Sleep, sleep, beauty bright
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.
-William Blake, “Cradle Song”
It is 9:30 a.m. Winter sun streams in through the frost-marked bedroom windows. I haven’t brushed my teeth, haven’t slept since 2:00 a.m., I haven’t eaten since retching on toast the night before. I am standing on the top of our stairs swinging our crying baby in her car seat, up and down, up and down. Anxiety crawls under my skin; thoughts like scurrying black beetles hunting for the darkest places inside of me. Sasha’s wailing drives them deeper. Quiet, please! I whisper scream and then I see her, mouth and eyes wide open, fly up and out of the car seat. Her small body knocks against the white wall, scuffing the paint, and then she bounces off the fifth step, the third, comes to rest at the bottom, still and quiet at last. Or perhaps I open a window and push her out, lock the sash, and crawl back into bed to sleep for a hundred years.
Symptoms of postpartum mood disorder may include: sadness, frequent crying, insomnia, appetite changes, difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, racing thoughts, agitation and/or persistent anxiety, anger, fear and/or feelings of guilt, obsessive thoughts of inadequacy as a person/parent, feeling of a loss of control, feeling disconnected from the baby, possible suicidal thoughts.
Once upon a time I knew a man, Thomas, and he was in love. After many years of trying, he and his wife, Caroline, were to have their first child — a son. He was born bloody and wailing, after many long hours of difficult birth, into the welcome arms of his parents. Their joy was bigger than anything they had previously known, even bigger than their love for one another. They gave the boy a Greek name, Alexander; the origin of which means “defender of mankind.” The name shone upon the boy like a crown.
For months Thomas, Caroline, and baby Alexander lived happily until one day a dark sadness came upon Caroline like a wizened crone proffering a poisoned apple. Black thoughts kept her awake and staring at the ceiling through the night. She would sit with her son in her midwife’s waiting room day upon day, scared to go home and be alone with him. She would sit for hours, crying and nursing and reading magazines she would never buy for herself.
Over time she felt herself rot and darken from the inside out until one day she was a hollow woman sitting in a house, holding a warm and wiggling prince, and crying out to the man sitting across from her, begging him to fix her. She would grab at her breast and squeeze. “See?” she would plead. “There is nothing inside of me.”
Thomas, scared and unable to watch his wife suffer any longer, brought Caroline and their son to a hospital. You are very sick, the doctors told her, and we would like to keep you here to get well. Two choices were given to her: to leave and come back the next day to see a psychiatrist or to say goodbye to her son and husband and check into the hospital. They promised to come back the next day, and that night over dinner Thomas saw a smile flicker across Caroline’s face for the first time in a long while. Things would be better now, he knew.
For the next several days, appointments were kept, a doula was hired, friends brought covered dishes and kisses for the baby, vacation plans were made. The man felt hope filling him like a bright white light.
At the end of that week, they went to see a social worker. Thomas sat in the waiting room flipping through magazines like Psychology Today, Conde Naste Traveler, and The Sun. Caroline sat in the social worker’s warmly lit office and checked off tiny boxes. “Feel like a failure.” Check. “Don’t know who I am any longer.” Check. “Better off dead.” Check. Thomas never saw her answers. “Everything is normal,” the social worker told them. “You’ll be fine.”
They met with a nurse practitioner the next day and were sent home with samples of medication and a prescription for more. Caroline dropped Thomas off at work. “I’ll be home in an hour,” he told her. She smiled and waved goodbye. Thomas worked quickly and came home in 45 minutes. Alexander was asleep in the car, the windows rolled down. Caroline was hanging from a heating duct in the basement, her hands bloody, her knees bent on the basement floor.
Hush a bye baby, in the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
One night during my pregnancy I had a nightmare. In it I held my baby to my chest to feed. She sucked greedily at my breast and her tiny hands clutched and squeezed my tender, swollen flesh. I felt my breasts run dry and then my baby opened up her wide, red, hungry mouth and devoured me whole.
“Modern American society has fostered many ‘myths of Motherhood’ that play a major role in the development of Postpartum Mood Disorders (PPMD). These myths include: the myth of the ‘perfect mother.’” – Christina G. Hibbert, Psy. D.
I sit in a rocker in Sasha’s room, the red paper lantern I had bought for her glowing above us. I have taped a thin, plastic tube to my left breast, attaching the tip to the top of my tender nipple. The tube is attached at one end to a slender container of formula, which my husband holds above my shoulder so that the liquid drips down the tube and into Sasha’s mouth. She sucks lazily at my breast. After she finishes at the left breast, we detach and reattach the tubing to my right, a ritual we have now performed every one and a half hours a night for the past week.
