“Hiii, you’ve rung the postnatal depression helpline, you’re speaking with Lucyy, how can I help youu?” Lucy’s sympathy dripped gently through the receiver, as if she were approaching the bedside of a duckling in a full body cast.
“Hi…” I said. “I have a toddler and a newborn and um… I’m in hell.”
“Mmmm lots of big changes going on at your place thennn.”
“Yeah… Lots more eating shit than I was expecting.”
“Ohhhhh no. That doesn’t sound too good.”
“It’s violently degrading.”
“That must be tough, to view your life in that way.”
“I haven’t slept in three weeks and there’s a trail of diarrhoea down the hallway. I’d say it’s a pretty objective view of my life. Are you a mum, Lucy?”
“Yes, but I’m more interested in talking about your experience.”
“Perfect. You’re eating shit too then. I guess what I’m wondering is, how much shit can a person eat before it leaves a permanent shit stain on their sense of self worth?
“Mmmm. What an interesting question, Ashe. Do you have people in your life who offer you the support you need?”
“I guess. I don’t know. I feel better just from saying that out loud to you now, actually. Thanks for listening.”
“Ashe, I’d like to send you some information on postna…”
I hung up, figuring it was best to free up the line. There was probably a woman on hold who was convinced her baby was the devil. Also Dee Dee, my toddler, was about to insert a crayon into Franny’s fontanel.
“Dee Dee, I won’t let you do that,” I said, removing the crayon from her hand. “That would hurt Franny.”
I peered at the pulsing soft spot on top of my baby’s bald head, one of the membranous gaps between the bones of her skull. They would close over the coming months and years as her mind became her own. At six weeks old, her dissatisfactions and desires were expressed with loud continuous cries. She couldn’t keep a single one of her thoughts private. It made sense that I could see her brain. I ran a bath for Dee Dee and designed a cleaning strategy for the hall, the result of her trying to run away from her own diarrhoea, an instinct I could relate to, but never had the courage to act on.
Miraculously, after cleaning the hall and bathing the toddler and feeding the baby and the toddler and cleaning the kitchen and the baby and the toddler there was a moment when both my children were sleeping. I took the opportunity to open the doors and windows, make myself a cup of tea and consider the dumpster fire that was my life. The conversation with Lucy had done little to satisfy my urge to complain about it. It was insatiable. I wanted to unpack every hardship of life with two children under two in excruciating detail. I wanted to wrap myself in my sour smelling dressing gown and expound negativity over mugs of cold coffee, but with who? I mean, during business hours, when my partner was at work? Most of my parent friends were luxuriating in the celestial city that is only child parenting. They couldn’t possibly understand what I was going through. One of the cruelest tricks of parenthood is that we only find out how good we had it when it’s too late. I imagine inmates of maximum security prisons can relate upon being moved to solitary confinement. So the pulled pork on taco Tuesday in the main jail was mostly tanbark. At least you knew it was Tuesday. The life of a typical parent of one was scheduled around a single nap routine, while dinner time consisted simply of plonking a bowl of spaghetti in front of their kid and a straw in a bottle of pinot grigio. Their complaints about teething and daycare centres being closed on public holidays now made me laugh for minutes at a time, loudly, and mere inches from their faces. Single parents and parents of kids with special needs would no doubt do the same to me, not to mention be well within their rights to punch me squarely in the tit. I could complain to childfree friends to a point, but couldn’t really let them have it for fear of cancelling the human race.
I didn’t want to admit that I was struggling. After Dee Dee’s birth, I forgave myself (kind of) for feeling lost and overwhelmed. The job was new and challenging so it made (slightly) more sense to me to ask for help. Around Dee Dee’s 1st birthday my uterus lured me into wanting another baby with her hypnotic sibling song. Franny arrived a year later, rendering me doubly in need of support, but in a spectacular glitch in biology, doubly resistant to seek it. I rated high on online postnatal depression quizzes, but took them privately and shared the results with no one. I couldn’t shake the feeling that admitting depression would mean an admission that I was incapable of caring for my kids. My brain’s fake news department loved that story. It was their bread and butter. I called Lucy because I needed help and she knew it. “I’m not coping,” were the words I couldn’t say. Instead I told her she was eating shit in an attempt to avoid feeling like a failure. I became a crocodile mum: isolated, aggressive and leathery to the touch.
