The first few months of Gus’ life were very different for me than the first few months of Simon’s. I couldn’t remember details of Simon’s early babyhood, but I’d be changing Gus’ diaper or wake up to the sound of his cries and a flash of grayness would come back. I’d remember what felt like hours of nursing and no sleep, and smile. I’d smile because now things were So. Much. Better. The sleep deprivation had been the worst part of the depression. With Simon, I often felt that with time to sleep, the depression would have gone away. So, this time around, night-time coverage for me became our first priority. With enough sleep, I felt confident I could handle the days without relapse.
I allowed myself help — help in many forms. There was the help I gave myself: a break when I needed it. I stopped nursing Gus at night after three weeks, so I could sleep. I let him take a bottle of breastmilk or formula if I was too tired to pump. There was the help I accepted: Jack parented at full capacity. With Simon I hadn’t been able to give over any of the parenting — and then blamed Jack for not doing enough. Now Jack stepped in, providing full night-time coverage three nights a week. And then there was the help we hired: Gina, our nighttime doula. She slept at our house three nights a week for the first four months of Gus’ life. Gina was amazing — she was so nurturing with Gus while truly respecting my privacy. Everything was great. Or so it seemed.
There were trade-offs. Yes, I had been depressed with Simon. But I also experienced motherhood for the first time, all the time. I felt completely and totally bonded with him, so much so that at times it became overwhelming. With Gus, achieving balance was complicated. I wanted the sleep, but I didn’t want to let go of him. But Gus didn’t seem to have the same ambivalence. From day one, he was independent, able to connect with others. He had no problems at night with Gina. Yes, he cried — he was a colicky baby. But she was able to calm him as well as I. Rather than feel comforted by this, I’d find myself flashing back to his birth and the NICU. Did he know I was his mother? Were we having problems bonding? Did he know me, really? I couldn’t prevent that doubt from creeping in, especially when my period started again when Gus was two months old. I found it difficult to negotiate feeling those monthly shadows of depression without wondering if “it” was coming back. That worry mostly manifested itself in doubts about my connection to Gus. The truth was I just didn’t know what I was “supposed” to be feeling. I loved Gus, was much more “in love” with being a mother this second time around.
But why did it take a certain amount of separation from my baby for me to feel that love? Was something wrong with me that I needed so much help? Should a “Good Mother” be able to do all this all alone? On some level, I knew this wasn’t true, I was a feminist for god’s sake! But there’s nothing like the vulnerability of the postpartum weeks to make a woman doubt herself. So I continued to negotiate these feelings of ambivalence. At four months, Gus began to sleep through the night and we stopped needing Gina. I felt like crying and cheering at the same time. I was scared, but also relieved to be “getting my baby back.” I wrote Gina a letter thanking her for her work with us, for taking the time to nurture and love my child, and I invited her to keep in touch, to see him as he grew. I didn’t misrepresent my feelings in that letter; every word I wrote was true. But later, in my journal, I wrote another letter. One just for me.
I need to thank you for helping us, and though I’m glad that you did, honestly I wish you were never here. In fact, I don’t want you to spend time with us and watch him grow — I want to forget about you. Yes, Gus loves you, and yes, your experience with newborns who spent time in the NICU helped us feel safe. And yes, we needed your help as a night nurse to be rested as a family and so I could avoid triggers for a depression relapse, like sleep deprivation.
None of that mattered at night, during his first weeks at home, when you’d bring him to me to nurse and I wasn’t sure he recognized me. Did he know his mommy? He was snatched away right after the birth. Did I get a good enough look? The day after the birth at the NICU I couldn’t let go of the horrible question: If it weren’t for his storkbite over his eyelid, and I had to guess among all the babies, would I recognize my own child? would he recognize me? And so, when you came to help, I had an equally horrible conundrum: I needed you but I didn’t want you. I wanted your help but I wanted Gus to know me, only me. To have me, only me.
When you’d bring him to nurse, I’d find myself wondering, If you had nursed him would he have known the difference? If he had gone home with you would he have known the difference? Would he have known that there was another heart beating for him out there? It was wonderful to rely on you, to be able to sleep knowing Gus was in such good hands. Horribly wonderful. Why was he so content? Shouldn’t he have been crying for me? Inconsolable without me? If he fussed while nursing, I’d wonder, did he want you?
God I feel so awful with this in my heart. I know Gus and I are mother and son. Totally, completely. But really, sometimes it makes me so sad that we couldn’t have done it all without you. That I couldn’t have done it all without you. And so, guiltily, I’m glad you are leaving. So Gus knows I’m the one who stays. I hope you understand. And I know that Gus is thriving, and bonded in the heart of our family. We have shored up our strength, and I’m ready for you to go. Gus is sweet, smiling, and knows his mommy now.
But in those fragile first few weeks when I felt like an eggshell with nothing inside, doubt so easily slipped in. I wonder if you saw? Thank you, thank you, thank you for not saying so.