Walking in East Harlem today, summer Fahrenheit beginning to assert in the city mix, the uptick from air conditioner exhaust... a young mother with one baby in her arms, another at her side tugs at her tank and points toward a bakery. 'Did I tell you to shut your mouth?' and she whacks him-- hard... across his ear... his little face scrunching into a silent wince, tear-tracks clearing a clean line down cheeks stained with a long-day's soot and play-dirt...
Babies are little heat-machines... any woman who's carried inside or outside well appreciates the relief a stroller allows, cumbersome as they can be on public transportation. And children are simply overwhelming-- especially when echoes of your old carefree life creep in like passing car-music-- some 5-inch heels you crave in a store-window... your baby-daddy taking just a little more time to pick up the Happy Meals... and all new mothers know the shock of cataclysmic hormonal changes-- swimming in estrogen as you are during pregnancy, small issues ride over you like candy... but suddenly you are sweaty and cranky and exhausted and your front door feels like a prison gate.
I noticed this week Alanis Morissette doing the talk-show rounds-- maybe some promo for a coming album... proudly pregnant and bringing her rock-star confessions about post-natal depression. The Queen of TMI whose well-produced radio-ready emotional cries occupied a generous portion of the 90's airwaves... now the spokeswoman of depressed new mothers. Who else--Cardi B? Brooke Shields a few years back? The society of botoxed, fashion-elitist, nannied, chauffeured, and all-around privileged-- now earning talk-show and book-income as conflicted mothers. Somehow this high-profile whining doesn't move me. Even Khloe Kardashian, publicly humiliated by the father of her new baby-- deals with billionaire motherhood. I salute you, Khloe-- victim of the same insulting behavior so many of us have passed through. You are a role model. But my hot friend today with the two babies and God-knows how many at home has no glam squad. What she does have is food stamps and a place to live in the Projects, unlike some. What she does not have is help. Tutelage. Someone to listen to her. NEI (Not Enough Information).
When I had my son I was already 36. My career had taken a positive turn-- my record was doing well in the UK-- I had a huge deal on the table-- and then I found myself pregnant-- unplanned, unwarned... with a young husband who pleaded and begged and promised to become the Mister Mom every working woman dreams about. Okay. I toured-- I performed-- I wrote, I signed deals, made promises. The baby came-- my husband, as was his custom, was drinking heavily. The doctor threw him out of the delivery room and I met my son for the first time as I was to live most of his childhood-- alone.
Okay... many, many dramatic episodes as only the finest British actors can play them... in and out, drunk and sober, on his knees, on planes, on telephones-- with and without flowers... and I found myself back in New York with a baby-- the ultimate heaven-blessed gift of nature-- a healthy, perfect, adorable little boy-- and a heart-splitting slam of psychological claustrophobia that felt like a perpetual car-crash. Unwilling to share with anyone this sense of abandonment-- failure-- inverted joy, whatever... I wandered the streets of my neighborhood at night with my stroller-- up and down-- in and out of 24-hour stores with my little sleeping bundle... trying to walk myself into exhaustion... but when I returned home, I couldn't lie down--- I couldn't listen to records-- it was too memory-soaked-- or even watch television-- it was like being assaulted. Reading was impossible-- when it rained I'd talk on the telephone, or move us up to the laundry room where I'd count headlights on the wet asphalt outside and wish I was a passenger.
One night I was so exhausted I was maybe hallucinating, worrying I'd neglect some crucial baby-caring task-- and I wheeled us into a Mental Health clinic. I need to see someone, I said. The intake process was weeks. I am not going to make three weeks, I announced, and while a nurse carefully lifted the baby into competent arms, they sent me upstairs to the facility director who told me he thought my thyroid was completely out of whack. The diagnosis-- an educated stab in the dark and a kind of pretext-- gave me a little relief... and just confessing to this stereotypical Psychiatric Neurobiologist with a bowtie and a theory... was therapeutic.
What they did not diagnose then was this postpartum depression or postnatal or whatever biological or emotional havoc these things wreak on women. Coupled with my missing husband and a disintegrating marriage, an abrupt change of lifestyle-- I was used to playing in clubs, hanging out until dawn--- wilding and feeling like an uncaged animal. Or after breakups-- tough days--- you'd go out to a bar, listen to other people's issues, drink surrounded by good music and flirt a little with a cute bartender who reassured you the future was going to be so much better than the present.
I survived... no meds, no prescriptions--- a few sessions with a therapist while a nice intern played with the baby through a glass door... and of course I never had the urge to hurt my child... I loved him all the more, never drank, never left him even for a second-- I nursed my own wounds and failures into a scar of motherly fortitude and managed somehow, through free clinics, $1 bags of doughnuts, and Goodwill stores, to get through the challenges of babyhood. Yes, Alanis. No herbs or oils or mountain retreats.
So I am less sympathetic to the whining celebrities on television-- with their perfect makeup and clothing, looking like cover plates and talking about their tough life... while a gorgeous husband, a team of nannies and assistants waits at home with a clean bathroom, freshly washed crib linens and perfectly mashed organic baby food. Walls of sympathy for Beyonce and Cardi B-- more than I earn in a year for an appearance to raise awareness of this syndrome. Did my mother and grandmother not suffer? Surely this is not new--- what is new are the meds and treatments which earn some people money. The public whining-- the celebrity confessionality which fuels Instagram and social media like nothing else. Tiny tragedies-- nothing bloody or gory... just infidelities, rehabs, breakdowns-- that kind of thing. A little postpartum retrospective, to give some credibility to the perfect image.
Motherhood is hard; single parenthood is long and relentless. Even when you are sick, there is no relief. And when something wonderful happens, there is no one who claps their hands with you. I was a mature woman. I had no money, nor public assistance, but I had some experience. For these young unprepared girls without role models there is little comfort. They have traded their girlhood and their freedom for a dream of family that mostly deteriorates with time. Every day we hear about abandoned children, hurt and abused children. I try to understand the sorrows of the mothers-- not to condemn them. There is help, but not really. You are in this or you are not. God save the society that disallows abortions and thereby fails to protect children from suffering future neglect. I know very few women who have not made these difficult choices, in favor of a life.
It is Pride weekend. When my baby was young, a gay couple moved in down the hall from me. They were very handsome and very much in love but withering and sick with AIDS. They were also so kind and loving... they loved the baby so much and came often in their pajamas just to hold him. One died and the other threw himself off the balcony; I missed seeing this by seconds... but I will remember them especially on Sunday... two men who somehow empathically understood my mothery loneliness-- they embraced me with the baby and the future they would never have, shunned by their families, but enviably with one another in an eternal bond... they healed me like nothing else, and I cared for them as I could, in vain. I cannot write this song... and my son is a grown man now. Even the memory of my sadness has a kind of nostalgic sweetness that never shows in those baby photos. And unlike the little boy who was slapped today, my son never had to worry that it was his fault... that he was wrong... in any way... because he was just so 'right'... and that is a blessing. Amen.