Whenever I’m knitting a pair of socks, I finish the first one, and then, for several days, I sulk around and wish I were an amputee. Then I find the will to knit the second.
I have trouble with the ends of things and the nadir in enthusiasm that precedes the beginning of the next thing. I think I’m fairly typical this way. Anticipation is lovely, experience itself almost as good. But the aftermath, memory, and the casting about for something new to look forward to, that can get quite low indeed.
Six years ago, I had a month left of my first pregnancy and a month left of veterinary school. I was due just about on graduation day. The anticipation of the baby was considerable, but what lay on the other side of graduating was, at best, an abyss of professional emptiness and uncertainty. I had no job lined up, no prospects of one, and not really any desire to find one. I could think of no way to use my newly minted degree that would not make me quite miserable. I was braced for the end of vet school, and though relieved, it also meant I was losing my identity as a smart, promising student and acquiring an identity as a mother. As it turned out, motherhood was not that different than I had expected. And I didn’t miss being a student at all.
What did surprise me was the quiet, subtle mourning I went through for the creature who preceded my son. The creature I had carried for nine months, and whom I had felt somersaulting for nearly five, was gone entirely. Acrobatic, lithe and mobile, submerged within my body, that creature of unknown sex was responsive to light, to sound, to the foods I ate. We called that creature Fetus, unsentimental as I was, and mostly still am, though now with a considerable soft spot concerning the children. Fetus was my lively and undemanding companion, hooking its feet up onto my lowest ribs, it seemed, and hanging upside down like a bat, or jutting a foot sidelong into my bladder. When Malcolm was born, grayish, poorly responsive and oxygen deprived, I missed my creature Fetus immediately. It was a couple weeks before I felt a deep attachment to Malcolm, and in the interim, I missed Fetus. Malcolm was demanding, craving, all-devouring. He gave nothing back. No smiles, no returned gaze, and no acrobatic flipping about. I was becalmed in my own life, walking him in the stroller around the neighborhood, all my vet school friends moved away and starting internships or jobs, my family over an hour away, my husband enslaved by a law firm, and even Fetus gone now. It was like a dream. A very boring dream spanning weeks.
The sensation was more muted when my second son was born. Before he was Simon, he had a fetal name too, dubbed Duckie Hammer by his older brother. I was even slower to warm to Simon when he was born; it was two months, maybe three before I saw both boys equally, before I would have laid down my life for either interchangeably. And I missed Duckie too.
The postpartum interval is rather often a rough patch, whether it’s depression, anxiety, wild mood swings, or a buffet of them all. Hormone withdrawal, hormone surges, sleep deprivation, they all contribute to the run-of-the-mill new mother psychosis. But I think at least a good part of it all is the feeling of something ending. I know it’s a joyous event, the birth of child and all that. But we lose something, every one of us, when a baby is born. Self-absorption, childless freedom, financial stability. When a second one comes, the close orbit of the elder one around his mother is disrupted, becomes eccentric. To pretend otherwise is unfair. There’s a dark time between two knitted socks. And the very start of the second one, that’s a discouragement. Though row by row, it gets better.