I Am Strong Because She Needs Me by Steph Auteri

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author with her daughter

I stood in my bedroom, planted before the full-length mirror hanging over the back of the door. My right arm curled beneath Emily’s bum, the bicep flexed, supporting her weight as she rested against my hip. My left arm wrapped across her back, holding her close—cheek to cheek, heartbeat to heartbeat—as we looked at our reflections.

This was one of Emily’s favorite things to do. Without fail, every time she noticed our reflection, she would catch my eye and, perhaps struck by the silliness of it all—two mommies!—reward me with a smile that was as large as her entire face, a silent laugh that barely contained an enormous joy. She thought it was hilarious to see me in the mirror. I, in turn, thought it was hilarious that she thought it was hilarious.

In fact, I was constantly marveling at the many things from which she derived amusement.

This time, however, tears sizzled their way down the slopes of my cheeks, some dripping onto the collar of her onesie, some making their way down the edge of my jaw, all the way to my chin, to pool in my collarbone and slide down toward my armpits.

Still, I bounced her on my hip, asked her who’s that in the mirror? Who’s that pretty girl? Is that Emily? Is that mommy?

I smiled at her, though my vision doubled, trebled.

I hugged her tight tight tight.

I didn’t want her to know how sad I was. I didn’t want her to think it was her fault.

After all, I had been wishing for this for years.

But when I think back to those first few months, I have trouble remembering anything aside from how overwhelmed I felt, how much I cried. I know that, rather than being fully present for this amazing thing that had happened to me, I couldn’t stop looking to the future, couldn’t stop wondering: will it get easier? When?

*  *  *

Only four years before, I had been an editor at an online magazine tasked with launching and managing a parenting blog. In my mind, this was perfect timing, as my husband Michael and I had just decided to toss the birth control pills and start building a family. So in addition to hiring writers and editing their blog posts, I wrote my own pieces on planning for a child, the awkwardness of baby-making sex, the logistics of upgrading to a house that would be big enough for more than two adults and their three cats.

This was before I began writing about infertility, blood tests, IUI, hopelessness.

But I still tried to dive deep in the pieces I wrote, to reveal more of myself than how many kids I wanted, and to be honest about the process of bringing someone new into the world.

I wrote an essay about how I had gone off my antidepressants for the health and safety of my future fetus, and how I couldn’t help but worry about what I would do if I couldn’t hold my chronic depression and anxiety at bay. I knew that the use of SSRIs during pregnancy was a controversial practice, and I expected that people would approve of my plan to go cold turkey. I didn’t expect that my fitness as a mother would be called into question.

“DO NOT HAVE CHILDREN,” one commenter pleaded after the piece went live. I imagined her down on her knees, white-knuckled, clutching the hem of my pajama top in a wild frenzy of desperation. I imagined her marching back and forth across my front lawn, sign held aloft, trying to make the point that women with mood swings cannot be mothers.

“You sound as if you are a fairly smart woman,” she went on to say. “Bringing a child into your chaos would be unforgivably selfish. Don’t be selfish; don’t have children. You WILL damage them.”

And she wasn’t the only commenter to feel that way. Many others shared her opinion, thinking me self-centered for putting my desire for children front and center. Others pointed out that mental illness was often genetic, and that I was only setting up future children for a lifetime of struggle and uncontainable sorrow.

These comments made my face hot. As I read them in my shared cubicle, I felt a lump in my throat, a prickling behind my eyeballs. I wanted to slide forward out of my seat, slump to the floor, and curl up beneath my desk. I wanted to lock myself into the single women’s restroom and cry into a wad of toilet paper.

I considered going home sick for the rest of the day.

I felt sick.

And I couldn’t imagine being able to concentrate on anything but the vitriol that had been directed my way.

They were saying I shouldn’t be a mother. Something I’d wanted my entire life.

They were saying I would hurt my child.

Over the next three years, my writing shifted. Before, I had been apprehensive but hopeful. Month after month, as the estimated date of my menstruation approached, that hope would expand in my heart. I would say to myself, tentatively: maybe this is it.

Over time, however, I believed less and less that I would be a mother.

Late one night, as I prepared for bed, I pulled the bathroom door shut and pulled my pants down for a quick pee. I immediately saw the telltale spotting on my pad. The spotting that said that, once again, I wasn’t pregnant.

I sat there for what felt like a long time, my forearms on my thighs, my head hanging down, the porcelain cool against the backs of my legs. I flexed and relaxed, flexed and relaxed my toes against the tiled floor. Through the door, I heard the click as Michael turned his bedside lamp off.

Eventually, I pushed to my feet, pulling up my underpants and my sweats. I flushed the toilet, washed my hands, turned off the overhead light, and quietly unlocked and opened the door, pausing there in the doorway to let my eyes adjust to the dark. Then I made my way across the hall and into the bedroom, feeling my way around the foot of the bed and sliding under the covers.

“Is everything okay?” Michael murmured. His sleep mask was already on, and he was curled onto his right side.

