I also write essays. Here is a free essay for you to read, part of a collection about mental health published by Bellevue Literary Press.
My Dark London Winter
Collected in the essay anthology,
I Thought I Could Fly
My son at three weeks old.
Photo by Charlee Brodsky.
I first came to know London when we took our four-month-old son, Jonathan, to live overseas for a semester. My husband had agreed, eighteen months before, to teach in a study-abroad program.
It hadn’t been in the plan to have a baby nine weeks before moving to London.
I remember being in the swell days of the fifth month, high on hormones, telling friends how “fun” it would be, taking the baby to London. I wrote the story: I’d stroll around fascinating exhibits at the British Museum as the baby slept, and then, when he woke, find a solitary corner and nurse him back to “quiet alertness,” as the baby books described that beautiful state that my son, it turned out, rarely reached.
While I was pregnant, we shopped carefully. Even before buying a crib, we bought the lightest, most compact stroller we could find, one that would fold up quickly and load into the smallest overhead compartments. We were ready.
Then I went into labor.
Fatigue and fear, five days after giving birth.
Thirty-one hours later, the midwife laid my son on my belly. After enduring 28 hours of labor and pushing for more than two hours without an epidural, I wanted nothing more than to sleep. Maybe for a month. I could understand how childbirth used to kill women. I felt dead, in some respects. My entire body ached. I suffered daily migraines, and any medication I took would be passed to the baby in my milk. If my eyes hadn’t found his face beautiful I don’t know what I’d have done. The sweetness of his features, so much like both his father’s and mine, engendered powerful feelings of attachment that I hadn’t expected—that my mother had plainly told me not to expect on first sight—and saved me from hating the way he was sucking the very life out of me.
When Jonathan was about a month old I came down with influenza—the real flu—which confined me to bed for nearly a week, and from which I found it very difficult to recover, since I had no help with the baby besides my husband, who could not leave work. I hadn’t gained my strength back by the time we needed to fly. When we arrived in London, the walls closed in, and desolation greeted me.
In England in winter there are six precious hours of daylight. At least two of those are twilight hours, and in many of those dark mornings I felt I could not get out of bed after my husband left to teach and I was alone in the flat with the baby. Just as I had come to dread nighttime because I knew the baby would wake me, I came to dread morning. The one person familiar to me would walk out the door, and I’d sit on the bed and cry. I ate only because I had to, because I was nursing and needed the nutrition for the baby, but eating felt mechanical, and cooking drained the last of my reserves of energy at the end of the dark sub-Arctic days.
I cried over everything. At my first sight of the dingy flat, with its dark corridor and bird-shit streaking the living room window; at the noise of the upstairs tenants, whose kitchen was, of course, above our bedroom, and who sat up all hours arguing in raised voices, the smell of their food somehow invading our place through foot-thick plaster walls; at my husband’s announcement that he had invited all sixty of his students around for supper and his request that I whip up five or six pans of American brownies to ease their homesickness. Their homesickness. When I wasn’t cracking up in tears, it seemed, I was quietly but continuously sobbing, or pressing my wet face against the window of the back bedroom—the only room in the apartment into which even a few rays of actual sunshine could find their way.
I loved my baby, intensely and devotedly, but at the same time I was terrified of him. He frightened the bejesus out of me. I had expected to love him, but I had never imagined this kind of fear. I knew intellectually that babies cry simply because they do, quite often for no reason at all—I had read this in the baby books: it was there, as they say, in black and white—but I couldn’t seem to take this intellectual knowledge into my heart and comfort myself with it. I remember breaking down in the dark flat at the conviction that his crying was living proof that I was failing to mother him properly.
I also remember having heard about postpartum depression, but it always seemed to be described in connection with women who had abandoned their babies in trash cans, or driven them into lakes. I never felt like tossing Jonathan out the window. Certainly I wasn’t depressed, just “sad” for some reason. I was sure it was my fault.
To avoid surrendering to the sadness—to avoid staring out the back window all day—I used to force myself to shower, dress, and take the baby out into the city. We’d window-shop on Kensington High Street, and to fight my tears at the prices in the boutiques I’d buy a bunch of flowers for two or three quid from the man at the stand in front of the church at the corner of Kensington Church Street. I’d walk the baby down to the Victoria & Albert Museum and, feeling utterly unequal to the tasks of negotiating the V&A’s vast set of stone steps with a loaded stroller in my arms and keeping the baby quiet once we were inside, I’d always decide to skip the museum and walk him back home, stopping at Sainsbury’s on the way to buy supper and a tube of chocolate biscuits, sorry comfort in a sad time.
