Hip Mom: Postpartum Psychosis
Editor’s Note: Jill was chosen to be one of 14 mom writers to speak at Listen to Your Mother, a national Mother’s Day series at the Northwest Arkansas Walton Arts Center, Starr Theatre on April 29 at 2 p.m. The show features live readings by local writers on the beauty, the beast, and the barely-rested of motherhood, in celebration of Mother’s Day. Other cities include Austin, Chicago, Madison, New York City, Northwest Indiana, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Spokane and Washington D.C. All 10 shows will be video taped for LTYMShow’s YouTube channel. While it may be too late to see Jill’s performance, you can read it here.
So often, when a mother of one or two discovers that this large unwieldy bump I am sporting is baby number six, she looks at me, wild-eyed, with a mixture of fear and awe, and asks: “How do you do it?” I always laugh uncomfortably, because the implication is that I’m Mother Theresa’s intern, and say: “Heavy drinking!” The mother always laughs, unsure if I’m telling the truth, and that’s the end of it.
But really, what I should tell her is this: Mostly, it gets easier. Five kids right now, besides being chaotic and nonstop, is a lot more bearable mentally than one or two little ones. There are no more interminable afternoons with a baby and toddler because the older ones need to be picked up at the bus stop. A Candy Land session on the floor is a lot more palatable when you know you only have 15 minutes before something else is going on. Older kids, while not up for long discussions on politics, religion or Anthropologie’s new summer offerings, are much better company than younger children, who make two o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy day feel like a stint in a mental asylum. Toddler tantrums at Target are just a momentary nightmare. When you realize you are lucky enough to be shopping in a Target at all with your 5 percent off card, a mini meltdown from a 3-year-old is just another reason you’ll have earned a nice chilled Pinot Grigio at the end the day.
Because it gets easier, you relax a bit more. You greedily take the joy when you can, knowing that the next minute someone will be slugging it out over the last jelly bean. And there is a lot of joy: kids playing together, making forts together, having pillow fights, kicking the soccer ball. A newborn and toddler just don’t play together – you’re the whole show, and it’s exhausting. When they get a bit older, you realize you’ve created an entire little population, wholly separate from yourself, which takes on a life of its own.
But I won’t blow sunshine up your mom jeans: There is one time that is NOT easier for mothers of many. It is those first few weeks – six, eight, ten weeks – after you take home a newborn. Bringing home my first baby was wonderful, lazy bliss. I lolled about in a ratty pink Victoria’s Secret robe and took care of my newborn. Sure he cried. Sure, he had blowouts, but it was all I had to do on maternity leave. This wondrous new place was where I wanted to be.
Taking home my fifth baby was a whole other universe. I wouldn’t have minded going back to work and leaving the whole cacophonous mess behind. School didn’t stop. Soccer practice didn’t stop. Piano lessons didn’t stop. Life did not stop, and what a grave injustice that was. Doesn’t the universe know that a new mother has been pregnant for god knows HOW many days? That she has suffered all sorts of indignities to her nether regions, her thighs, her nonexistent abs? That after her long nine-month marathon of flabby endurance, she has won this that pinnacle of prizes, a perfect new little person? And that now life is supposed to stop? That all mama wants to do is loll about in her sweaty bed with her baby, and have chocolates and mimosas and fried mozzarella brought to her by caring, hot male nurses?
After baby number five was born, my parents stayed for two blessed weeks. The morning they left, I drove them to the airport, came home, sat on the couch and cried. How was I going to do all this on my own? I had no idea. The most mundane things became looming, insurmountable tasks. Getting children to and fro felt like launching an attack on Normandy – not with compliant, capable soldiers but a band of shrieking hyenas. And then, in short order, my eldest contracted pneumonia; my 2-year-old came down with the worst case of croup ever recorded in world history; and then – the worst – the baby started coughing.
None of this would have been terribly traumatic had I not been going through that whacky postpartum phase where your hormones are all over the place. It isn’t just your hormones, in my very scientific opinion. I believe your brain actually is undergoing a physical change to accommodate this new person. Each child eats up a certain portion of each lobe, and it takes a few weeks for the gray matter to morph to the point that it can easily house and access data about this new child along with the rest of them. In the meantime, I found myself counting up children mentally throughout the day, accounting for their whereabouts, and whether this one needed changing or that one had done his homework or this one was eating too many M&M’s.
My son quickly recovered from pneumonia. My daughter, after several doctor visits, breathing treatments, steroid injections and sweaty sessions next to the shower, finally stopped coughing. And the baby? The doctor thoroughly examined her, checked her wee baby lungs, and pronounced her OK – I just had to keep suctioning her little nose. And suction, and sweat, and fret, I did – for two long days. She was just fine. And finally, after all that non-drama, I started to get my groove back.
My mother said her grandmother, a mother of seven, would return from the hospital after having a baby and take to her bed for an entire month. A spinster cousin would come to take care of the household while the mother rested. This sounds about like it should be. You can see your older children, talk to them, but still revel in your newborn, indulge your teary, bliss-and-terror hormonal surges, and just BE.
This upheaval, in the end, is the crux of adding a baby. Each time your capacity for great stress and dread increases. But so does your capacity for adding boundless love and great joy. It is a life lived exponentially. I think that’s a good thing. I didn’t want to go the safe route. I didn’t want to have just two and get that wistful look that falls over so many mothers’ faces, mothers whose kids are safely past the poopy stage and are in school. The birth of a new child is the most intense, most delightful, most horrifying moment that most of us mere mortals will ever have access to here on earth. Benjamin Franklin said it best: “He that raises a large family does, indeed, while he lives to observe them, stand a broader mark for sorrow; but then he stands a broader mark for pleasure too.”
I can’t believe I’m going to do it all again. It’s terrifying. It’s wonderful. And I’m OK with that. I think you all should have another one or seven, too. Just make sure you have a nice spinster cousin come stay with you for a month after the baby’s born.