A rare moment of solitude: the baby is napping, the oldest child is at school, the four-year-old is watching cartoons. You turn the water up as hot as you can and step into the shower. Close your eyes and lean your head back. Let the steady stream pummel into the thick layer of your anxiety. A layer so thick it feels like a crust.
You are lathering up when the bathroom door is swung open. In his tinny voice, your son announces that he needs to go potty.
“So go,” you bark, resentful of the intrusion. A few moments later, he whines, “Pull up my pants, Mama, pull up my pants, Ma-MA!”
You breathe in the steam, your mouth stretched tight while you try to ignore his insistent demands, as well as the small voice in your head reminding you that you always pull up his pants whenever he asks.
I don’t care, you say to the voice. He knows how to do it, and is one uninterrupted shower too fucking much to ask for?
His whining increases in volume and urgency.
Just pull up his pants, the voice says. It’ll take all of two seconds and then he’ll go back to watching TV. What’s your problem?
Immediately you bristle. Your problem? What is your problem?
This. Everything. All of it.
Especially that hard something lodged in your chest that is making you feel like you do. Unable to stop the anger as the whining voice of your child whom you love beyond words pierces you, drills into you, leaving a dark hole inside.
“Mamaaaaaa, pull up my paaaaaaaaants!”
The small voice in your head is stunned into silence as out of the hole something ugly erupts, and you thrust the shower curtain aside and stomp out of the tub, swearing, water and soap dripping all over the floor, and with your soaking wet hands you grab your son’s pants and yank them so hard you think you lift him off his feet just a little, and he cries harder but all you can do is yell that now he can go back to watching T.V.
You step back into the shower. You hear sniffling. Footsteps retreating. The drone of the bathroom fan.
In the tub you collapse and curl into yourself, and as the hot water flows over your back, you recall the fear on your son’s tear-stained face and you weep.
Was it after the shower incident that I googled the symptoms of postpartum depression? Perhaps. That spring, the days were mashed into each other like leftover Play-doh, with their endless procession of dirty dishes and laundry, school papers and diapers, the rhythmic whine of the breast pump and never enough sleep. The kids’ needs were unraveling me, pulling at the loose threads of whoever it was that I used to be. I was sucked dry. Stretched completely thin.
I’d been yelling a lot. Each time I did I felt shitty but there was something about it that felt like release, like the sensation of cigarette smoke entering lungs, acrid and burning yet somehow so satisfying. Once, I exploded at my eight-year-old son during breakfast, sounding like something straight out of The Exorcist. Seeing his wide eyes I forced myself to laugh about the whole thing, brush it off. Yes, it’s hilarious, seeing mommy lose control in this way. I should just stab myself in the eye because I don’t deserve these beautiful children. (Intrusive thoughts, as I learned, were a symptom of postpartum depression.)
This was not the mother I was supposed to be. These feelings, the yelling—none of it was anywhere in the blueprints for motherhood I’d had in my heart since childhood.
Yet there I was. Feral. A wild animal cornered.
Call your therapist, the small voice inside of me whispers. I scoff. What can she tell me that I don’t know already? That first I need to take care of myself so then I can do a better job of nurturing everyone else? I know this. I know I should go to bed early, drink more water, eat healthier foods, begin an exercise routine. I even have an elliptical machine down in the basement, bought off of Craigslist after my second pregnancy but used maybe five times, so what’s my excuse? Time? There is never enough of it. Or maybe I’m just terrible at organizing it. In the morning I want to sleep as long as I can so I’m rested at least, but if I don’t get up before the kids then forget having breakfast for at least an hour, never mind being able to take a shit on my own schedule instead of holding it in because that’s when the baby is crying and needs me.
See? Obviously you can’t figure it out. Call your therapist.
What, so she can diagnose me with postpartum depression and put me on meds? I don’t want to pump my body full of pills. I can deal on my own with whatever this is. Besides, it’s not like I can’t get out of bed. It’s not like the kids are dirty and hungry, neglected. I feed them good meals, for the most part, fruits and veggies at each, and make sure they have a consistent bedtime routine. I hug them each day and tell them I love them; we read books and play games and we laugh, even on the bad days.
And it’s not like I can’t bond with the baby or have thoughts of harming my children. (Unless you count the urge to spank my son when he’s having a tantrum and flailing his body about like he’s doing the Limbo.) Of course our children are safe with me, I assure my husband after telling him what I suspect I may be struggling with. I would never intentionally harm them. (But I do wonder what pushes some women over the edge. I’m secretly terrified that I have an edge, too.) So I’ve been extra irritable lately. So I’ve been yelling. What parent doesn’t? This is nothing, I’m fine. I just miss having fun. I miss laughing—really laughing.
