Postpartum

Heather Frese

You know you’ve lost it when you start writing letters to Dear Abby


Dear Abby,
I look at my baby’s squalling red face and I want to run away. What do I do?
Horrible in Hatteras

When the paper boy thunks the Outer Banks Sentinel against your door at seven in the morning, you go straight to the comics and TV listings, hoping Dear Abby will enlighten you. But she never responds. You have a birth certificate that says you’re a mother. Austin Charles Oden. You look on the back for instructions, but there are none. You feel like the only horrible, unprepared mother in the universe. Your son cries, and for a minute, you pretend you don’t hear him, and scan the page for your horoscope. You’re pretty sure you’ve lost it when you read it and think, legitimately think, that the stars have aligned so you can leave:

Family members could be upset over frustrating events in their lives, and these moods could spill over to you. Today it would be best to leave them alone to work things out in their own way.

For the four days you’ve been home from the hospital, your mother has left your dad to handle things at the inn and come over to your little white house on Elizabeth Lane every morning. She arrives just after the Sentinel, and just after your husband, Stephen, leaves for work at his father’s hardware store. She comes begrudgingly, but she comes. She’s so efficient it’s terrifying, changing your baby’s diaper with quick, clean motions, handing him to you to feed. You press the baby to your breast but he won’t eat. You poke your nipple into his mouth. He won’t take it. He’s never taken it without a fight. He cries, his tiny face bunching and crinkling, pink mouth open in a howl that pierces your eardrums. He wails. He screams. He flails his tiny fists. Your incompetence burbles in your chest. You think he senses this and doesn’t want to drink incompetent breast milk. You wish it was the 1800s and you could hire a wet nurse. Your mom sighs and takes the baby from you, jiggling him up and down.

You don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve never even had a dog.


~

You live on an island. A scrawny, unprotected spit of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound. A flat, sandy, cactus-ridden prison. You’d just escaped to college on the mainland, just fallen in love with biology and Shakespeare and Stephen Oden, who was even cuter in college than he was in high school, when you got pregnant. Most Likely to Get Knocked Up and Move Back Home might as well have been written in your high school yearbook. You lived up to your reputation. Easy Evie. You say it out loud as you stare down at your sleeping son, at his placid face and twitching baby fingers. His tiny nose encrusted with a fine, translucent rim of dried snot; his patchy, alien-scaled scalp.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting never said that motherhood would feel like punishment, like solitary confinement. Your best friend, Charlotte, stayed with you while you were pregnant, but now she’s gone back to college. All your friends have. Even the tourists are gone.

The baby wakes up, his eyes blinking and unfocused. He twists, writhes, and then the screaming starts. You pick him up. You spend your day bouncing, shushing, swinging, swaying—an odd combination of busyness and tedium. You try to sleep when he sleeps, like all the books say, but every time you close your eyes you see tiny limbs, umbilical stumps, and wide-open, screaming mouths. Empty. Waiting to be fed.

Stephen comes home, and it’s as if you’re looking at his high cheekbones and pale eyes through a sheer, gray film. He’s covered, blurred, like everything else. When he takes over swaying duty, you hunker in the upstairs office and call Charlotte.

I don’t recognize myself, you tell her.

I think I’m going to join a sorority, she says.

You write another letter to Dear Abby:


Dear Abby,
I made a mistake. I’m not ready to be a mother. I want things to go back to the way they were. What do I do?
Regretful in Hatteras

You don’t mean to, but that night you fall asleep with the baby in bed beside you. You wake up sweating. You are trapped between your husband and your son, unable to move, your body pinned between theirs. You weasel yourself out of the covers and put the baby in his cradle, then go to the bathroom and stare at yourself in the mirror. You weren’t kidding when you told Charlotte you didn’t recognize yourself. Puffy-faced, eyes dark-circled, greasy-haired. The baby starts to cry, but you sit down to pee anyway. You’re still bleeding.


