A while ago (I use that phrase like one uses a scarf for fashion) Maureen put up a post that started something like this: “Dear New Moms Everywhere – where do we go when we die?”
I immediately thought, Oh! I know just what she’s talking about! How we have these children and it’s like our former selves have just died!
Wrong, and I should have paid attention to my reaction.
Adjusting to motherhood has been really weird. I guess I thought it would be weird, but maybe not this weird? I had friends who struggled hard with PPD, and friends who warned me it was inevitable, and friends and family who acknowledged only the existence of “baby blues.” As previously documented, my birth experience wasn’t ideal, and from the tail end of my pregnancy through to about a month after I gave birth, I went through every stage of grief. I kept waiting for “acceptance,” and some kind of calm. I figured I would find my footing somewhere on the spectrum between vigilant crunchy natural parents and the laid-back don’t sweat it parents and I would stop feeling so untethered. I figured I’d hit this miraculous working-mom rhythm and stop feeling so scattered and lonely. I figured everything would melt into a routine and I would work it out.
But I didn’t. It took tripling my voluntary life insurance, a very public work breakdown, and calling the Hope Line.
More than that, it took a friend getting sassed in public for being a feminist.
Before I go any farther – let’s be clear – I don’t want to suggest that feminism is the answer to PPD. I don’t even necessarily mean to claim I have PPD. I won’t even tell you I have NICU PTSD, although maybe that fits the bill a little better. When I was thinking about dying, I felt empty. I was reliving the NICU every day, even with a beautiful, steadily-breathing baby sleeping next to me in bed. Although it was suggested to me earnestly by a medical professional that I have both, I don’t know what I think about that. I can tell you candidly that I am under tons of stress, have ADHD, a history of anxiety, and that these things like to build each other up into frenzied blinking-lights Las Vegas crazy-town. I have been diagnosed with PTSD before, and underwent EMDR, which worked. I’m not on meds because I’m not – I was, I don’t want to right now, and that’s it. But truly — I don’t want this to read as some stupid ill-advised manifesto that the big “F” can cure all ails, because it can’t.
What I do want to tell you is that somewhere between Maureen’s post, feeling dead, and wanting to die, a few things happened to me that suddenly kick-started my living.
A long time ago now, I stopped being myself. I hate to blame it on my ex, so I’ll blame it on my poor taste instead – I fell in love with a jerk. He was a product of neighborhood racism, or let’s say – cultural racism, and as such, made frequent racist jokes to which I objected, constantly, and let that console me – as if it were ever enough. Don’t worry, I’m embarrassed enough for all of us. It turned out he also thought that women were not capable of true intellect or artistic genius. Instead of recognizing that for what it was, I tried to prove my worth. That was dumb (and impossible!), and dumber still, it was the catalyst for a slow avalanche of self. I don’t think I realized how far away I’d gotten from myself, actually. I don’t remember watching myself laugh at shitty dumb misogynistic and racist jokes told by coworkers at the bar and thinking, wow, you’re gross right now – so let’s hope I was just that gone.
A few things happened, immediately preceding and immediately following this nervous breakdown. First, I recognized and defended myself as a rape survivor for the first time in about ten years. That felt shameful, then prideful, and then – nothing. It just felt like what it was – the truth, being told because it needs to, in the context of a single moment. I guess it was a good start, because then a friend of mine placed herself on an auction block to raise money for someone’s new gallery venture and, when offered a “date with a grumpy feminist,” a member of the crowd followed with the suggestion that they “drown her.” When this story was related on the internet, I lost it. For the first time in a very, very long time I couldn’t resist the urge to demand, for her and for all of us, that it be recognized as wrong. BECAUSE IT’S WRONG.
And maybe I was just relieved to recognize something for the first time since my water broke – right and wrong. Maybe that’s why then, during my employer’s recent Diversity week, I had the balls to call the anonymous hotline our work provides and report a racist coworker. Maybe that’s why I felt no hesitation cutting ties with the last truly bigoted people I know. Or why I finally had the guts to quit our terrible, down-talking-wonder of a pediatric surgeon. Maybe it was a trickle-down of all of these confidence-building exercises that prompted me to actually apply for a promotion I’ve deserved for a very long time but would otherwise have waited to be tapped for. Maybe that’s why I was offered two promotions instead, and got to pick.
Maybe that’s why I’m not scared to admit that as a mom, I do things that so many other women, fed by the social power (it’s structural, hand to god) of petty criticism, might declaim as right OR wrong. I breastfed and fed formula, use cloth diapers and disposables, I am alternately slathering both coconut oil and A&D on my son’s diaper rashes.
Or to admit that lately I spend my time considering not whether these choices are right or wrong, but rather, whether or not solidarity IS for white women, and how we parent intersectionally. About how to best teach my young son consent, what I will say when someone gives him hugs he doesn’t want, and about when we will tell him that one of his three Grandpas is gay. Whether or not I will tell him I’m a rape and assault survivor, and when. Whether or not I’ll explain my sexuality to him. How we will deliver context so he understands racism and knows why it needs to be acknowledged and overcome and how to explain to him that he has immense privilege, despite our tax bracket. About how to make sure he thinks MLK, or maybe Bayard Rustin, or hell, Audre Lorde, is essentially Batman.
Maybe this is where you go when you die.
Not the way Maureen meant it, but like this: inside me, there was this girl, this mythic, fearless creature, who didn’t care what anyone thought. She would be friends with whoever she liked, she would be just as good or better than any boy at anything, she would laugh and cry at whatever she pleased without shame, she did not use words like “gay” or “retarded” as adjectives to connote deficiency and she was not afraid to bitch out people who did, she had a great (if slightly smirky) relationship with her body, and she was never embarrassed to tell you that she was a writer. She was not ashamed of her taste level or her smarts. She had the balls to start a Riot Grrl chapter in Manassas, Virginia, of all places. She owned her flaws.
Maybe I’m not her anymore, but I’m an approximation of her, closer to her than I have been in a decade. Over the last six months, I gave myself up for dead. But when I died, where I went was home.