I got many suggestions for what to do in those days. People told me to make a new routine; put him in the carrier; go out for a walk; call me; I’ll send you an article each day to make you laugh. I appreciated all the offers, though unfortunately some were off limits: as a woman still recovering from childbirth, many of my usual coping strategies (walking, yoga, cooking) were stripped away from me.
The best suggestion came from a long time friend. She said another friend had struggled in a similar way, and had had success pretending the child was a plant. Except for the fact that I’ve killed most plants I’ve ever owned, including a cactus, this suggestion not only elicited the first smile in days but I immediately understood why it could help.
One of the hardest things about being alone with an infant is that they give nothing back. In many a past therapy session I have discussed the feeling of fear and loneliness that comes from talking to someone who’s not really there. This could be a schoolyard bully, or a partner who is busy with work. Now, this child of mine was able to bring this fear to the surface more quickly than ever. Yes he is a person, yes I talk to him and show him around the house, but really, he’s not there in a traditional sense. He doesn’t know I exist; does not look me in the eye; does not smile or laugh or respond; he does not care about me at all. He demands of me more than anyone ever has, yet gives nothing in return. Yes, I’m well aware that this defines every baby everywhere but that does not change the panic that began to well up in me when I thought of spending endless days alone with him. I resented the amount of work I had to do to keep him happy, I resented how many ways I had to fumble in the dark, blindly hoping the next position would finally shut him up. And I resented that I was feeling this awful way I DID NOT WANT TO FEEL.
In fact, that first Mother’s Day, with a three week old infant and my isolation looming ever closer, I said a silent fuck off to anyone who wished me a happy Mother’s Day, and to everyone who posted beautiful family photos on Instagram. For me, it had been nothing like this cultural narrative that I coveted so deeply. I now felt sure they were all lying about the joy, sure that this was a huge coverup of the truth to ensure the continuation of our species. Thus far, motherhood had been a haze of pain, sleeplessness, helplessness, and regret. I spent so much of those early days in resistance, knowing only that this was not how it was supposed to be, meaning not how I imagined it would be, meaning not how the universal they told me it was going to be, and most certainly not how I wanted it to be. And when you’re in the trenches, no amount of ‘nothing lasts forever’ reassurance can reach the place where you are sure forever has already arrived.
So, Monday morning of love’s imminent departure, locked in an apartment alone with a baby, here was one solution: pretend my son is a plant. My husband called him a hurricane, a force of nature, for the same reason. He told me that weekend, as part of his consistent reassurance to match all of my self doubt, that the wind cannot move the mountain. Says the movie Mulan. Says every parent who’s loved their child since ever. And so I imagined my son as a plant. I told myself that he needed me to feed him, give him water and give him light and I let go of my expectation for love, or a smile, or anything at all in return. I began to remember how much I had to learn and how much I had to give. And I began to notice that he was, in fact, changing. He could hold his head with more strength; he was gaining chub on his little arms. These tiny facts helped me to begin letting go of my resistance to how I wanted things to be, focusing instead on how they actually were. Not forever, just for now. So, though I couldn’t yet feel that ‘nothing lasts forever’, I acted as if it were true, as if these small changes might really lead to more, as if I could really handle the now and trust the rest to take care of itself in due time. And, in return, there was room for love again.
*thanks to @caitball for sharing on Instagram.