The pathos of my postpartum period did not pause at my perfunctory six-week check-up. In the waiting room of my OB/GYN’s office, I found myself surrounded – stage left, stage right, upstage and downstage – by burgeoning bellies, contagiously gloating and glowing countenances and the general glee that accompanies the anticipation of brandishing budding life.
The latest issues of the new breed of pregnancy periodicals were stacked on each shiny end table. Alluring model mommas-to-be smiled at onlookers from the magazine covers, posing in cut-off crop tops or tight fitting camisoles, popped belly buttons poking out and protruding unapologetically – but with none of the bloat and stretch marks that were the lot of the common expectant woman.
Most of the women in the office instead picked up Better Homes & Gardens or People Magazine, or rubbed their bellies lovingly while staring into space, trance-like. Husbands’ eyes shifted, their tight-lipped smiles poorly compensating for feeling out of sorts amongst the mauve and periwinkle décor. The office looked like the set for a feminine hygiene product commercial. Several balloon-bellied women had their broods in tow. Equipped with a cache of supplies fit for a weekend hiking expedition, they sluggishly pushed strollers, carried two diaper bags – one with essentials like anti-rash cream, the other with goodies like graham crackers and apple sauce – and fixed their faces in a grin plastered by the adhesive of their sacrificial sentence, their signed contract to protect and serve in the martyrdom of motherhood.
It was like being at a party that was pregnant with pretence. Everyone at the office was in on the charade, observing the etiquette of the working upper-middleclass, smiling when expected, nodding diplomatically, with all of the “Thank you’s,” “Excuse me’s,” and “Isn’t she a darling’s?” that navigating through this microcosm demanded. The only things missing were dainty doilies on the tables and ladies doing a curtsy when the nurse called them back.
Despite the jolly mood that surrounded me, I didn’t feel like kicking up my heels. I was a party pooper, calmly rocking my baby in her heavy-as-hell car seat-carrier, with an expression that belied the indignation brewing within.
My pants were too tight. My thundering thighs had worn down the fabric between my legs into prickly, rough-hewn pills. My face was still bloated, my nipples were huge, my breasts leaked and every time I sat up or stood up.
I had to downplay just how much my C-section incision still hurt. It was painful, like dripping vinegar on an open wound, or running out of neutralizing shampoo just when it was time to rinse out the relaxer. If I stood too quickly, kneeled too deeply, or bent for too long, I just knew that blood, pus and guts would start seeping from my midsection. First, it would seep, then spill, then violently pour out in a calamity of organic confusion and postnatal defiance.
I imagined this happening in public, to the horror of onlookers, feeling that no one would really come to my aid. Instead, they would flippantly claim I just had a case of the baby blues and that I should be jubilant that I had a healthy baby, while I’d remain crouched down trying to force the rush of blood back in and keep my intestines from falling out.
The nurse came out, clipboard in hand. She called my name. I put my daughter’s unfinished bottle back into her bag and reengaged the handle to her seat so I could carry her. The weight of her body plus the behemoth seat must have surpassed thirty pounds. I clumsily carried her back, the seat clunking against my knees that knocked it with each step. I tried to pretend I didn’t feel the tender twitch in my newly spread hips as I plodded forward.
“Ooh, she’s a pretty thing!”
“Wow, lookin’ just like her momma!”
“Isn’t she a doll?”
The nurses crowded around and clamoured for the attention of the baby who was the color of coffee with too much creamer. They clapped and ogled and oohed and ahed and sighed and giggled and cooed and laughed and made googly eyes and were behaving strangely more infantile than the 42-day-old being before them.
The nurse perfunctorily checked my blood pressure.
“Here, go give me something in this cup.”
That was my cue to go in the adjacent bathroom and provide a urine sample. I eyed her with what a pregnant pause must look like.
“Don’t worry. We’ll watch her.”
