'My Baby Is Sick and My Job Is Brutal!'
When you're used to being capable and suddenly you feel vulnerable, you have to give yourself time and space to adjust to your new life of caring way too much.
Papaya Tree - Iao Valley (1939) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I used to be an obnoxiously sunny person. Even when everything fell apart and I felt genuinely depressed, I was still singing. My base state is just happy. I’m struggling now, though. I have a six-month-old daughter. She is everything. And of course, new parenthood is hard.
My job is also hard. I am in the business of saving the world, or at least addressing one of the Big Problems. I’m at a very high level very young, which is amazing, and is my dream job, and something I’ve fought for, and is also terrifying because the air is thin and there are cliffs everywhere and there are deadlines and there is no sitting down to chill, not even for a second. I get a lot of disapproval, directly and indirectly, which sometimes I agree with, because the directive advocated for is to DO something, and I want to, but it has to be practical and impactful and not just an exercise in saying the right things and doing busywork to make everyone feel better while the world burns.
I’m practical. I went through a livestock tub’s worth of trauma as a teen and young adult and I’ve done a lot of caretaking of younger siblings and parents (I am the unintentional Adult to like eight people, emotionally, financially, whatever). I will kill mice caught in traps without hesitation. I feel sorry for them, but what needs doing must be done, right? I am the one who does it.
You know how parents say you don’t get it until you have children? I never believed that. I get it now. I feel everything wailing through my bones. I think about potential tragedies that could befall my child and my mind shies away in horror. Everything and anything makes me cry. I’m not depressed, exactly. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. My daughter is amazing.
My daughter has reflux, and it’s not really getting better (yet?). I can’t take this pain from her, and I know in the grand scheme of things, in the picture of our lives, in her life, this will seem small and fleeting, but for right now it’s Big. And it just seems too much. But we are doing fine, really. Sleeping is not great, but not terrible. My baby is healthy and thriving. My job is hard but it’s what I want to be doing. My dogs are wonderful, my partner is the sweetest best person, we have the support of their family and some of mine.
I guess I feel like I’ve lost my immunity to pessimism and defeatism. The world and all of its terror is now searing me when before I could acknowledge the tragedy but then go do the hard things that needed doing, determined to fix it or die trying. I’m walking around muttering for fuck’s sake and I don’t even know what to wish for, other than please let children stop being murdered, halt climate change in its tracks, eliminate cancer, get rid of racism, save our country from authoritarianism, end the pandemic, make my baby’s reflux go away. What is the use of wishing any of this? I’m doing what I can do and I have no control beyond that.
Is this what being a mother is? It’s taking my breath away. I thought I'd get stronger. Aren't I supposed to get stronger? Please help me breathe.
Are The Walls Closing In Or Am I Just Really Tired?
The walls are closing in and you’re exhausted. That’s the first year of parenting. If you have two kids, it’s sometimes even worse with the second. No one can think in straight lines.
A big chunk of my memoir Foreverland wrestles with the chaotic vulnerability that descends on your life after having your first child. People who became capable and tough in order to manage their extra large emotions as kids tend to struggle with the extreme feelings of powerlessness and fragility that enter their lives once they have a baby. In my book, I describe the feeling as walking around, carrying your own liver in a little blanket. When you leave the house, you hand your liver to your partner and say, “Please, please, please don’t drop this or I’ll die.”
One thing I didn’t write about in my book, possibly because it was too excruciating: My second daughter had croup when she was about 9 months old. Bill took her to the doctor alone while I stayed home with my older daughter, who was three. When he got back, he told me that the doctor said that she’d be fine. I pointed out that her breathing still looked labored. He said yeah that’s normal. I said that doesn’t look normal at all. He said it is. I said I don’t think it is.
We hadn’t sorted out our roles yet. Word to the wise: If you’re the one who researches breathing disorders for two hours online and gathers some crucial details about what’s fine and what demands immediate attention, then you’re the one who should go to the doctor’s office. The other moral is know your doctor. If you have a doctor who downplays trouble, notice that and consider getting another doctor if that style doesn’t match your own.
Anyway, we went to bed and my daughter woke up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. Bill got on the phone to the on-call doctor, but I was already putting on my shoes and packing the diaper bag for the emergency room — while crying and hyperventilating and yelling at Bill that it was obvious what was happening and we didn’t need the fucking doctor’s input to see that we needed to act. And don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to do it alone. I didn’t feel like I had what it took to get in the car with a baby who couldn’t breathe and drive to the emergency room and park at 3 am and go in and wait for god knows how long. Honestly, it was alarming to encounter a challenge that made me feel like a baby myself.
But I did it. I sang in the car and rolled down the window – cold air is supposed to help – and my daughter calmed down a tiny bit. Then there was construction at the hospital and I cluelessly parked the car in some big parking structure and ran down an ambulance entrance where no one answered the door, and then I was just running around a murky construction site, no signs, in the dark, no one around, with an extremely heavy baby, crying and sweating and freaking out. There were just no entrances in sight, it was just pavement and darkness and buildings and nothingness, and I dropped the water bottle I was carrying and dropped my keys and now the baby was crying and I was gasping for air, too, and it was just the worst. And I thought, my baby will die out here in a parking lot because I’m the stupidest, least capable, most pathetic, panicky loser, my baby will die and it will be my fault.