~

Dear Abby counsels a lazy husband, an excessive shopper, and a woman concerned with sneezing etiquette. By the time your mother stops by you know you’re required to say bless you out of politeness; even if you don’t believe that in sneezing, her soul leaves her body and is in danger of getting devil-snatched.

Your mom rocks the baby’s cradle, a gift from her and your dad. It’s yellow with a pattern of dancing elephants. Some of the elephants carry red umbrellas. Has he eaten?

You stare out the window at a lone puff of cloud in the glorious September sky. Even through the haze that films everything, you can tell the sky is stunning. It's the sort of blue-sky day you used to love to be outside in. The whiteness of the little cloud feathers out against the cerulean in a cotton ball puff, its edges ragged. You don’t know why, but the cloud makes you teary-eyed. You blame it on sleep deprivation. All he does is scream, you say. You’ve tried to feed him three times this morning. He won’t eat.

As if to back you up, the baby stirs and begins to cry, softly and staccato at first, then loud, sustained, throaty wails. Your mom rocks and hushes, pats and sways. Try to feed him, she says, handing you the baby.

You unsnap your nursing bra and poke your nipple into his mouth. He roots around and latches on, sucking and smacking. His nose is running, and snot gets on your breast.

He was hungry, your mom says. She leans over and pats the baby’s head, her long, dark hair falling into her face like a curtain.

Again, you feel like an idiot. How did you ever learn to do this?

I didn’t have a choice, she says. She looks up and pushes her hair behind her ear. I didn’t have my mother to teach me.

You’ve never really thought about the fact that your mom’s mom died before your brother and you were born. You think about it now. You feed the baby and cry.


~

That afternoon you realize that you’ve run out of milk. Cow milk. Milk for cereal and coffee and macaroni and cheese. You put on your maternity jeans and load your breasts into a jacket and head out the door to the Burrus Red and White grocery. You start the car and back halfway down the driveway before realizing you forgot the baby. You sit and think about driving away. Up Highway Twelve, across the Bonner Bridge, past Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk to someplace on the mainland, someplace where your breasts could shrink to their normal size; where you could chop off your hair and change your name and start over. You could be a diner waitress, the mysterious woman with a shrouded past who ends up falling in love with the handsome town mechanic.


Dear Abby,
What’s the most inconspicuous fake name one can adopt?
Ready to Run in NC

You turn off the car and haul yourself and your breasts back inside. The baby is quiet and you’re stabbed with the thought that he died while you were in the driveway. You run to the nursery. He’s just sleeping, his tiny chest rising and falling inside his blue onesie. You think about what you’ll need to take with you and pack it in a bag. Change of clothes in case he shits himself. Diaper. Wipes. Diaper cream. Changing pad. Powder. Ointment for circumcised baby weenie. Plastic bag to put dirty diaper in. Pacifier. Blanket. Rattle, even though he doesn’t care about toys yet. You heft the bag onto your shoulder and head to the car. This time you only make it to the porch before you remember the baby’s still inside.

You stand over his cradle, debating whether moving him to his car seat will wake him up. You wonder if you should wrap him in a blanket or put a coat on him, or maybe his onesie is warm enough? You call your mom, but the girl at the desk of your parents’ inn, the girl who replaced Charlotte after she went back to school, says your mom is outside tending to an issue with the pool heater, and can you call back later? You hang up, take a deep breath, and scoop up your son. His wobbly head still scares you. You tuck him in your arm and pick up the diaper bag. You make it to the living room before he starts screaming.

He screams all the way to the store. You park at the Red and White, go to the back door, unlatch him from his car seat, pick him up, and go back around to the front. You sit down and begin the process of extricating your breast. The diaper bag with the blanket is in the back, and you don’t want to get up and balance the baby again to retrieve it, so you lift your shirt with nothing to cover you. A woman walks by and stares. Patricia Ballance, the mother of your high school boyfriend. You look down and try to feed the baby. He cries and writhes. His tiny toes and fingers flex. He won’t eat. You bounce and sway the best you can in the front seat of the car. You remember that you haven’t put your breast away.


