I should have shoplifted more while I was pregnant.
People mostly try not to notice pregnant women, and if they do, it is with a mild pity or good-humored discomfort that passes quickly. At worst, a pregnant woman is an uncomfortable reminder of the close proximity of sex and death, a bit of a boner killer.
But mothers of young children are inevitably ruining a dinner out, an airplane flight, a work meeting. Or simply raising the next generation of monsters who will further clutter the world with their selfish needs and dirty carbons.
Of course, I couldn't know that the benevolent disinterest I experienced while pregnant for the first time would be almost immediately replaced by this fiery judgment of mothers. So instead of using my anonymity to jam $90 Anthropology tee-shirts into my giant purse, I used it to spy on people.
I was huge and overdue by multiple weeks. I could no longer sleep—my hips hurt, my breath was short, my arches had fallen—and I often walked early in the morning, when black was giving way to gray.
I huffed slowly through my neighborhood, a uniquely twenty-first century mix of tidy, neutral-toned homes boasting rain barrels, low-income apartments with sheets for curtains, and primary-colored condo boxes full of tech nerds from Ohio and Bangalore.
The hours between five and seven a.m. are the absolute best for "peeping" (as I thought of it) at people through their windows: it is dark enough that you can see in while they cannot see out. But unlike night—when you are most likely to see someone watching The Bachelor, football, or maybe, if you're really lucky, porn—it is a time of bustling activity. People toast waffles, wrangle their kids into highchairs, fix their hair in the hallway mirror, fill commuter cups with coffee, warm up their cars, bicker, kiss, head for the bus stop.
These prenatal morning walks were the only balm for a mounting terror I was struggling to ignore.
I wasn't scared of labor. In fact, I was deeply excited for it. I loved the idea of a bone-rattling physical experience that would alter me forever. Pushing a human being out through my body would not only confirm the power of my sex but also help unearth the truly authentic me I longed for, undeniably pin me to this earth, etch my place in the chain of existence. Other women feared shitting on the table, screaming obscenities at their partners or the agony of their tearing vaginas. I was fascinated by these rites of passage and giddily gathered horror stories.
It wasn't labor that haunted me on those wintery dawn walks, it was that I couldn't see anything after the labor. No fantasies of a new family snuggled proudly on the couch or a small, miraculous hand curled in mine. Not even curious thoughts about what sort of mother I'd be. When I saw women with young babies I often thought, involuntarily and before I could catch myself, "That will never be me."
Beyond the huge physical feat of labor there was just a cliff. No, worse than a cliff: a blank. Peeping on the routines of others—both familiar and eccentric—was like walking a circle of worry beads. They were here, in all of their strange familiarity, and so was I.
A few years later, when I asked a doctor why my body just never went into labor, she answered, "Your body, on some level, probably knew it would die in delivery. It was buying you extra time."
I can describe the symptoms of pain—shaking limbs, explosions of red and black behind closed eyes, the sound of an animal in my throat, wet sheets and blood on a white bathroom floor—but not the pain itself. That is now a memory in my cells, not in my mind.
But the pain was not enough. Nor were the synthetic hormones they pumped into my arm to try and kick-start my uterus, or the breathing or the baths or the birthing ball or the futile stretching of my cervix. The baby was stuck. He could not find his way out and I could not help him.
When a team came in to shave me and prep for surgery I started to shake. I shook all the way to the emergency C-section, which happened on the other side of a tall blue sheet.
I twitched and convulsed as the anesthesiologist joked about switching kids at birth. I shivered and jerked as the surgeon gasped at the eleven-pound boy that emerged purple and screaming from my hemorrhaging uterus.
The shaking only calmed once they pressed Malcolm to my chest, his dark alien eyes full of whatever came before—a knowledge I would watch fade as they lightened to a glittering baby blue over the coming months.
But the shaking wasn't over, it was just submerged. It had rattled its way into my bones. My body had failed to bring Malcolm into this world and Malcolm's body had tried to kill me. It was a shaky foundation for a new relationship and our unease made its way into everything.
He was so eager to nurse, his head jerking violently at my breast, that he couldn't latch. Out of sync, I over-produced so when he did latch, he choked on my milk, sputtering and crying in frustration.
"There's something wrong with me."
After the surgery, I sat sunken into the living room couch unable to move without assistance for weeks. Malcolm, a "bad sleeper," could only drift off when carried, which meant I watched from my invalid's perch as my husband paced before me staring sweetly into Malcom's finally peaceful face.
"I'm bad at this."