When I came out, nurses were grabbing her tiny hands, fingering her full coif and tickling her ten toffee-tipped toes. I gave a sorority girl smile, grabbed the carrier and went back to the second room on the right, as I had been cursorily instructed.
When the nurse closed the door to the stark and sterile room, I sighed. It was like a loud, distressed, asthmatic wheeze. There was a flip chart of a vulva on the desk. The sum of its parts were petal pink and rosy red. The diagram told none of the secrets of the vagina. It whispered not even a syllable of its own special monologue. The illustrated reproduction didn’t hint at blood clots, thick discharge or its aroma that changed, depending on the week of the menstrual cycle, the trimester of pregnancy or whether or not it had been recently sexed.
My daughter’s eyes darted and danced around the room. She was still strapped into her carrier. I unhinged the straps, liberating her arms and relieving the grip on her torso. I disrobed and looked at myself in the full-length mirror on the backside of the door. Surely, they didn’t put these mirrors in here for women’s self-esteem, I thought. When I faced myself, faced my body, I felt curiously removed from it. I examined it, pulling and tugging at stretched skin and flab, kicking my leg up so I could see my thigh jiggle and turning around to see a formerly round behind stuffed behind rolls and reams of cellulite.
My body was a salvageable car in a junkyard. It would take discipline to return it to its former glory, but its old slopes and my innate slink remained. Onlookers recognized the beauty and potential and, in fact, might not have seen anything wrong at all. But I was a woman who had regularly ran five miles several days a week, lifted weights and even completed a half-marathon.
My daughter gurgled. I looked at her, braced to wipe up spit-up or perform the infant Heimlich manoeuvre. I stared into my eyes in the mirror, vowing not to be that mother who let herself go. The one who wore stirrup stretch pants, oversized T-shirts and bargain bin glasses. The type who wore high-waisted, tapered-legged jeans with long-sleeved flannels tucked conspicuously over a saggy abdominal pouch. I didn’t want to be the kind who wore a pursed pucker fixed into a tight, mechanical smile, just wanting, waiting, willing – wishing – to scream. The types who politely nodded and uttered empty courtesies, while bouncing a baby on a knee, cooing in his ear, feeding him with a cheap plastic spoon and watching commercials for toilet cleaner.
The doctor knocked quickly before barging in. Fortunately, I had quickly closed my gown over my sad breasts and was propped up on the table with an expression of perfect, undisturbed peace.
“Hey there, doll!” the doctor said to my daughter’s honey-colored face peering out from beneath a pink thermal blanket. The doctor’s brunette, loosened, bottle-born curls slowly came to a dramatic standstill. “You’re looking great,” she said to me with artificial animation. “How are you feeling?”
I said I was fine, but tired and got on with it. I knew the drill: lay back, spread-eagle, look up, project numbness, sit up, smile, wipe off, get dressed. The doctor said everything “looked great,” that my C-section incision was “doing great,’ and she hoped I had an equally “great time being a mother.” I didn’t expect anything more from this woman – this doctor – who had told me in my second trimester that only fish have babies under water.
There was no apology or acknowledgement for not being there for the birth. For not even being on call and having an alien physician surgically slice me, excavate my baby and leave behind permanent reminders. I felt raped and pillaged like an Egyptian tomb.
And it didn’t help that I would be returning to work in two weeks.
Work. Labor. Employment. Job. Vocation. Occupation. Thing One Does to Earn a Living. Drudgery. Toil. Playing the Game. Earning One’s Keep. Tilling Fields on the Plantation.
The public presumption was that I wouldn’t be returning to work soon after having a baby.
“So, when are you going back? A year?”
“When your Family and Medical Leave Act time runs out, maybe you can just freelance sometimes to bring in extra spending money.”
This was what people said. What in the hell were they thinking? I wasn’t even going to be out long enough for FMLA leave to kick in! And extra spending money! As if my income was used to buy upgrades only, like fresh farmed salmon, ginger beer, take-out dinners and La Perla lingerie! Oh, the nerve.
