A dozen pair of beady eyes stared at me while I fiddled with a button on my cardigan. I was waiting to see the doctor. On the corner of her desk, a basket of decorative hedgehogs. Little plastic, rubber, wooden, and stuffed hedgehogs were piled around a larger, motherly one in the center. The whole, mise-en-scene was rather cute except for the fact that it looked like the mama hedgehog was being smothered.
Just outside the door, the doctor talked with her receptionist. I overheard, “Carefull, the next one you got there is a real sensitive one. She started tearing up just making the appointment.” But that would have been impossible, not because of it’s unprofessionalism, but because I can’t overhear in whispered German.
The doctor entered. She slid past her miniature spiny mammal collection to sit directly across from me. I knew that it soon would be my turn to talk, but I couldn’t speak.
Instead, I wanted to curl up in a ball and stick out my spikes like my friends on her desk, like I had been doing for the past three years.
Year one: I rocked our screaming son with one arm while the other scrounged around under piles of dirty laundry for clean pyjamas. My husband was coming home late again. His career and body were unscathed by our child, while mine seemed ravaged.
Our son reached his arms towards his rotating paper night light. I jerked him away from it, but my elbow knocked it over.
The light was a gift for our son’s birth–the moment when everything changed. When a new, little human appeared. I wanted to take such good care of him with his puffy limbs and piercingly helpless gaze.
We lived thousands of miles from our families, as expats often do, but it didn’t matter. I would be his everything. Yet, his existence made me even more fragile than his paper night light.
Only the light bulb had shattered, but I decided to finish the job.
I yanked the lamp up by its cord and whacked it against the dresser. Why didn’t he stop crying? The paper sides shred open. Where was my husband? I smacked it again and the wooden sides fell apart. Why did they give that training to my colleague at work and not me? I shielded our precious son with my left hand, while my right hand ragged away at the lamp. Why do I feel this way when I should be grateful to be a mother?
With the lamp destroyed, I lowered my spikes. My once again tender arms rocked our son. I swept the splintered wood and torn paper from the broken lamp under the bed to start making my hidden nest of shame.
Year two:With our first child, I could not wait to hold him. With the second, I could not wait for siblings to meet. Our son jumped on my hospital bed and beamed at his new baby sister. She had just joined our family, but it felt like she had always been there.
We added one more child to the family but the workload quadrupled. Our arms were always filled with either baby or toddler. Bottles, bibs, and butts were constantly being cleaned, one-handed.
Soiled clothing filled the house. It piled up in laundry baskets waiting its turn to be cleaned. It hung outside to be bleached in the sun. But many stains just remained. It was infuriating.
I stashed the worst of it, the torn and perma-stained clothes, and my feelings out-of-sight in closets and drawers.
We spent two weeks with my in-laws a month after her birth to get help, but I was ashamed to ask. Instead, I cried from my room at the top of the stairs of their French country house. My sobs echoing through the thin walls. The next day, more people would come to see the new baby, bearing gifts.
When we got back to Germany, I called a therapist, knowing perfectly well that she would not answer the phone. Her office hours were on Monday mornings. This was typical for a small medical office in Germany and perfect for someone like me, looking for an excuse not to go.
Like a hedgehog, I flexed the muscles in my back specially designed to make the spikes stick out further. Curling into my body, I did my best to protect my face and heart.
Year Three:At bedtime, I slid a book across the floor like a hockey puck. The kids had been fighting over the book in the car for hours. When we finally got home, my son dragged the book into his sister’s room to taunt her with it while I changed her diaper.
I tripped over the book when I went to put the baby into her crib. It released a high pitch nursery rhyme that startled her. I kicked the book as hard as I could, and it ricochet off our son’s bedroom door. I started crying uncontrollably and my husband had to put both kids to bed.
Later that week, I pulled out a dusty pamphlet about an organization that offered mental health support to women after the birth of their child. It listed the name and number of someone named Lina with whom I could talk.
“Hello Lina, I’m a desperate mama hedgehog who has run out of places for my rage. I smashed the baby’s night light. I destroyed a book. I’ve tried to ball up all the broken pieces into the stained baby clothes so that no one would see. But it is no use. It just grows and grows into an increasingly harder to hide nest of filth. Please help me.”
After living in Germany for eight years, my German was good but not adequate enough to explain the complicated situation. I ignored the fact that most medical professionals in Germany speak English. Even if Lina spoke English, my children were now two and three years of age. I wouldn’t qualify for this support anymore. Or, at least, that is what I told myself.
The crying didn’t stop. I lashed out at my husband and spent an entire day in bed.
Who was I kidding? I was not a hedgehog.
I was from Minnesota. Hedgehogs were not even native to North America.
When it became too much, when I was tired, when the house was a mess, when the kids were screaming, when my arms were not enough, when I felt alone, when I loved my kids so much but kept failing, I attacked.
