Click. The front door.
I turn to see him reaching out towards me, his little fists opening and closing excitedly, his legs kicking wildly.
“Hey Sal, I’m going for a quick ride,” said Rich, ducking his head around the corner of our bedroom door. He had been up, leaving us alone for what seemed like hours. “Should be back in forty.”
Rich loved cycling. It was his escape – the wind through his hair and all that. Well, that left me in bed with Charlie sucking fiercely at my misshapen and cracked left nipple.
“Could you just pass me that cloth first? Charlie's bound to bring some of this back up.”
He threw the cloth in my direction and I lay it carefully over my left shoulder, sweeping my greasy hair behind my neck.
“Cool, thanks,” I said wearily. “I guess I might get up soon. Maybe even shower or something.”
Perhaps he missed the sarcasm; maybe he had grown accustomed to it. Pessimism and sarcasm were a big part of my dialogue these days. I guess I was probing for a reaction, something to jolt me out of the gloom, but it didn't come. “Yeah, cool. See you soon.”
I watched him check his laces and straighten his jersey. Rich was proud of his riding gear and glad of the freedom it had brought him since Charlie had arrived. The sound of the metal cleats on the soles of his shoes became more distant as he strode down the hallway.
I have never been a keen cyclist. In fact, I have become very good at finding excuses to avoid the activity where possible. (Being pregnant was a hard one to argue with. If you’ve ever tried cycling with a ball between your legs, you’ll know why.) I’m not sure what went wrong during that part of development when a child is meant to gain confidence and skill on a bike, but even as an adult I just can't seem to balance properly. I approach corners with such trepidation and lack of pace that I wobble horrendously and imagine myself splattered on the pavement, my legs twisted through the frame of the bike. I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before I am collected by a semi-trailer and my photo will be seen on the evening news – Too young to die.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I have actively encouraged Rich to keep up with his riding. He needs to get out of the house, escape the chaos. A deep envy has begun to creep in, though, and I have had to literally bite my tongue on occasion to prevent the outpouring of this toxic emotion. Leave it, I urge myself.
The front door closed with a click, and he was gone. I’d had a pretty rough night – woken frequently by Charlie, sometimes for a legitimate reason such as feeding, sometimes out of my own panic that he was too peaceful, and sometimes because I simply could not relax. So this morning I was particularly exhausted and edgy. What I needed was another few hours of uninterrupted sleep, but what I had was a demanding, dependent being attached to my breast. I glanced down at him, so relaxed and content as he drained me. Good for him.
I often thought about how little I had truly appreciated my weekend sleep-ins and how desperately I longed to retrieve them. On a bad day those thoughts multiplied, divided and multiplied out of control until I had hundreds of memories, like angry bees swarming around my head, stinging incessantly. Unfortunately, unlike bees, these thoughts did not sting and die. They came back again and again, each time armed with bigger stingers and loaded with more venom. Today was one of those days.
My chest came to life, my left breast rising and falling as my heart threatened to crash through my ribcage. Nausea began to rise from the pit of my stomach. It clawed its way up towards my throat and latched on firmly, grabbing hold of my airway, squeezing and crushing the cartilage.
I glanced over at our alarm clock, aware that I was not panicking, or fighting this feeling, but hoping for some reassurance that time was passing; the world hadn’t actually stopped spinning on its axis. It flashed red, digital numbers: 9:13. “Thirteen,” I thought. “That’s no good.” I slid onto the floor, leaving Charlie to fend for himself amongst the sheets and blankets – he would be safe there.
Rich will say that he returned about an hour later to hear Charlie's screams as he approached our driveway, and to find me sitting beside our bed, knees drawn up tight to my chest, my arms wrapped around them. My breasts were leaking – drip, drip – such a waste of the substance in which my body had invested so much energy. I vaguely recall Rich helping me to put my arms through my cardigan and to slide my feet into my slippers before we stepped into the fresh spring air.
“Where are we going?” I managed to force out, as Rich clipped the seat belt. “I haven’t brushed my teeth.”
But there was no dialogue to follow. I was experiencing an almost complete absence of self. For a person who survives on control, these big gaps in my memory and patches of thick fog are more than disturbing.
I looked around and recognised the clinical room. A narrow, plastic bed with a large roll of blue paper towel at the head, a set of confrontingly huge scales and a box of chewed, fading toys – the GP surgery.
