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 German not 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.