We'll go to the zoo. It'll be fun. It's not too hot today, and it's the last week of summer vacation. This is a good plan.
It was a good plan. Despite the whirlwind of getting out of the house with both kids in tow on my own, the frenzy of finding a place to park, and the juggling of equipment, it was a good plan.
Things started out well. The baby smiled happily in the underwater tunnel as the sunlight filtered through onto his face. My daughter leapt joyfully from exhibit to exhibit. It was nice.
Then, she started to complain that she was hungry. "Okay," I said. "We'll go get lunch." The baby started crying. He was hungry, too. No problem. I thought to myself. We'll get lunch, and I'll nurse him while we sit in the cafe. It'll be fine.
Then we got to the cafe, and the lines were long and confusing. A woman kept getting into and out of the line nearest me, screaming at the man she was with. Her day was not going well. I'll just get in a different line. I scooted over. The line moved slowly, and my daughter danced, darted, spun. "Please stand still." She sat on the floor as lines of people moved around us, inches from getting stepped on. "Come here. Stand still."
I could feel it happening. My heart starts to race, and my throat tightens. My hands were shaking ever so slightly as they gripped the handle on the stroller. The baby fusses as I try again to offer the pacifier and buy a few more minutes. I grab my daughter's arm and pull her toward me. "Do you want to go home?" I hiss. She shakes her head no. "Then stand still." It comes out through clenched teeth. The shake in my hands gets worse.
It's our turn. I order her food first and then mine. They don't have what I want. I order something else. They don't have any prepared. It will be a five minute wait. My daughter is ambling over into the other line again. I'm only half listening. "That's fine," I say as I try to corral her back into our designated two feet of space.
"You'll need to step to the side," the clerk tells me.
"Um," I respond. I try to scoot the stroller over to "the side," which is really a one-foot space between the two long lines. I put my arms straight to try to keep my daughter between them. Then they nudge the tray containing two cups full of drinks and her food at me. "We don't give out lids or straws," the clerk smiles. "For the safety of our animals." I'm balancing the tray with one hand and trying to keep my daughter next to me and the stroller with the other. The shake in my hands has traveled up my arms and into my shoulders. I feel like the walls are closing in on me.
"Oh my God!" I say too loudly as my daughter tries to jump up and grab her drink off the barely balanced tray. "You have to stop! I'm going to spill everything! You have to stop!" The woman in line behind me smiles a smile of pity. When my food finally comes a long, long two minutes later, she kindly offers to carry my tray for me. By now the baby is tired of being pacified and his fussing has turned to punctuating shrieks. Each one feels like a dagger to my throat. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," I tell her. I feel like a failure.
The rest of the day went fine. We left the crowded cafe, and I nursed the baby in the children's zoo while my daughter made a new friend and played in the sand box. As we got in the car to go home, she was jabbering about all the animals she saw and the baby was sleeping deeply. It looked like a success, but all I could do was keep replaying those moments in cafe, and I still felt like a failure.
Even as it's happening--the panic, the shaking, the breaths that catch in my throat--there's a part of me that's outside of it all, watching it. There's a part of me screaming, "This isn't a big deal! Get it together!" But I can't hear her. In that moment, I feel like I am in fight or flight, but the threat is me. How do you run from yourself?
With a quick glance or in the right light, I still seem like myself. I still make wry jokes and plan to meet with friends. I still smile. I still love and enjoy both of my children.
But like a copy of a copy of a copy, if you look closer, the picture isn't quite right. I'm not quite me. The edges break down and the lines start to blur.
That's what postpartum anxiety feels like to me. I can feel like everything is okay, like I can go about life without any problems. But I have nothing left in reserves. Nothing. There is no place to draw from for patience or calm or perspective in the face of even the smallest setback. A single bump in the road and I'm sputtering to a grinding, smoking halt.
And I live on bumpy roads. Life takes place on bumpy roads.
I have the cognitive capacity to recognize it for what it is: some misfiring of nerves calibrated wrong by a particularly ugly cocktail of genetics and hormones. But knowing doesn't make it feel any easier. I keep peering out from behind that copy of a copy of a copy and growl in anger at all the things she's getting wrong, but I can't get in front of her. I can't take my rightful place in my own life. Every time she snaps at the rambunctious five-year-old who is just trying to adjust to life as a big sister. Every time she cries because the dishes are overflowing in the sink. Every time she gets a knot in her throat over everyday tasks like driving to the doctor. I know what the right moves are, but I can't make them in time.
I hold out hope that she will fade, this copy, and I'll burst through with strong lines drawn--any day now. When the baby sleeps through the night, when I get back to work, when my daughter is back in school, when I can run a mile again, when I can lift 150 pounds again, when I lose the weight, when it's not so hot. . .
Images: Jose Maria Cuellar, jypseygen