Dear Abby,
My baby won’t stop crying. This car is like an echo chamber and I think I’m going to lose my mind. Is it rude to take a crying baby into a grocery store if insanity is the only other option?
Had it in Hatteras

You pull down your shirt and heft yourself, your breasts, and your baby out of the car. You grab the diaper bag and walk up the brick steps to the store. The baby howls. A red-faced banshee. People stare. You try to put him in the cart but realize you need his car seat to do that. The diaper bag slides off your shoulder and smacks the baby on the head. He cries louder. It’s then that you notice the smell of fresh shit. You panic. You can’t even remember why you came here in the first place. You know the Red and White doesn’t have a public restroom. You don’t know what to do.

Please stop crying, you whisper to the baby. For a second you contemplate placing the baby in the meat cooler to change his diaper. You could tuck him in next to the bacon and pot roast. At least he wouldn’t roll away. You try to take a deep breath but everything smells like shit. This is not calming. Your options are: the floor. The check-out counter conveyor belt. A bench on the front porch. The car.

You decide on the car and are turning around to run back outside when you spot your Aunt May. You’ve never been so happy to see her grizzled gray head in your life. I need help, you say. The baby’s shrieking climbs another decibel.

You certainly do. Aunt May looks at you, then at the baby. Is it supposed to smell like that? Aunt May has never had children.

She puts her arm around your shoulder, plugs her ear closest to the baby, and walks you outside. Together, you put the baby on a bench, take off his onesie and diaper, wipe and powder him, ointment his baby weenie, and put his clothes back on. You’re covered in shit. You clean your hands with wet wipes but there’s poop on your shirt. The wipes just smear the shirt shit around.

You suddenly feel like you can’t keep your eyes open.

Then the baby turns his head and pukes.


~

That evening you wait by the door for Stephen to come home from work. You hand him the baby before he can put down his keys and you run upstairs. You call Charlotte.

I can’t do this, you tell her.

Charlotte says she knows motherhood must be a difficult adjustment, and to give it time. She tells you about the cute professor who teaches her history class, how he puts his hand in his pocket when writing on the chalkboard and all the girls ogle his butt.

You try to tell Charlotte about the Red and White poop debacle, but instead you hear yourself say, I don’t think I love my baby.

Silence on the other end of the line. Of course you do, Evie. How could you not?

You fiddle with the tassel from Stephen’s graduation mortarboard that hangs from the edge of the desk. Your breasts hurt. You’re so tired. I guess so.

Of course you love your son. How could you not?

You hang up and mess around on the Internet. You fall asleep halfway through a game of solitaire.

Stephen wakes you up by banging into the office. The neatness of his polo shirt and khaki pants infuriates you. He doesn’t have a speck of shit or vomit or snot on him. I’ve been working all day, Stephen says. He holds the baby out to you. Why don’t we have any milk?


~

A month passes. Four weeks. Thirty sleepless nights. You feed that baby every two hours, every single two hours of every single day, no matter what. Your nipples crack and bleed. The baby sucks the life out of you. You become intimately acquainted with late night TV. Lifetime, Television for Women from midnight to two; a dead hour where you have a choice between Miami Vice and Matlock—you usually choose Miami Vice; Bill Cosby from three to five; infomercials after that. You know you’ve lost it when you order a Snuggie, swayed by the inclusion of a free dog Snuggie and $5.95 shipping. You don’t even have a dog, but think you could give it to Aunt May’s Yorkie, Walter.

Your mom comes; your mom leaves. The baby eats; the baby cries. The baby poops. A lot. Stephen goes to work; Stephen comes home. You stop making dinner for him. You stop making dinner for yourself. One night, Stephen looks at you like he doesn’t even know who you are. What the fuck, Evie, is all he says. What the fuck? You can’t afford a babysitter. You can’t afford shit. You call Charlotte whenever you can pawn the baby off on someone else. She doesn’t always answer, but when she does, she talks for long stretches, telling you about her classes and her dates and her sorority. Alpha Gamma Delta. Their mascot is a squirrel. If you get her a gift for her birthday, she’d like it to be red, the sorority’s signature color, or pearls, the signature jewel. You stop calling. She rarely calls you. Dear Abby still hasn’t answered your letters.