In my experience, a dream birth did not equate a dream fourth trimester. Franny’s birth read like a storybook. She arrived on Christmas Eve in relatively uncomplicated fashion. When I awoke the following morning I rose from my hospital bed with the excitement of a six year old anticipating a Barbie Dream House with matching Cadillac, except less sprightly and more post-birthy. Franny was asleep in her capsule wrapped in a yellow blanket. She looked like a freshly baked loaf of sourdough. Her tiny ribcage rose and fell with each rapid breath. I couldn’t process the amount of wonder that lay before me. Once home, family members trickled by across the day with offerings of ham and Christmas pudding, which we ate on the living room floor, marvelling at our perfect new addition asleep in the Moses basket.
Then 20 month old Dee Dee was filled with a furious and complicated love for her baby sister. When we arrived home she tore out of the bedroom and emptied the contents of several kitchen drawers. Moments later she appeared beaming with an armful of empty baby bottles, which she dumped squarely on Franny’s head. Dee Dee had always twirled her hair to fall asleep, a self-soothing technique likened to thumbsucking, but after Franny was born twirling no longer gave her the desired effect. Instead she began pulling it out in clumps. I’d discover them on her mattress in the morning, bleary-eyed from a 45 minute sleep between feeds, unsure if I was awake or having a vivid Freudian nightmare.
“If you tell anyone about the ‘h.a.i.r’ I’ll file for d.i.v.o.r.c.e,” I said to Sam over breakfast one morning.
We had taken to spelling the words ‘hair,’ ‘pulling’ and ‘divorce,’ or swapping them for toddler-proof 10 pointers such as ‘follicle,’ ’removal’ and ‘conscious uncoupling.’ The internet had advised us to draw as little of Dee Dee’s attention to her hair as possible.
“I won’t,” he said, peering at the newest bald patch on Dee Dee’s head. “What if my parents notice it at dinner tomorrow night?”
“They won’t,” I said. “I’m going to stay home with the girls. I’m not up for it.”
“Okay,” he said. “Mum is really keen to visit. When do you think would be a good time for her to do that?”
“Hmm, I guess never?”
He sighed and blew a raspberry on Dee Dee’s neck. She squealed with delight. “Your mum’s been calling me too. What if you made visiting hours 10am-midday on a particular day of the week, or something? Get it all out of the way in one go.”
I shuddered. “Like in prison?”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because i’d be a sitting duck! I’m not agreeing to being strung up naked for two hours a week so I can be f.u.c.k.e.d by our mums,” I said.
“Wait, what?” asked Sam.
“It would feel extremely violating to me,” I explained. “I’ll have them round the moment I can stand the thought of one of them having any kind of opinion about anything. Even ones they keep to themselves. Ugh, especially those.” I bit savagely into a piece of cold toast.
“Okay,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“Fucking fantastic,” I said.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” said Dee Dee.
It was around this time that I went to a bar for a friend’s birthday, figuring it would be a welcome distraction from the family grind. I arrived early, having fantasised about sitting on a bar stool with a book and a glass of wine for a solid year.
“A pinot noir please,” I said to the bartender over my faded copy of The Great Gatsby. I’d bought it from a secondhand bookstore one rainy afternoon before Dee Dee was born.
“Sorry?” the bartender leaned his ear towards me.
My stomach lurched. Oh god did I say that wrong? Did my mouth make words or just sounds? I haven’t read a word of this book since year 11 and he knows it. It’s a prop in a pantomime, where I play the part of a woman who leaves her house at night with friends to meet and interests of her own, as demonstrated by her classic novel, which might as well be filled with blank pages, emptier than one of Gatsby’s infamous parties. Ironic, no? Who said that?
“A PINOT NOIR?” I shouted, in the silence between songs.
He laughed and said “okee dokee.” I wanted to go home, or better yet, eat dessert at the Italian restaurant a few doors down then go home. I was about to cancel my drink order when Nelle appeared beside me.
“Hi mumma,” she said and kissed me on the cheek.
Nelle. Birthday. Nelle’s birthday. That’s why I’m here. “Hi,” I said. “Happy birthday!”