Outside the closed windows it rained the sleety, relentless rain of a December that was never cold enough to snow or dry enough to go outside. The days and nights blended to an untextured twilight further dissolved by the Vicodin I managed to keep refilling.
"He doesn't love me."
His face a fist. His mouth a squall. His limbs rigid and jerking. I would wrap him tight in a velcroed swaddler and bounce his mummied body on a yoga ball for hours, all the while looking out the window at a city of churned up concrete and swinging cranes. My hometown swallowing itself in a panic for toilet paper delivered by drones.
"What if I don't love him?"
All I wanted was for him to sleep. And then, when he'd finally drift off, his body loose, dense and heavy as a hot sack of sugar, I'd be lost.
I scrolled through Facebook photos of couples gazing at their infants wriggling happily on tastefully printed muslin blankets, and drift back to the couch where Netflix asked imperiously, "Are you still watching 'Nurse Jackie?'"
I pressed "Yes," and then woke with a gasp, ran to the cradle to jab Malcolm for proof of life. The brutal expectations of this new identity—to be ever vigilant, naturally competent, and completely in love—swamped my mind.
After a few months, a "Lactation Consultant" who had just spent the last thirty minutes mashing my breast into Malcolm's face handed me a screening to detect postpartum depression.
Dummy questions, scaled 0-5, like "Do you have trouble sleeping?" and "Do you worry about things that never used to bother you?" were laughable camouflage for the only one that actually mattered: "Do you ever consider harming yourself or your baby?"
Once, in a dream, Malcolm slipped from my arms into inky water and instead of jumping after him I stood on the lurching pier and watched him disappear and felt relief. Sometimes, when driving alone, I hoped for a car accident just bad enough to require hospital care for a few months. Other times, in the bathroom, I imagined a quick, clean blow of my forehead to the mirror would smack me back to a reality I recognized.
I braved a three, causing the Lactation Consultant's eyebrow to quiver.
"How are you feeling?" she asked with the first authentic interest of our appointment.
"Do you think you're depressed?" She probed.
"Oh, I mean, it's a big adjustment and I'm not sleeping and you, know, haha, it's just, wow, I mean, hard to be prepared for what it's actually like right?" I answered. It was the ramble of a woman backing away slowly and waving her hands frantically.
I imagined her feeling for the panic button under her desk, the one that would alert all the people on patrol for unfit mothers. The judging crowds who would take one look at my fat, funny, dark-haired baby and see I didn't deserve him.
"I'm fine," I answered.
But I wasn't fine. I was suffering. And that suffering was a thick layer of static between me and the world, between me and myself, between me and my son.
I wanted to deserve him and knew I had to do something.
I went to a support group and realized that even if I was broken, at least I wasn't alone. I spoke with a woman who told me that someday I would look back on this and not see how weak I was, but instead how strong. I broke down at a check-up, snot and tears dissolving the collar of my paper gown. And I felt a crash of relief when my doctor looked at me frankly and said, "let's get you some help."
I started anti-depressants and went to a therapist who convinced me to replace the phrases "hard time," "so tired," and "bad mom" with the diagnosis of "post-partum depression."
As the extra serotonin started dripping into my brain and the cold dread gently ebbed away, I considered the possibility that I had always been depressed. That the words I'd often used to describe myself, my family—moody, anxious, worried, insomniac, angry, complicated, addict—maybe they were all just ways of saying "Damn, we're all really fucking depressed."
I remember the first time I "peeped." I was on the school bus and it was raining. I remember the weepy patterns of the water on the windshield, the way they trickled downward and then, suddenly, cut sideways before rejoining the communal march towards the sloppy, rattling blades.
I hated school. Everything about it was scary and gross. The way the cafeteria smelled like burnt toast and mop water, the way older boys put their hands on your back to see if you were wearing a bra and the bathroom stall where kids could look through the door crack to see if you were pooping.
I thought the whole world was full of dirty kitchens and perverts. I was sure the other kids on the bus—all boisterous pushing and whispered cusses—were not thinking these thoughts. I remember thinking there was something wrong with me. I remember feeling ashamed.
That particular day on the bus I distracted myself by looking out the window into the houses we passed. I hoped to catch a glimpse of someone sipping coffee or putting on a coat. It was hard to imagine that each of those homes held a family and that those families—a world full of them—might be as strange and self-consumed as mine, might have a weird little kid like me.
Is "depressed" an inheritance, like my people's thick legs and weak chins?
Is it the generational fallout of poor people clawing their way up to the middle class?
Maybe "depressed" is actually the rational response to becoming a mother in this time, in this place. Or in every time, in every place.
