It was like a dream. Exactly, in fact, like one of the many fantasies and dreams my sleep deprived brain had conjured up, dozing between night-time feedings. Except for one thing. In the fantasies, I was young, energetic. Now, zombielike, I trudged through the lobby of the Claremont Resort and Spa in the tiny Rockridge area of Oakland a few miles from my house in Berkeley. I lugged my breast pump over one shoulder and a gym bag filled with a weekend’s worth of clothes over the other. I did not look like a spa patron. I was not wearing a cute tennis outfit and matching sneakers, or a funky terrycloth bathing suit cover and matching flip flops in whatever color was “the new black.” As I waited in line, I felt a mixture of numbness and barely registered relief. Or perhaps I felt numb because I was ambivalent about feeling relieved.
For weeks, I had pushed Jack away whenever he tried to get me to open up. Crankiness was my cover. My obsession with Simon’s schedule was taking over. Controlling the chaos of my life helped drown out the self-berating thoughts. Obsessing over Simon’s care helped me get over my guilt about being angry that this sweet little being had taken my life and turned it upside-down. I loved my baby desperately and hated myself just as much.
“Leave me alone, I’m tired. I just need to go to sleep. Simon will be waking up soon,” I said to Jack when he tried to snuggle up to me and the magazine I was staring at.
“Ok. Do you want me to defrost the breast milk and feed him so you can sleep?”
“No!” I shot back, picturing him taking hours to get Simon back to sleep. Stupid ass. “I’m saving that. I don’t want to talk about this now. It’s okay. I’ll just go to sleep.”
Pumping was too exhausting, and I didn’t want Jack to give Simon formula. The problem of what Jack would feed Simon so I could rest seemed both impossible to fix and solely on my shoulders. I brushed away Jack’s many offers of help like so many annoying gnats buzzing in my ears. How would he possibly be able to figure out Simon’s complex schedule? What if he kept him awake when he should be sleeping? What would happen if he wasn’t able to help the next day and then Simon’s schedule was off?
I carried around a kitchen timer in order to monitor how many minutes Simon spent on each breast and how long until the next feeding. The order was comforting. If something happened to throw that order off, I came unglued. Once, nursing Simon down for his nap at what had been his usual sleepy/hungry time, he turned away from my breast and looked around. He was obviously not hungry or sleepy. I flicked off the timer — useless. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror across the room. My pony tail was still on top of my head, the way I wear it for sleeping. My hair was coming out of my hair tie in a frizzy halo and my jaw was set in an angry snarl. Ugly freak. Shrew. Harpy. Why do I care if he eats on time? What is wrong with me? But it is his NAP TIME. This is not what I had planned. No shower and nap for me. I guess I don’t deserve a break. I want it too much.
Night time was the hardest. One night, after trying to put Simon back to sleep for over an hour, I began to sob. “Goddammit. My life sucks,” I whimpered. What had my life turned into? I felt something give — I needed to let this pain out. I wailed, “I HATE THIS I HATE THIS I HATE THIS” and banged my fists into the bed. Jack woke up with a start, put his arms around me, and said, “Tomorrow we are going to have a real talk. We are going to figure this out.”
The next morning, I called a mama/girlfriend on the phone, long distance to Mexico City. I’m not even sure if I told her how frustrated I was or if she just heard it in my voice. She said to me, “I felt exactly the same way. Tired, frustrated, like I was invisible and the baby was everything. The biggest mistake I made with my first child was in being too rigid. I wouldn’t allow one drop of formula to pass his lips, and I always held him until he fell asleep. I wouldn’t let anyone, even my husband, help me. With the next one, I realized supplementing with a little formula so my husband could feed the baby was okay, letting her cry a little to put herself to sleep was okay — not always doing it my way was okay.”
After I hung up with my friend, I went to talk to Jack. It was late morning, and we stood at the counter in the cramped kitchen of our little two-bedroom apartment in Oakland. Simon was dozing in his bassinet. I hated that I had to use Simon’s precious sleeping time for this conversation. For weeks, Simon’s sleeping time had been “my time” — for sleeping, watching TV, zoning out. As a result, Jack and I were never alone together. I couldn’t deal with the baby’s needs, my needs, and his on top of that. Now, I realized that had to change. I needed him. I needed the insight of my best friend, my lover. I wasn’t ready to share my angry thoughts and berating inner dialogue, but I shared as much as I was able: “None of my routines with Simon work anymore. I’m so exhausted and frustrated. I feel like this will never end, never get any better. I don’t know what to do.”
“How can I help you?” Jack asked. “I feel like you don’t want my help, except when I don’t help, you get mad then, too. We don’t have any fun anymore. Aren’t we supposed to be enjoying ourselves?
I had been thinking just those same things, but hearing them said out loud made them very real. I was silent for a few moments, concentrating. What could we do? What would really help? A good night’s sleep, I thought wryly. What if I really could have a full night of sleep? Could I make it work? Could I really relax and let Jack help?
It wasn’t that Simon needed me, he didn’t. He’d be just fine if I left for two days and stayed at the hotel less than a mile from our house. I called a child psychologist friend who assured me he could handle it. But wasn’t he supposed to need me? What was all this effort for? I couldn’t figure out what was worse, if he did need me or if he didn’t. Not to mention the fear that I would somehow figure out that I had been doing it all wrong. Would that make me stupid? Would taking a break — letting myself take one — remind me that my life sucked and make me want to stay gone forever? If I was alone with myself, if really looked at myself for a bit — what can of worms would that open? Or would I want to come home and love my baby and husband even more?
In the hotel room after checking in, I threw my stuff on the ground and flopped on the bed, clothes on. I ordered room service, watched television, and took a bath. I stayed up late because I knew I would be able to sleep in. It should have been New Mama Heaven. Yet the whole time, I felt numb. As an episode of “NYPD Blue” droned, I stretched out on the bed, noticing the absence of baby in my arms. I thought, “Is this freedom? Just these small things? Thinking what I want, eating what I want, putting my body where I want? It’s nice to be alone, a bit glorious, even. But do I want it forever?” A small voice inside me replied, “No.” Not forever. Just sometimes. If, occasionally, I don’t miss my baby and Jack, it’s gotta be okay. It doesn’t have to mark me, or define me as someone who hates my life, myself.
I used the breast pump every few hours and stored the milk in the mini-bar refrigerator. I had thought my milk would be constantly letting down, and that I wouldn’t be able to keep my mind off Simon. But the body has ways of healing itself, if you give it a chance. I wanted so badly to feel better. I went through the motions of recovery. I slipped into a hot bath and watched the steam rise. I let my eyes glaze over. I let myself breathe deeply. My body soaked up the rest despite the fact that I couldn’t completely forgive myself for taking it. It would take a long time to let that experience sink in. To really believe the glimpse of that better self I encountered, that blip of time in a room of my own.