Actually, my income was used for essentials, necessities. Things like electricity, groceries, the mortgage and bills. Stuff like co-pays for doctor’s visits and building an emergency safety net. The idea that a woman’s – or, rather, a mother’s – income was to be dedicated to “extras” exclusively was as foreign and unfamiliar to me as those women I’d see shopping in the daytime hours at Wild Oats, not once glancing at their watches, clutching their Louis Vuitton purses, dressed in designer jeans and dashing off in their sleek convertibles or coupes. I’d imagine such women driving off in hilarity, laughing affectedly, rapt by the lifestyle their husbands’ generous paychecks permitted.
My anxiety about my situation intensified. Was I the woman of the house, or a part-man of the house, too? Was the manhood of my husband, who couldn’t single-handedly foot every expense, in question? I felt I was becoming a two-headed monster: feminine and masculine simultaneously, gripping a metaphorical penis in one hand and covering up my lady-bush with the other.
Society didn’t help either. Talk show hosts blabbered on and on about the martyrdom of stay-at-home motherhood – that it was “the hardest job in the world.” Stay-at-home mothers with exaggerated problems sat on stage crying crocodile tears about topics that made my eyes roll like marbles. Other shows followed women embracing motherhood from conception to the aftermath of birth with a singularity of purpose and one-dimensional aim that bewildered me.
More and more, I felt at odds with the world and at war with myself. But the clock was ticking, and soon I’d have to start calibrating my time sheets.
Perhaps I wasn’t even entitled to have this debate. This inner-discourse was inane, so implied one resource in which I confided – my mother. She had been a working mother. Her mother had been a working mother. Her mother’s mother had been a working mother. And such was the historical lot of black women. Just like Zora Neale Hurston said, black women were the mules of the world, and muledom seemed to be a gift we kept passing down to our daughters, generation after generation, without debate, question or refinement of expectation. Like Alice Dunbar-Nelson, we were content to “sit and sew,” wash dishes, stoke fires, pay bills, maintain finances, buy groceries, wipe babies’ behinds, mow the lawn, and do the requisite cooking and cleaning without a blink.
Not working, it seemed, was as realistic as being born with silky straight hair and blue eyes. Black women had no birthright to expect to be taken care of. Black women were the archetypal dump trucks of the world, bearing the brunt and burden of every responsibility, pain, misery, checklist and “to do,” with room for everything but uninterrupted, unbridled joy and liberty in their own natural, soft femininity.
For us, there is no reprieve. No time to breathe, no room to relieve. For us, there is no rite of passage. No anointing of oils. No special outing. No communal retreat with other woman-friends who had become modern matrons.
Such events occurred in pockets, relegated to the seldom-travelled sidelines of the few moments amid the madness that black mothers are ever sanctioned to think of themselves.
I had to get home, and cook and clean and wash dishes and fight infuriation and suck up the mucous to keep it from running out – spilling out of my nose and careening in tears from my eyes. I had to work. Work, work, work. Work in my mortgaged domicile. Work in the world to contribute to society, to reap the benefits of my education, to always have the flexibility of self-reliance, if a man should want to leave instead of cleave, to show that all of the sleepless nights, bloodshot mornings and superwoman posturing have been worth it.
What’s worse is that we are expected to do all this cooking and eating, but keep our nails polished and unchipped, our hair coiffed and immobile, and our bodies voluptuous and hourglass-shaped with pockets of undulating fat acceptable – even desired – anywhere but our midriffs, lending our selves to that comic book vixen-video girl body. This is increasingly implausible to maintain not only because time seldom permits such self-maintenance, but that neither does the budget.
