Poems & Essays

20 Apr

When Babies Cry

General/Column No Response

My gynecologist asks if I have a history of depression as he fingers through files on his iPad. 

“No,” I say. “Well, it was never diagnosed.”

His index fingers march across the keypad, like they are making accusations, each letter an indictment. He doesn’t look up.  

I can hear my four-month-old squealing—like the pitch of a fire alarm—in the lobby, where my mom is trying to keep him entertained. She knows the reason for this appointment, even though I haven’t exactly told her, even though she hasn’t asked. I’ve mentioned that I can’t fall asleep most nights, though I haven’t told her about the thoughts that blink through my mind as I try to turn it off—words about my worthlessness, my failures, followed by fleeting images of kitchen knives promising relief, escape, from the self-bullying. Once, she found me crying over my laundry, and I confessed that sometimes I didn’t like who I was now that I was a mother. 

“It’s one of those days,” she’d said, and I didn’t tell her that every day felt this way. 

When I asked her to meet me at the doctor’s office, she was happy for the excuse to babysit her grandson, even for half an hour. Later, after the doctor prescribes Zoloft, the receptionist schedules my follow-up.

“And what’s the appointment for?” she asks.

My mom is standing there, letting my son chew her necklace. “It’s just a postpartum follow-up,” I say, softly, and the receptionist studies me like I’ve only said half a sentence. But she nods and types, nods and clicks. My mom pretends to be distracted with tickling my son. 

In the parking lot, my son has a meltdown when we try to strap him into his car seat. I think of the traffic stacking on I-635, of the unprepared dinner for the friends visiting that evening, of the mess that is the apartment. The hairs I’ve been shedding since giving birth are weaved in curly-cues into the carpet, coming up in my son’s frustrated fists whenever he tries to roll. 

I think of the way the doctor muttered, “Yes, sometimes it can be hard,” as he jabbed at the keypad, logging my symptoms, another textbook case of a new mother’s struggles. And yet, despite this recognition, I still feel isolated, like the only mother to ever doubt herself. As my son screams, his face as red as a hot stovetop, I think again that, probably, I wasn’t cut out for this. Probably, having a kid was a mistake. I should have known better. 

Because these feelings of inadequacy and depression didn’t arrive with my son’s birth, even if that seems the inciting incident. I think of that day in college I sat in my mom’s car and tried to tell her, in words that came like cough syrup from the bottom of the bottle, that sometimes there were shadows that fell over all the tomorrows I could imagine. Sometimes, I imagined not choosing tomorrow. “Every day is a gift,” she’d said, and I had focused my silence on the windowpane as she assured me that my life was okay. Back then, her unshaken tone had convinced me that she was choosing not to take me seriously. I know now, of course, that she chose her words with the same care with which she would have held a crying infant. 

When we finally get my son buckled in, I apologize for him, dutifully, but my mom smiles. “It’s okay. Don’t apologize. These things happen.” She looks at me, and I feel transparent. I stand on the hot, reflective pavement like I sat on the doctor’s table inside, except I don’t have to say anything for her to make a diagnosis. I don’t have to tell her that I now have prescription proof that I’ll never measure up to her mothering. Even though I want to tell her, want her to say that isn’t true. 

It seems impossible that she ever felt this way, my mother with an answer to every problem. I often think of her childhood, so different from mine: she used to shudder at her own mother’s touch, used to hide from her mother not out of pride but out of fear. Words and beatings burned a hole in her psyche, and yet she never let that emptiness work its way to my brothers or me. She swore she would never be like her mother, so where did she learn how to mother? How did she learn to soothe with such patience, how to hold our world together even if hers was shattered long ago? And if she, so at home with her own motherhood, is my mother, why do I feel so lost in this role? 

With my son crying in the backseat, I thank my mom for her help and get in the car. 

“Baby,” I say, trying to make myself audible over his impressive lungs. “Everything’s okay.” I remember the time my one-year-old cousin toppled into a coffee table and bumped her head. My mom had picked her up before her inhale could turn into a wail. “You’re okay!” my mom had sung. When babies cry, she told me, you’re supposed to stay calm. Reassure them that they are safe, even as you ascertain whether or not that’s true. My mother’s words in my mind, I keep talking to my son until his whimpers taper into the silence of sleep. 

In a few months, while we watch my son roll from toy to teether, I will find the courage to tell her the truth. I will tell her the medicine is helping. And she will share with me that she felt the same way after I was born, that, likely, she should have sought the same help. And for the first time in a long time, I won’t feel so alone. 

Alexa T. Dodd is a fiction writer, essayist, and mother of two boys. Her work has appeared in River Teeth Journal, Heavy Feather Review, The Write Launch, and elsewhere. She is a Tin House Summer Workshop alumnus and a recipient of a Hypatia-in-the-Woods residency for women artists. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University.

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