It’s a summer Sunday evening and I’m standing in line at a grocery store checkout lane, leaning against my heavily laden cart. It’s a quarter after eight, and I realize I won’t make it home in time to get the baby ready for bed. She and I always go up to her bedroom together for the familiar ritual of the last diaper change, me nibbling her thighs and kissing her tummy, and helping her into footed pajamas.
It’s usually a quiet moment of the day where we can stare at each other in the soft light of her bedroom lamp. I utter gentle encouraging superlatives about how smart, pretty, funny, silly she is, and she gurgles back to me in her own noise. The whole thing takes longer than it needs to, but this exaggerated nighttime event is a highlight of my day. Tonight my husband will have to perform this ritual, which is fine, but a part of me is sad for missing it.
In a few days, I’ll board a plane to California for a week-long west coast trip with friends—something we can probably no longer refer to as a “girls’ trip.” I’ve been looking forward to this week away for months, but it was only this weekend, with the trip so near on the horizon, that I’ve felt a wistfulness tugging at me.
Lost in thought at the checkout, I glance at the magazines and it occurs to me that I should buy one for the flight. Maybe even two! I haven’t read a magazine — the most frivolous of all reading material — since my last California trip. Books, of course, but nothing so light and fanciful as Glamour or People, the Style Issue. Magazines remind me of my 20s—hungover Sunday afternoons flipping pages on the couch; so much travel that I had subscribed to four or five titles so I would always have a stack to bring in a carry-on bag; age 26, when I got my first job on a magazine staff. There was a simplistic struggle to those days, a low-level romanticized melancholy from not being completely sure where your future is headed or what you even want it to look like.
Those feelings were eventually replaced by others. So many others. I remember the highs of delirious happiness and disbelief that someone could love me and I could love them in such a way that the carpet of your mutual future suddenly rolls out before you. And not so long ago, the uneasy fatigue of desperation and confusion of early motherhood that’s the quarter-life equivalent of taking an exam for which you studied the wrong chapters. You know some of the answers and can guess at a few more, but it was much harder than you anticipated.
In between triumphant moments of sweetness with my new baby were days that felt like walking in total darkness through a room I had thought I could feel my way through. There were days I would celebrate the passage of another five minutes, relieved to be even a tiny bit closer to the time my husband got home from work. Completed tasks from which I derived a sense of accomplishment got more and more basic. I recognized myself less and less.
Before I walked into the grocery store tonight, I had parked the car and paused for a second, still gripping the wheel. On a Sunday night not even a year ago, I was sitting in the car in a grocery store parking lot, damp hair covering my eyes, trying to hide my relentless tears, face contorted, gasping for air, my thoughts running wild. The trip to the store was supposed to be a break, time away from the baby and from our new townhouse in the suburbs where almost nothing was unpacked.
Forty-five minutes of not being responsible for anything except a shopping cart. I cried so hard that night I scared myself. An inner me looked on in quiet shock, eyebrows raised at the thoughts running through my head. I will never forget thinking about how close we lived to the airport and that I could get easily buy a ticket, get on a plane, and fly away from life for a while. I remember considering how I was dressed and if I would look strange walking through the airport. I loved my husband, loved my baby, loved my station in life, but something felt off. I didn’t fully understand that sadness, but I don’t think postpartum depression is necessarily rooted in logic.
Tonight I paused to think about that breakdown in the car and it struck me how far the pendulum has swung. Here I am, a mother of a 13-month-old, sad that I’m going to go a week without squeezing her, thinking about how Postpartum Me would have given anything to get the fuck out of town. It’s the most amazing feeling to have shed that paralysis and to feel maternal and capable and proud.
Not that it’s smooth sailing from here—I can’t even imagine the terrible twos or what having a teenage daughter is like—but right now feels good. There’s no escaping motherhood, but right now I don’t even want to try.