“Everyone had always told me I was going to be such a good mother, and I had always seen myself with four or five children, but here I was faced with one and I couldn’t even handle our first day alone.”
Below is an excerpt from Adiba Nelson’s memoir Ain’t That A Mother: Postpartum, Palsy, and Everything in Between, now available from Blackstone Publishing.
Sliding into my matching slippers, I shuffled over to the bassinet to stare at the baby people continuously said was mine. With as much indifference as I offered her, she offered it right back to me, staring at me, blankly. Both of us assessing each other, imagining what the day had in store for us. I wondered if she had an imagination at that young age, and knew that if she did, she was most likely imagining a world where someone else was her mom. The look on her face said it all. “Ugh. God. It’s you. Fuck this up and it’s a wrap, chick.” And I knew it too. I had one job. One job: Don’t kill the baby. That was it—make it through the day with both of us in one piece, mostly sane and fully fed and hydrated. I sucked my teeth, huffed, and kept shuffling to the bathroom and I swear on sweet baby Jesus in the manger I heard that child suck her teeth right back. Served me right.
Brushing my teeth and washing my face was part of my daily routine, but looking in the mirror, not so much. I knew I had been handling the most basic of my daily living activities—taking a shower, brushing my teeth, wiping front to back. But it was then when I finally looked at my reflection in the mirror that I caught a glimpse of the hot mess I’d become. The circles under my eyes were dark—goth girl dark. My hair, which I had recently cut because pregnancy had me looking like I had mange, was once again matted in the back, and literally running away from my face in every goddamn direction. Did you know hair could do that? Hair can do that. Hair can literally say, “Ah, hell nah, bitch—we out,” and try to make a mad dash for it. My skin was dry and ashy—the kind of ashy where if your grandma caught you outside like that, she would come out and grease you down in front of all of your friends—top to bottom—and dare you to say something about it. You could catch the best Wi-Fi in Houston just off the lines in my forehead. I. Was. A. Sight. If Beyoncé said pretty hurts, I was telling you that new motherhood was a full-frontal lobotomy with no anesthesia. But this is what my kid was getting. I couldn’t be bothered with cuteness when I was busy trying to not lose my shit minute to minute.
Swaddling Miss Emory and wrapping her into my robe, I held her against my body and shuffled us both along the carpeted pathway to the living room, placing her in the safest place in the house—the round, vibrating, bouncing chair that all babies love. Though I wanted to duct tape her to the dang thing (this way there was absolutely no way she could roll out—even though she was only weeks old and not even lifting her head on her own yet), I secured the straps around her little swaddled self, moved that chair to the very edge of the living room, where the carpet met the tile of the kitchen, and left her there while I made my coffee; while I made my toast; while I made her bottle. She watched me silently, probably making sure I didn’t lace her milk with anything, and I moved silently. There was no cooing, no humming, no singing, only the shuff-shuff-shuffling of my blue slippers on the tile floor. Jeff emerged from the back of the house dressed and ready for work and immediately began doting on Emory. Something arose in me watching their love affair. It was a vaguely familiar feeling, but I recognized it. It was jealousy. I was jealous of the way Emory looked at him, the way he seemed to know exactly how to parent, the fact that he had absolutely zero fears when it came to holding our child. She smiled at him, slept on him, curled into him. She . . . well . . . we, had a marked disdain for each other, clumsily trying to figure each other out, and negotiating our relationship to one another on a daily basis.
I had to drive Jeff to work that morning and on top of panicking about having to put on clothes that I was pretty sure were not going to fit, I was almost in hysterics at the thought of having to drive my child home, alone, in Houston traffic. Getting there was easy because Jeff drove, but as soon as I sat in the driver’s seat, I felt the walls of the car closing in. I saw the bloody car crash in my mind. I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could and tried to breathe my way into a regular heartbeat. After what felt like an eternity (but was probably mere seconds), I was able to begin driving, but my child wouldn’t be my child if she wasn’t going to make me face all the fears at one time. Ten minutes into the thirty-minute drive home, Emory began whimpering in her car seat. I immediately launched into prayer, begging God to keep her calm until we got home and I could get her back into the holy chair of good vibrations. But as usual, God was ignoring me, and this child catapulted herself into a full-on fit on I-45. She wailed at the top of her lungs the whole way home. And you know what? I wailed too. I didn’t know what the hell else to do, and nothing I was trying with my one free hand was working. Not shaking her foot, rubbing her leg, extra-reaching to hold her pacifier in her mouth while steering with the other hand—nothing. Not even the trick of stopping the car two car lengths behind the car in front of you at a stoplight and then inching forward while applying the brakes every couple of seconds. I thought for sure that would lull her to sleep. Nope. But it did piss her off even more—so there was that. By the time we got home my nerves were shot and it was all I could do to not punt her into that damn vibrating chair. I put her down without bothering to strap her in and ran to the hall bathroom. I was sweating bullets, my heart was racing, the tears were flowing, but dammit, we were home, alive, and up to that point, I was succeeding at doing the basics of my job—keeping us both alive. Nobody said anything about keeping us both happy—we were just focusing on alive. Anything else was a perk.
