When Re-Entry and Postpartum Anxiety Collide
I was going 55 mph in the fast lane of the Bay Bridge when I realized I hadn’t driven at night in over a year. Cars buzzed around me like flies. Had nighttime driving always been this dizzying? Should it even be legal? Also, more topically, aren’t you a thousand times more likely to die in a car accident than from COVID?
I was headed to my friend’s outdoor birthday dinner, my first “re-entry” into the social world—and the first time I’d been away from my four-month-old son and three-year-old twins since the start of the pandemic. The group was largely vaccinated, the Bay Area numbers were on the decline, and the baby was sleeping through the night. My rational brain urged me to go. It was time to get back out there. So the night of the party, I left my husband home with our sleeping brood and ventured into the wild.
But the second I backed out of the driveway, I felt uneasy. As I drove down our street and felt my boobs suddenly refill with milk, my unease escalated into anxiety. By the time I reached the bridge, I was nearing a full-blown panic attack. What if the behemoth structure suddenly collapsed into the Bay? How could I let myself travel this far from my young in the dark of night, separated by a body of unswimmable water? It was wrong, unnatural. My bodily response felt primal while my intellect chided me not to be so lame.
I tried to drown the panic via my pre-kids “Going Out” playlist—lots of Robyn sprinkled with a little Nicki Minaj—and somehow made it to the restaurant. Its outdoor dining setup looked surreal, cartoonish, like a scene from a messed-up dream. A blurry cacophony of twinkly lights hung between heat lamps, strewn among picnic tables topped with appetizer platters surrounded by laughing guys in pristine sneakers drinking IPAS and fast-talking women sipping white wine with stylish masks under their chins. The place was packed. Unsteadily, I found my friends and approached as they were mid-debate about Meghan Markle’s authenticity. It was like no one but me had skipped a beat.
“Jen!” the birthday girl said, “you made it!”
“I did! It was a harrowing journey!” No one laughed. Crap. I’d also lost my ability to read conversational cues.
“Well, time for champagne!” She said, pouring me a glass “Cheers to no kids! Or husbands!”
“Only a little, I have to drive home!” I said, wanting badly to reach for my phone to check the baby monitor.
“Ah, come on, don’t think about home!” she said.
Escaping home was all I’d fantasized about for the first half of the pandemic. I’d spent months longing to flee the oppressive domesticity that comes with keeping infants and toddlers alive in captivity. More than once, I’d dreamt of hightailing it to Baja where my only responsibility would be cultivating a discerning palette for various types of tequila. So why was I suddenly so averse to two free hours? All I knew was that the combination of pandemic, pregnancy, and postpartum had created a thick cocoon around me for the past 18 months, and whatever scenarios I had fantasized from within that shell were just that: fantasies. The truth was, I wasn’t ready for this shit.
I texted my husband under the table. “Everything okay back there?”
He responded: “The baby is crying—but it’s okay, he’ll settle. Don’t text, have fun!!”
My friend: “Jen! Get off your phone! Checking in is not allowed!”
“Sorry! What are you guys ordering?” I asked, looking down at the menu, overwhelmed by the choices. I wanted to cry.
Maybe this was postpartum depression? It felt similar to what I’d experienced after having my twins. For months after their rough delivery, I’d stayed within blocks of my home, tethered to the simplicity of survival. Being outside in the fast, modern world felt dangerous—a place where I’d lose sync to my babies’ rhythm, which was all that mattered. Chaotic inputs that took me out of myself—the news, social media, email—literally made me nauseous. Having always been a go-go-go-er, a frenzied tech worker rushing from meetings to happy hours to SXSW and back again, it was strange to suddenly find myself reborn as a highly sensitive, lumbering mammal concerned with nothing but food, shelter, and sleep.
After the first phase of lockdown, I’d found it necessary to adopt a similar mentality in order to not completely lose my mind. My best days were when I shoved aside dreams of escaping and instead imagined myself as a pioneer woman out on the prairie. The day was a success if we all ate and no one died of a snake bite. Everything was okay as long as we took care of the basics and stuck to the daily rhythms. Over time, this became a natural way of being rather than a survival tactic. Much like adjusting to life with a newborn.
The waiter arrived. “You all ready to order?” Incredibly, everyone was. They quickly spouted off food sources I forgot existed—Dungeness crab, pork belly, kumquats. I scanned the salads. Pioneers didn’t eat microgreens. Panicked, I ordered the soup of the day, a familiar lifeline back to the cans I had stocked in my pantry.
“So guys, we can no longer use the smiley face emoji,” a friend said after the waiter left.
“Also, no skinny jeans!” piped in another. “Or side parts!”
Everyone laughed. What? How had such ubiquitous fashion trends phased out so suddenly? Then they moved on to A-Rod and J-Lo and Southern Charm and Zoom mishaps and gender inequality in Silicon Valley and Peloton outputs and the best toy to keep kids entertained when you just need a freaking minute to breathe. Slowly, and then quickly, I found myself enjoying this conversation. My friends’ snappy, quick-on-the-draw banter threw a switch in my brain that had been dimmed for what seemed years. I felt it light up and heard myself laughing at their one-liners. It was pleasant to be seated among adults doing something besides scraping mac and cheese off the floor.
But while waiting in the not-quite-six-foot-distanced line for the restroom, I checked the baby monitor. He was crying again. My boobs started leaking into my bra pads. The primal anxiety returned. I needed to go home. The baby needed his mom more than I needed to discuss Kim and Kanye’s divorce.
“No!” my friends pleaded when I told them I was leaving. “It’s your one night out! At least stay until 9!”
“No, I gotta go,” I said, and then I basically fled the scene.
As I drove back over the bridge (fast this time), I felt pulled apart. On one side, the return to “normalcy” with all the connections, thrills, and overwhelm of the external world. On the other, the cocoon, with its beautiful simplicities, satisfactions, and sometimes soul-numbing boredom. Like everyone, I was hurtling back toward regular life, a massive relief for obvious reasons. But how quickly should I expect myself to snap back from the fog of carrying and birthing a baby amid a global pandemic?
I’m finding that the answer is: not all that quickly. Like everyone, I need to be gentle with myself. I don’t really want to be a pioneer woman—eventually, I probably would take the wagon and flee to Baja. But having gone through postpartum twice now plus the pandemic, I also find the extroverted, hyped-up, full-throttle world that was my reality before it all … well, a little nuts. Survival periods change us. We don’t emerge with the same goals or priorities. We winnow out what we no longer need or what wasn’t sustainable.
When I got home, everyone was sleeping soundly, including the baby and my husband. I walked around my quiet house, which now felt strangely foreign—a separate entity from myself rather something fused to me. I poured myself a glass of wine and sat alone in the darkened living room.
“Missing you guys!” I texted the group back at the restaurant. And actually, I was.