So go see a comedy show. You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?
Maybe you should tell one of your best friends.
And I almost do. We’re on the phone, talking about husbands and children and plans to meet up for a much-needed drink, and the words are right there, in my throat—I think I might have postpartum depression—but I know if I speak them out loud I’ll burst into tears, come unglued.
That spring, my husband’s friend, with whom he’d grown up together in the same village in Poland, invited us to Chicago for his fortieth birthday. I’m not sure why it didn’t even occur to me to put my husband on a plane by himself, to tell him to go, have a good time, enjoy the weekend alone. Instead, we packed up the baby, the kids, the breast pump and diapers, the jars of baby food and the playpen; we packed up the whole minivan and from the East Coast we drove to America’s heartland.
I thought a change in routine might help me.
Only now, three years later, do I understand what I was actually doing, going along on such a trip in that precarious state: I was trying to prove, once again, to myself and the world, that I was an excellent mother. See? Look at this heroic thing I am doing, driving halfway across the country while children whine and cry in the back, climbing over the bags to thrust my breast into the baby’s mouth as the armrest digs into my ribs and the mini-van speeds down the highway.
The trip, of course, did not help my depression.
On the third or fourth day of vacation, you and your husband take the children to the Willis Tower in downtown Chicago. The wait for the elevator to the observation floor is over an hour. The four-year-old keeps running around, trying to unhook the velvet ropes keeping everyone corralled in the line. The baby, strapped onto your chest in the carrier, begins stirring, and you begin doing the mom bounce. Knees bending, hips swaying, hand on the baby’s back. Not yet, not yet, please don’t wake up just quite yet.
A thrumming begins in your hollowed out core and spreads through the rest of your body, right underneath your skin, pulsing. Time grinds to a halt. You want to scream. How did you get here? Where’s the picture-perfect family vacation which somewhere, sometime, had been promised? By whom or what you cannot say. All you know is that you feel cheated. Betrayed. The inside of your brain feels like a roiling anthill.
Later, alone in the bathroom, you lock yourself in the stall. But still you can hear them, your family out in the hall, the kids pestering your husband for more coins to put in that machine which presses your penny flat and leaves it with an imprint of the skyscraper, or maybe of the cow that purportedly started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The arguing and yelling and crying shoots in underneath the closed bathroom door, assaulting you, drilling into you, and you lean against the stall, your shoulders heaving, tears flowing down and wetting your shirt, because you want to be somewhere else, anywhere else, you want to jump out of your very own skin and maybe even be someone else, like the type of mom who would never scream at her kids because she’d know some lame song off the top of her head which would help them behave. What if you walk out of this building and disappear into the crowd? What if you just…go? Steal quickly away?
The thought grips you, wraps itself around you, making you cry even harder.
Deep down I knew I wouldn’t actually leave my children, not then, not ever. But the very fact that I’d even allowed the thought to enter my head gutted me. Because what kind of a mother thinks such horrible thoughts?
Somehow, I pulled myself together and made it through the rest of that day, just as I’d been doing for the past several weeks. Getting through. Barely.
But what I didn’t, or couldn’t, admit to myself in that bathroom stall in Chicago was this: The thought of leaving made me cry harder partly because of how alluring it was, yet at the same time, how impossible. How utterly, achingly impossible. Like seeing a sliver of blue sky through the bars on a prison window.
On the way home from Chicago, we stay at an Airbnb on Lake Erie to break up the drive. We’ve been away from home for almost a week and our children, especially our four-year-old, are reaching their limit. Even now, first thing in the morning, as I let the door of the cottage fall closed behind me, their voices arguing over whose turn it is to pick a Netflix show chase me down the deck steps. The baby will probably be up from his nap soon, cranky because he’s teething and most likely sick of having to wake up in a new place every couple of days. I shake off the guilt and half-walk, half-run down the sidewalk. I’m sure my husband will somehow survive.
The sidewalk leads me past a few other cottages, and the bluish-gray water of Lake Erie in the distance beckons me. But as I near the beach, I hear a loud rumbling and grinding, followed by short beeps every few seconds. So much for a peaceful walk, I think, as I step onto the sand and see a Bobcat skid steer backing up and then noisily plowing ahead, its claw picking up large pieces of driftwood in what appears to be an effort to clean up the beach of debris. (Either that, or someone is planning some pretty big bonfires tonight.) I stop in my tracks, and my first thought is that my four-year-old would absolutely love to see this.
