There are many fine accounts of the postpartum experience, but I’m suspicious of them all. They have one thing in common: their authors managed to write them. How does someone write at all, if they really feel how I do? Because now that I have a baby, my brain isn’t the same. I'm not as … sharp. I struggle even to describe it, because the descriptive faculties I would need to do so have atrophied.
It’s a paradox: I want to read a cogent articulation of what I’m going through—a condition defined by the lack of cogency. So I’ve given myself an impossible assignment: to precisely describe this postpartum fog. It must be neither too clear nor too vague, not so close to the experience that it turns out as gibberish, nor so far from it that I fail to describe it at all. Like words written in breath on a screen, I want to create just enough space to glimpse the other side.
I'm surrounded by objects that remind me of my mental state. Baby foods and baby toys, things we bought because they appeared on some list, things soft and safe and easy to clean.
Picture a carrot: its wispy hairs and faded orange trunk. How it snaps when you bite or bend, how little pieces flint off when you slice it. Steam and mash the carrot and it collapses into itself; it loses all structure and only a flavor remains. Mush is how you feed carrots to babies, whose undeveloped mouths can only gum things up.
My mind was a carrot. Now it’s mush.
The baby, they tell you, is the size of a thumb, maybe even smaller. It's been nine weeks. The size of a thumb, and you've gained five pounds. When you imagine what kind of a mother you'll be, what posture you'll take toward your child, you imagine the way you'd feel about your actual thumb, if someone severed it from your hand and presented it to you. There would be something uncanny about holding your own thumb in your hand. You'd be missing the very thing that might've allowed you to properly inspect it, to hold it between thumb and forefinger like a cigarette, sniff it, roll it back and forth.
It's a small thing, your thumb, but it's a lot to give up when it comes to manual dexterity. You'd cradle this former part of you in your palm, careful to create a cup shape so as to prevent it from rolling off, you'd look at it and see its size differently, feel its weight differently. Actually, when it was part of you it had neither size nor weight.
Thumb is not a pretty word, and it's not a pretty finger. It's stout and strong and proud, like someone whose thumb you might find yourself under. When you're under someone's thumb you're subject to their authority. Authority is what an author has: writing the world on her terms, calling it as she sees it. It's quick and confident and a little arrogant—like I was before I had a baby. My whole life, everyone assumed I was younger than I am, someone's daughter or kid sister. I needed a strong thumb; it was my back-pocket secret. I'm defenseless now, without a thumb, up for grabs to anyone.
I've lost my grip on language; I can no longer pluck the perfect word or even the right letter. Before, typing out words like hemorrhage, idiosyncrasy, or repercussion felt like falling down stairs; there was a thrilling inevitability to my spelling them correctly. It was like being possessed, like Linda Blair crawling backwards down the stairs—the words had fun with my body, they used me to show themselves off. Now I spell slowly and deliberately, like a stroke victim learning how to walk again: now one foot, now the other.
My favorite parenting advice is to treat your baby like a stroke victim: he can't feed himself or speak sentences but he's still a human being worthy of respect. Don't interrupt his rapt observations of carpet fuzz with a diaper change. Wait for an opportune moment, or if it's urgent, at least pay him the courtesy of explaining what you're doing.
It's easy to forget that a baby is a person. When Wyatt was very small, I thought of him as a cat. The baby books warned against eye contact at bedtime; newborns find it highly stimulating. I remember reading somewhere that you also shouldn't stare at cats, since they perceive staring as aggression. In my sleep-deprived state, these parallel warnings confused me about the nature of my infant and made me overestimate his powers. If I caught myself gazing at him faceward I'd stop and make slow feline blinky eyes. I’d do this even in the dark of his nursery at night. Cats can see in the dark, even if newborns can’t see 12 inches in front of them.
I didn't love Wyatt as a newborn, but I do now. What would it even mean to love a newborn? I felt compelled to care for him. He was like a starfish, suctioned on to me for survival. It turned me into stone, resigned to do what had to be done. Love needs some distance in order to regard its object, and in the power struggles of toddlerhood we became separate enough for love.
