Over the last year I have gotten married, had a baby, switched jobs and moved half way across country, all while being depressed and scared of the dangers all around me. Like the world was moving too fast and I needed a pause button. What I honestly imagined would be a “sabbatical writing retreat” otherwise known as my 6 weeks of maternity leave, turned out to be the most difficult and draining physical and emotional work I have ever done.
It would be easy to say that it started when Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri, not far from our then home in Chicago, Illinois. But we were living in Chicago, Illinois where Black men are murdered almost daily.
I knew why my son didn’t rush to be born; he was trying to stay inside my warm safe womb and part of me wanted him there as well, despite my aches and pains. I suffered this mourning sickness that many Black moms and mamas of all races understand is not just internal queasiness, but the “sick and tired of being sick and tired” illness that makes you nauseous from reading the news. I wanted to go off-grid and never come back.
I was sad, feeling both hyper-visible and invisible, very embodied and yet disembodied, like a giant milk producing vessel without a processing dairy. I pumped and was sucked and fed, and bleed and rested, while the world around me was turning upside down and inside out. While I liked the genuine political resistance movement emerging all around me, and longed to be more engaged, I also was pissed that we had to even say once again that “Black Lives Matter.”
The anger and grief entering my milk and being was making it hard for me to sleep and focus at night or feed my own child. I found myself trapped by the medical industrial complex with white nurses telling me that my body wasn’t good enough, wasn’t producing enough nourishment and was making my Black boy lose weight. I cried, and was scared and frustrated at myself yet again for my inadequacies, and tried my hardest and best to nurse my child in this environment of self-hate and fear.
I felt like a failure, not only because I didn’t have the money to buy him all the things that the white moms had in the mommy groups I occasionally attended. More significantly, I didn’t have endless amounts of energy and patience like I thought I would. I was such an imperfectly human being, and felt like I was crying more like “a baby” then my son was. I was crying because I felt lost and confused and scared and fearful of leaving our apartment, facing my coworkers, pumping my breast milk, and acting as if everything was great. I was back at my job, pretending I was healed and ready to tackle work again. Even with a supportive Black mother boss, who encouraged me bring in my son to the job, it was so much to handle. I couldn’t work with him there, because he needed so much attention and liked to attract and distract others. I had difficulty producing milk and pumping, and a hard time being present at work when my breasts filled with milk and he wasn’t there. I continually felt pulled like I was half-assing every one of my competing jobs never fully satisfying any of them.
I was depressed with postpartum, the type of mama depression that I said I didn’t want and no one really explains to you. I had to come “out” to my boss and co-workers about it just so I could take time off to go to the only free postpartum support group in my city. While it was far better than nothing, it still did not really fit all my needs for a supportive community.
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I was the breadwinner in my household at the time and the three of us were barely making it on what used to be an adequate one-person salary. I realized I needed to be with more family. I needed to do less/ de-stress and cherish what I did have. Life was too short.
It would be nice to say that the antidepressants I took, or the poems that I wrote, or went to the therapist and acupuncturist I visited, and the yoga classes I attended finally helped to “fix” me or “solve my problems,” but mental health and restoration doesn’t work like that.
I knew that postpartum depression often subsides over time, but I hated hearing that what I was experiencing “will eventually pass.” I wanted to be an active participant in the transition out of my funk.
I now know that a real transition requires (1) acceptance and (2) patience, (3) understanding and (4) destigmatizing and finally (5) support. Yes, pills and therapy, writing poetry, doing yoga, acupuncture and massage can be helpful and are important. They are features of a longer-term process requiring resources that I did not always have. It also helps to listen to storytelling podcasts, and mama-support-groups where people share their truths about both the joys and pains of motherhood, not just the fairy tale fantasies of the glories without the struggles.
Despite my feeling the lowest of the low, I was able to muster the courage and poise required to pull off an interview, and I actually got the job. My anxiety level lowered, because while I still wasn’t sure about living in the basement apartment of my parent’s house, it was a lot better than being unemployed in the basement. Having a great new job felt more like a step up instead of a step back.
So, amidst the snow and cold, and despite the steady stream of killings of Black people around the county, I felt my depression slowly lift. By month seven, when my son slapped my breasts away and I decided to stop breastfeeding for good, my hormones and menstrual period returned, and I was working at another job in another city and had some semblance of stability.
Throughout all of this, I never before felt so connected to being Black and working class. As a multiracial woman with precarious finances, I found it increasingly hard to connect to the middle class white mothers in my prenatal yoga class, my prenatal swimming sessions and to the comments from many of the white prenatal moms on listservs and bump-clubs I joined.
I was obsessing so much over every little thing in the nursery, I realized I was acting out a kind of culture of poverty. I wanted my son to at least have the illusion that everything was ok. By looking up at the beautiful picture of Black boy (I purchased from an artist collective at the Allied Media Conference) above his crib I wanted him to know that he was as good and worthy of love and life as any of the planned and budgeted-for little white children with whom he might play. I did not want my son to ever feel that his life didn’t matter or that he wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want him to look like he didn’t fit in. I was surprised that I, with my identity as a queer social justice activist, found myself paranoid that my son, who couldn’t even yet sit up on his own, would adopt lies that this racist capitalist homophobic misogynist society told him about who he could or couldn’t be. I didn’t know how to find the stop button and pause the anxieties and fears for him, and simply breathe and be, appreciate my son and my labor, my life, love and being…
Today, as we complete our first year together, I am reflecting about this full rotation around the sun and year of life. We have gone from taking a trip on an airplane at a mere 5 weeks old, to broken clavicle at 8 months, to 10 month-old beat boxing and a drumming crawler, who lights up any room with his flirting and his unbelievably loud shrieks of delight.
I went from being fearful for him, to knowing that he will teach me how to be brave. He already is. We continually teach one another how to deal with our mourning and how our Black lives matter. We learn together to hold our depressions, hardships and joys in our bodies and make room for them all–not suppress them or hide them. I am finding that “outing” myself as a person with mental illness and an inactive activist this year proved more difficult than coming-out as queer in my liberal multicultural family.
This admission is just a start. There is so much more confessing, learning and growing to do as a Black mother and son. This is just to say, our lives matter in community, not in isolation, not in hatred nor in fear but in full honesty, in complete truth, in genuine fullness and all of our complexities.
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[Feature Image: A black and white photo showing a person, wearing a white tank top, cradling a baby, wearing a white onesie.]