“I got my period,” I whispered. I tried to hide the hitch in my voice. “We’re not pregnant again.”

“It’ll happen,” he said, absentmindedly patting my hip and then sliding his hand back into place beneath his pillow. “Good night.”

I lay there on my left side, our butts touching. I leaned my spine into the warmth of his body, feeling his back rise and fall with his breath. My eyes were wide open in the dark. I felt them fill with tears.

And suddenly, I was crying steadily, my back stuttering with each silent sob. Michael, oblivious, was already asleep. I felt a flicker of resentment toward him, so unruffled, so unconcerned. But I caught myself before I could let the resentment flare up into anger. I knew he was disappointed, too. I knew that none of this was his fault.

Being off my anti-depressants, however, these flickers of resentment eventually became something bigger, and my moods became harder to manage.

“Let’s make a baby tonight,” Michael might say, wiggling his hips mock-seductively as I sat propped up in bed with a book, our three cats spread out in various positions of languor around my feet.

My hands would clench, fingertips digging into the cover of my book. I would glare fixedly at the pages, my gaze skating over the same sentence again and again.

“Ready for sexytimes?” Michael would persist, stretching out beside me, head propped up in his hand, eyes wide.

“What’s the point?” I would mutter, still not making eye contact.

“What’s the point!? We’ll never have a baby if we don’t have sex,” he’d say.

At this point, I would slam my book down into my lap. “You know it’s not going to happen naturally,” I’d say, spitting each word out with effort. “So stop trying to manipulate me! Stop playing to my desire to have a baby just so you can get off!”

We would go around and around like this. He would insist we had to remain optimistic. I would insist it was only going to happen in a doctor’s office, not the bedroom. Why push myself to have sex if I wasn’t in the mood? It wasn’t going to make a difference. I’d accuse him of being manipulative, despite knowing that he wanted this baby to happen. Despite knowing that he deserved intimacy either way.

As each of us dealt with our disappointment in different ways, we grew further apart. As my sadness manifested itself externally, with temper tantrums and tears and violent anger, he retreated inward. Things eventually devolved to the point where neither of us felt loved by the other.

Where before our relationship had functioned perfectly because he could easily take my outsized emotionality in stride, the addition of this new sadness he carried made it harder for him to keep my depression in check. Where before he welcomed the challenge to talk me off the metaphorical ledge, to pull me back from agitated to calm, his own slide into sadness made it impossible for him to pull me back. To pull both of us back. So instead, he avoided me.

We got to a point where we were barely even trying anymore. Barely even trying to save our marriage, let alone have a child.

And this was the side of depression I worried about the most. The side of depression my mind automatically slid to whenever I thought about those online commenters who suggested I not procreate. When I was at my most cynical, I would remember other times depression had laid me so low I hadn’t wanted to bother trying anymore.

There was the time when I was 20, for example, living in an apartment with three other girls, two hours away from my family. My grandmother had recently died, I had recently disentangled myself from an abusive relationship, and then, on the first day of that semester’s classes, I had attended a single class, had a panic attack, and promptly withdrawn from the rest of my classes.

With my sudden abundance of free time, I spent my days in bed, door closed, lights off, shades drawn. Sometimes I would cry for hours, silently, relentlessly, my pillow damp, my body heavy, empty, spent. Sometimes I would stare at the ceiling. And sometimes, when my mind stopped racing, fighting against the sludge that threatened to overtake me completely, I would sleep. This stasis lasted for months.

I worried about what would happen if I ever relapsed into that dark space as a mother. You can’t succumb to something like that when you hold someone else’s life in your hands.

When Michael and I finally fought our way back to each other, across the distance that had grown between us, I couldn’t quite regain the optimism for babymaking we’d started with so long ago. It was a point of contention that remained, even though we’d managed to smooth everything else away.

Right before I actually became pregnant, in fact, I was waiting for my menstrual cycle to start so we could begin another round of IUI. When my period was a week late, I finally took an at-home pregnancy test, though I assumed it would be just one more disappointment. After all, that was how life had been ever since we’d started trying. Every month, upon seeing the tell-tale spotting in my underpants, my stomach would drop. Something inside me would break. Again. And again and again.

I was so habituated to this cycle of hope-heartbreak-hope-heartbreak that I had just stopped hoping. So when the test came up positive, I wasn’t ready to believe it.

How’s it going in there?” asked Michael, waiting on the other side of the bathroom door.

“I think we’re pregnant… ?”

“Wait, what?” he said. “Really?”

When I emerged from the bathroom, I put the test into a plastic baggie, and then kept re-checking it. I thought it might change. To “No.” Or “Not Pregnant.” Or “J/K LOL.”

But when some time had passed and it still hadn’t changed, I called my mom. I tried to keep my voice even as I told her, but she started crying as soon as I got the words out, and then I was gone. Michael, who had been hovering nearby, immediately came over and wrapped his arms around me. I pressed my face into his shirtfront, leaking tears and snot all over him.

I was ecstatic.

I was relieved.