“Dr Price wants to know what happened.”
“Oh, I see.” I adjusted my clothing, wrapping my big woollen cardigan tighter around my waist. “I guess I just lost track of time.”
“And does that happen often?”
“What? No, no. Why would it?” I began to feel very uneasy, my breath quickening. I wriggled forward in my chair so that my two feet were firmly on the floor.
A pause, then the doctor started cautiously…“Have you heard of postnatal depression Sally?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” My heart beat faster and faster and my palms prickled with sweat. “Why, what are you suggesting?”
“Well, it seems that perhaps you're not coping too well at the moment and I just wondered...”
“Not coping?” I fought to control my breathing; my head was spinning. “Who said that? I’m doing perfectly fine, aren’t I Rich? You tell him!”
“Well, Sal, I am kind of worried about you.”
“For God’s sake, this is some kind of conspiracy! I am an intelligent, professional woman. Are you saying that I can’t change a nappy and feed my baby?....Where is Charlie?”
“He’s at your mums'. We dropped him off on our way here. Look, Sal, no one is saying that you’re not intelligent and all that. Dr Price is just trying to help. You've been pretty stressed lately.”
I saw those bright red, flashing numbers of the alarm clock. 9:13. This was crazy; they were crazy. I have always coped. How dare they suggest otherwise?
I raised my widening eyes towards Rich.
“Pretty stressed, hey?” I said, in carefully measured syllables, desperate to maintain control. “You think I’ve been pretty stressed?” I was losing grip. I sucked in all the available air around me, and then...SNAP!
“Did you carry a baby for nine months, Rich?” I screamed, trembling. “Did you push it out and then sign up to wipe its bottom, disfigure your boobs and turn your brain to liquid? Did you volunteer to hand in your identity and forfeit your self-worth? Did you put your hand up for that? Did you? ‘Cos I didn't, but THAT’S WHAT I GOT!”
Hot tears now stung my cheeks and my throat ached as the grip that had squeezed it so tightly finally loosened. I surrendered, gripping Rich's arms as though my life depended on it. And perhaps it did.
We had returned home that morning with a packet of little white pills that were supposed to make me feel better. Rich had tucked me in to bed and stroked my hair, just as my mum had done when I had a sick tummy. I fought back the feeling of being babied and patronised, and tried to relax.
“Can I get you anything Sal?”
If you could find a piece of the way things used to be, that’d be great.
“No, I’m fine thanks. I'll just have a little rest then get going on all those dishes out there.”
“You don't have to Sal – leave them to me.”
But I did have to. If I was going to be seen as coping, the least I should do is wash some dishes. Surely I could manage that.
“Look, I’m going to pick Charlie up from your parents. You rest, okay?”
I rolled over. Charlie – God, I’d forgotten. What sort of a mum can't remember where they had put their child?
I peeled back the doona and swung my feet around onto the cool floorboards. My greasy hair flopped forward over my eyes. “You are disgusting,” I scolded myself.
My legs felt like lead and my head spun. I fought the urge to slide back under the doona and dragged myself into the bathroom, being careful not to engage my reflection. Come on Sally. You just need a shower. You’ll feel much better afterwards. I’m not sure that I did a very good job at convincing myself, but it was enough to swing the shower door open and turn the taps.
When I emerged from the warm shower I felt nothing like ‘much better’, but I did feel slightly more human. I wrapped a towel around my hair, pulled on my jeans and baggy orange jumper and made my way into the kitchen. The house was so quiet. For an instant I relished the peace, but after that split second I began to wonder how long they’d be. I distracted myself with filling the sink. I sunk some dishes into the bubbly water and the sponge bobbed up and down. If it took too much water in, it would sink and would need rescuing. It was Charlie that caused me to bob up and down, and it was a very fine line between staying afloat and sinking beneath the surface.
Oh Charlie, why is this happening?
Click. The front door.
I turn to see him reaching out towards me, his little fists opening and closing excitedly, his legs kicking wildly. I turn back to the sink and watch the sponge bobbing in the water, struggling for buoyancy. Now back to Charlie – the little boy who is so pleased to see me. I close my eyes tightly, tears falling heavily into the murky water, and hope that one day soon I will reciprocate.
“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