By Esther Kang
Just over a year ago, before K was born, I imagined that I would strap her into a baby carrier and ride the L everywhere. In my mind, I would read a magazine while baby slept beatifically on my chest—on our way to doctor’s appointments, to Maggie Daley Park, to summer music shows, to friends’ homes in various neighborhoods. I imagined that my husband, Zach, and I would take baby on our travels: We booked Hawaii for a friend’s wedding; perhaps Korea, Argentina, Lebanon would soon follow. Baby would fit seamlessly into our life. I imagined I’d be the kind of mom everyone wants to be—going with the flow, taking baby anywhere, finding time to shower and work and host fabulous dinners.
It turns out I am not that kind of mom.
When K arrives via Caesarean section at Prentice Women’s Hospital in downtown Chicago, her cries pierce the quiet of the operating room. Zach and I are overcome with emotion at the sound of her entering this world. K sucks her fingers, and we do skin-to-skin with her because we were told by the nurse in the breastfeeding class that it will help her latch on and feed better.
Our third night at the hospital, a friend advises, “Send her to the nursery so you and Zach can get some rest.” After nursing her, with Zach fast asleep on the pull-out cot next to the window, I hand K over to a sweet nurse. She wheels away baby, who is swaddled tightly like a burrito. Instead of using that precious time to sleep, I walk the halls and make my way over to the nursery.
Peeking through the glass, I expect to see K sleeping soundly. But I spot her in her little cart at the end of a row of babies, next to the waste bin, her face scrunched up. She is crying, while all the other babies—babies that look bigger and healthier—sleep soundly. I burst into tears as I watch a nurse pick her up and put a pacifier into her mouth.
Spotting me, another nurse asks if I’m OK. Still sobbing, I lie: “My baby is in there crying and waking up all the other babies. I feel bad. I can just take her back with me, it’s no problem.” The nurse reassures me: “They all take turns waking each other up, and we love holding them! Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of her.” I shuffle back to my room and sob some more as Zach snores a few feet away. The image of my crying baby is seared into my mind, and I am certain that if she were in my arms, she would be dozing snugly. I don’t understand or recognize the intensity of this feeling. Motherhood is wild.
ELEVEN DAYS LATER, the day after Mother’s Day, I’m back downtown, at my ob-gyn’s office across the street from Prentice. I have, quite literally, a hole in my stomach. Thinking myself some sort of superhuman, I’d sprung into action immediately after K was born—lifting things heavier than baby, climbing stairs and stepstools, driving. Now an infection from an opened staple has rendered me unable to walk. Zach drops me off in front of the building and waits in the car with baby; she’s sleeping, and he will need to keep driving around the block so she doesn’t wake up. I hobble to the door, wrapping my scarf around my neck. It’s May in Chicago—windy, gray, cool.
Albany Park, Chicago
We’re home. We’re always home. The only time we’re not home is when we take K on walks in her stroller. We walk to Kedzie Avenue and polish off ice cream cones from the paleteria in two minutes flat, before rushing back home for the next feed.
For the first three months of her life, Zach and I sit on the couch from 7 p.m. until about 10 or 11, or whenever baby goes down for the night after alternately nursing and snoozing for hours. She has acid reflux from an underdeveloped flap over her stomach, which means we have to hold her up for at least 20 minutes after each feed. Each time we think she’s in deep sleep, we swaddle her and gingerly carry her to the Rock ’n’ Play. Should she wake during this process, we start the cycle all over again—nursing, holding her up, etc. We have no idea if this is what we’re supposed to do; we just know this is what works for us.
Parenthood, so far, is a huge pain in the ass. A black box, Zach calls it. “People disappear for a while at the beginning, and you think they’re happy,” he says. “But it’s hard. Then they come back.”
Most days, it seems, Zach and I take care of K out of love for one another—not so much for her. We don’t know her yet, but we do know and love each other.
I TAKE PHOTOS—LOTS OF THEM. This baby is the most photographed child on the face of the Earth after maybe Suri Cruise. One of my favorite shots is a poorly-composed iPhone selfie of the three of us in our bedroom. Zach is lying with his head at the foot of the bed with his T-shirt hiked up, revealing his belly, and he is reading an article on his phone. I’m splayed out on the other side, nursing a face-planted K, my legs paler than they’ve ever been. Our bed is covered with pillows and bags and clothes. The indignity of it all makes me chuckle every time I see the photo.