Put him to the breast all day long, the lactation consultant told me. When I made the appointment, I pictured a svelte young woman wearing yoga pants and a flowy top. She’d take off her shoes and hug me when she walked in the door. Melitta did both of these things, in fact, but she was a matronly German tank. Lay back in bed against your pillows, she said, take him into the bath. The two of you will figure it out.
I couldn't bring myself to spend a whole day in bed with him, I hit my limit after a few hours. But by 8 weeks in, we had somehow figured it out. Now he was latching, but I made too much milk. He'd sputter and unlatch and my nipple would spray his face like a firehose.
The oversupply was caused by my use of the breast pump, which started when he couldn't latch but continued because I liked the freedom it afforded me: freedom from being someone's sole source of sustenance. With the fridge filled with bottles of expressed milk, I could leave the house and Wyatt could still eat. In the early days, he would take two or three ounces over a half hour, but at the pump I could fill two six-ounce bottles in 10 minutes. I was unwittingly instructing my breasts to produce for twins.
The more milk I produced, the more often I needed to remove it, lest my breasts become engorged. According to the breastfeeding blogs, the solution was simply to pump less milk. But not too little. And don't go too long between sessions. What this really means is that you have to remove just the right amount of milk at just the right time, which is all the milk your baby drinks, exactly when he wants to drink it. There's no real freedom in breastfeeding.
But I can't lie; in the end, I liked it. It started when Wyatt was old enough to have agency, maybe 8 or 9 months. I'd get home from work and relieve the nanny, and he'd scoot himself up to me and lift my shirt and whine. I'd plop him on my lap, straddling me, giving him access to both tits. And then—there's no other way to put this—he devoured me. It was so obvious that this was pleasure, that it came from the same place as sexual pleasure. Pleasure is derived from plea + jour: demand of the day. A pretend etymology, but it works: Babies demand pleasure in the day, every day, throughout the day.
And I took pleasure in it, too, in freely giving myself to fill a vast appetite. For a few minutes I was nothing more than the willing source of everything good in the world, it was as simple and true as that. I was rich beyond measure and generous beyond belief. And the more he drank, the more the milk replenished.
They say that women's mystical power is bleeding without dying; I think it's being devoured without being consumed.
Into the mush
I’m pregnant again, and I can already feel my mind quieting a bit behind the rising hormones. One day my insides are lined with pink, a plush pink fatness that suffocates thought. The next, my stomach feels like a labyrinth of green ribbon, fluttering queasily in the digestive breezes. I wake early and stare out the window, wondering how I used to occupy these morning hours before Mike and Wyatt awoke. I was so industrious! Now I sit here like butter left at room temperature, my hard angles warming and loosening.
I used to be someone whose intelligence was taking her places. I moved through the world like an elastic band released, thinking nimbly, speaking quickly. Cleverness was a power I could summon at will, both a weapon and a shield. But something changed. I can no longer pick up a word and throw it like a dart. Or I can try, but I might miss my mark.
It’s taken me two years to write this, the only thing I’ve written in that time. My decayed machinery strains with effort, the old elasticity gone. I want to attribute this to the baby, but I’m willing to consider that it might not be the baby. That it’s the usual decay, of the type that everyone I love is subject to.
Babies are distracting. They distract from whatever you were doing before, which had to have been something, but it’s hard to remember what. I worry that I’m losing the ability to describe, but I know that description is only as good as the observation that precedes it. Looking is harder when you have a new baby; it’s like looking out the window of a car on a rainy day, except instead of rain, the glass is covered in infant effluvia.
And here I am, looking out the window. What was I just thinking about? It doesn’t matter. It’s actually quite engaging to watch the beads of liquid race down the glass. I root for one, follow it for what feels like raindrop miles, leaving all the other raindrops behind. Then, for no apparent reason, it stalls out. Other drops pass while mine just sits there, stuck on some invisible nick in the glass. Finally another drop collides with it and devours it, and on they go down the pane.