I would like to tell you that that was the last meltdown of the day and we went on to have the most perfect mommy-daughter day ever because my postpartum depression miraculously disappeared. That would be a lie of epic proportions. What happened later that day is hands down one of the most frightening, heartbreaking, and truly unfamiliar experiences of my motherhood journey. Remembering it, I don’t even know the woman I’m about to tell you about. I’d never met her before that day. But apparently, she lived deep inside of me and just needed an opportunity to introduce herself.
It was around 6:00 p.m. and Emory had just woken up from her last nap of the day, screaming bloody murder at the top of her pint-size lungs. She was hungry and had no qualms about letting me know. I got up from the couch and walked into her room, already feeling the anxiety rise in my chest. In my head I was trying to talk myself down out of the tree I was climbing, en route to the highest limb I could find. I wanted to get as far away from my child as I could. In reality I was quietly swaddling Emory as fast as I could so I could place her in her favorite chair and start making her bottle. I needed the screaming to stop as fast as possible. As I attempted to fold the bottom of her blanket up and over her feet, I noticed that my hands were shaking, and in my mind, I was getting higher and higher in that tree, closer and closer to that far out limb. I managed to get her swaddled pretty tightly, perhaps a little more tightly than need be, and got her to her chair but she wouldn’t stop screaming. She was getting louder and louder by the second and the limb was getting closer and closer—that far out limb was now within reach. This tiny baby, who probably felt like I was starving her, scrunched up her face and screamed and wailed the most piercing scream I had ever heard. Every breath and wail felt like an indictment of each of my failures as a new mother. I felt the hot tears pour out of my eyes, and that’s when I grabbed the limb.
I bent down and picked Emory up out of her vibrating chair and held her at arm’s length. She was still screaming in my face, but I refused to hold her close to me; to comfort her. Instead, I held her at eye level, and screamed back at her.
“What? What do you want? Why won’t you stop screaming? Stop it! Goddamn it, just stop! What is wrong with you?! Stop it!”
In my mind I felt that far-out tree limb I had grabbed onto begin to splinter. In reality, I felt my grip on my screaming daughter’s swaddled body tighten, and in a brief moment of clarity I knew exactly what was about to happen if that limb broke; if I didn’t put her back in her chair, immediately. I was about to shake my baby. I saw her head in my mind snapping back and forth on her tiny neck. Of all the horrific images that had paraded themselves across my frontal lobe since the minute we left the hospital, this image scared me the most—because it was real. It could actually happen. I could actually shake and potentially kill my child. I put her back in her chair before that limb gave way completely. I think I scared the shit out of myself. I was a child and family social worker with a background in child development. I knew all too well what happened when parents shook their babies, and I knew that at that very moment, I was definitely not in my right mind. I was too high up in that tree, too far out on that limb, and I needed to climb back down as fast as I could. I may have been in the middle of a complete mental breakdown, but I knew that regardless of the thoughts I was having, I could not hurt my daughter. I stared at her, still screaming in her chair, still hungry, and walked past her into the farthest corner of the kitchen. I leaned into that corner, slid to the floor, screamed at the top of my lungs, and pulled at my hair, tears flowing uncontrollably from both of us. I cried and screamed and cursed God for what felt like an hour. I felt so ill-equipped for this so-called gift he had given me. Everyone had always told me I was going to be such a good mother, and I had always seen myself with four or five children, but here I was faced with one and I couldn’t even handle our first day alone. I was terrified. I was devastated. I felt lost and alone and truly out of my element, as well as my mind. I didn’t know a single person who had ever experienced postpartum depression, and the only things I’d ever seen about it was in Lifetime movies where white women killed their babies in bathtubs. This wasn’t a Black woman thing. This wasn’t a Puerto Rican woman thing. And if it was, we sure didn’t talk about it—ever. Not to each other at least. I had managed to climb down out of the tree, but there was no one to tell about how high up I’d gone or what I’d seen.
From Ain’t That A Mother by Adiba Nelson. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright ©2022 by Adiba Nelson.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoy Raising Mothers, join us as a sustaining member to help RM remain ad-free. Invest in amplifying the voices of Black, Asian, Latine(x), Indigenous and other parents of color at our many intersections. Tiers start at $5/month.