Dear Abby,
Fuck you.
Irritated on Elizabeth Lane

The Outer Banks Sentinel piles up on your kitchen table, unread. You’ve even given up on your horoscope. Your mom comes in with three Sentinels in her hand and dumps them on the counter. She picks up the baby, holds him in one arm, and scrubs the stove with the other.

He’s eaten, you tell her. Your voice echoes dully in your head.

Your mom stops scrubbing. She puts down the sponge and stands beside your chair. Have you eaten? she asks. She jiggles the baby up and down.

You poke up some crumbs with your finger. You honestly don’t remember. You muster the energy to shrug.

Your mom puts the baby in his cradle and sits at the table beside you. She pats your hand. It gets easier, she says.

Your mom is not the sort to pat your hand and comfort you. You look into your mom’s dark eyes, which are usually snappish, but they are soft now. I’m not ready for this, you say.

Your mom pats you once more, then sits up straight and takes her hand away. Her eyes turn sharp again. Do you think I was ready for your brother? For you? For your brother and you and your father working such long hours I don’t think he even crapped at home anymore? But did losing it help? Did an affair help?

Your affair certainly didn’t help me, you say.

Your mom tightens her mouth. She crosses her arms and stares at you, her gaze pinpricking your face. What helped was remembering that no one forced me to marry your father; to get pregnant with one kid and then another. What helped was hard work: teaching you to ride a bike and talking Nate through his first break-up and buying that old inn and scraping paint and spackling walls and polishing floors until my knuckles bled. What helped was going to bed so tired I couldn’t sleep, but thankful as hell that this was my choice.

You push your hair behind your ears and cross your arms, a mirror of your mother. The way it was your choice to leave for four months before you decided you didn’t like living in Buffalo? you ask.

Evelyn, nobody likes living in Buffalo. Your mom grasps your face in her hands. She shakes your cheeks, like she’s trying to wake you up. This was your choice.

You turn your head away. You don’t want to admit that she’s right, that it was your choice. Ten months ago you and Stephen had stood on a cold, windswept beach and had The Conversation about What to Do. You’d only been dating for three months, but you’d known each other your whole lives.

Let’s not do this, you’d said. I can’t do this.

Stephen took your hand. It’s your choice, he said.

You plodded through the sand, the wind in your hair like a wild thing. Waves crashed, spitting up gray-white spume that caught on the shore and blew like the tumbleweed you’d seen on TV. You and Stephen walked without speaking. All the way back to the boardwalk with no words, just the promise between you that together, you wouldn’t do this.

That’s when you saw them, the tiny footprints in the sand. You stopped, frozen. Stephen stopped, too, and looked down. You closed your eyes and listened to the ocean. You imagined all the swells crashing on all the beaches of all the world; you imagined slipping beneath the undertow, down to where the sunlight doesn’t reach. You imagined the thick atmosphere rolling over your body and sucking you down. You imagined the baby inside you, your blood shushing around it like waves, the waters of your body shaking up and settling like snow in a glass globe.

Let’s get married, you said.

Okay, said Stephen.

And you did.

It was your choice.

In the kitchen of your little white house on Elizabeth Lane, your mother takes her hands off your face. She goes back to scrubbing the stove. Your cheeks feel warm, like her hands are still there. Ghost imprints of your mother’s flesh.


~

After your mother leaves, you pick up a Sentinel from the pile. Your horoscope from last Monday says: You will feel more alive over the coming twelve months, as if you have woken up after a long sleep, refreshed and renewed and ready to take on the world. Don't waste that feeling. Use it to make real your dream.

You toss the paper aside. Horoscopes are crap. You haven’t slept in a month. Make real your dream. The Sentinel falls open to Dear Abby’s comforting black and white smile.

Dear Abby, the letter reads. It’s not one of yours, but you read anyway.