My spunky, wild middle child, who is obsessed with construction vehicles. Who sleeps in excavator pajamas and loader bed sheets, and drinks his morning milk from a mug with pictures of dump trucks and skid steers and backhoes. (Yes, I too know all the names now.) Who plays with his collection of tiny yellow machines in the sandbox, the bathtub, the grass, who exclaims and with eyes shining points through the car window whenever he spots any kind of construction vehicle out on the road.
I really should run back to the cottage to get him. This, for him, would be better than Christmas and Halloween and Easter combined.
But then I think back to our attempt to take a family walk on the beach the previous evening: my son digging like a dog and getting sand all over us, throwing rocks every which way, running around and constantly getting too close to the edge of the pier. To be fair, he had just spent eight hours in the car. But knowing that didn’t make it any easier.
I’m sure he’ll have plenty of opportunities to see a Bobcat in action. This is my morning. And god knows how much I need it.
I take two steps forward. Just then, the claw of the Bobcat picks up more wood and starts beeping as it backs up again, heaving its haul onto one of the piles. Without a second thought, I turn on my heel and rush back to the cottage. Screw it.
I burst in the front door, grinning widely.
“Sweetheart, come look! There’s a Bobcat on the beach!”
His whole face lights up and he jumps off the couch, abandoning the Netflix show he’d been dying to watch just five minutes ago.
We walk down to the beach hand in hand. As soon as the Bobcat comes into view, my son freezes, completely in awe. I crouch down next to him and gaze at his small face, his beautiful face, and I take several deep breaths, drinking him in—the way his eyes sparkle and his nose crinkles, his little white teeth peeking through his smile, his sandy brown hair tousled and falling into his eyes, and everything else slips away for a short while—memories of the tantrums and whining, his neediness, my anger. I’m here in this moment with my child. And seeing his pure, unfiltered excitement, his childish delight, does not feel like a compromise. It does not feel like putting my needs last once again. This, for me, feels like a gift.
The two of us spend the whole hour on the beach together, watching the Bobcat at first but then playing, exploring. A twisted piece of driftwood becomes my son’s excavator, of course, and I sit on some concrete steps and watch him playing, smiling at his creativity. We skip stones and find shells, we chase each other by the water’s edge, we discover a fort someone else built with the driftwood.
Not long after we returned from Chicago, I made an appointment to get a prescription for anti-depressants. I ended up not taking them, although in retrospect, I know I probably should have. Back then, though, you see, I was still tethered to the idea of perfection. Deep down, I ached to be the heroic mother, the myth, the legend, the one who could prove that you could indeed do it all. Figuring things out on my own and pulling myself up by the bootstraps was part of the trap of that myth.
Seven months later, the onset of the pandemic would strip me of whatever notions I may still have possessed that such a thing was feasible, or healthy, or even desirable. And of course, the pandemic would exacerbate the struggles of mothering three little humans, especially since it hit just when I felt like I was finally climbing out of the clutches of that postpartum depression. Fantasies about leaving would flit through my mind every so often—this time no longer so shocking. Because by that point, I knew they were simply a part of the landscape of motherhood.
On that spring morning, as we walked from the beach back to the cottage, my son’s little hand snuggled in mine, I found myself fully present for the first time in weeks. Later that day, challenging moments would come, I knew; I’d get angry again, yell, want to vanish. But right then, my frayed soul felt completely, utterly soothed. The time we’d spent together had been a balm.
And I realized how much I needed those kinds of moments, too. In that space which had become so hard to navigate during that difficult spring, that space of yelling and crying and my own guilt and fear, this was exactly what I needed: a small moment of joy with my child. I knew I needed to laugh more often with my kids, find ways to enjoy being with them, not to prove anything to anyone, but simply for my own sake. For theirs.
And so as we walked back to the cottage, both of us happy, content, I decided I would try to catch these small moments of quiet joy from now on, moments in which I’d learn to forgive myself. I would learn to sink into those moments, wrap them around me like a warm, weighted blanket—even if just for a bit.
Magda Bartkowska was born in Gdańsk, Poland and raised in western Massachusetts. Her writing has been published in Barnstorm Journal and The Tishman Review, among others, and most recently, one of her essays shortlisted in the Sonora Review Rage Essay Contest. Currently, she is working on a coming-of-age novel exploring how identity is pieced together at the intersection of immigration and girlhood, in a world that attempts to tame the wild out of girls. You can find Magda on Twitter @MagdaBart8 and at www.magdalenabartkowska.com.
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