Woman Problems

When my son was almost 4 months old, I was walking down the street with him strapped to my chest. He was big—nineteen pounds—and alert. I was walking slowly, in loping, elephantine strides, trying to take as long as possible, and to walk as securely as possible. It had taken me a long time to get this confident—if that’s what you could call it—walking with him, but the thread of fear still lived in me. I was still anxious. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t tell if I was real or not. That was how rapidly it happened, and this is what it was like. One moment, walking. The next—am I real?

One moment, walking. The next—am I real?

Leonardo Aguiar

I had two more electrodes stuck on my shins. I only noticed when I got in the bath. Covidien. The last time I’d seen this brand was also in the bath, a few months before, when I was checking Amazon on my phone to see if you could buy post-partum mesh underwear in bulk. I didn’t; but you can. Now, I was in the bath because I’d been in the hospital. I’d been in the hospital because I’d fainted, something that has happened to me periodically my whole life—a vasovagal syncope. The vasovagal syncope was once explained to me after I came to in a dentist’s chair after a filling knocked me out, scaring the dentist as he dosed me up with Novocain, as a misfiring of the fight or flight response. It’s an explanation I’ve adopted myself. When a normal person fights or flies, I collapse: fainting for ten or twenty seconds, adrenaline shutting down my most basic responses to fear. I normally come to relatively well, a little dry-mouthed and flustered, but basically myself again. But this time, when I’d come to, my husband had said I seemed different, scared, wild. “I see worms!” I had said. Later, I qualified this to a resident, whose tiny, perfect gold hoops shone in his earlobes, whose fastidious good health rebuked me. I had seen maggots: a field of brown maggots, writhing around, like life in front of me.

When you’re having a baby, the women you know who have had babies all say that one part of it is difficult for everyone. The part that’s difficult, that’s what changes. A lot of people focus on birth, because birth is often very difficult. I had gathered those stories to me for a long time, long before I became pregnant for the first time, and I was sure that birth would be difficult for me: I had a bad back. I had a vasovagal syncope. I hated needles. I was anxious. But, it turned out that for me, getting pregnant was the difficult part. It took a lot of tries, and I had a lot of miscarriages, before I was able to carry my son to term. I came through those woods with a screaming, pink boy, APGAR 10, 8.5 lbs, no epidural. He was perfect, and I had had an easy birth. I was lucky. I’d come home from the hospital, tired but alert. I thought that after my miscarriages, I was home free. The rest would fall into place. It would be hard, but it would come to me, eventually.

I’d wafted through those first weeks, taking baths when I could, eating when someone brought me food, learning to feed my baby, learning to cradle his head when I picked him up, learning to shush him down to sleep. But he didn’t sleep. And I didn’t sleep, either. Over time, it soon became clear that it isn’t just one part that’s difficult. Everything is difficult.

In those early days, I noticed that when you take a bath when you’re lactating, the milk sometimes lets down. If you squeezed the breast above the water, you’d get a thin, purposeful stream, and could titrate the stream with pressure: thin, thick, thin, thick. Narrow parabolas spraying out to the tile or the shower curtain. But, if you do the same thing below water, the stream puffs out into a milky cloud, drawing out from the nipple only to dissipate, gray and nebulous webs, into the cooling water. When I noticed this three days post-partum, the milky gray clouds still mixed with thin strings of blood in the bathwater, and I knew it was a metaphor. But I didn’t know for what.

My son didn’t sleep. So I didn’t sleep. I spent the first month, then two months, three, four, hoping that his sleep would coalesce, that things would start to group into lumps: an expected nap, an expected first night sleep, an expected waking. But this didn’t happen. He was wakeful, and I was awake. There was nothing wrong with him—he was big and growing fast, happy and beautiful—he just didn’t sleep. I have always been an anxious person. Even that word—anxiety—sounds like the mental equivalent of a vagina.

Anxiety is feminine, irritatingly so, less respectable and more annoying than anger, less pitiable than fear, more selfish than depression. Sigmund Freud, in his early theory, before he gives up the ghost on neurosis’s material antecedents, thinks so, too, connecting anxiety to the first trauma in all our lives: the experience of birth: “The name anxiety—angustial—narrowness, emphasizes the characteristic tightening of the breath, which was at the time a consequence of an actual situation and is henceforth repeated almost regularly in the emotion. We shall also recognize how significant it is that this first condition of fear appeared during the separation from the mother.” (A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis [1920]). For this version of Freud, anxiety is primal, connected to a true first fear, but pathological, endlessly repeating the effects: pinching, squeezing, contracting a life in its grasp. And the euphemism for birth, “separation from the mother,” only underscores the difficulty of this idea. Anxiety is like the progress of a baby down the birth canal, inaugurating fear—not for you, the mother, in this theory, but for the child. He continues:

Many years ago we were sitting around the dinner table—a number of young physicians—when an assistant in the obstetrical clinic told a jolly story of what had happened in the last examination for midwives. A candidate was asked what it implied if during delivery the feces of the newborn was present in the discharge of waters, and she answered promptly “the child is afraid.” She was laughed at and “flunked.” But I silently took her part and began to suspect that the poor woman of the people had, with sound perception, revealed an important connection.

Freud’s “jolly” story here makes me wince, the comfortable young men, eating and drinking and laughing at a woman. It’s not enough that young Sigmund recognizes the midwife’s “important connection” between the baby’s shit and fear, that he “takes her part.” The whole logic is off: “The child is afraid.” My child did not seem to be afraid. I did. A small part of me thinks: my child is not afraid because he is a man, or will be. Anxiety, pressing down on the head of the child, comes from the mother: it is not the child who is afraid, it is the mother. Or, I am the child, whose head is being pushed in, made small so I can be given passage into life again.

