We sit in a trendy restaurant on the edge of downtown. My hands are wrapped around an oversized coffee mug as I catch up for the first time in weeks with my friend, Jamie. We talk about work and trips and family; she’s finally found a job she loves, while I share tales from the front lines of life with a threenager. We make a mutual decision to indulge in dessert at brunch, and somehow that pact also shifts our conversation to more serious topics, the kind of things you can talk about with a friend who understands that you never say no to a dessert involving a chocolate skillet cookie. As the waiter sets the dessert on the table, I tell Jamie that Jon and I have started marriage counseling. She knows I want another baby and Jon doesn’t. She doesn’t know I’ve reached the conclusion this is my argument to lose.
“How’s it going?” she asks. And because we are sharing a cookie at 10 a.m., I know she can be trusted with the truth.
“It’s good. Hard. When I asked the therapist how to not be angry at Jon or let resentment breed, he said to focus on what is, and not what isn’t. To let go of the dreams and the if onlys and focus on the life I do have. To accept that a family with more kids is not my adventure to take.”
I scoop another bite of cookie. “He made it sound so simple. Like you just open up your hands and let go of this dream and that’s it. But damn if it isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.”
Her expression tells me she understands—a mixture of empathy, sorrow, and questions.
“Wow,” she says, as she put down her spoon. “But did he tell you how? How do you choose to let go of something you want so badly? How do you set down something so heavy?”
With a rueful smile, I tell her, “That’s the kicker. He says the ‘how’ is what I have to figure out for myself. And right now, I have no idea.”
Four years ago when I was breastfeeding my youngest, I lost 70 pounds in seven months without even trying. In fact, I actively tried not to. I would stand in front of the kitchen pantry at midnight, shoveling spoonfuls of peanut butter into my mouth before bed, trying to force enough calories in to no avail.
“You’ve lost so much weight!” everyone would say. Thank you, Captain Obvious. I couldn’t tell by the way every article of clothing I own hangs from my bony frame. The observation was almost always followed with, “You look great!” They only noticed my concave stomach and thigh gap and assumed this was my postnatal goal—I’d managed to get my body back.
Except it wasn’t my body. The extreme thinness felt foreign, but the sadness, the bouts of anger, the apathy … they weren’t mine, either. It felt like I had lost more than just weight; somewhere between the maternity pants and the size zero shorts that now hung from what was left of my hips, I’d lost myself. The shift from mothering one child to two had consumed me.
As an infant, my daughter refused to go to sleep for anyone but me, and even then it was often a battle. I lost track of the number of nights I paced the floor of her room, bouncing, swaying, and willing her to close her eyes. I remember one particular night when I’d been nursing, rocking, and shushing for hours. Jon paused outside the door to her room on his way to bed and saw me pacing the floor with tears streaming down my cheeks. His eyes widened, and it felt like he could see how my soul was cracking in two. He approached me hesitantly, with a hand outstretched, like one approaches a wild thing that seems to have lost its senses.
“Just put her down and let her cry, babe,” he said gently. “Take a break.”
But I wouldn’t. No; it was more than that. I couldn’t. I let the weight of it all—of her needing me the most, of trying to prove myself as a stay-at-home mom—pin me to that spot in her room. My back ached and my arms burned, but I couldn’t put her down.
Sometimes I wonder, when Jon says he doesn’t want another baby, if it’s that night he’s remembering.
He’s already seen that I don’t know when I’m drowning.
It would be another year before I would admit to anyone—including myself—that I could no longer bear the weight of it all. The diagnosis and the antidepressants helped, at first. I felt numb, but feeling nothing was an improvement over feeling nothing good. I kept upping my dosage until rage, sorrow, and euphoria were emotions I couldn’t tap into. For six months, I was calm and even. For six months, I couldn’t even cry. I pretended not to notice as my skinny clothes stopped fitting, and then some of my regular ones. If a few extra pounds were the price for keeping the anger and sadness at bay, it was one I’d willingly pay.
I remember the precise day I decided I’d gone too far. My son, now 6, wanted to watch videos on the computer from when he was a baby. While he giggled at the antics of his younger self, I couldn’t take my eyes off mine. She was fully engaged with her child, playing and happy. She looked so ... light. My daughter knew no such version of her mother. She’d had the angry and withdrawn me during her first year and the numbed out me in her second. She’s now three, and she has no idea who I really am.
Is this why I want another baby so desperately? Because I need a do-over?
The next morning, against my doctor’s suggestion, I stopped taking the pills. What followed was like cresting the precipice of a roller coaster—a rushing, terrifying freefall.
The way antidepressants work is twofold: they increase the levels of serotonin, the happy hormone, but they also increase the number of hormonal receptors in your brain. When you quit them cold turkey, your serotonin level drops quickly but the receptors take longer to regulate.
In other words, I unleashed the full range of my emotional capacity on my vulnerably receptive mind. The first month was hell; I felt as though I would be crushed under the weight of my sadness, my anger, my fear.
I needed to be stronger, I decided, and it wouldn’t hurt to drop a few pounds, either. I started working out. Not with yoga classes or Zumba; I needed something punishing and exhausting, so I began to lift weights and focused on high-intensity cardio. I signed up for a race and started running three times per week. Despite my newfound commitment to exercise, the numbers on the scale barely budged, and I only felt my despair increasing.
Could I do nothing right?
Anna, my friend and workout accountability partner, was the one who finally broke through to me.
“Why are you so focused on how much weight you lose?” she asked me one day. “Being skinny is not a goal in and of itself. You’ve been skinny. How did you feel?”
“Sad. Lost. Lonely.”
“Then maybe it’s not the weight that feels so heavy to you.”
Her words sparked something within me and I started thinking about the difference between an anchor and a paperweight. An anchor implies a choice—we choose to let it down in a place we want to stay—and it offers leeway. An anchored boat may still drift slightly, depending on the length of the rope. A paperweight pins something down, not because it wants to stay but because we don’t want it to be blown away. It is heavy and unyielding, using its sheer mass to accomplish its task.
I’ve spent years being pinned down by what should have anchored me instead.
It’s early; the first hint of light is just beginning to tickle the tops of the trees. I’m not supposed to be here yet—the park doesn’t technically open for another 15 minutes—but a mother’s schedule is never just her own, so I run when I have the time, official park hours be damned.
I adjust my earbuds and zip up my jacket; the morning’s coolness has a bite to it. As soon as my feet hit the trailhead, I start to run. I keep my pace steady and even, breathing slowly in through my nose and out through my mouth.
I’m not a natural runner. My step is heavy and my pace is slow. My body demands my full attention to keep going and as I push forward, I can feel my conflicting emotions dissipate, simply because my mind can’t hold space for them and keep my legs moving forward. On every single run, there’s a moment when I have to make a choice. I can either keep thinking about it all—the emotional turmoil, my list of to-dos, my failures as a wife, mother, friend, and writer— and slow to a walk, or I can empty my mind and keep running.
My friend Jamie’s words come back to me.
How do you let go of something so heavy?
Today, I choose to run. I focus on pushing myself toward the sunrise, and as the present moment takes over my conscience, the clamor in my mind fades. It is replaced by the steady thud of my feet and the evenness of my breath, and suddenly I feel lighter. A breeze brushes my back, and I imagine for a moment that it’s carrying me forward, propelling me to where I want to be.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode, This Is How We Do: Self Care