In this year of madmen and wildfires I gave birth to a beautiful red-haired son.
This isn’t a story about motherhood, though. This is a story about being on fire.
When I began writing this two months ago, California was suffering the worst spate of wildfires ever recorded in the state’s history. Santa Rosa, the closest city to where I grew up in an obscure rural town in Sonoma County, lost eight-thousand homes, and a huge part of my childhood geography (rival high schools, arts centers, friend’s houses, summer job spots) was reduced to powdery ash.
When my Facebook feed started blowing up with reports of evacuations, lost houses, and burned-or-missing-pets my first thought was resignation. Having worked for both a personal insurance alliance and, briefly, in emergency preparedness, over the past five years, I had observed the evolution of California’s fire season with mounting apprehension. I was saddened, but not surprised, that a place I love had finally been affected. Any reasonably cognizant observer could have predicted this, the way any reasonably cognizant observer of this year’s floods, shootings, and hurricanes could have predicted that, if you didn’t believe it before, humanity now inhabits an era in which no-one will remain untouched by catastrophe.
My second thought about the fires was: how perfect. I’ve been burning alive all summer.
My son was born via Caesarian section on May fifth. It took sixty seven hours to bring him into this world. The pain was by far the worst I’d ever experienced and, within a week I went completely insane.
In retrospect, I should have known I was at risk for post-partum depression, a condition that affects millions of new mothers world-wide, and is particularly likely if you have—as I do—a history of depression. However, as my pregnancy had been untroubled—even pleasant—I hadn’t wasted time obsessing about what might go wrong. When, three days after my baby came squalling into the world, I began to tremble uncontrollably, I thought it was probably just physical trauma – the car-wreck exhaustion of giving birth. My child’s first cries sent an icy-hot blast of chemicals shooting through me. I remember thinking, hopefully, that I would never again need caffeine.
The trouble began once my husband and I departed the hospital (whose cheerful caregivers had buffered us against our new reality). By day five we had our first screaming match. It was 3am and my hungry baby would not latch. I can no longer remember the exact details—just the darkness out the window and the shrieking infant in my arms. A dark, aching hole had been growing within me, fed and watered by sleep deprivation, inexperience, and fear. Now I rose, weeping violently, slapping my own face, stumbling through a home that no longer felt like a home. I could still barely walk, had to be handed everything, and I was suddenly insane with fury at my husband. He’d done this. He’d cajoled me into having a baby and now my life was a jittery parade of terrors. I woke shaking (and far too early) every morning, dreading the baby’s cries and another endless feed. I trembled my way through brief five-minute showers, frantic and guilty that the baby should be by himself. Meanwhile, our eldest cat was dying and I couldn’t spare two minutes to schedule the vet. Our vegetable garden was withering in the early heat because my husband had put off installing the drip system. Sacramento summers are brutally hot. The dying plants and rising temperatures had me worried. When it got up to 108 and beyond how would I escape this house which now smelled of cat-food and madness?
Childbirth sits well with fire metaphors. Physical pain (“the ring of fire”) accompanies cellular rearrangement. Bodies warp. Chemicals flare. Your previous life vanishes as if consumed. To some people this is welcome: the consummation of a life-long dream of parenthood. To others it is darker: an unexpected loss of self.
I’d known that having a child would be hard—but knowing and living are two different things.
In America, we like predictability. That’s what makes the current moment so difficult. Having braced ourselves for one kind of change we were shocked by what was actually delivered.
The day after the 2016 election I saw women weeping openly in the streets. In Capitol Park, in my hometown of Sacramento, two men–black and white—got into a fist fight. Similar scenes played out across the nation: America as a ticking bomb.
We love explosions in this country. We love the thought of instant annihilation. We watch shows like The Walking Dead, and assume we’ll be the hero of every crisis. The worst that can happen is that we’ll die.
But what if the apocalypse is more like giving birth?
Three weeks after my son was born, I lay face down and weeping on an examination table. Between sobs I asked my doctor if I could be locked up at the nearest mental health facility. A feeling of horror hovered over me from the moment I woke until the moment—fifteen hours later—I dropped unconscious. After breaking down screaming on a phone call to my parents, my mother had begun driving the three hours from her house to mine each week in order to help. But even when this arrangement allowed me to lay (if not sleep) in my formerly comforting bedroom, I felt as though I were living with a gun to my head. My baby was not a child but a trip-wire. My thoughts were a grotesque litany of despair: The baby hated me. The baby was in pain. The baby would be dropped, run over, dismembered. If I didn’t sing to him (I could barely stop crying) he would turn out developmentally disabled.
Outside, the temperature climbed into the hundreds. The radio blared vile dispatches from the Trump presidency. I made sure to take the baby for a walk every day (early, before the heat could settle) yet, once that was done, I was largely isolated. My husband was coping by burying himself in work.
My one and only pleasure during this time—a measure of how my reality had shifted—was the ambient sound of our air conditioning which would come on with a quiet roar each evening. If I were in the bedroom when it activated, lying numbly in exhausted corpse pose, I could pretend I was dissolving into the air, freed from the sudden pressure cooker of my life. For just a moment, my thoughts would calm down enough to get me through another hour.
What I hated most was how different things felt. In particular, how different I’d become. Not only in my troubled thoughts, but at the mundane level of mobility. I hated every piece of baby equipment from the too-heavy car-seat to the cumbersome stroller. Everything seemed bulky and incomprehensible with too many straps or wheels or ties. When I eventually got out to “do stuff” I hated the very sight of other moms. I always seemed to be carrying six badly-packed things while they swanned into yoga class with just a child and a mat. At least I was learning valuable life skills. For example: you cannot do yoga with a baby.
