by Brooke Shields
I was just happy to be out of my dress. We put the little one in a Moses basket. Then, in an attempt to gain control, I decided to unpack immediately and tidy up the house. Chris kindly reminded me that I’d just had a baby and the tidying up could wait. He ordered me to bed and added that once we all got some sleep, I could neaten to my heart’s desire. He was under the impression that the baby would drift off into a peaceful slumber and we would all get caught up on the sleep we had been deprived of in the hospital. I must admit that I, too, naively believed that because we were home and away from constant interruptions, rest was imminent. Almost every mother I knew had let her new baby sleep at least one night in the hospital nursery before going home so the mom could launch into baby land slightly rested. Since we were too afraid of the press or even of a staff member sneaking photos of Rowan, we never let her out of our sight. Consequently, neither Chris nor I had really slept in five days, and we were feeling quite beaten up because of it. Unfortunately we soon found out that being home hardly provided the respite we craved.
Chris and I had planned to spend a week alone at home with the baby, just the three of us, before having our families come for a visit. We had wanted uninterrupted time to bond as a family. We chose not to have a baby nurse, either, because not only did we not want a stranger in our home, but we figured we could handle it ourselves until our relatives came to stay. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We were anything but peaceful, and because we were alone, we were overwhelmed.
To add to the upheaval of our lives at the time of Rowan’s birth, we had moved into a new apartment, at the opposite end of Manhattan, just three weeks earlier. The move took place on the day after my father’s death. While my dad was going through chemotherapy in Palm Beach, Chris and I were in Los Angeles preparing to come to New York City for the delivery. We were making it a point to be in New York for Rowan’s birth because we wanted her to have a New York City birth certificate. Toward the end of my pregnancy, my doctor hadn’t allowed me to travel to Florida to visit my father, for fear I might go into labor away from the necessary medical expertise. I agreed to stay in Los Angeles until our scheduled trip to the Big Apple and honestly believed my father would hold on until after my daughter’s birth. I had told Dad during our last visit together that I was going to bring the baby to meet him as soon as we were out of the hospital. I surprised him with the news that her middle name was going to be Francis, which was his given name, and added that she couldn’t wait to meet her “Pop-Pop.” I had called my paternal grandfather the same name and eagerly awaited this repeat of history. We were lying on his bed, and I remember a melancholy look in my dad’s eyes as we talked. His breathing was labored, and he was having trouble speaking, but I could tell he was taking in what I was saying. I deeply hoped the prospect of meeting his granddaughter would give him strength and a will to survive, but it was not meant to be.
On the day of our departure from Los Angeles, my father gave up his fight against prostate cancer. I was at the dog park, trying to tire out Darla before our long flight east, when my cell phone rang. It was Diana, my stepsister, instructing me to tell my father whatever I wanted or needed to, because the end was near. Trying to sound calm, I told him I had always felt lucky he was my father and that I didn’t want him to be scared. He couldn’t respond, but my younger sister, Cristiana, said he wiggled his toes. Three hours later, with the entire family around him (except me), my dad left this earth. With very little time to process the information, I got on the red-eye with my husband, dog, and huge belly and cried all the way to New York.
We arrived in Manhattan early the next morning and had only a few hours to sleep before our co-ed baby shower was to occur in our new apartment. The place was the perfect site for a party because the only furniture we had was a bed, an armchair, a table, and Chris’s old dresser from childhood. The party was lovingly given by a group of our friends. When they asked if I wanted to cancel the event because of my loss, I said my dad would’ve wanted it to go on. We made it a celebration of life, and in my mind, I pretended my father was simply still in Palm Beach. The shower was bittersweet but quite beautiful, and I’m sure Dad would’ve made a great toast. Rowan arrived a day before my dad’s birthday, and I know he would have considered her a wonderful gift.
Though I couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital, it was a sad homecoming for these first-time parents and their baby. History had already been infused into our new home; returning to its rather sterile surroundings and high ceilings, I was quickly reminded of that fateful day three weeks earlier.
