Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Postpartum Exile

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Most days I feel about a minute from a mess.

The thought surprises Claire. She opens her eyes and registers the baby's cry. 6:12 a.m. Mentally she does the math. One hour and thirty-seven minutes of uninterrupted sleep. Two hours and twelve minutes before that, with a thirty-two minute nursing session squeezed between. The documenting of her sleep, or lack thereof, is a habit she began six months ago when Sarah was two days old.

Claire listens to her husband snoring a moment longer. Her bare feet hit the freezing, hardwood floor and she swats at the nightstand in search of her glasses. Sarah's cry elevates to a wail, and her limbs flail spastically against the crib slats. "I'm coming, girl," Claire calls. Her breasts fill with milk as she pads down the hallway to the baby's room. The cotton on the front of her nightgown moistens, and a half-eaten Cheerio sticks to the bottom of her big toe. Sunlight streams through the window and makes symmetrical patterns on the floor. "Damn it, Thomas," she mumbles. Why can't he remember to close the shades? Maybe the baby would sleep longer in a dark room. Maybe Claire could get some decent sleep then, too. And maybe she might start feeling like a human being again. She sighs, scoops up Sarah, and falls into the rocking chair to nurse. Sarah reaches up and palms Claire's cheek with one hand while she latches on and kneads her breast with the other. Most days I feel about a minute from a mess.
When Sarah finally detaches herself from Claire, milk pools in the corners of her mouth and streams down her cheek. Claire slings the baby over her shoulder like a sack. She stumbles to the espresso machine and hits the "double" button just as the baby lets out a gurgling burp. Claire hears the regurgitated chunks of milk hit the floor before she smells the stale breath. Tears sting her eyes. She reaches for the paper towels. She tries to name her mood with a color. Red...grey...no, black. Dr. Seuss says it best. Then come my black days. Mad. And loud. I howl. I growl at every cloud. Claire's therapist suggested that she process her depression by naming the colors of her moods. It is distracting that every time she identifies a mood and successfully labels its color, Sarah's Dr. Seuss book My Many Colored Days pops into her mind. Claire gulps the coffee and forgets to feed herself again. Six months ago she stood at this same counter sprinkling French toast with freshly ground cinnamon and nutmeg and topping it with blackberries, denying the labor pains that crept up her abdomen. The thought induces a gag, and she spits the coffee back into her mug.

Thomas comes around the kitchen corner humming to himself. The cheerful noise is abrasive. She sees the drops of water in his curly dark hair, and her nostrils flair at the smell of soap. Thomas kisses her forehead and lifts the baby from Claire's shoulder. "Are you feeling any better today, honey?" he asks. The color purple clouds her vision. On purple days I'm sad. I groan. I drag my tail. I walk alone. She feels dizzy with too much caffeine, too little food, and not enough sleep. "No, Thomas. I don't FEEL GOOD. Is that okay?" According to Thomas, the symptoms are in Claire's head. Everyone experiences a little stress and sleep deprivation with a newborn, right? Quit being so hard on yourself. Buck up, Claire. Dark colored moods aren't welcome here.

Claire stands at the kitchen sink and watches Thomas' car back out of the driveway. She knows he is listening to NPR and his thoughts are already on the office. The phone rings and Claire scans the crowded counter for the cordless receiver. It's missing again. Piles of baby books, dirty dishes, and unopened mail have taken over. Cindy, her former legal partner, announces on the answering machine that she is sending over those two new novels. Claire had seen the authors on Oprah but lied over lunch about reading their reviews from the New York Times. She knew it was a safe perjure, and though Cindy subscribes, she never reads the Book Review on Sundays.

Claire picks up a dishrag from the sink and begins wiping around the piles. She sweeps the crumbs off the counter into her hand. She is shoving most of the food under the books and Mommy and Me flyers. The sheets of paper bleed when the rag's dampness brushes them. Claire tosses the fluorescent sheets into the overflowing trash. They've been staring at her for months reminding her of this self-imposed exile. Everyone else seems to be doing this better. Play dates, library story time, music class, and postpartum gym sessions. Her last hot shower was three days ago.

