried not to envy, there were fleeting moments when I hated them all. Sometimes these ‘well meaning’ people told me stories of miscarriages and dead children and loss, and that made me hate them even more. The venom would rise up and I’d want to throw the bedside lamp or bash in the mirror above the mantle, but then I’d remember, I am not allowed to move and I only wish I had the strength. I would hang up the phone after such conversations and stare at the wood paneled ceiling. I could at least amuse myself with the various patterns of knots and cracks in the old paneling as I chalked off my time on bed rest. It was like a Rorschach test: in happier times it was all butterflies and fairies, but now it took on darker tones, a vortex of swirling chaos and devil eyes.
But five months of bed rest did go by. And by the fourth month, with my baby still intact, I was able to let in a little more light and strengthen my grip. When I could begin to crack open my eyes to the world around me at eight months pregnant, I realized that I hardly knew my husband. The uncomfortable small talk and awkward silences were replaced by full on days of fighting. We were drowning in bills, and he looked so gaunt. While I had nothing but time, for him there were not enough hours in the day. We slept in the same bed, but there was distance between us. No longer were we newlyweds entangled in one another’s limbs.
By the time I felt my first labor pain, I was in complete denial. I had invested so much energy into saving this baby that I couldn’t believe it was ever going to come out. It was only at the firm insistence of my doctor that I made my way to the hospital that night. But the baby was in no rush. Ironic if you think about it.
In everyone else’s joy of the baby, the baby who wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty-four weeks, nobody noticed me. I was glad of it. I could not make sense of my own emotions in that birthing room. Relieved yes, but sad still the same. The fear, the worry, the anxiety didn’t all just go away because the baby was outside of my body. If I could barely keep him safe inside, what could possibly make me think I could do a better job outside my womb?
He cried all the time and everyone told me it was colic, but I knew that he was crying because of the sadness he felt inside my own body. How could he possibly be a happy baby when I had been so stressed and had sunk so low during his gestation? I thought a lot about cortisol levels.
My husband went back to work, thinking the worst was over and sighing relief. He deserved to have less pressure placed upon him, but I could barely drag myself out of bed in the mornings. Our relationship began to heal, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take years. We had been married only months when I got pregnant, but it took eons longer to repair. The rift, however quickly formed, was going to have to be built back up one arduous layer at a time. There were days that I wasn’t sure I had the energy to commit to it, and I’m sure he felt the same.
In the middle of the night I would hold my inconsolable child and think about how everyone swooned over his beauty. Why then was I convinced he was mocking me, laughing at my incompetence? I was of sound mind enough to check myself, but in those early days, I did not see the joy that others saw in his eyes. It took months to fall truly, madly, deeply in love with my child. I needed to learn him, his every nuance, cry, and gurgle. We were strangers with different schedules. He had a strong personality and needs that seldom gelled with my own. This was not to say I was apathetic. In fact, I overcompensated with devotion, quickly becoming overprotective. To this day, he will say, “Mom, you love me too much.”
No one ever labeled me and I didn’t learn until years later the terms prenatal depression or baby blues. Perhaps if I had taken the time to get a diagnosis I could have been kinder to myself. I could have gotten the help I needed and made life easier for my family. I try not to dwell on that, because hindsight is twenty twenty, and if I were able to help myself back then, I would have.
I can’t say I know the exact day the switch flipped. It wasn’t like that. It was a slow and steady light that needled its way into my heart, so dim at first that it barely flickered. Sunshine helped, and Music Together classes, and routine. Days would go by when the light didn’t shine at all, and I wasn’t sure it ever would. Any commitment to maintaining our life, such as trips to the grocery store or laundry, left me desperately exhausted because I had all but forgotten how to walk during my five months in bed. But then there were days that the light shone through, and slowly, a deep connection was forged.
Now, today, my newly minted eight year old stands over my bed informing me that I must get up. It is too early for words, so I just whisper a quiet ‘mmmmkay.’ It is not enough. Instead, he climbs up onto the bed, gingerly at first, and then without warning steam rolls me, his long blonde hair grazing my cheek. He pushes aside the sheets and plants sticky blueberry pancake laced kisses on my clavicle. My husband has made us breakfast.
I know how lucky I am that my child survived. Though, on occasions like this morning, I still feel a hint of shadow lurking around the edges. This feeling has been carved in my body. Like the dust swirling in the light, it will always be there. It has taken time, but I have learned to focus my attention on the spaces in between. I know now, that like my boy, I’m a survivor. Still, I wonder if other women who suffered from prenatal depression momentarily become paralyzed by that old darkness years later.
My son does not give me time to ponder this. He wants to know if the filling inside the red velvet cupcakes are chocolate ganache or butter cream. He wants to know too how many mini hot dogs he can reserve in advance before his cousins lay claim. He thinks six is fair, four if I want to bargain.
I half push him off my ribcage. He’s talking a mile a minute, making plans. I watch his face knowing that every day the beam of light continues to widen. In this moment, today, eight years later, when I look into my child’s blue eyes the brightness blinds me.