I was a porcupine. I pushed out my quills on whoever came near, mostly my husband, but next time it could be my children.
My husband was worried about me.
I actually knew how to get help in Germany. I had just been avoiding it. For most ailments here, you started by walking into your general doctor’s office. From there, the doctor decided the best course of action be it prescription or specialist. The process was more time consuming than in some countries that I had lived in, but it would be covered by my public health insurance. So why had I waited so long?
Because as a mother, I never wanted to admit that I had a problem. And that my problem was caused by what I loved most on this earth: my children.
I told myself that I would maybe talk to my doctor when I was feeling better. But what would it help? Everyone told me that there was a long wait to see psychiatrists in Germany.
I was frozen in place, but the doctor didn’t notice. She skipped the chit-chat and simply motioned for me to begin in a display of true Germany efficiency. And my head started to spin.
“My freedom and who I was, essentially vanished overnight, and in the loss of me, a darkness emerged, but a mother was also born. I was simultaneously depressed and overjoyed. I was infinitely connected with another human being. So intimate was our connection that I could not separate myself from my child. It was glorious and heartbreaking. This all culminated in the first few months of my children’s lives when the sleep deprivation was at its worst. I am actually a bit better now, but the desperation was so intense that a piece of that darkness still stays with me and lashes from time to time.”
This is what I wanted to say, but instead I just sat there speechless.
I had come so far. It was a miracle that I was here at all, that I could sit here and compare myself to a miniature hedgehog mama in a basket, that I was finally face to face with a real mental health care professional in Germany.
Two-months ago, I had parted enough space in my rage nest, to stick out a white flag. I finally asked my husband for help. He made me see my doctor. Dragging my mess, shame, and quills behind me, I revealed for the first time that I had postpartum depression.
I told my generalist doctor that I loved my family so much, but sometimes it was too much. That I get angry, very angry, even violent. But that I would never want to hurt my family. I begged him to please help me so that I would stop hurting my family emotionally and so that I would never hurt my family physically. I don’t know if my doctor understood all of what I said, but he could understand the tears.
Most importantly though, my doctor did not judge. He did not take my children away. He sent me here to this psychiatric office to get the help that I needed, like he would have done for any other person.
I was not a monster, nor hedgehog, nor porcupine. I was a person who needed help. I was finally brave enough to seek that help. Even if it meant that I now had to explain myself in broken German to a physiatrist with no time for formalities and questionable taste in office décor.
It was time to put my quills away.
My words found me, “I love my family so much, but little by little things climb on top of each other and become overwhelming. And I . . . well, I explode.”
I said climb in German like I was going to climb onto a train or airplane, but the psychiatrist fed me the right word for the expression. Things stapeln or accumulate in Germannot steigen.
I slowly uncurled my back to sit up straight.
The psychiatrist looked at me and said what I had been waiting to hear for the past three years, “Ich verstehe I understand.”
Cherie Parenteau’s work has been published on Her View from Home and the Akashic Books website. She works part-time as an English teacher so that she can also juggle her three babies: two-year old daughter, three-year old son, and writing. Cherie is still surprised at how much easier it is to control a room full of adolescents than two toddlers. Minnesota will always be home even though she has lived in France and now Germany.
If you are a parent, a patient, or a death-defier, you will see yourself in Wallace’s poignant words. Reading Ann Wallace’s collection of poetry, Counting By Sevens, I found myself surprised by how much weight a book this light could hold. Deeply personal and bold, Wallac’s poetry explores the darkness in America and in her own life. I snuck away from my children to read a poem or two at a time and found myself breathlessly immersed in her words, finding themes and topics that resonated with my own struggle as a human and a mother. In the final poem of the second section, “The World So Still,” Wallace writes about a childhood snowstorm in 1978 and the snow cave her siblings built. “I was the smallest and least / welcome, so I waited to explore.” She explains her desire to find another snowstorm “deep enough to contain me.” With spunk, resilience and nostalgia, Wallace creates a place in Counting By Sevens for her readers “to climb inside and find sanctuary.”
Counting By Sevens opens with a section titled “America, Another Day.” In this part of her book, Wallace writes of school shootings, family separations at the border, racism, sexism, and cancer. The first poem, “Valentine’s, Another Day,” describes how school shootings have permanently altered the way school is viewed. “I have a favorite classroom, / with a solid door, and no windows, / like a dungeon…” Wallace continues to explore how trauma occurs daily, even when no shootings occur. “But this is another day / in America, and the gunshots, / and the whimpers / and the wails, though / today they are not here, / they do not stop.” After this poem follow two more that delve deeper into the topic of shootings in America. In “The Weight of Numbers,” Wallace remembers Sandy Hook as “a grief that challenges us to wade into it.”