*  *  *

When they first placed her on my chest, hot and slick with a mixture of vernix and blood, I couldn’t even see her face. She was too close to my neck and, when I tried to tuck my chin to get a peek at her eyes, her mouth, her cheeks, I could only see glimpses of torso, thigh, and arm. So instead, I placed my fingers in hers, letting her know I was there. I was her mom and I was there.

I didn’t have the energy to do much else and, as slippery as she was, I was afraid she would slide right off me if I tried to shift position.

So I remained there, my entire body tensed, scared I would drop her, while my husband cut the umbilical cord. When they took her away to weigh and measure her, I still hadn’t gotten a good look at her.

In time, they brought her back over to me so I could nurse her for the first time. It was from this position, her entire body cradled in my arm, that I was finally able to study her. She stared back at me, more alert than I had expected a newborn to be. Her eyes on mine, I felt acutely that she trusted me with her life. Fully and completely. My combined feelings of terror and love at this realization threatened to overwhelm me.

When we eventually came home from the hospital, I was nervous at the thought that we were now responsible for a tiny human being. I didn’t feel that we were ready. I didn’t know how we ever could be. But I was also relieved that we would have more time to ourselves as a family, without nurses and photographers and visitors and cleaning staff barging into our room every hour or so. Besides, Michael had two weeks of paternity leave, and my mother had taken off work the week after that so she could help out. We would be able to ease into things.

Beneath this sense of relief, though, was the underlying terror over the knowledge that this transitional period would have to end. Terror because I didn’t trust my ability to keep another human being alive. Not singlehandedly. For the past 34 years, I could barely take care of myself. For the past 34 years, I had relied on other people to help me do that. To pull me back into the world any time my chronic depression made me want to hide away from it, to give up, to stop trying. With a baby to take care of, I wasn’t allowed to hide. She was counting on me.

Perhaps naively, I thought these anxieties in regard to my skills as a mother, and the inevitability of postpartum depression, would be the only things I’d have to worry about. I didn’t think I would also have to worry about being alone so much. About being confined to the house. After all, I was an introvert. Home was my favorite place to be.

But somehow, I felt more isolated than I ever had before. As I tried to figure out how to simultaneously nurse my daughter and clean the dirty dishes in the sink and do client work, I felt as if I were suffocating. I cried at least every other day. Sometimes all day. And the tiniest things would set me off. Her crying as I tried to slice zucchini or sauté mushrooms. Her cluster feeding for hours at a time. The ache of my nipples. The sense that everything was slipping out of my fingers, that—in an attempt to do it all—I was failing at doing any of it.

They were right, I thought to myself, imagining the women who had once upon a time argued against my ability to be a mother, who had insisted I was selfish for wanting to do so. This is more than I can handle. What ever made me think I was strong enough to do this?

And I hated myself for feeling this way. For feeling so overwhelmed. For counting down the minutes until Michael arrived home from work. For letting my eyes slide away whenever Michael joked about our daughter’s future siblings. After all, I had wanted this. I had fought for this. I had wholeheartedly hated the pregnant people in my life during those years in which we were unable to conceive because I was so sick with bitterness, so sick with wanting.

How dare I complain about the things I was struggling with? Couldn’t anything make me happy?

*  *  *

About a month into new motherhood, I began attending a weekly postpartum support group. This allowed me the freedom to complain in a supportive environment, even though I still feared others’ dismissiveness. Six weeks into new motherhood, I started practicing yoga again, an activity that had played a crucial part in helping me manage my depression, especially in the months after I’d gone off my medication. Two months into new motherhood, I returned to a full workload, and even sought out more work. It just felt so good to be writing again, and I was delighted to find that, somehow, I was able to write during naps and nursing sessions, even while pumping.

Slowly, things began to feel better.

But a full year in, there are still low points. After all, depression doesn’t follow logic. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t need a rational reason or even a particular trigger in order to sneak up on you once again and drag you down.

So I stand in front of mirrors and I try to make her laugh, even while I’m crying. I sit on the couch with her and hold her against my chest, feeling the hot weight of her as she sleeps, sweating against my neck, her hair sticky against my cheek. I feel overwhelmed. I feel myself sinking into the quicksand of my chronic depression.

But at the same time, I am secure in the knowledge that none of this changes the way I feel about her. None of it changes how I care for her. None of it suggests that I will damage her.

I can step up to every challenge that arises, even when it arises from within me. Because she is my daughter. And she is everything to me.

steph auteriSteph Auteri is a writer and editor whose focus is on female sexual health. She has been published in Jezebel, Narratively, Brain, Child, and other publications. These days, she is the editor of sexual health site Good in Bed and blogs about motherhood for mom.me. You can learn more about her at stephauteri.com, or follow her on Twitter at @stephauteri.

  2 comments for “I Am Strong Because She Needs Me by Steph Auteri

  1. This piece had particular resonance for me, as a woman who struggled with infertility until I let the notion of motherhood go. I admired your honesty and insights and was so happy to see that this essay was featured here in HM. It’s a beautiful, memorable piece, Steph.

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