I’d walk him through the little nooks and crannies in our neighborhood, peering through the black iron fences of the many key gardens—little locked oases of flowers and trees, accessible by key only to those whose houses were situated on their perimeters—my favorite of which was the quiet little viridescent sliver off Ken High Street called Edwardes Square, a fragrant eddy where winter jasmine bloomed, and where I glimpsed the first snowdrops of February, blooming six weeks earlier than in the familiar places at home. Many times, instead of enjoying their beauty, I’d end up leaning against the gates, weeping in frustration at being shut out of these spots (in my pre-baby days I would possibly have shown enough cheek to scale the fences; I had done it before at the college gardens in Oxford, but how to climb an iron fence with a baby in one’s arms?), and at the fact that I’d inevitably have to return to the crummy flat in the Cromwell Road (“the on-ramp to the M4,” as my husband called our street) to which we’d been relegated.
I often pushed the baby up to Holland Park, which was closer than Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens, and much closer than the even tonier St. James’s or Regent’s Park. Holland Park was a smaller, friendlier place, with painted cloisters, swaths of crocuses that opened their purple eyes in late January, and peacocks that made the baby laugh while I sipped a warming cup of tea at the little café. But the baby was really happy only when he was moving, and since I was too tired to push him for long in the park, we’d trundle back to the train.
To some people, London is the theaters of Leicester Square; the shops of Oxford Circus and Regent Street; the castle at Tower Hill; or Big Ben and Westminster. For me, forever, London will be the sounds and smells of the Underground—the odor of food and flowers and urine and, finally, the immemorial grease on the tracks, as we’d descend the escalators into the tunnels deep inside the earth. London is the musty, pent-up air inside the cars of the trains. But most of all, it’s the sound and the feel of the train rushing through the tunnel in the earth at high speed, pressing the air and bursting eardrums, and rocking, rocking, rocking, wheels bouncing over the rails.
The baby loved the Tube. He always slept there.
I’d be sitting in the car, pinching my arm to rouse myself, terrified of falling asleep—however desperately I needed to—lest I never wake till I’d wound up at Epping, or High Barnet, or Heathrow.
And when we came up again—when once again I hauled the stroller up the steps at Earls Court station, occasionally with a kind stranger helping—it would be dusk, or even dark, and usually it would be raining, that quiet, implacable cold London drizzle. I’d walk him back to the flat, the baby—having woken immediately, of course, when the train stopped—squalling under the new British rain-hood I’d purchased for our European-imported stroller we’d brought from the States.
Trying to pass as a real British mummy, walking the baby in any weather.
And I’d have no hope of a nap.
* * *
My hopelessness was sealed when I took the baby for his first checkup at Emperor’s Gate Surgery, our local doctor’s office. I had actually looked forward to this appointment. An engineer’s daughter, I love data, I rely on it for reality-checks, and I was certain the documentation of the baby’s weight gain would cheer me: I’d be succeeding at feeding him well, at least! I had to be—I was nursing him nine or ten times a day. The nurse brought out a little red book with gold letters stamped on the front: “Personal Child Health Record,” provided by the National Health Service to every new mother. She asked me how much he had weighed at birth, and worked for a moment to convert six pounds, thirteen ounces into kilos—Jonathan has always been on the small side—then plotted her results on the chart. Then she stuck him on the scale. And after she plotted his weight, she turned to me and declared, “You are starving this child.”
My face burned. I tasted copper in my mouth.
“How?” I breathed. “I’m nursing him at least nine times a day! How could I be starving him?”
She pointed at the dot she’d marked for his birth weight, which fell above the fiftieth centile. Then she pointed at the dot she’d marked for his current weight, which fell just under the twenty-fifth centile. As though it were eminently obvious, she remarked, “Look at how much weight he’s lost.”
In fact, he’d gained more than six pounds since his birth—nearly doubled his weight. In fact, he was a happy child. In fact, telling a full-time nursing mother that she is “starving” her baby is one of the cruelest judgments anyone can ever express, health-professional or not. But I hadn’t the strength to fight her. I trudged back to the flat, my tears falling along with the rain onto the stroller’s rain-hood, stopping at Boots to buy the Cow & Gate formula that she insisted I must begin feeding my son immediately, the word starving playing over and over in my head like the Wicked Witch’s own personal nursery rhyme.