One of the section’s most poignant poems, “Awash,” draws comparisons between the compassion of killer whales as they care for a bereaved mother orca and the mothers of South America who experience the loss of children at the border. “She swims alone, amid the lost mothers, / in their pod of manmade grief.” This exploration of lost children continues in “Full of Grace” where Wallace writes of a man who “catalogues the remains, and tries in vain / to untangle the endless web of rosaries.”
Wallace includes a few poems about past and current racism in America before sharing several poems that tell of her own #metoo moments. In “Drink of Choice,” she writes of startling behavior of a man at a bar. She writes of female survival tactics in “Anything but.” Wallace also discusses “A girl raised by a father has not / had to think much about the reasons / a family of girls keeps the door closed” in “Closed.” And in the stunning poem“Silence Falling,” she writes of a child who is silent in pain and asks “what muted / pain is / tucked deep / inside / of a girl / who does not / scream when / she falls?”
The second section of the book, “Interlude,” moves into more personal stories filled with nostalgia, loss, motherhood and the continuing theme of resilience. She begins with “Girl of Summer,” opening with the line, “I had forgotten the small town girl of summer in me—“ and continues to write about the child that she used to be, concluding, “But here now, you remind me that I was once / that girl who sailed with no regard for the wind.” She remembers in “Dare” how she “…was not a graceful child, but / scrappy and fearless, satisfied,” and how her daughter now “…knocks her head / climbing, holds the memory alive, / satisfied, and revels in the absurdity / of so much fun causing pain.” She fills this section with more memories of pain mixed inextricably with beauty and life. In “Kay’s Kitchen” she writes of her mother and Kay cleaning her up after berry picking, “smiling at my singular focus / and at a love of berries so fierce / that I could not feel the pain / of each tiny skin prick.”
“Body Rising” is the final section of Counting By Sevens. This is where we are invited to read about Wallace’s personal health. Her bio on the back of the book has already informed us that she is “a long-time survivor of ovarian cancer and…a woman with multiple sclerosis.” Wallace writes about these experiences with such care that the stark details she includes are breathtakingly beautiful even in the pain they describe. She begins the section with “Commencement” where she writes of preparing to graduate while she has cancer: “arrange the mortarboard atop / my head. Clipping it to strands / of hair weak and unreliable…” Wallace continues, writing of undergoing a series of tests at hospitals. In “The Good Patient” she describes how she is praised for her lack of complaints, but she wonders, “…who protects the rock? / Who comforts the good patient?” And she tells us in “Holding” about the person waiting to bring her home after her tests, “As you waited, / my trust in the world / spun loose.”
With these details the reader is held captive, hoping for a positive outcome. And Wallace does end the book with hope. Despite her battle with vertigo, she writes in “Cyclone” of her love of roller coasters and how, still, she “…will pay for a ride that makes spinning / terrifyingly new once more.” And in “Rising” she asks “how much can a body endure? / one small, solitary body,” but by the conclusion she assures the reader that “not small / never solitary / that body endures / that body rises.” By the final poem the reader has been through a journey with Wallace through injustices big and small, but she encourages us throughout by showing us the power of resilience.
In the final poem, “Aglow,” dedicated to a friend she lost to death, Wallace encourages her reader to continue, to persist. “We grew weary of the bodies that betray, / but tired of life interrupted, we lived.” Reading this book, you’ll be blessed by the poet’s observations on life in America as a mother, daughter, sister, and friend.
Counting By Sevens author Ann E. Wallace, PhD lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, where she is raising her teenage daughters and is an English professor at New Jersey City University. In her poetry, she reflects on her experiences with ovarian cancer and multiple sclerosis, motherhood, as well as on the everyday realities of life today in America. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, along with many other journals, including Literary Mama, Mom Egg Review, Wordgathering, Rogue Agent, and Snapdragon. Her collection Counting by Sevens is available from the publisher at mainstreetragbookstore.com. Wallace is online at AnnWallacePhD.com and on Twitter @annwlace409.
MAW contributor Joann Renee Boswell is a teacher, mother, photographer and poet currently living in Camas, WA with her spouse and three children. Before having children, Joann taught and directed high school theatre in Washington state. Joann loves rainy days filled with coffee, books, handholding, moody music, and sci-fi shows. Some places she’s been published include Untold Volumes, Mothers Always Write, For Women Who Roar, The Martian Chronicle andVoiceCatcher. Her first book of poetry, Cosmic Pockets, is expected through Fernwood Press in May 2020. Read more at joannrenee.com.
I dreaded opening the door and stepping inside, but once I entered the small space lined with draping cloth, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. I almost felt like myself. Almost. Warm, fuzzy carpet underfoot. Pale yellow walls, speckled with tiny bluebirds. Once my happy place, always my happy place, I suppose. I had imagined the worst, reflections of my former self mocking me in disdain. In reality, the limp garments, organized by color and style, looked just as sad and as lonely as I felt.