There was a time when I had a weekly ritual. I would routinely give myself pedicures and facials, usually in the same day. My toes were sandal-ready year-round and my face retained a glow of youth that my same-aged, less disciplined counterparts were losing. But those days were fading fast. It wasn’t that I didn’t care anymore or that those rituals were less important, but marriage and motherhood have a way of rendering invisibility, of making sirens turn somnambulant, women turn woeful, sexy turn sordid, feminine and foxy turn feral.
I have calluses on my feet now. And I am ashamed. Dark circles cup my eyes often. And I am mournful. I am saddened to feel evermore irrelevant like yesteryear’s news in a yellowed newspaper.
And to speak of sex …what, of sex? Between the singeing sting and bitter ache of my C-section scar and the milky rivers of unused milk careening down my chest like an eddy with no destination, sex was but a distant memory. It was catalogued in the annals of my former self – a self I yearned to re-emerge. But who can think of sex with boiling bottles on the stove, breasts belittled and broken down like pitted prunes?
Yet sex surrounded me. Just weeks after my daughter was excised from my body, I had already begun getting the catcalls and leering looks to which I was accustomed in my pre-baby life. My waistline was returning as my contracting uterus reeled my gut back in. And I was becoming visible, a woman, again. Too bad I didn’t much feel like one. As fragmented as I felt, I couldn’t bring myself to extricate the sum of myself into parts to be packaged and presented for the approval and enticement of strange men.
As conflicted as I felt, I disobeyed all recommendations for post-Caesarean sex and got down with my husband about a week and half after being discharged from the hospital. I wasn’t motivated as much by libidinous desire as I was by the desire to prove to myself that I was still me. Still, the best efforts don’t guarantee success. Frankly, sometimes sleep is more appealing than an orgasm; and sometimes a delicious quickie intended as a mercy fuck does much to restore the deep, chromosomal and hormonal balance between my beloved and I – as man and woman, husband and wife – and reveals that beneath the veneers of parental malaise lurks animalistic abandon.
Work called. Literally. My eight weeks of maternity leave speedily ran its course, and my imminent return to the world of paid work lurched my way with a clumsiness characterized by my feeble emotional and physical state. Days were a daze.
Mornings began with a cacophony of cries that seemed to be cleverly caustic by design. The cries, the wails, just could not be ignored. They were piercing and wrenching and demanded attention and assuagement.
I awoke weary-eyed and wobbly-walking to that sound everyday at the most unimaginable hour. In the wee hours in the morning as the clock struck a time when some single folks were just crashing after a night of cavorting and clubbing. My eyes were bloodshot, and their fringes were darkened by the seldom-discussed gloom of motherhood and the occasional doom to which I sometimes felt sentenced.
The day I returned to my job, I felt all eyes on me as I strode to the sanctuary of my non-descript cubicle. Women were eyeing my mid-section with expressions that seemed to say, “Hmph!” Others gave me a quick but noticeable once-over before exclaiming, “You look great!” affectedly and extolling the glow of new motherhood. Old faxes and unopened mail lined my workspace. Beneath them were a few cards of well-wishes and hand-me-down non-essentials from other, older mothers on staff who – being forty-ish with toddlers – would have no more use for rattles, mobiles or silly, simple toys that enhanced motor skills.
I was the youngest person in my immediate work group and ostensibly the youngest person of my position in the building. And I was also coincidentally the only one – on a staff full of women older than I – who had undergone one of the most biologically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually challenging rites of passage.
This gave me an edge, an experience that defied quantification, which no amount of reading or storytelling could translate. This gave me … distance.
A woman’s intuition is her compass to how people really think or feel. I did well to trust mine. I discerned that the constant coos and kudos over my maternal feat were thinly veiled attempts to sugarcoat the antipathy the world of work wields toward women who’ve had babies. I had to work three times as hard, arrive early 100 per cent of the time, and leave at least 10 minutes late to prove I still deserved the slot I had spent years earning. I couldn’t be heard taking one too many personal calls or be caught calling the daycare to check on my child. Moreover, it was better that I appear unnaturally unaffected and unfazed by my new arrival. The fewer snapshots of my baby on my desk? Good. No baby face as the screensaver on my desktop? Even better.
