Buying a pregnancy test is always a fraught experience. You’re either praying to Fisher-Price that it says yes or pleading to Durex it says no. I don’t know any woman that says, “Eh, I’m not feeling a movie tonight. Let’s go get a pregnancy test – just for funzies!” Remember that Walgreens cashiers the next time you see a wild-haired, wild-eyed, pajama-clad lady with a clown car full of screaming children clutching a pee-on-a-stick. I know it’s your job but asking if I’d like to take advantage of the BOGO (buy one, get one half off) offer this week will only make me cry harder. (Also, Walgreens? Good call on putting the pregnancy tests on the same shelf with the condoms. There was a teenage boy standing there checking them out and I’m pretty sure I just convinced him that abstinence really is best. Or maybe a vasectomy. You’re welcome, teenaged boy’s mom!)
By now you have deduced that this weekend found me shopping in the aisle I hoped to never need again and according to the three tests I have now taken I can conclude that mercifully I am not pregnant. (Just thought I’d get that out of the way at the beginning of the post so you wouldn’t be freaking out. You know, like I was.) Logistics aside – yes, we know how pregnancy happens and yes, we know how to prevent it (I have an IUD!) – this was a particularly poignant realization. See, our decision to finish our family with Jelly Bean comes not from a lack of resources (we’re not rolling in the money but we could make it work if we needed to) nor from pregnancy complications (I’m a textbook pregnant lady and a champion birther) but rather because, well, I’m crazy.
Usually when people invoke the “You don’t know what you’ve got, ’till it’s gone” axiom, it’s because they’re lamenting the loss of something they took for granted. Either that or they’re singing some drunk-karaoke Cinderella. (Have you listened to that song recently? I forgot how ridic Crazy Hair Man’s raspy voice sounds on top of that tinkly piano and it just made me laugh so hard I woke my husband up.) But for me, it’s a reminder that I never realize how mentally ill I am while I’m in the midst of it.
Babysitting Turbo Jennie’s infant (she’s 4 months old now!) the other day, I marveled at how much fun it was to sit and hold her and make goofy faces while my kids put on a breakdancing show and she rewarded them with grins and coos. But it wasn’t until I put her down for her nap in my room, closed the door and went to work in another room that I realized the significance of shutting that door.
I don’t have those carefree memories of my babies. It kills me to write that.
It wasn’t because I didn’t try to enjoy them but you can’t “try” your way out of anxiety and depression. Meds, therapy and daily (yes, seriously) talks with my sister who has suffered far more than I have from post-partum depression and anxiety and is my hero for the way she has dealt with it, all help but the real healer for me is time. Whether it’s hormone-based – my best guess – or a stage-of-life issue, it takes me about two years to finally crawl out of that dark rabbit hole I fall into every time I see a plus sign on the pregnancy test.
It isn’t that I didn’t love them. It’s that I love them so much my heart seizes at the thought that someday I might lose them in any of the myriad ways that a mother can lose a child. This thought is omnipresent in every waking moment from the time I find out I’m pregnant until they’re about 18 months old – Jelly Bean’s age. There were no shut doors for me.
When my first son was born, my husband and I kept him in our room for the first six months of his life. With the lights on. With each of us taking turns waking every 20 minutes to sit bolt upright, rush to the bassinet and make sure he was still alive. We had convinced ourselves that with this insane ritual we could ward off the specter of SIDS or RSV or whatever strange shadow carries away babies’ souls in the night. No one around us questioned our behavior because there was another before him, another one who did die, so of course we were nervous. It was normal. It was also hell. By convincing myself that I could save him from death, keeping him alive – nay, his every breath – became my direct responsibility. It kills me to remember that.
Exhausting. Unrelenting. Manic. Fear.
When my second son was born, it got worse. I remember being strangely comforted by his 9+ hours of colic a day because as long as he was crying at least I knew he was breathing. By the time my third son was born, I was spending every evening clutching him to my chest and pacing the floor for hours with the other two trailing behind me like bewildered ducklings. The only way I could put him down was to pray, sobbing, that God would watch him while I slept. Every night I went to sleep with the thought that this tiny puff of breath would be the last I would ever hear. I knew it wasn’t normal but it was the only normal I knew. It kills me to remember that.
Knowing my issues, when we decided to have Jelly Bean we took every precaution to deal with my mental illness. It helped. But not enough. Instead of first smiles, I celebrated turning 6 months old and getting officially out of the SIDS danger range. Instead of relishing first tastes of foods, I panicked about choking hazards. Instead of delighting over first steps, I obsessed over them walking out of the house in the middle of the night and freezing to death. To protect myself from the fear of losing them, I pushed them away. I can understand why some parents in bygone eras refused to name a baby until his or her first birthday. It kills me to write that.
Even as recently as two months ago when I discovered one evening on my nightly rounds through the house that we had not a single working smoke alarm (how does this even happen!?), I kept a vigil all night convinced that the deadly spark was just waiting for me to nod off. Waiting for me to relax my grasp. Waiting to consume my children.
Willing them to grow ever faster to reach the next level of safety, there is no relaxed enjoyment of their babyhood. But day by day it does get slowly better until by the time the child is two, I feel like my old self again – which is to say crazy, but not disastrously so. I’ve been able to enjoy them as toddlers and preschoolers and even as grade schoolers who put their dirty underwear right back on after they take a shower. But I never realize how bad it is until the veil over my mind is lifted. Until I hold another’s baby and realize, too late, what I’ve missed. It kills me.
If a baby embodies new life, why then all this talk of killing? I guess that song is about regret for me, after all.