My co-worker microwaves fish and fish byproducts, which, as you can imagine, makes the office smell dreadful. She also uses all of the coffee creamers. How do I deal with this person without making the work environment even more uncomfortable?

Fishy Situation in Newark, NJ

You think if you were Dear Abby, you’d tell Fishy Situation to leave some raw shrimp in her coworker’s bottom left drawer to see how she liked dealing with that shit, but Dear Abby is apparently more mature than you. She writes:

Dear Fishy,

You can choose your friends, you can choose your enemies, but you can’t choose your coworkers. Sometimes the workplace calls for being graceful in ungraceful situations. In this case, buy some air freshener (consider a plug-in so the whole office can enjoy) and creamer and call it a day. If that doesn’t work, speak to the HR department about the situation. But unless there are rules against fish in the microwave, there may be little they can do. Try to make the best out of your fishy situation.

You put down the column and smudge the newspaper ink off your fingers. The October sunlight filters through your kitchen window, streaking the walls golden. Your stove is clean and your kitchen smells like coffee, the only sound's the low thrum of the refrigerator.

You try to imagine what Dear Abby would’ve said if she’d answered your letters.

Dear Evie,

Buck up and stop bitching. You’re not the only person in the world to have a kid at nineteen.

Or maybe,

Dear Evie,

Things could be worse; at least your kitchen doesn’t smell like fish byproducts.

Or possibly,

Listen kid, if you really want out, do it now. It’s shit or get off the pot time.

You check on the baby. For once, he’s asleep. You study his face. You check your hand for newspaper ink, then touch his cheek with your pinky finger. The baby twitches his head like he’s trying to get rid of a fly. He opens his mouth then closes it. You look out the window. The sky is a pale, pearly blue. When he wakes up, you decide to take the baby to the beach.

You forget to pack Wet Wipes, and the baby screams all the way down the bumpy access ramp, but you finally park and get out and set up an umbrella and towel. You wrestle the baby and the car seat out and lay them in the shade. Then you sit down. The baby’s still crying, shallow rasps of annoyance, thrashing his head side to side. Hush, you say to him. Listen to the waves. He clenches and unclenches his fists, grabbing baby handfuls of air. You jiggle his car seat back and forth until he quiets down. The breeze is soft and salty on your face, warm with a slight, autumncool edge. Look, you whisper to him. Those are seagulls. Don’t feed them or they’ll never leave you alone. The baby turns his head toward you and yawns. I’m tired, too, you little turd.

You rock the car seat back and forth, creating a shallow ditch in the sand, until he falls asleep. You lie down, and, keeping your hand on the car seat, fall asleep, too. You wake up to the baby’s angry howl and jump to your feet without thinking, terrified the tide had come in. But the beach still stretches out in tan undulation, glassy waves lapping in the distance. The baby shrieks again and flails, and you look down to see the green iridescence of a biting fly on his arm. You swat it away. Shit, you say to the baby. You unstrap him from the car seat and pick him up. His head wobbles less than it did a month ago. I’m sorry. Those flies really hurt. You rub the spot on his arm. He cries and cries.

You pat his back and pace back and forth, whispering shush, shush, shush. You match your whispers to the rhythm of the waves, shushing as the water splashes on the shore. You walk and shush until the baby’s cries begin to calm. You walk some more. The baby whimpers, sighs, then jerks his body away from yours, his arms pressed against your chest. He crinkles his mouth, but he doesn’t cry. He stares. He looks at you with his big eyes, which are not blue anymore, but brown, like your mother’s, like yours. He stares. A rush of breeze courses over you both, and you hold his head and look back at him.

You stand there on the beach in the breeze, you and your baby, looking at each other for a long time. The sun shines and waves shush and you and your baby gaze. He opens his mouth in a round “o” and raises his downy eyebrows. He turns his head and blinks and gurgles something that sounds like gerblah. You carry him to the towel, sit down and rest him on your lap. The two of you settle into the sand, facing each other. Still looking.