Whatever "depressed" means, I don't care. I have a baby to look after now and I don't have time to "suffer."
When Malcom was around eighteen months, I took him to a playdate at an expensive suburban home owned by a professional witch I met during my postpartum midnight. She reads energy, she heals women, she communes with the many women who labored to make me. She says many of them need healing.
But today is for playing, not witchcraft. She has two small children and we've decided it's time for them to meet Malcolm.
Like with all playdates this is as much an opportunity for the moms to catch a glimpse of each other's domestic realities—the cleanliness of the bathrooms, the grumpiness of the husbands, the healthiness of snacks—as it is for the kids to enjoy each other. Playdates are intimate but low stakes, an opportunity to escape the self-referential loop of my own world and lose myself in the unique complexity of other people's lives.
Their house smelled of dried tea, sticky hands, smudge sticks, and wet laundry. The elegant single-slab wood dining room table was scattered with abandoned plastic cups and torn books. The room was window-lit a dreamy afternoon blue. I sensed the parents had been arguing right up until our arrival.
The husband clipped out a quick "hey" and headed to the parent's bedroom—always off limits on playdates.
The wife hugged me and sighed, then stepped back, tightened her rust-colored shawl around her thin frame and gestured to two blond heads bent over some children's project at the far end of the living room.
"Malcolm, this is Cybele and Cyrus. Cybele, Cyrus, say 'hi' to Malcolm."
I felt Malcolm's legs vice-grip my hips, his fingernails digging into the back of my neck.
"No," he said with quiet conviction, his eyes wide and liquid.
This is always the trickiest moment of a playdate, when mothers sacrifice their children to the cruel gods of social graces, simultaneously apologizing for their kid's understandable reluctance to play with strangers while closely judging the other woman's willingness to apologize in turn.
But the witch was uninterested and waved away the ritual. Instead, she called out, "Cybele, let's show Malcolm your stones!" and ushered us all into a playroom where the oldest girl poured a stream of polished rocks from a velvet bag onto a rumpled bedspread.
Malcolm, now on my cross-legged lap, stretched his fat hands in excitement and gasped, "go-geous!" his "r's" still at least a year away. In a flash, he caught a few and started rubbing an onyx orb with Gollum-like fixation. I looked to Cybele and saw the struggle in her eyes, pride and anger wrestling for her reaction.
"Noooooooooooooo!!!!!" she decided on, and then, "Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine!!!!!"
Malcolm's fists tightened, his face turning a deep and determined maroon.
I rallied and started prying Malcolm's tender fingers apart.
"No Malcolm, these are Cybele's and we have to share," I said. Then I faltered, not sure if I was supposed to be teaching him about sharing, private property, or just doing things to appease people you barely know.
"Yes, those are Cybele's" asserted the witch casually, "give them back please." She then turned to me with a chuckle and added, "I mean how would you feel if a new friend came over to your house and just grabbed a handful of your jewelry?"
Malcolm was as surprised as I was at her bluntness and certainty. We both sat open-mouthed for a moment before he collapsed in a shower of tears.
By the time we were stabilized, the witch—who was having back problems because she blew out her root chakra—had retreated to the bedroom, leaving grumpy husband in her stead. With a twitch of a nod in my direction, he and his children began to argue about food and I plotted my next move over an unnecessary diaper change.
"Whoa," I said to Malcolm, rubbing hand sanitizer between my palms. "Pretty interesting people huh?" He looked back at me, his irises darting to every corner of my face in search of something.
Walking out of the bathroom we stopped for a moment to watch the two children crouched in the corner of the hallway furtively pulling chunks of bread off a stolen baguette.
"Bye, bye, you two," I said cheerfully, and Malcolm flopped his wrist forward a few times in a vague wave. "Thanks for having us!" I breezed to the husband's back as we slid out of the door into a purple dusk whipped by a rising wind.
In the car, glancing at the review mirror, I noticed he was drooling.
"What's in your mouth Malcolm?" I asked, alarmed, and pulled over to investigate. My first thought was a piece of the forbidden bread. But instead, he smiled with two rows of tiny gapped teeth and spit a black jewel into his palm.
The first, fat raindrops of a storm exploded on the windshield, matching the rhythm of my swollen heart.
"Mamamamamama!" he babbled, swiping at the spit on his chin.
"Malcolm!" I cried and wiped his face, and then mine, with my sweatshirt.
I turned off the engine and reached for the yellow overhead light before moving to the back seat with him. Together we examined the stone as passing cars splashed rainwater in the darkening night, never stopping to wonder if their drivers had noticed us.