Trying to remember the exact moment I fell in love with my son, Nathaniel, is hard. It might have been when he appeared to be listening intently as I read him my favorite book from childhood, The Velveteen Rabbit. It might have been during the walk when he reached out from his baby carrier and grabbed my finger. But I know for sure that it wasn't the first time I held my child -- and the shock I felt at not experiencing the rush of love I had anticipated upon becoming a mother was staggering.
Even though I had a cesarean section, I still expected to see Nathaniel right away. I imagined he'd be lifted over the curtain and placed onto my chest. He'd open his eyes, and we'd look at each other, and the collective wisdom of generations of mothers who had come before me would beam into my heart.
Instead, my son and I had our first meeting in the recovery room at the hospital, hours after his birth. My parents and my husband were there. A nice nurse kept asking me where I was on the pain scale from one to ten. Someone handed the baby to me at some point, but the memory is elusive, just beyond my reach.
The last thing I recall clearly was being in the operating room. The baby had just been delivered, but he wasn't crying yet; the nurses were still clearing out his mouth. I was shaking violently, either from fear or from all the drugs that had been pumped into my system. I begged the anesthesiologist to do something for my nausea. Before she added another drug to my IV, I heard a nurse asking my doctor the reason for the C-section, presumably for hospital paperwork. "It's late and I wanted to go home," he said. I suppose he was joking, but after 36 hours of labor, I wasn't really in the mood to laugh.
In the blurry weeks that followed, I went over the events of that day in my mind like a crime-scene investigator, trying to figure out exactly when something had gone horribly wrong. Because something was clearly horribly wrong. When I held Nathaniel, I felt a pounding, all-consuming anxiety. One word thrummed through my head like a drumbeat: escape. I wanted to put Nathaniel in his crib, walk out the door, and never come back. When we took him for his first checkup, I sincerely hoped the doctor would see that I was not up for the challenge of motherhood and allow us to leave the baby there.
What kind of mother was I? What kind of person was I? You're a monster, I told myself. A monster who doesn't love her own child. It didn't make sense. I had always thought of myself as the kind of woman who was born to be a mother. But here I was, desperately plotting my escape from the role I had craved most in life.
When my husband took pictures of me with the baby, I tried to force my face into a smile, but my eyes told the truth. They were flat and empty. My voice sounded like it was coming from down a long tunnel. I had no appetite. Food tasted wrong.
A few friends suggested that I might have postpartum depression, but I didn't think so. That felt like a crutch, an excuse. Besides, I wasn't crying all the time. I wasn't crying at all. I was just sitting there, either numb or panicking, incapable of doing anything right. I wasn't sick. I was useless.
I can't do this. I won't do this. These words ran through my mind day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. Every time the phone rang, I hoped it was someone calling to rescue me. Friends came and visited, but they always left. "Take me with you," I remember begging one of them. I tried to pretend I was joking, but I wasn't.
I was feeling worse after a few weeks, so I called a psychopharmacologist I had seen a few years back. She was straightforward and told me that with the right medication, I would feel just like my old self. I didn't believe her. My old self was gone -- I was sure of that.
I went back to a therapist I had seen before my marriage, but she had become, over time, more a friend than a counselor. I was ashamed for her to see me in my current state. I went once and didn't return.
Next I tried an old-school psychoanalyst. Dr. Freud, as my husband called him, was warm and reassuring, but he wanted to talk about my childhood and I wanted to focus on the present. By this point, Nathaniel was more than 2 months old. I feared that if I didn't get better soon, I'd never bond with him. Also, my maternity leave was coming to an end. I needed to take a more aggressive approach.