When I was pregnant with my first child, Sophia, I felt invincible, like an all-powerful fertility goddess full of unfettered anticipation. I’m bipolar, so maybe I was a little manic, but it felt soooo good. Pregnant on the first try, breathing smoothly and holding steady in warrior pose in anticipation of labor. I even led a month-long student trip to Greece eight and a half months into the pregnancy, convincing my midwife I would be careful, would take it easy, and would rest at night. Instead, I trekked up mountains and across dusty goat paths, brushing my hands through wild oregano; on the beach, after snorkeling, I massaged olive oil into my stretch marks, and into the wee hours of the night, danced the kalamatiano. In one photograph, I float on my back in the blue, buoyant Aegean, my round belly rising from the water like the moon.
Sophia was a dream. Can I say that labor was easy, that she slid from me as if down a water slide, and immediately nursed in soporific contentment? She slept for long, quiet stretches, which meant I did, too, and giggled, first, at the dog’s long, swinging tongue brushing her cheek. She traveled in front carriers and strollers across Greece, Italy, and Mexico. If there were tantrums, I don’t remember any. We called her our “trick baby”: her easiness convinced us to have a second.
My pregnancy with Alexander was difficult. I was tired, full of self-loathing about my failing ambitions, and often dragged down into the mire of depression since I stopped my meds. No fallout the first time, but this time? I was convinced my depression would damage my growing son who was so intimately linked to my chemistry. Irrational, like a belief in medieval humors and black bile running through the umbilical cord into him. But not so irrational. Wasn’t he suspended in a body flooded with cortisol and deficient in serotonin and dopamine? Wasn’t this amniotic bath contaminating him?
In a first photo: I sit in the hospital bed holding my newborn son, swaddled tight, against my chest with one arm, the other arm bare, visible. The scars that run up and down my arm are visible, evidence of what I believed deep down was my maternal unfitness. It should have been a beautiful photograph, but I couldn’t look at it. Shame and despair beside beauty and hope. I had my husband delete it.
I fell deeply in love with my son, Alexander. His enormous brown eyes gazed up at me in unblinking forgiveness: love, love, love you. He nursed for hours at a stretch, as if reluctant to give me up, as if expecting already I might leave him. He was not an easy baby — rarely sleeping that first year for more than two hours; I staggered to his room and rocked him and nursed him and sang every lullaby I knew — My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea.... In those dark, sleepless hours, when I felt like a failed mother, when my bipolar disorder was wildly uncontrolled, I thought: Surely my family would be better off without me. Then I would look down at my son, who was looking up at me, and I thought: Just hold on a little longer, let him need you a little less.
From my journal, four months after my son’s birth: I am running, looking at the world flying past me, unable to see it, to feel how beautiful it is, and it is beautiful, it is April, austere tulips and dopey daffodils and crab apples blooming and I see them and I see through them, and all I do is occupy empty space. I am via negativa.
When he was nine months, I was admitted to the psych ward for the first time. My husband had to hold me down in bed because I threatened to run outside in front of any oncoming car. Depleted. Sleepless. Not eating. Manic. Depressed. What is called a Mixed State. I stopped nursing cold turkey. The hospital didn’t get me a breast pump for two days, so milk spilled down my stomach, soaking my pajamas and the sheets. How could my son ever understand my sudden and utter absence? How would I ever make it up to him? How would he ever trust me again?
For several years, that was the pattern: I was in and out of the hospital, trying to find stability, trying to find the right cocktail of medications that would allow me to slow down, trying to teach my classes, trying to make chocolate cake, trying to keep up with baths and lunches and field trips, trying to breathe and to breathe in my children. When I would come home from the hospital, Sophia and Alexander would insist on sleeping in my bed, each on one side of me, holding my hand or touching my leg for assurance that I was still there and not going anywhere, not leaving again, not trying to leave for good. They held me in place with their tiny, warm bodies with their insistent and unrelenting love: You are ours, they seemed to say, not yours, not anymore.
Their relentless love is why I am still here. They needed me in their world, so I returned to stability, self-compassion, and most days, even self-love. My children and I talk about the scars on my arms, and those years of my itinerant, unstable motherhood, and their fears for me — that the bipolar dragon might return and carry me back to its cave.
But it’s been years now, and I feel sound and steadfast, and truly, they don’t worry that I’ll be gone in the morning. Sophia is independent and bold, born of intrepid travel and buoyancy. She tells me her own fears, about boys and puberty, and about her dream to move to California and be an animator. Though he’s now ten, Alexander still crawls into bed with me. A sweet intimacy which I know is likely to disappear when he hits adolescence. But for now, I swoon over his long, skinny legs that bump against mine, and his head which sometimes settles close to mine on the pillow, and his deep, untroubled breath as he slips into sleep. And I understand that my children will never need me any less, and I will always secretly need them more.