Zach, whose job requires some travel, goes back to work after his paternity leave. I begin flying solo just as things get really hard. The hormones, my brain, the lack of sleep, the drastic life change, the isolation, the baby’s reflux, an acid elimination diet that means no milk or soy, the lack of control over anything K does—these swirl into a potent postpartum maelstrom. I don’t know if it’s anxiety, depression, or a combination of both, but I cry—a lot—almost every day. I try to do it when she’s asleep, but sometimes I can’t control it, so K sees me cry. I worry that I’m traumatizing her. I have trouble resting even when baby’s sleeping, and disturbing nightmares haunt me for days. I hear phantom cries and wake up anxious about nursing, about tummy time, about the weird noises K makes, about whether or not she’s developing as she should.
One breezy summer day, while walking K in my carrier around our block, a car speeds by me and clips a curb. A thought pops into my head: It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if we got hit by a car. I don’t dwell on the idea because it’s stupid and scary.
On another occasion, I am sitting on our living room floor while standing K up. This is her pooping stance. Her eyes begin to water, and her face turns red. She sneers like a bull and strains. Zach is finished packing, and he brings out his suitcase and grabs his jacket; the cab is waiting outside. He comes over to kiss me, and tears start streaming down my face. “Oh,” he says, with sad eyes. I don’t want to cry, but I can’t help it.
THERE IS NO RATIONAL THOUGHT LEFT AT THE END OF A LONG DAY where baby has cluster-fed and not slept more than an hour. That evening, with Zach out of town again, I concoct a brilliant plan: “I’ll check myself into the emergency room. Someone there—yes, one of the nurses!—will watch K, and they’ll let me get some sleep.” Somehow I have the presence of mind to run this idea by a friend. She texts back, “???” It occurs to me that if I proceed with my plan, the Department of Children and Family Services might come and take K from me. I call another friend, and she offers to come spend the night—to give baby a bottle of pumped milk and hold her to sleep while I string four or five hours of sleep together for the first time in months.
The next evening, Zach comes home from his work trip. He unpacks his suitcase, changes into a T-shirt and shorts, and joins me on the sofa, where I’ve been nursing and waiting for K to fall into her deep sleep. Holding her with one arm, I reach for his hand. He squeezes mine tightly, and I begin to cry.
MAGGIE IS MY FIRST FRIEND TO SPEND THE NIGHT WHILE ZACH IS OUT OF TOWN. Jane comes the next week, and then Monica, who is in her third trimester of pregnancy but cheerfully offers to help like it’s no big deal. And during the following month, as K sleeps longer stretches at night, I don’t so much need help with a late feeding as I want the company when Zach’s gone. Being home alone with a baby terrifies me, and having a sleepover with a friend helps. So other gracious ladies get acquainted with our couch: Markeyta, Diane, Megan, Dawn. Some weeks I even make dinner for them.
In parenthood, I find, every cliché is absolutely true. It takes a village, truly. And in the absence of blood relatives living around us, I am thankful for the village Zach and I have cobbled together here in Chicago—and through the web, around the world. Friends bring us food, watch K while we go on dates, offer invaluable advice, listen when I call them panicked, sobbing, desperate. They email and text me regularly, with choruses of “I love you.” “Let me know how I can help.” “We are praying for you.” “It will get better.”
With Zach regularly out of town, I grow desperate enough to call a hotline for postpartum anxiety and depression. The young woman on the other end of the line kindly gives me names of counselors covered by my insurance plan. I search them all and find the one nearest to me—a woman who also appears to be the most stylish, which is a plus.
Every Wednesday afternoon, I strap K into her car seat, and we drive to the therapist’s office. The baby nurses and naps while I talk about the dread I feel, the sense that this harrowing slog will never end. I talk about the bad dreams and the worst-case scenarios in my mind. I describe the fear that comes over me when K stirs in the morning as I watch through the baby monitor.
My therapist, Lisa, is reassuring: All this is temporary. She tells me she loves how I talk about Zach, that I have great support systems in place, that she can tell I love K by the way I interact with her. I ask, more than once, where I fall on the spectrum of postpartum anxiety and depression; Lisa tells me I’m on the milder side, and somehow that’s enough to help me get through each week. She says I can pursue meds if I want them, but they won’t be a cure-all, and they’ll take some time to kick in. I’d rather not. I’m not a patient person, I tell her. “They’d have to be some magic-ass pills.”
I can never find parking in front of the therapist’s office. And on street-cleaning days, I walk four blocks carrying my heavy car seat with my even heavier child in it. She has catapulted from the 20th percentile in weight to the high 80s. It doesn’t help that I’m short, and the car seat barely clears the sidewalk when I carry it. I know someone somewhere in this neighborhood is watching me and thinking, “Why is a 12-year-old lugging a fat baby down the street?”