As I hobbled to our bed, Rowan began crying. Her diaper needed changing, and because she was continuing to eliminate meconium, it looked like it was filled with licorice. I was still experiencing severe carpal tunnel syndrome, and my hands were unbelievably numb. They looked like they belonged to an old prizefighter, and since I had hardly any feeling in them, I couldn’t manipulate Rowan’s harness or diaper effectively. Chris had to come to the rescue, and I labored back to bed, frustrated and in pain. As Chris adeptly navigated the industrial-strength Velcro attachments of the baby’s contraption and wrestled with her harness, she screamed. Her screams echoed through the whole apartment. Though spacious, the place started to feel very small. I stayed on the bed and stared at an empty wall in front of me.
At first I thought what I was feeling was just exhaustion, but with it came an overriding sense of panic that I had never felt before. Rowan kept crying, and I began to dread the moment when Chris would bring her back to me. I started to experience a sick sensation in my stomach; it was as if a vise were tightening around my chest. Instead of the nervous anxiety that often accompanies panic, a feeling of devastation overcame me. I hardly moved. Sitting on my bed, I let out a deep, slow, guttural wail. I wasn’t simply emotional or weepy, like I had been told I might be. This was something quite different. In the past, if I got depressed or if I felt sad or down, I knew I could counteract it with exercise, a good night’s sleep, or a nice dinner with a friend. If PMS made me introspective or melancholy, or if the pressures of life made me gloomy, I knew these feelings wouldn’t last forever. But this was sadness of a shockingly different magnitude. It felt as if it would never go away.
In general, I have always loved babies, and Rowan was not only amazing and alert but also quite beautiful. Her features were perfectly formed, and she looked like an angel. But I felt no appreciation for the little miracle. Although I didn’t dislike her, I wasn’t sure I wanted her living with us. In addition, I could hardly stand on my own two feet because of the sheer mass and weight of my body. If I had been in the mood to joke, I probably would have made a comparison between me and a sumo wrestler, but I had lost my sense of humor. I had become bruised and sore because my skin had expanded and been stretched so tightly it ached. My ankles and wrists looked like they had tight rubber bands around them. The indented skin had become dry and cracked. Besides the fact that I was physically incapable of performing many of the basic mothering duties, I also didn’t feel like I wanted to get too close to Rowan. I wasn’t afraid she was too fragile; I just felt no desire to pick her up. Every time I have ever been near a baby, any baby, I have always wanted to hold the child. It shocked me that I didn’t want to hold my own daughter. I wished I had I Dream of Jeannie powers so I could blink myself into a warm, loving embrace with Rowan. Instead I was more like the distant and unsympathetic Endora from Bewitched.
I felt guilty for not being the one tending to my daughter, so I forced myself off the bed and waddled over to the old dresser that was substituting for a changing table. We hadn’t yet gotten the nursery in place. I stared down at the tiny infant whose cheeks were dark red and whose eyes were like the Grand Canyon, and I began to feel faint. The plastic from the diapers they had given us at the hospital had a powdery odor, and the minute I smelled it, my knees got weak and I almost threw up. One whiff and I might as well have been back on the operating table. Again I thought it was due to sleep deprivation, but I couldn’t stand there one more minute smelling that plastic. I moved away and stood in silence.
I watched as Chris finished the diapering, and felt like a beached whale. I was failing at things that, according to popular belief, were supposed to be the most natural in a woman’s life. I had never been uncomfortable around babies, and they always responded positively to me. In fact, it sometimes surprised people when their babies opened their arms to me so quickly. Everybody always said that I would make a great mom one day. I tried to rationalize that I was physically impaired and should give myself a break, but I didn’t have any desire to power through and care for this baby. I got hit with a wave of self-defeat and self-loathing and had an urge to smash my head against the wall repeatedly. Chris told me to get off my feet and back into bed. Once there, my crying recommenced, and I started strongly believing that I couldn’t be a mother. I was already proving to be incompetent, and we hadn’t been home a day! What had I done? Why didn’t I want to be near my baby?