At the same time I hated everyone I was desperately hungry for company. Once I established daily walks I would gaze longingly across the park at my fellow stroller pushers. How did they all look so fresh and dewy—so nonplussed to be struggling and alone? I felt like I existed in the midst of a cyclone, looking outward, silently pleading for help. Worst of all were the mother-and-father teams. My husband and I now regularly threatened each other with divorce. Home was not a refuge but a battleground. Had we ever been in love? I couldn’t remember.
On a day when the heat reached 112, my father drove the three hours from Sonoma County to help out. He arrived with an iPod and portable speaker and ushered in one of the strangest weekends of my life.
I was still waking up in cold panic each morning. It was eternally 6am and I was eternally naked and crying. Now add my 70-going-on-seventeen year-old father to the mix—geeking out to Patti Smith while I frantically pump breast milk—and you may have an idea of how surreal things felt.
Guileless to a fault, my father wouldn’t take the hint that feeding and pumping meant me going topless, so eventually I moved the milking station to my bedroom—but, due to the logistics of rocking chairs, the baby had to be fed in the living room. While Patti moaned about pissing in a river, I fed and rocked my child and talked music with my dad. This had not been part of my pre-baby prep, but then almost nothing that had transpired since delivery had.
Human beings have expectations. This is perhaps the greatest source of our pain. In America, advertising, film, and cultural script have programmed us to anticipate how we will act in any number of situations. We’re going to feel great when we graduate from college (as opposed to feeling clueless and adrift). We’re going to “know” when we meet “the one” (as opposed to questioning ourselves after marriage). If a zombie apocalypse breaks out, we tell ourselves, we’ll be a survivor and not the chomped-upon. Or, as an exhausted dad put it to me at the pediatrician’s: “There’s the Disney version of raising a kid—and then there’s the shit that actually happens.”
On that long, sweltering weekend, hooked up to a machine, bovine and half-naked in the presence of my father, the very vocabulary of my existence felt strange: “boppy,” “co-sleep,” “Pack n’ Play.” Who had decided on these inane syllables? And was anyone fooled by the deceptively benign term “breast feeding?” This sounded like a mild, practical activity. In reality it was solitary confinement in a chair.
“Back at it?” chirruped my dad as I took out a boob, settled the baby, and bore down for another hour. I nodded and we watched four hours of concert footage. Jeff Beck in London. Rory Gallagher at the Isle of Wight. It was humbling and awkward to be so vulnerable near my father, but the rock and roll at least reminded me good things still existed.
When he went home I waited until his car was out of sight, then hobbled inside to the bathroom and cried.
My life became an endless parade of appointments: the pediatrician, the therapist, the marriage therapist, the psychiatrist. I promised to remain “accountable” to my general practitioner (the kind man to whom I’d cried that I should be put away), and went to the lactation consultant and the women’s post-partum group for the promise of human company. I would talk to anyone, even the religious solicitors who showed up at my door with their bright, goofy pamphlets. They were nice ladies and they’d had children too, so clearly they knew about being in hell. One morning a friend texted to ask me how motherhood was going. It took every ounce of restraint I possessed not to type: “I’m pulling into my second shrink appointment.”
Slowly, very slowly, my baby grew. He began to greet me with a smile. I had been too exhausted to document his early days but now I started taking pictures of him. One day I realized he had auburn hair. Not brown. Not carroty. True strawberry bond. He had my eyes and my husband’s funny ears. He was a tiny little person in a huge, troubled world. His very presence—both constant and, because of his age, uncertain—had reshaped me into something new.
I had always been ambivalent about children. I tended to gravitate towards animals, not babies. Now that I had a baby of my own I couldn’t fathom how anyone could behold one with malice or indifference. Everything about my son was beautiful—all the more fragile and precious for the day’s news. I had a whole new reserve of respect for mothers—and an even greater sorrow for those under duress. There were pregnant women fleeing Syria, mothers shot to death with their children in American churches. In October the wildfires began and high school friends with young children evacuated from familiar neighborhoods. Though mentally I’d just spent a season in hell I was lucid enough to be grateful for my own safety. I held my baby, rocking, as the news rolled in—every hour an old life burning away.
In time, with medication and therapy, I began to accept my new reality. It struck me that I’d arrived at the fifth stage of grief—had been mourning my old self even as I brought a new being into the world. Motherhood was full of these paradoxes: life-in-death, death-in-life, a beautiful spring in a deeply shitty year. After experiencing this small destruction of self I had also revised my ideas of apocalypse. We think of apocalypse as an ending—full stop! Cut to black!—and always somewhere up ahead. My theory now is that apocalypse is gradual. It can be domestic, ongoing, and now.
There isn’t yet an ending to this story. I am changed. The days can be hard. Every two weeks like clockwork I seem to fight with my husband and wonder if I’m going to have to do this alone. Every two weeks I remember we were happy when we decided on a child and that all the books say not to make rash decisions in your baby’s first year. It is hard to pull yourself out of a disaster. It is uncomfortable. You do not feel like you. Your husband, your geography, your very home may be reshaped—by external forces, or from within. You emerge (if you’re lucky) grateful from the wreckage to a home, country, world that is not the same. Your wander, (maybe pushing a stroller) through an alien terrain and return home at twilight to another, uncertain night. The house and your life feel different now and the news keeps coming with its sadness and its fear.
And so you hold your small baby warm against your cheek and you softly caress his auburn hair. The lights have gone out everywhere, it seems, but he is there and he is safe. An ember in the dark.