By noon Claire decides she is at least settling on a green day. Deep, deep in the sea. Cool and quiet fish. That's me. Sarah grasps at the plastic Fisher Price animals strewn on the living room floor. An elephant ear is nearly gummed off. The giraffe lies with its legs in the air. A tiger prowls near by. Claire plays the part of zookeeper, but she keeps sneaking the little man back into his tiny bed. She imagines she can read his little plastic mind and assumes if he feels like her, he wants to crawl under the covers, too.

The phone interrupts the menagerie and Claire glances at the clock. She knows it is Thomas calling from work. "How about now, Claire-Bear? How's today?" he'd say in his best sympathetic voice. As if an aspirin and a good multivitamin would fix her all up. Kiss and make mommy better. "Depression," the therapist said, "doesn't need friends who demand appropriate masks. She needs to feel this, Thomas, in a safe place." Claire doesn't want to feel any of it, though. She craves a yellow day. And whee...I am a busy, buzzy bee. The depression pumping through her veins is pure yellow. But the hue is not a sunny, bright yellow. It's a Dijon mustard shade resembling the seedy, wet projections in the baby's diaper that reward her after each nursing.

Claire's stomach rumbles again as she lays the baby down for her afternoon nap. She considers napping herself but decides she has been punishing her body too long with hunger. Food might feel good. At least something will. She hates her insides for betraying her like this. Her secrets are seeping out. Be a good girl, Claire. Keep those bad moods inside. You're a mom. This is the happiest time of your life, right? She grabs the last Diet Coke from the fridge and a crumpled bag of potato chips and sinks into the couch. Another sigh escapes. What color is this? Then comes a mixed up day and Wham! I don't know who or what I am!

The house seems quiet now except for the dishwasher screaming to be emptied and the dog whining to be fed and the laundry whimpering to be washed. Claire rests her legs on the couch and her eyes fall shut. She wants to read something but she knows can't. She used to read novels and literary nonfiction. Her monthly Book Club met at local restaurants and debated the merits of each plot and author over five course meals and bottles of wine. It's hard to believe now that life ever existed. But when my days are happy pink. It's great to jump and just not think. Claire doubts she'll ever see pink again. The stinging tears return and she brushes them away with the back of her hand. But it's too late. The heaves begin deep in her empty belly and exit through her parched mouth. She bites her bottom lip to muffle the sobs and not wake Sarah.

The baby cries again at 4:14. Twenty-two minutes. She grabs a box of granola Thomas left on the counter from breakfast. Claire decides she'll munch on it while Sarah nurses. Maybe it will settle her nerves and her stomach. As she rocks in Sarah's room, she realizes it is a grey day. Everything is grey. I watch. But nothing moves today.

The phone rings and again she ignores it. Thomas' voice drones through the flashing green light. He'll pick up Chinese food on his way home. Her favorite. Chicken Teriyaki and Crab Rangoon. Thomas seems to be waiting for her to just snap out of this. Wasn't this everything Claire wanted? They have been planning and waiting for this baby through seven years of marriage. He thinks Claire's sadness is just a little overindulgence. She just needs to pull herself together. Smile a little. "Claire, this baby stuff is just like all those all nighters from law school. Remember?" They would meet for breakfast at the Union and smuggle pots of coffee out in stainless steel carafes. Thomas' dirty coffee cup left a stain on her nightstand.

When Thomas walks through the door, he carries two plastic takeout sacks. China One is stamped in red ink. The fried smell reaches Claire and she swings around so Sarah can see him over her shoulder. The baby's legs kick her stomach at sight of Thomas. A string of drool connects the nightgown and its multicolored stains to Thomas' black suit as she places Sarah in the crook of his arm. Thomas leans down to listen to Sarah's coos and inhale her baby bath aroma. Claire turns her back on both of them and closes the bedroom door. Then she crawls beneath the crumpled sheets.

But it all turns out all right, you see. And I go back to being me.

----
Excerpts from My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss.


Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in Narrative, Ploughshares, Huffington Post, Poets & Writers, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her novel was a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.


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