“Thanks for coming,” she said.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said.
Some more childfree people arrived and the group moved to a table in the courtyard. The conversation catapulted from exhibitions I hadn’t heard of to bands I didn’t know. Two people thought it was okay to share with me that they thought I looked tired. I kept quiet mostly, giving my leg an occasional reassuring squeeze under the table. I was seated next to one of Nelle’s friends, a woman 10 years younger than me who was a film student at RMIT.
“Have you seen Loveless yet?” she asked. “I saw it this afternoon, it’s stunning.”
“I don’t know what that is,” I said.
“It’s a Russian film about marital collapse and the state of modern Russia,” she said.
“Maybe I’ll catch the Pixar remake,” I said.
She laughed a luminous, carefree laugh that made me wish her unwell. “How many kids do you have again?”
“Two,” I said.
“Wow, you look great for having two kids,” she said.
I drained the last of my glass. “Goodnight everybody.”
That night Franny woke for feeds at 11, 3 and 5. Two road work labourers struck up a loud conversation outside our house at 6, at which point I went into the street in my pyjamas.
“Can you please keep it down?” I yelled over the fence. “THANK YOU! THANKS SO MUCH!”
“Sorry to wake you,” one of the men replied. “You okay darlin’?”
Caught off guard by his kind eyes and ability to call me darlin’ without causing offense, my eyes filled with tears. “No,” I whispered.
When I got back inside Dee Dee was sitting puffy-eyed on the edge of our bed wearing a nappy and ninja turtles t-shirt, her feathery auburn hair brushed into an adorable comb over.
“Mummy!” she said, swinging her legs. “Nice sweep?”
Sam dressed her before he left for work, his way of gently suggesting that we leave the house at some point during the day. I had taken to staying indoors, despite the fact that it was the middle of summer and we didn’t have air conditioning. Franny didn’t like being in the pram or the car seat, and let me know by screaming at a disproportionate volume to her 7 kg body weight. Leaving the house felt like going through a tunnel of screeching bats. Once on the other side, it was no picnic. Chasing after a toddler while breastfeeding was hard enough at home let alone in an unfenced park by a main road.
The logistical challenges of going out were compounded by my sadness and vice versa. I believed I was doing a terrible job, and the belief seemed to actualise whenever I left the house. On a particularly colourful journey to the library I screamed at Dee Dee to ‘GET IN THE PRAM NOW’ and a little old woman came out of her house to fold her arms and glare at me like a mafia boss, letting me know she had eyes on me. Once a man yelled at me from his car because I didn’t cross at the pedestrian crossing. When I told him where he could shove his suggestion, he followed us for a block, berating me about what kind of mother I was. Even when I wasn’t being harassed by strangers on the street it was chaos. Dee Dee wandered behind cafe counters and broke water glasses on the floor. Franny screamed like she was on fire. I felt powerless, like a chip packet caught in the bristles of an automatic car wash. It was safer to stay indoors, in our darkened sauna, blinds closed, Hey Duggee on loop.
“Been getting out and about?” my mother asked one afternoon, cooling herself by the desk fan in the living room.
“About as much as to be expected,” I replied, fighting the urge to flip the coffee table and scream “How could you accuse me of failing as a mother?!”
“What can I do?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m meeting a friend for a playdate.”
She sighed, knowing full well it was a lie. My plan for the rest of the day was to microwave cheese on bread and eat it over the sink.
“Cancel the playdate,” she said. “I’ll take Dee Dee for a walk. Franny’s asleep. Take a nap.”
“No really it’s fine,” I said and fell asleep on the couch.
My first successful outing was to the park at the end of our street. I pushed through Franny’s screams with the aid of Joni Mitchell and noise cancelling headphones and by the time we arrived she was sound asleep. Dee Dee stumbled onto the playground like a newborn foal, squinting in the natural light. I sat on a bench and watched her play, my sense of accomplishment rising steadily with my Vitamin D level. It must have been 15 minutes before Franny stirred in the pram.
“She’s awake!” I yelled across the playground. “Abort mission! Abort! Abort!”
I roared the pram over to where Dee Dee was playing and hurled her into the moving vehicle. By the time we got home Franny was asleep again, the new extension of my bursting heart.