After a few months, I was still so anxious that I checked my son every few minutes, putting my hand on his chest, watching for the rise and fall of his breath. This is something all new parents do, but eventually they relent, let the breath come and go, and know that, likelier than not, the breath will keep coming. I wasn’t able to make that bargain with myself, so I was awake. I would wake from a dead sleep and cast about, looking for the baby in the bedclothes. My husband, worried, and then irritated, and then worried again, would say quietly, and then a bit louder: “Claire, he’s in the crib. He’s in the crib. Fucking hell, Claire, he’s in the crib!” But even as my son’s sleep slowly became a little more regular—two-hour patches, sometimes three—I was still awake. If I did sleep, I woke in terror, certain that he wasn’t breathing, that he was in the bed with me, that he had fallen (somehow? how?) under the living room couch, and I needed to go and pull him out. Life proceeded this way for a while: I was doing what I always did, pulling myself along through will, but it couldn’t last for long under these conditions.

When my son was almost 4 months old, I was walking down the street with him strapped to my chest. He was big—nineteen pounds—and alert. I was walking slowly, in loping, elephantine strides, trying to take as long as possible, and to walk as securely as possible. It had taken me a long time to get this confident—if that’s what you could call it—walking with him, but the thread of fear still lived in me. I was still anxious. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t tell if I was real or not. That was how rapidly it happened, and this is what it was like. One moment, walking. The next—am I real?

I have always been anxious. But I have never had an experience like this before. I have always known what side of reality I was on. But this happened, and this is what it is like: It is like I am made of cardboard, badly painted with thick tempura paint, and set out walking. Or, like I experience the thick truth of the multiverse, each miserable possibility tacked like damp tissue paper, stickily folded into the world we inhabit, just barely traceable, but traceable nevertheless, in this world’s events. Or, like milk, expressed underwater, blooming into a gray cloud, there, but not there. Losing purpose. Osmosing.

These moments happened periodically after that. I didn’t tell anyone for a long time—it didn’t seem plausible, and I didn’t exactly know what I could say: I was cardboard, cut out and painted. I was a cloud of milk. It wasn’t clear to me how to say the thing that was happening to me. It’s hard to admit to anyone that you don’t feel real. The irony of this, I can see now, is that my sense of unreality has coincided with perhaps my life’s deepest encounter with the real: I carried a child, I had a child, and I am feeding that child, still. And any parent of any stripe knows that child-rearing is nothing if not endlessly reaffirming of one’s own reality: you pick a crying baby up, you give a dirty toddler a bath, you make endless, endless lunches, scraping macaroni and cheese into cups, slicing apples into slivers. I had known this already—I have a stepdaughter who is 8 years old—but the unreality of it had heretofore escaped my notice.

My experience with early parenting left me adrift, unsure. Not unreal, perhaps, but feeling doubtful about my own ability to confirm reality. Without the feedback of another person—“regular or decaf?” or “One slice or two?”—I wasn’t sure I was really there. This sometimes extended to the baby: was he here, still? Or had I put him in the washing machine? Or under a table? Had he ever been here? Was he real? My therapist suggested this was trauma, left over from my miscarriages. That sounds as reasonable as anything, because while I knew (know) I would never harm my baby, my brain kept tricking me: not into action, thank God, but into anxiety. “Am I real?” I texted my husband once. He called me back immediately.

When I saw the maggots, my husband was home, staying with me because I’d finally explained what was happening. I didn’t feel real. My life didn’t feel real. After I saw the maggots, he called 911, and the dispatcher had walked him through what could possibly be wrong with me: heart attack? Stroke? Something bad. When the ambulance got there, they asked me questions. I was still foggy and confused, but I knew what had happened: I’d had a pain in my leg, and had fainted, and then I’d seen maggots. We went to the Emergency Room. They did some tests. I had electrodes put on me. I was pricked with needles. I peed in a cup. Everything came back normal. What does a sane person do when she has fainted and seen maggots when she comes to?

Since November, I’ve been thinking of “Skunk Hour,” the Robert Lowell poem, “My mind’s not right / A car radio bleats, / ‘Love, O careless Love . . .’ I hear / My ill-spirit sob in each blood cell.” When I walk down the street, trying to hang on to the sensation of my shoe in its boot, the cars rushing by in the wet streets, I repeat these lines, my mantra: “My mind’s not right / A car radio bleats.” The haze of unreality can only be countered by the real—every small, finicky feeling becomes like that radio: bleating, bleating, bleating. I have always been eminently sane. In adversity and stress, I could be upset—could be anxious—but had always managed to breathe deeply enough to get my ducks in a row and do whatever it was I needed to do: finish applications; stop emailing a cruel ex; write a book; sleep. But my willpower broke. It might have been the sleep deprivation, it might have been the miscarriages, it might have been the sense that my life, chuddering along until I got really, truly pregnant, had been derailed, and would never again have direction or scale. But, again, what does a sane person do when she doesn’t feel real? When she sees a field of maggots?

The trick answer is that a sane person does not see maggots. Saying I “saw” maggots papers over the truth: I hallucinated maggots. I saw something that was not there. My mind’s not right. I’m still inside this. I’m writing to you from inside this little patch of madness, slowly working my way back. I am beginning to see that the maggots weren’t there, and that, despite my brain’s best efforts, I’m still real. The car radio bleats. I’m real. My baby’s real. And I’m going to persist. And, if I can, I’ll try not to scare.

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