I turned on the light, quickly flicking the switch behind the door, and a soft glow illuminated the hanging clothes. A sea of color, bright reds, warm greens, and rows of blue cotton and wool blends half-smiled in return.
A collection of vertical stripes on the far right. A small set of horizontal stripes to the left. My beloved collection of scarves, lovely cloth woven with gold and silver glimmering threads, straight ahead. Purses hanging on hooks above, tucked in a corner. My messenger bag made me smile. Caught a quick glimmer of my former self, wearing my maroon velvet dress, the one with tiny embroidered flowers that reaches my knees, the slightly ruffled sleeves, my brown leggings, and my plaid scarf, tied tightly around my next. My messenger bag full of books and articles I had drafted the week prior. Exploring midtown before a meeting downtown in the late afternoon. I saw my broad smile, lips slick with deep red gloss, and shiny, bouncy curls.
And then the image disappeared, just like my former life. I looked up and saw the sparkling faux-chandelier, with plastic beads, dangling above my head. Though I welcomed fleeting moments of glamour, I never was one for fads and especially never cared for black from head to toe. Why now do I long for solids in deep, dark colors? No time to wonder. I needed to make a decision. Time was running out. The baby was about to wake in the next room. Making decisions had always been my downfall. Proof everywhere but my closet.
I needed to get dressed. I fingered the selection before me. I used to feel such joy at the prospect of the choices. Now I felt only overwhelmed. I knew what I needed, but lacked any ability to locate a satisfactory option. Something that would hide the dark shadows underneath eyes. With no time to shower, I also need something that would distract attention from my limp, frizzled hair. Still trying to lose the final 15 pounds of baby weight, I also needed something that would drape just so across my middle.
I told him again last night. “I’m working on it, it’s harder than I thought it would be.” I watched him shovel his second bowl of double chocolate fudge ice cream in his mouth as I munched on a baby carrot before pureeing the rest of the bag for the baby. Her three-month check-up, less than an hour from now. She was meeting all milestones, but I seemed to be missing each one of mine. Missed a school deadline last week, a newspaper deadline the one before. Haven’t gotten the trash out on time in three weeks.
Finally, I settled, reluctantly, on a navy blazer, with gold tone buttons down each side, made of cotton and Lycra. A tiny butterfly embroidered on the lapel. Nowhere for me to fly. Always thought this piece made me look like I had my act together, even when those who knew me knew I had no clue what I was doing.
As if on cue, the baby cried. I glanced at my watch. Not the Fitbit, I already know I haven’t met step goals in weeks. It was time to go. Together we ventured out to the car and I settled her in the car-seat. I pull the buckle over her sweet, gurgling face. We can do this, I thought. We are doing this. And then she spit up her earlier lunch. Orange carrot puree. All over the butterfly. Nowhere for me to fly.
Jen Schneider is an educator, attorney, and writer. Her work appears in The Coil, The Write Launch, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Popular Culture Studies Journal, unstamatic, otoliths, Zingara Poetry Review, Chaleur Magazine (forthcoming), The Book Smuggler’s Den, 42 Stories Anthology (forthcoming), Voices on the Move (forthcoming), Visual Verse, LSE Review of Books, and other literary and scholarly journals.
July is coming to an end. I want to hold onto it like a hook
on a line, keep reeling it in with no sense of time.
I give it slack– let my son venture into deeper water
while the tide of puberty washes over him. Curves of muscle peek through
his tan chest, a new swagger as he shuffles by me in flip-flops.
My feet stand sturdy on shore. Past years come to meet me here
like old friends of kindness. We gaze at the long horizon,
count buoys in the sea, markers of where we crossed those dangerous days.
This is the beginning of a different sadness. I know the line is thin.
It breaks in front of me where years grow old and the leaving begins.
Jennie Linthorst’s poetry has appeared in Bluestem, Edison Literary Review, Foliate Oak, Forge, Kaleidoscope, Literary Mama, Sanskrit Literary Arts Magazine, and Hopeful Parents. Jennie has published two books of poems, Silver Girl (2013) and Autism Disrupted: A Mother’s Journey of Hope (2011), with Cardinal House Publishing. Jennie is the founder of LifeSPEAKS Poetry where she works with individuals exploring their personal histories through reading and writing poetry. She is on the faculty of UCLA Arts & Healing and has presented workshops at the Los Angeles Expressive Arts Summit, The California Center for Creative Renewal, the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, UC Irvine Extension, the University of Santa Monica, and the National Association for Poetry Therapy. Jennie has a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica, certification in poetry therapy from the National Federation of Biblio/Poetry Therapy, and a BA from Skidmore College. More information can be found on her website at www.lifespeakspoetrytherapy.com.