I sit on our couch with Sasha who lies beside me, crying hungrily. I hold a nipple shield in my hand, a round plastic disk that will suction onto my nipple in order to draw it out so that Sasha can more easily feed. My hands shake from exhaustion and I drop the shield on the floor. Sasha cries harder and I think I am starving her. I think also perhaps my body is failing me. My breasts are like broken machines made of faulty parts that cannot be fixed. I think of Caroline hanging from electrical wire, one bloody hand clutching at her breast.
I sit on the bedroom floor, on the phone with a lactation consultant. I cry, begging silently for her to tell me to stop breastfeeding, but I can’t say the words out loud and neither will she. She offers me suggestions like the last five consultants I have called crying before her. Drink fenugreek tea (you will smell like maple syrup, she says). Spend the day lying naked in bed with your baby and let it happen naturally. After each feeding, pump your breasts to increase production. Just relax, she says. I hang up the phone and lie exhausted on the floor. My heart beats fast: thump, thump, thump. The old crones cackle and throw their wormy red apples against the side of our house.
I show a friend who has come to visit the bottle of medicine I’ve been prescribed. I don’t know if I should, I say. I won’t be able to breastfeed. My friend goes to the kitchen and comes back with two glasses of water. She opens the bottle and hands me a round, peach-colored pill. Here, she says, we’ll take our medicine together. She fishes a pill out of her purse, and we raise our glasses. Cheers, she says.
The following side effects are associated with the antidepressant Celexa: drowsiness, insomnia, nausea, weight changes, vivid dreaming, frequent urination, decreased sex drive, dry mouth, increased sweating, trembling, diarrhea, excessive yawning, and fatigue. Other side effects may include: beetles scurrying away in the light; a deep, dreamless night of sleep; a smile, a laugh; a prince with a golden crown — he carries a shining sword and cuts the old crone in two.
It is late April and Sasha is three months old. She is wrapped in red fabric, nestled to my chest. We walk a path through pine forest with two of my girlfriends; leaves hard with frost crackle underfoot. They take turns caressing Sasha’s back, and mine, as we walk. Sasha flings her head back to look up at the trees stretching high above us into the slate blue sky. She has been fascinated with these trees through our entire stay here, her round grey eyes quietly taking in the green pine, the falling spring snow, and the dark, quick birds flitting from branch to branch. It is late afternoon and the sun is quickly bleeding out from the sky. We go back to our cabin and bless Sasha by candlelight. We are three fairy godmothers, bestowing gifts of beauty, song, and, should she meet a Dark Fairy, the gift of true love’s kiss. That night, I wake often to watch her small chest rise and fall, to warm her bottle and feed her milk, to hear the trees’ branches caressing our cabin walls, lulling us back to sleep.
The Greek myths are heavy with tales of imperfect mothers. To name a few: Medea who kills her two children after being banished from her husband and home; Clytemnestra, murdered by her own son; Demeter, who creates winter in mourning for her lost daughter. She puts the earth to sleep until the first narcissus thrusts its paper white head out of the frozen ground. Waits in dreamless slumber until Persephone can be returned to her arms once more. My own myths, those old crones with their shining, bitter apples, are mostly silent now. I open a window and push them out each time they rise up to taunt me.
There is a photo of Sasha and me taped into her baby book. Asleep on the couch, a red blanket thrown over the two of us, she nestled in my arms. Her eyelids are pink and translucent; I can see a scattering of blood vessels like road maps over each eye. Our mouths hang softly open, as if we are breathing in each other’s dreams. I dream, and perhaps she does too, of falling snow and trees like great gods towering over us, defenders of mankind; birds dropping seeds on the forest floor. We sleep for a hundred years.
9 replies on “Mother’s Milk”
This was such a beautiful and wrenching piece. I especially liked the fairy tale motif throughout. Skillful and passionate work.
A brave and vivid piece. I feel such compassion in your writing – for yourself and this crazy world we are all apart of- best expained through myths and fairy tales. Great work!
courageous. drawing on many truths-poetic, personal and academic. a strong piece with a clear voice about a hard truth. well done.
I read each and every sentence slowly not wanting to miss a moment, a thought. a beautiful gift to read. Painful and gorgeous. And most of all brave. Thank you for sharing.
I too have been to that dark, rotting, and spooky place only to come out to a beautiful, bright and enchanted valley.
So so beautiful.
This is a beautifully-written piece. Bravo for the brave style. And congratulations on your first publication!
If I had read this when my daughter was an infant I wouldn’t have felt so lonely! I love this essay. I also love the friend who gets two glasses of water, one for each of you.