Being accused of or treated as if we have divided loyalties is the predictable pang working mothers resent. It doesn’t matter that it’s often true – that it requires immense fortitude and an unnatural learning curve to fold the rat race into family life – but that it can be strategically used as a ruse to undermine and shortchange us. My editor began raising her eyebrow if I didn’t attend optional after-work outings or subject myself to smoky clubs to maintain visibility on the scene and get the latest impertinent, hollow scoop. If I blinked too slowly or yawned too loudly, well, there would be hell to pay. And though it didn’t cut into my salaried bottom line, it mounted an unquantifiable debt that could never be repaid.
So I sought similarity. I sought parallel lives congruent to mine. I sought the harmony of sisterly relationships whose nexus met where the perpendicular lines of their lives crossed. In so doing, I sought mothers.
As a woman who grew up unafraid of dirt and mud and undeterred by boys’ playtime war games – and as the only girl in the family – perhaps it only seemed fitting that my closest confidantes in life were men. Men friends – gay and straight – gave me the unfettered affection and protection that my biological brothers either were too chicken-shit to muster or simply did not feel. These friends, these men, let me inside the mind of the male with the impunity of a pimp and the sincerity of a saint. They accepted me, estrogen, tits, ass and all. I was often the only female in my crew.
This proved to be a liability once motherhood marked and mocked me. The look I gave myself in the mirror seemed to taunt, “Ha! Ha! Hee! Hee! This is what you get for hanging out with all those guys like a cheap slut!” Men – even my men – could not readily decipher and decode the mysteries of the maternal. Each month my belly swelled, the more their silence would foretell of what was to come. They seemed biologically encumbered from truly tapping into my thoughts, my mode, my swagger – no matter how thoroughly or frequently I articulated it. It was as though God had cut them off.
I didn’t know many mothers. Mothers at work never mentioned or hinted at anything I felt as a mother. If they didn’t happen to mention a recital or practice, I probably would never have guessed they even had children. And these same women – and other mothers with whom I was otherwise acquainted – had had a very different entrée to motherhood than I. They had been fortunate enough to have a reprieve from the duplicitous and daunting demands of doing double-duty. These women had not returned to work for six months, at a minimum, and had the fortune – again – of having non-working relatives or highly recommended – and high-cost – nannies keep their babies.
So I set out and sojourned for mothers like me. A carbon-copy would be nice, I thought. But I was willing to settle for anyone who approximated just a fraction of what I felt. I skimmed parents’ magazines, mothering periodicals and websites. I perused message boards and logged into online chats. I scanned laundry lists of recommended resources for new mothers. There were many groups for breastfeeding encouragement and guidance, playgroups for mothers whose schedule would permit them to convene in the middle of the day, and reading groups at libraries at equally inopportune times.
The message was clear: yes, motherhood is a transition for which women need support, but implicit in the available options was an apparent disdain for mothers who had to work.
I was thrilled when I discovered that a national group that championed itself as a haven for both working and stay-at-home mothers had a chapter in my hometown. I immediately e-mailed the local chapter president, who briefed me about the group and vetted me through a series of e-mails and phone calls before I was permitted access to its online message board. Though most of the members lived within 30 minutes of each other, most day-to-day dialogues took place virtually. My first outing with the group felt like an introductory audition for a sacred sect.
Yet, I was high on the possibility of being surrounded by mother-power. I sipped my mixed drink and chimed in on the frivolity, just knowing our real purpose, our rallying call, would soon be coming. There would be affirmations and declarations of our worth, cues and tips for coping, frank confessions about pinching our deflated bellies and thinking about breast implants. There would be … none of this.
