When my daughter Alice was born on May 24th, I was filled with all the usual emotions of a new parent — you know the ones that have been felt by millions of parents over thousands of years but that still feel fresh to you. The astonishment that this tiny creature was mine and was real and I could actually bring her home and keep her; a love so overwhelming I’d burst into tears of joy while bouncing her to sleep on the yoga ball; a deep gratitude to all those friends, neighbors, employers (my husband’s) and employees (mine) who gave us gifts, support, food, and time to ourselves. I also experienced some fairly-typical-but-no-less-disturbing-for-that postpartum feels, namely a keen anxiety and suddenly worse-than-usual obsessiveness about germs and cleanliness. There was, amid the joy, an undercurrent of stress. Alice was diagnosed with congenital hypothyroidism seven days after she was born. I’ll never forget the day a doctor from NYU labs called us and told us we had to take Alice to the ER immediately or she would suffer irreparable cognitive damage (“She may have already lost a few IQ points,” he told us, making me cry). We spent the day frantically taking taxis to various clinics, trying desperately to find a lab that would draw a newborn’s blood, and wondering if we had found ourselves parents to a special needs child. I spent five hours without eating or drinking, save for a tiny cup of that very cold water from a cooler at the lab, the kind that tastes like damp, squishy paper cup, crying and trying to nurse my newborn in the hallway because I couldn’t bear to sit in the waiting room filled with sick people when her delicate immune system was completely uninoculated and vulnerable. By day ten of Alice’s life we had started her on a course of levothyroxine, which we fed her daily, drop by drop with a syringe like a baby bird. It was a drug upon which we depended entirely for her normal physical and cognitive growth.
The first day my husband went back to work, he called me in the middle of the afternoon and asked how I was. I was fine, I told him. “But I’ve done nothing today.”
I’ve done nothing today.
I said that as I lay on the couch pinned under seven and a half pounds of newborn baby. She, like most newborns, refused to exist in any other state than in mother’s arms, and therefore for about, oh, six weeks, I barely put her down. I learned to do things with one hand. My left thumb still hasn’t recovered from all the texting and Facebook-baby-picture-posting. I read Wuthering Heights one-handed with Alice snoozing on my chest. I spent most of the summer in a postpartum haze of half-sleep-half-waking, where nothing mattered and nothing happened except the care and feeding of my daughter. I was nurturing a human life but the entire time I felt a nagging sense of something, possibly terror, possibly despair, as I one thought whirled through my mind:
I’ll never write again.
My time was no longer my own. What little non-baby time I did have was filled with the triage of everyday life, taking care of the most acute things first: showering, eating, keeping the house and myself looking somewhat acceptable, obtaining groceries somehow in a city where I am car-less and my nearest supermarket is a fifteen minute walk along a steep incline (thank god for online grocery services). The nearest thing I managed to write during Alice’s entire “fourth trimester” was a 1500 word blog post, which I’ve already bragged about on this site because my god, I had a newborn and I wrote a thing!
But what about the other things? The short stories, the novel, that I was supposed to be writing? A blog post can be managed fairly easily. The creative heavy lifting of finishing my horror novel in progress? Where was I supposed to find the time and, more aptly, the energy? And how could I get back to a story that was filled with so much death and darkness, how could I inhabit that headspace with Alice in my life? (Oh yes, there is dead baby stuff in my novel, which is why it was shelved for nine months.) As for short stories, well. My god, I mean, how on earth could I even come up with any new ideas? I was absolutely creatively drained and imaginatively bereft. The only thing I could think to write about was…. mom stuff. Nobody likes mom stuff. Nothing makes you seem less literarily viable than writing mom stuff. Nobody wants to hear my birth story (induction at five days post due date, a day or so of labor, stalled at 5cm, surprise magical 3-minute C-section), or my witty observations about life as a new mom (New Mom recovering from a head cold: “How long have I smelled like this?!?”), or my well-thought-out and carefully crafted treatise on the terrible parenting on display in Wuthering Heights (I don’t really have one), or my musings like, “How are nature sounds on a baby swing supposed to soothe a newborn with no frame of reference? She doesn’t know what birdsong is.” Even Twitter doesn’t want to hear that shit. Because mom (or worse, mommy) stuff is fluff and also really annoying because –shocker– you’re not the world’s first new mom, and also no one will ever take you seriously again if you blog about being a mom, and it doesn’t matter anyway because you don’t need to build an author platform because you will never write again.
And then two things happened.
One: I came across the following article about Shirley Jackson, one of the spate in recent weeks pegged to the new biography (side note: I was trying to read the review of A Rather Haunted Life in Bookforum and baby kept grabbing the magazine and yanking it off the table, and I scolded her for making her metaphors too on the nose), and it contained a sentence that made my heart explode with happiness and relief:
“Her career began to gain traction only after she became a mother.”
Holy shit! I couldn’t believe my folly. Here I was, gulping Betty Friedan’s cool aid and thinking that Jackson’s writings about her children were somehow lesser than her fiction. I hadn’t realized how one informed the other (silly, in retrospect, when you consider the presence of children in her short stories, which I’ve read numerous times), or how inspired she was by her children. Writing about motherhood does not negate your badassery as a horror writer. How could I have been so blind and stupid?
Okay, but what about this whole “my time is not my own” thing? Sure, the pressure to keep silent all my myriad feelings and observations about motherhood had suddenly lifted in light of this revelation, but wouldn’t the whole thing be moot since I would never, ever have the time to write until Alice was in kindergarten at least? Because lest you think I’m being a bit over-dramatic, I’d also like to point out that, at the same time as all of this, I am also running a small business so, yeah, I don’t have a lot of fucking free time.
Well, here’s the second thing that happened: she napped.
If you’ve never parented a non-napping child, you cannot understand how exhausting it is. (You will understand if you’ve parented one of those non-sleeping children, and if you have, I feel for you.) People will tell you, “Oh, well, at least she’s a good night sleeper.” Sure, I only get up once or twice at night, but that still means I spend at least a full hour awake in the middle of the night, every night. Follow that with a full day of naplessness, ten solid hours without rest, respite, or reprieve, five days a week, and you’ll begin to see why I’d contemplated printing up t-shirts that said, “Fuck with me at your peril.” (People I have yelled at in public in the past week: a woman who failed to cover her mouth when coughing, school children for walking too slowly.) Last week I was at my breaking point, overcome with exhaustion and despair. For the first time in my adult life, I literally cried myself to sleep.
And then she napped.
It happened suddenly, this week. She went down. She cried a little. Then she slept. And stayed asleep. One hour. Two hours. And then again. And again. And she’s asleep right now.
When it first happened, on Monday, I puttered around the house, at a loss for what to do. On Tuesday, I did the same. On Wednesday, I read a short story. Yesterday I napped. And today?
Today I fucking wrote.