Content warning: mental illness (depression, postpartum depression)
Early in the pandemic, I woke my daughter for school, and the way she stirred reminded me of when she was a baby. Back then, I’d nudge Jessica gently and watch her hands shoot up to stretch her fists into the air, while her head slowly shook ‘no’ multiple times. Her little eyes just didn’t want to open, and I couldn’t help but feel my heart leap out of my chest with intense love as I watched.
I practiced attachment parenting then, which consisted of, among other things, wearing your baby, breastfeeding until it felt right to stop, and co-sleeping. I worked from home part-time and was able to be there for her all day every day. Her dad worked, slept in a separate bedroom because he didn’t want to be disturbed, and went fishing most weekends.
I didn’t know it then, but I had postpartum depression. I felt so alone and isolated and was expected to care for Jess, keep the house going and make enough money to pay for everything except rent. I felt so anxious that I made list upon list of things to do, only to berate myself when I didn’t cross everything off. I’d fall asleep while reading to Jess and during episodes of Blues Clues. And I’d cry. A lot.
But Jess and I got through the days. We visited the park down the street every afternoon, met an elderly friend for lunch on Thursdays, and took frequent walks to the grocery store just to get a snack. I also couldn’t bear to have her ‘cry it out’ as a means of getting her to sleep. She slept right next to me every night until, one evening, she toddled down the hall to her bed and decided to sleep there instead. And the last time she breastfed was just after her second birthday, just a bit in the afternoon to let her drift off during naptime. She took herself off the latch, said, “All done,” burped, and said, “Scoomee.” What good manners.
Perhaps it wasn’t merely getting through the days. Looking back, it wasn’t endurance; I see it now as the gift of motherhood and the added luxury of watching Jess grow and witnessing her milestones. It was a time in my life I cherish deeply. I thought I’d never get that time back.
Like most working mothers, I went from working in an office to working from home overnight, with the added responsibility of cheerleading my child through nearly every online assignment. Now we’re with each other all day – every day. That is, except for the time she spends with her father (we divorced more than three years ago). But when she’s with me, it’s just us, just like when she was tiny.
Now, as always, I fear for Jess’ safety. She had pneumonia earlier this year, so I drench her in hand sanitizer, cover her with a facemask, and keep our distance from everyone and everything else. Then again, aren’t all mothers hardwired to save their little ones daily from certain death? Like when I caught her in time when she was a toddler balancing on the arm of a couch on a terrazzo floor? I’m simply doing what I’ve always done – like all moms do – only this time, the threat is invisible.
Like so many others during this pandemic, my pay was cut in half to save everyone’s jobs and my projects have slowed to a trickle. So, by consequence, I am working part-time from home again, and anxiety and depression are rearing their heads once more. Not to mention, I’m heading to court over Jess’ father’s treatment of our child, adding to the pressure.
But Jess and I are together again. She gets her work done every day in record time, leaving us the afternoons to spend together. Nowadays, she wants to chat with her friends, but we’ll also watch her favorite YouTuber or a movie, talk over lunch and dinner, and even play keep-away. I remember way back to when I taught Jess to hold a spoon. Last week, I taught her how to shave her legs.
As for sleeping arrangements, she’s with me every night, like when we co-slept together before. When Jess’ dad brought his then girlfriend and now wife into her life, she confessed feeling left out. She wanted what she referred to as a sleepover. I obliged.
Judge if you want, but I want Jess to feel secure. Her time with her father is filled with his cutting remarks, indifference, and constant yelling. I’m determined to show her the opposite. And if sleeping by my side helps her, so be it. There will be a time she will be in her own room again, but that will be when the time is right for her, just like when she chose to sleep in her own bed so long ago. There will be no crying it out. Ever.
Last week, as I gently woke Jess for a Zoom meeting with her class, her arms reached up, and her 11-year-old head turned from side to side as she refused to open her eyes. And I felt my heart leap out again.
Kelly Liszt is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by Lis Mesa, Head of NVW, Christa Marie, Head of Prose, and Alexis Keir, Editor.