I had little time to contemplate such thoughts, because it was time for Rowan to eat again (or snack, I should say). Without the help of a nurse or a lactation specialist, I was in trouble once more. I accepted Chris’s help as he guided the baby’s mouth onto my nipple; this time I didn’t become annoyed or impatient with him or myself. I sat there almost catatonically, staring out into space. Rowan’s nursing made me feel drugged and temporarily comforted me. But the moment she was finished and taken from me, I started to sob once more. I sat up with my huge legs stretched out in front of me and, slowly rocking back and forth with my face up toward the ceiling, my arms limp at my sides, I sobbed. I couldn’t stop. What was I going to do? Was I ever going to stop feeling like this? Misery enveloped me.
I really needed to rest, but we seemed to be in an unrelenting routine of sporadic sleep, baby care, and lots of tears. The baby would wake up every hour and a half, and I would struggle to get her latched on. By the time she was on and had eaten a meal (if she stayed awake long enough to finish one), it was time to start all over again. Just as I would begin to fall into an exhausted sleep, Rowan’s little bark, like Chinese water torture, would wake me up. This schedule continued incessantly and, thinking that it would be like this forever, I began to feel delirious. I was practically inconsolable. I couldn’t stand any of it.
Chris and I were alone, and there was a great deal of silence in between my bouts of crying. Often he would break the silence by asking me to please tell him what was wrong. My response would be to shake my head and say I didn’t know. There are many times where Chris and I are together and are not talking. It is a comforting thing that our silences have never been uneasy. This silence was very different. It was heavy and did not stem from a place of ease.
I had never felt emotion like this, and I strongly believed that even if I could articulate what I was experiencing, nobody would understand, not even my husband. And if he did understand, he certainly wouldn’t be able to help. Chris kept doing all he could to keep the baby contented while continuing to try to talk to me. I knew he must be tired, too, but we couldn’t seem to get on a schedule that allowed one of us to sleep while the other tended to the infant. Plus, I was afraid to let Chris sleep, because I was scared to be alone. Even though we were in the same apartment, if he was sleeping and I was awake, I thought I might try to escape or wouldn’t be able to stop myself from swallowing a bottle of pills. I even thought that I’d welcome being kidnapped. These were strange, irrational fears that still felt real to me. I couldn’t hand the baby completely over to Chris, either, because I wasn’t yet producing enough milk to pump so he could feed her. I was hesitant to pump, anyway, because in the lactation class, we were warned about the horrors of “nipple confusion”: One taste of a rubber nipple, and we might lose our babies to the bottle forever. So, like a zombie, at each feeding I would hold her tiny body at the appropriate angle and stare out the window.
Around this time, Chris took a photo of me. I’m holding the baby and looking straight at the camera. My hair looks like it hasn’t been washed, and I’m slumped heavily in a chair with the baby wedged into the crook of my left arm. She looks sleepy and my smile seems forced. My eyes have a distant look, even though my gaze is directed right at the lens. To this day it makes my mother-in-law cry. She told me recently that she calls it “Vacant Eyes,” and it breaks her heart to think of how lost I seemed.
After only a couple of days of being home, my crying had increased and no longer occurred only in between feedings but during them as well. At times I even had trouble holding Rowan because of my choking sobs. Why was I crying more than my baby? Here I was, finally the mother of a beautiful baby girl I had worked so hard to have, and I felt like my life was over. Where was the bliss? Where was the happiness that I had expected to feel by becoming a mother? She was my baby; the baby I had wanted for so long. Why didn’t I feel remotely comforted by having or holding her? I had always felt that a baby was the one major thing missing from my life, that a child would complete the picture and bring everything into focus. Once I was a mother, the different parts of my world would all converge, and I would experience life as I’d envisioned it and in turn would know what I was meant to be. But having a baby clouded my vision and threatened whatever peace had already existed. Instead of wanting to move forward, all I wanted was for life to return to the way it was before I had Rowan.