I fed him bottles. Within the next week, he weaned from nine or ten nursings per day to three or four, just as the books said he would. My breasts became engorged, then soon my milk seeped away. My hormones, which had already shifted radically after his birth, heaved and churned yet again, and I shed even more tears: I had failed to nurse my baby. I had failed even to feed him properly. I had failed. Failed. My little sister, whose first child was born five days after my son, had enough milk for both our babies, apparently, and I couldn’t make enough milk even for one.
And so every single feeding became a challenge for me to control my sense of desperation and put on a happy face as I gave in and held the baby’s bottle, spooned his rice cereal, his puréed pears. I didn’t mind the cereal or the pears; it was the bottle that made my breasts sting and my eyes cry.
It occurred to me about a year after I returned from London that I had been suffering from clinical depression. I remember the moment of the insight. I was sitting at my desk, working, and my son was at his morning play-group. And out of the blue, the way important insights often happen, it dawned on me.
I reached for the little red book, and my calculator. I performed the calculation twice. My hunch was right: she had overestimated his birth-weight by a full kilogram—more than two pounds. He hadn’t “lost all that weight.”
My world righted itself in that moment. He had been fine, after all. I had been fine, after all. I laughed.
I sat there, laughing, wondering why I hadn’t argued with her, why I hadn’t told that mean-spirited woman that no nurse worth her education or license would dare speak to a new mother that way. Why hadn’t I complained to her supervisor, simply walked out of the surgery? It was the laugh that helped me answer these questions. Of course: I’d been depressed.
I’d been seriously depressed before, and in hindsight I could recognize it: the desperate need to sleep and the inability to get restful sleep; the desire to stay in bed all day, or stare out the window, unable to concentrate; the inability to be in company combined with a morbid fear of being left alone; the lack of any appetite—for food, for sex, for life. The endless weeping. But because the birth of a child is supposed to be such an unequivocally joyful event—especially the birth of a first child—I didn’t recognize the quicksand until I’d crawled out.
I sat at my desk, gazing at that little red book, and wondering how much more pleasant a London life we all would have had if only I had been able to understand what was happening to me and sought help from qualified practitioners, as I’d done in the past. I might have been able to see the flowers of those little key gardens, instead of only the fences. I might have been able to climb the steps of the V&A, and not mind when the baby yelped a bit once we were inside. I might have been able to relax more about nursing, or accept that feeding him bottles might give me a much-needed rest. What I’d needed most, of course, was not a regimen of Prozac but a connection with another person—another woman, preferably another mother—who could help me achieve perspective.
And I made a promise to myself that day, which has buoyed me through the years since. I would never again allow anyone, no matter how experienced, to override my own instincts about my son.
Essay - a Gift for My Mother
982 WordsMay 7th, 20134 Pages
A Gift for My Mother
The story “A Gift for My Mother” is a short story written by Viv McDade which deals with a family of three; a set of parents and their daughter. The mother envies the beautiful houses with hallways and moulded skirting boards on the other side of the railway, and she usually gets angry about the differences between her own family and their property compared to the house on other side of the railway. The mother is a housewife, and the narrator lets the reader get to know this on page 8, where the father comes home with his paycheck and the mother responds “What you’ve earned isn’t enough for us to live on” (pg. 8). - Clearly the father’s paycheck is what pays for the family. The father on the other hand is a…show more content…
However the daughter states “I heard Dad’s car and ran out to meet him” (pg. 8), so clearly they must have enough money to own a car and pay the gas.
The main character has two different types of relationship to her parents. The relationship to her dad, is a “daddy’s little girl” relationship comprehended by the fact the father calls his daughter “my precious” (pg. 8) and the main character sees her father as a down-to-earth superhero, so to say. - A superhero in her everyday life. He gets paychecks, he helps her with school if she has a difficulty and she enjoys getting help from him. She also enjoys letting him know if she did a good job in school and as she tells him “’I was the only one who could spell illiterate,’ I tell him” (pg. 8), he responds by giving her a big compliment, which completes the idea of him being a superhero/loving father. The relationship to the mother is different kind of relationship compared to the father. The daughter does not like it when the mother is angry or is mad the father. She picked the mother a bunch of flowers to get the houses on the other side of the railway off the mother’s mind, and when the mother grumble about the paycheck and their financial circumstances, and daughter decides to take action. The daughter takes action by getting a lot of bunches of flowers and sells the flowers to the