A couple of months after my first counseling session, Nashville actress Hayden Panettiere announces that she is receiving treatment for postpartum depression. She had a baby with an older gentleman twice her size, a world champion boxer, and a few months later, she checked herself into a treatment center. There was a time, I’m ashamed to say, when I was skeptical about women’s claims of postpartum woes. But not anymore. I find myself relieved that a B-list actress is raising awareness about the issue.
Friday of Independence Day weekend, we drive up to the lakefill on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston. It would be easier to stay home and go from feed to feed, nap to nap. But Zach thinks we should venture out for some fresh air. And I want to take photos so I can look back someday and say that I tried—I really tried.
Zach gives K a tour of my old college campus—an abbreviated version of one that I gave him when we were dating years ago: “This is where Mama fell asleep during lecture….” He is trying to get me to smile, but I am stressed out: Where will I nurse her? Am I wearing the right shirt to nurse her? What if we don’t have enough wipes? What if she doesn’t fall asleep in the car and cries the whole way back?
Thankfully, we make it through the day. It’s nothing like the dozens of other times Zach and I came here. Before K, whenever we had a free Saturday, we would drive up, walk along the lake, take a nap on the grass, and watch the sailboats. I loved our former life so much, but there is no time to mourn it properly. We are sprinting just to keep up. As Zach puts it, even trying to have fun is stressful.
I look back on photos from that day and see two kids who don’t know what they’re doing, but trying. We’re in our mid-30s—hardly young—but we are definitely making it up as we go. Maybe years down the line, I’ll see those pics and think, “Oh, that was a fun outing.” But today, I know better.
K is four and a half months old. It has been a particularly difficult week: Zach has been dealing with stresses at work, and K has been staging a nursing strike, a deathblow to my already fragile psyche. We are sitting, again, in the dark on our couch. We can’t go to Hawaii. We just can’t. K’s nursing strike, the logistics of pumping and washing bottles, jetlag and living out of a hotel for a few days, then returning home and adjusting back to life here—it’s too much. I am disappointed in myself yet again. But when Zach himself agrees it would be too much, that our little family needs time to regroup, we cancel our trip to Hawaii and breathe a sigh of relief.
Zach still takes the next week off. We sell my beat-up Corolla and buy a more suitable family car. We sleep-train K, who takes to it quite well, and we agree that not spending a week on beautiful Waikiki Beach is the best decision we’ve ever made as a couple.
North Kenwood, Chicago
With more sleep, therapy, the passage of time, and help from those around us, the fog begins to lift. The things I wrote in my journal during those traumatic early months start becoming unrecognizable. I begin to delight in my daughter: her protruding, smooth forehead and receding hairline, her little diapered butt, her downturned lips, her peachy jowls, her funny personality, the bizarre babbling, the propensity to summon her tears on a dime—then turn them off as soon as she gets her way. I find her so exceptionally adorable. When I watch a Nora Ephron documentary in which she describes her young son as “a dish of ice cream,” I feel jealous that she came up with that phrase. K is a dish of ice cream.
The second half of Year One flies by; I jot down a few notes each month about how we’re doing, and the entries get shorter and shorter. Almost daily, I experience times with our daughter that I can only describe as moments of grace. It’s as if the wasted early months are being restored.
I feel balanced enough to take on freelance projects—an exhausting but much needed addition to my schedule. Zach and I begin hosting dinners again. I go out with my girlfriends. We are back at our church regularly. I’m singing and playing the guitar; Zach is back on the keys. We fly to see my folks in D.C. one weekend; then to Florida for our niece’s birthday. We visit both sets of parents for Christmas—an eight-hour drive to Columbus, Ohio, (including breaks for feeding baby), another eight hours to the D.C. area, then back. We are OK. We still don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re doing so much better. Doing well, even.
Our little condo in Albany Park, which I bought when I was 25, is bursting at the seams. On days Zach works from home, he does so on a makeshift desk along our bedroom window ledge because K occupies his former office. When family members visit, they stay at an Airbnb nearby. So we go house-hunting and put an offer down on the first condo we see—a duplex in a South Side greystone just a few blocks from our church. I take pics of Zach and K that morning at the property because I have a feeling this will be our home.
We close on the condo in April. We start making repairs and hope to move in soon. As I write, K is babbling and rolling a soccer ball on the floor with Zach. I imagine them kicking the ball in our building’s yard. I see us riding bikes along the lakefront trail, walking to church on sunny Sundays, riding the bus up Lake Shore Drive to visit the Art Institute, getting a membership at the nearby Museum of Science and Industry. And when she’s old enough to remember, we’ll take her outside of the country to someplace cool.
I can’t be certain we’ll do all these things, but I think we will.
Esther Kang is a journalist in Chicago.