I longed for the freedom to pick up and go to the movies or on a hike or a trip out of the country. Chris and I used to go on spontaneous trips and mini-vacations. Sometimes I would take a job in a city that we hadn’t been to, and we’d extend the trip and explore. We could sleep when we wanted to and make our own schedule, depending on how we felt. Because our work is versatile, we could find ourselves stateside one day and needing a passport the next. Even if we were home, we managed to be creative and stayed busy.
I love schedules but prefer to be the person making them. It occurred to me that my life was no longer my own and that I was a prisoner to a small, squeaking creature. I did not like it one bit. I felt stuck. I did not want the responsibility this situation demanded. I started feeling like I had made a terrible mistake in having this child. I would look at how little and vulnerable she was and didn’t feel at all capable of tending to her needs. Her helplessness terrified me. Rather than wanting to care for her, I wanted to forget her and run away.
Sometimes when I went to the bathroom and tried not to gag at the blood and “stuff” that continuously came pouring out of my body, I wondered how the human race survived. Why would anyone do this more than once? I had thought that it would all get better once we got home, but it was unbelievably worse. I felt no connection to my daughter and wanted to die because of it. She grew inside my body, for God’s sake, and I didn’t even feel related to her. I had always thought I would immediately feel closer to my child than I did to anybody else in my life. I’d thought we would be undeniably bonded from the moment I laid eyes on her. What was wrong with me? What a horrible mother I was! Her cry didn’t annoy me or grate on my nerves, but it also didn’t register with me, either. I felt numb to it. I practically had to strain to hear her voice, which seemed so far away, even though she was in the adjoining room and the door was open. I could almost justify not hearing it.
My profound detachment made me suffer unbearably, and I believed I had nowhere to turn. I remember looking out of the bedroom window and envisioning myself jumping. I concluded that it wouldn’t be too effective, because we weren’t high enough. This upset me even more. The frightening part was that my thoughts were extremely rational. They made clear sense to me. It felt like an appealing option to erase myself from this life. What would stop me from acting on any of these thoughts? I needed and wanted a way out. My mind was full of visions of escape, and these constantly overshadowed thoughts about my miraculous baby girl.
During what was becoming one of the darkest points in my life, I sat holding my newborn and could not avoid the image of her flying through the air and hitting the wall in front of me. I had no desire to hurt my baby and didn’t see myself as the one throwing her, thank God, but the wall morphed into a video game, and in it her little body smacked the surface and slid down onto the floor. I was horrified, and although I knew deep in my soul that I would not harm her, the image all but destroyed me.
I was desperate to have a natural and healthy connection with my daughter, but it was feeling so forced. It was as if I were trapped behind a thick glass wall. I had never felt apathy in my life, and when I had least expected it, it crept in and took over. I couldn’t shake the feeling of doom and gloom that pervaded each moment. I was afraid of myself and felt threatened by the dangerous thoughts running so calmly through my head. They all felt too real. When would I wake up from this bad dream?
I started calling friends and family and crying to them on the phone. I told my friend Linda in California that I didn’t want a baby anymore. She joked that if worse came to worst, she would raise the baby with Chris. She said she knew I’d be fine, but she thought it would help me to talk to a girlfriend of hers who had similar thoughts when she had her child. I had met the person she was referring to but didn’t know her very well. It seemed pathetic to call a basic stranger to talk about my feelings toward my newborn, so I never made that call.
I then called my stepsister Diana and asked her to promise me it would get better. She reassured me that it would, but begged me to get a baby nurse for a few days so I could sleep. The people in my life were trying to help, but I was in over my head. I was afraid to be left alone with my child not because I thought I’d do anything to her but because the thought of being the only person to care for her terrified me. I was equally afraid to be left alone with my emotions. I thought that maybe if I shone a spotlight on myself, I wouldn’t do anything stupid or fall further into the dark pit I was in. Everyone said it would pass and that it would all turn out okay. I kept hearing how normal these feelings were and how I would get over them. I knew, however, that I was the only person who would never get over them.