Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Hidden Mountains

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Photo by Rui Silvestre. See more of Rui's work at

She is ten weeks and two days old, still bald, with dense, slate-colored eyes, her left eyelid drooping, as it does when she's sleepy. "We're taking Indie for a walk," I tell her. "For this little while, the dog gets to call the shots."

I snatch the leash off the floor, grumbling about the wall hooks, still in their box.

I am surrounded by evidence of other incomplete projects, tasks that tumble through my mind whenever I look around the house—the unfinished drywall in the living room, the splotch of test paint on one wall, vegetable seeds still in their packets. My frustration accumulates until it diffuses into familiar resignation. Sighing, I maneuver the dog and stroller out the door.

Usually my daughter stares at me from her stroller seat, beaming me occasional smiles, but today she's been staring at her hands. I make the popping sounds I use to start the smile exchange, but she doesn't engage, preferring to examine her slowly clenching fingers, seemingly unaware that she is moving them herself. Together, we vibrate along our gravelly street, the large tan dog shuffling along obediently.

I tell myself that Indie needs this outing, that I'm doing something important, walking in the forest on an overcast Monday at 2 p.m. while the rest of the world is busy and alive, accomplishing its goals, building its resume, making a living. But below my ribs I sense a familiar panic. I'm not where I am supposed to be, not doing what I'm supposed to do, even though I know that being a mother, walking my daughter to the park, is real work. Before she was born, I decided that raising her full-time for the first few months was more important and worthwhile than any artistic creations or research that might have consumed my days instead, but something in my body hasn't believed this for a few weeks now. The squeeze in my stomach is tighter than normal today.

A car rounds the corner, veering a little too close, but I don't react. I watch, detatched, registering the driver's surprise, her apologetic wave as she cautiously drives on. Then I pause and replay the scene, embarrassed that I didn't move to protect us. Mentally I rehearse for the next time: how I would shove the stroller to safety and take the hit, Indie would bark for help and stay with the baby. Broken, perhaps dead, I would lie among the muddy potholes. The image of my death seems relieving—no more guilt about not accomplishing enough, no more responsibility. Just the relaxation of letting go. Perhaps I would have earned that relief by saving the baby. But then, no one's a hero for saving their own baby; it's just instinctive. Of course, even being injured would allow me respite in the hospital, where I would relinquish myself to the ministrations of doctors and nurses, who would care about me as much as they did during my pregnancy. For a moment, I imagine crashing the car the next time I'm driving alone. What speed would be appropriate, I wonder. What thickness and variety of tree would handle the blow best? I start pushing the stroller again, recognizing the desperation in these macabre fantasies. Are they the precipice of an emotional descent? We cross the street and wheel down the trail into the woods, my daughter already nodding off.

Maybe it's lack of sleep. I've woken nearly every hour for four consecutive nights. Maybe five. I can't remember. According to my husband, who has read extensively about infant development, this is a normal period of sleep regression, occurring a little early for our daughter. Understanding this gives him comfort, but I'm not convinced. My mind searches for what I might be doing wrong.

Each evening, I dread the sun's departure. With night arrives a period when time is even less in my control. Unable to will my daughter to sleep, I have no idea when she will finally slumber, for how long, or whether I will be able to get any rest myself—not only because she frequently wakes, but because, just as I slip into unconsciousness, my body jolts to heart-racing alertness. During the day, I decide how we spend our time, but at night, my daughter is in control, and I struggle to adapt, to supplant my desire for sleep with the desire to soothe her. When I can't find that desire, when I am numb to her tearful suffering, I am fighting the desperate, bloodshot impulse to scream, "Go to sleep," in her delicate, dependent face, an impulse which only shoves the ability to empathize—to adapt—even further from my grasp.

Adaptability separates those who survive from those who do not. So many mothers appear to get through this period of tyrannous sleeplessness, but I can't see the way out. Each night has become a test that I fail. The nurses and midwives at the hospital said that babies sometimes just cry, but I don't believe that. My daughter is communicating something, and I am supposed to understand her. Except that often I don't figure out what she needs until she's screamed herself past exhaustion. Diaper? Hungry? Burp? Fever? Maybe it's just the pain of growing. I can't seem to make any correlations, but I suspect this is mostly because I'm too tired to remember cause and effect accurately. Sleep deprivation weakens the ability to learn. Learning is key to adaptation.

I don't particularly want to be walking in the damp, chilly air right now, but as long as I keep plodding, she will keep sleeping. I want to give her sleep. I have read that if she naps well during the day, she will sleep better during the night. Uninterrupted sleep is crucial to her mental development, while disrupted sleep is linked to ADHD. Of course, I'm doing this for her, but more than that, I don't want to deal with developmental or behavioral problems later on. This walk is really for me, and with that acknowledgement comes an edge of guilt that I want to ignore.

As we bump over a root, my daughter squints more tightly but stays asleep. I gaze at her delicate face, searching myself for the feeling of love, but finding only the panic, a shrill white noise drowning out everything else. I know I love her. In the first days after she was born, I felt that inexplicable profundity that parents are trying to express when they say You can't understand it until you have a child yourself. For me, it was a visceral understanding of the unlikeliness of her existence. Many times, as she slept and breathed in my arms, I cried with joyous disbelief, wishing for religion so I could have something to thank for her life. Where is that tenderness now? Where are the tears of gratitude? My watery eyes search the dark forest floor as the monotonous rhythm of my feet numbs the pain of losing that sweetness.

I worry that she's absorbing my anxiety, seeing my sad face, smelling my tears, drinking the cortisol in my milk. In primate studies I've read, mother's milk with more of this stress-released hormone stimulates physical growth in babies, who correspondingly devote fewer resources to learning. It signals that the environment is harsh, that the baby needs to prepare for rough times. This is not an adaptation I want for my daughter. There's no time to play when you're worried about staying alive. Is my milk subtly communicating to her that she'd better be on guard? Am I the cause of her restlessness? Less sleep means more cortisol means even less sleep means even more cortisol.

My anxiety begets more anxiety.

The stroller wheels hiss over the soft cedar chips and soggy little pine cones as I apologize silently to my daughter. For holding her clumsily. For not understanding why she slaps at my chest lately. For not feeling constant love. For the shameful moments when I regret becoming a parent. For all the mistakes I will make. For being her mother when she has no choice.

But I am her mother and because there is no one to take my place I cannot collapse under the crush of these early months. I can't crash the car, or fail. I just need to be here. Now I focus on the dashes of warmth where the sun grazes my back through the canopy. Indie guides us, choosing the path toward the open hilltop.

We leave the damp shade and rumble up the dry dirt path to the meadow. My baby is still asleep, unaware of our journey. I pause to let my eyes focus as far as they can. The mountains are buried in fog today, but I know they are there somewhere. Indie sits looking at me, wagging her tail, and I stare into her eyes, copper pools reflecting the afternoon light. Their beauty is a small tickle in my chest. That I notice her eyes is comforting. That I can feel their beauty is an enormous relief.

Genevieve Douglass Persen is a full-time mama. She also composes music, writes words, and has previously consulted on hiring processes and positive psychology. Her science writing has appeared on (This is her first creative non-fiction publication.) Her music has appeared in independent films and has been performed at the Lincoln Center. She’s currently working on a new choral work.

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Beautiful reflection. Your love for your daughter and her well-being show through, despite your exhaustion and your doubt. I learned early (though painfully) that showing up is often most of the game... and regardless of what you might think, showing up is usually more than enough. YOU are enough. Hang in there :) Thanks for sharing.
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