It’s impossible to gauge the depth of a hole you’re in until you begin to climb out. I’ve felt this way in the most challenging times of my life, usually when suffering loss: death, divorce. I remember the worst moments in discordant flashes—sobbing in a closet, inhaling a scarf; dive-bar gin and curvy roads; lying beside my bulldog, whispering “I’m sorry” in his ear. Moments of grief and despair whose dimensions I didn’t fully understand until they lifted, revealing a terrible edge from which I didn’t know I’d fallen.
I feel this way now, more than two years after the U.S. suffered its first surge of COVID-19, when our daughter was almost 2 and I was 12 weeks pregnant. Now she is 4 and our son nearly 2, half her life and all of his living in a pandemic world. Our family is now in the minority: none of us have gotten the virus that has killed roughly 1 million Americans or infected about 60% of the U.S. population (likely a vast underestimate due to unreported positive home tests). But protecting ourselves, and more specifically our children, who are too young to be vaccinated, has come at great personal cost. We chose to be parents, but we did not choose to parent in isolation, and I can see now that beneath the weight of pandemic motherhood, I lost myself.
Before my first child was born, I imagined being the kind of mother who would take her kids on spontaneous adventures and get lost in long games of imagination. I’d let them learn by experience rather than cautionary tales. I’d laugh at smears of paint on walls and glitter ground into the rug. Art is messy! I’d proclaim, so expansive and emotionally generous in their younger years that, later, they’d let me see their confused and aching teenage hearts.
Naïvely, I thought who I knew myself to be as a person—artistic, ambitious, playful, curious—would be who I became as a mother. I did not expect for motherhood to fundamentally change who I was as a person.
Pregnancy and birthing have always had a way of obliterating the self, shattering any previous understanding of who we are. Many of us emerge with some combination of shifted bones, dysfunctional organs, stitches and scars, months of bleeding and leaking, all of which can change our relationship with physicality—exercise, sex, even walking—robbing us of previous forms of release and connection. Between 6% and 20% of new mothers suffer from postpartum depression—many of whom have never experienced depression before—while up to one in three feel high anxiety levels either during pregnancy or in the postpartum period. Sleeplessness clouds our intellectual faculties, blunts our creativity, and whittles our patience.
My second pregnancy, like my first, was debilitatingly painful and this time considered high-risk, and I bled for three months after having our son in September 2020. He didn’t sleep through the night for 15 months, a sentence so banal it can’t possibly convey the despair of it, the heart-racing shock of being awoken to screams every few hours night after night, for more than a year. Our son is also prone to more severe respiratory infections, so until Omicron cases started falling in our city this March, we mostly stayed home. The reprieve that new parents might normally receive in the form of babysitting, socializing, or a return to the office or the gym simply did not exist for us.
Every day, I felt scraped out and hollow. There I was, screaming into a pillow at 3 a.m. because the baby was crying again, wouldn’t stop crying no matter what sleep-training method we tried. There I was on my home-office floor, sobbing as I pleaded with the baby monitor, “Please, please!” There I was, snapping no at my daughter before even processing her request, smothering frustration that felt too close to rage as she refused to eat dinner but materialized to ask for a snack the moment I sat down to work.
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Meanwhile, new qualities emerged in me: a deep, unsettling fear of the world outside our doors, rage at the politicized approach to public health that left parents stranded and children vulnerable, a well of distrust and cynicism deepening in my formerly open heart. All of it, the fear, the fury, the exhaustion, the endless mundanity, the necessity of swallowing my own emotions and desires as best I could to care for my children, left me feeling like a husk, feather-light and desiccated. Small irritations could break me. I yelled, then apologized, sick with shame. What’s wrong with me? I often thought. Who am I?
I was a mother. My body was their body to feed from and climb on, my mind consumed with keeping them safe, healthy, loved, with making this tiny pandemic world of our home a good one, and consumed with anger at myself every time I failed. I may have been a full-time mother, but without the ability to live into the self I’d created apart from motherhood, I was not the one they deserve.
Now that our daughter is in morning preschool, our son sleeps through the night, and different risk calculations mean we’re venturing back into the world more, I’m slowly carving a path back into my mind and body. As I connect with the parts of myself I lost, I see flashes of the mom I want to be—one who says yes instead of no, who can meet tantrums with patience, who can enjoy her kids for the bright, beautiful, funny people they are.
This is not a happy ending. Because the last two years, in which mothers left the workforce in record numbers to shoulder the burden of childcare in a country that has abandoned us to the pandemic, and are now suffering a maternal mental health crisis, are a damning preview of what’s to come if Roe v. Wade is overturned: people with uteri forced to sacrifice themselves for a role the U.S. deems more important than autonomy, more important than ambition, more important than our own actual lives, and yet will not support at any point.
I live in Texas, which has effectively already banned abortion, and which has already charged, however “mistakenly,” a woman with murder for an alleged self-induced abortion. From where I sit in this state that has taken such a horrifying lead in stripping people of reproductive freedom, it’s easy to see the worst-case scenarios: a forecasted 21% increase in America’s already abominable maternal death rate if a nationwide abortion ban is put into place, women criminalized not just for self-managing abortions but for miscarriages and stillbirths, cycles of trauma and poverty and abuse continuing unabated. The best-case scenario? What I, and so many others, have already lived through: a complete loss of selfhood.
And I can’t help thinking that’s the point.
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