Three hours passed, and all that had been discussed were mid-day “mommy-and-me” water aerobics classes, impending pregnancies, scrap-booking, cooking, housework and recipes. A gift exchange followed, in which we were all supposed to give and receive presents that evoked a sense of calm and peace when we needed to get away from it all. I received some delightful scented spray for linen, but it wasn’t the panacea for the pain and purgatory I was in. I had received a gift, but it was not the present I so desperately needed.
I tried to be patient, hanging onto the president’s claim that the first meeting is “always awkward” and that the members reveal much more in their web of virtual high-fiving and head-nodding on the message board. But I found this wasn’t true. They didn’t want to talk about stress, bouts of maternal ambivalence, black feminism and Michelle Wallace, current events or educational and professional pursuits. Instead, they routinely re-capped episodes of Oprah, posted chain e-mails that had been circulating on the Net since the mid-90s, and discussed bake sales, cleaning supplies and air fresheners.
I just wanted to scream. I wanted to howl. Something primal needed to be released. Instead, I disengaged. No one would guess how inconsolable I was in my veneer of unaffected disappointment. I wondered where I fit, if anywhere. It seemed as if that soft, honest place where women who’ve had babies can let go and restore and reclaim their intellectual, emotional and spiritual selves were only a figment of my apparent post-partum delusions.
It was an illusion. It was that mythical oasis in the middle of hell. It was a fabled Eureka whose legend was no more.
The phone rang less and less. My former alliances became less personal but more virtual. The extent of many of my communications revolved around email. Short messages from friends who had missed my baby shower. Snappy sentences from those who still hadn’t attempted to see me or my baby. Brief bursts from those who simply had no idea. No idea what had happened to me. No idea how I had changed. No idea that, until they crossed into parenthood, our connection was now precarious and would require a new resilience to cultivate and maintain. A resilience they nor I probably didn’t have.
What do single folks who’ve never been married or had a baby know about being married with children? What insight could they glean that could be taken with more than a grain of salt? What do they know about waking up weepy-eyed and boiling bottles on the stove? What do they know about leaky nipples and engorgement? What do they know about fatigue so unfathomable that it makes one beg for sleep more than sex? What do they know about budgeting around formula, diapers and medical bills rather than choosing between Golas or Diesels, or booking a trip to Miami versus Daytona Beach?
I’m not sure which happened first: them distancing themselves from me, or me pushing them away. Surely my conversations didn’t degenerate into motherspeak, the index of topics about which mothers can ruminate and elaborate for hours on end. I don’t think I turned into one of those ghosts of a woman who couldn’t intelligibly talk about politics or current events, or wax lightly on spring fashion trends and eyebrow threading. My interests didn’t revolve around play groups, pre-schools, college savings funds, or Montessori toys. I was still interested in fitness, style, progressive politics, culture and aesthetics. Salvador Dali paintings still stirred my heart. Dancehall reggae still made me wind my hips. I still felt a chill run down my back when I heard the right line in the right poem delivered in precisely the right way.
Still, I was different. Palpably so. In a way that I could not readily articulate and in a way that was easier for my friends to abandon than try to describe or deconstruct honestly. I was linked to them by my past, torn away from them by my present and invisible to them by my future.
Eventually, the phone stopped ringing at all. And my email, once full of messages from friends, acquaintances and my personal fan club, now contained more spam than anything else.
I have learned the value of a few good friends. A few good men. And the one or two mothers who let me take off the mask.
My isolation has become a comfort zone. I embrace quiet; my pulse jolts at the sound of a ringing phone. I seldom have a moment of pristine privacy – with the pitter-patter of baby feet, night-time invasions into my bed and constant skin-to-skin contact – with this life I have spawned, I am still cocooning, hibernating …
Like part of this real, new, festive, phenomenal me is just waiting …
It is this – all of this – that puts me on edge. I teeter on this tumultuous tightrope, straddling a precipice with the blessing, blame and pressures of pregnancy and procreation on one side – and the promise and peace of the life I now know on the other.
This is what it means for me to be a mother.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem