It is a terrible thing
To be so open: it is as if my heart
Put on a face and walked into the world.
—Sylvia Plath, “Three Women”
When my son was born, I became afraid. I pushed him out onto a bath towel on the floor of our living room—screamed him out, actually, wildly kicking one leg, as if I could swim away from the pain. He emerged a deep blue-purple that turned rapidly from white to pink to red, like a flower blossoming in fast-forward. A snake of meconium slipped out of him, hot and black.
The midwife rubbed him with a towel, and I sat there naked in a widening circle of blood while he shrieked, a hoarse cry that seemed familiar even though I’d never heard it before, the way certain songs can. When I lifted him he was so small but so heavy, with his wobbliness and his human density, and something flipped. The dreamy haze of protection that had enveloped me throughout my pregnancy—the easy certainty of his galloping heartbeat on the Doppler, his small movements inside me at night, the warmth of all that extra blood rushing around my body—burned away, leaving behind a feral, possessive panic. I smelled his head, that alcoholic, pungent, amniotic smell; I wanted to lick him; I did. The world, I suddenly understood, was ruthless and random. How arrogant I’d been, to think I’d have any kind of power to protect him.
· · ·
I wasn’t supposed to be having a baby. I was supposed to be writing a novel. I’d just started a two-year writing fellowship in Louisville when I got pregnant halfway on purpose, halfway not, the baby an accident we courted and feared. I didn’t tell anyone at the university. I didn’t want them to think what I suspected was true—that having a baby would infringe on my ability to complete a book, which was the entire point of the fellowship. I was already aware that I was an idiot, pissing away this opportunity that so many other people had wanted; I didn’t need to see it reflected in their faces. I wore loose tops, made my husband drink all my drinks after I’d taken one theatrical sip. One night, at a dinner party where I slid wine after beer after bourbon his way, he got drunker than I have ever seen him before or since. “Where are you taking me!” he cried on the way home, flailing in the passenger seat, as I pulled into what was obviously our own driveway. It didn’t matter. Soon, I wouldn’t be able to hide it. Such a typical, ordinary, sheeplike thing to do—to make a baby instead of a book.
As crazy as I thought giving birth would be, it was crazier. Birth became the only story I wanted to tell. I threw myself into describing it, trying out different ways each time to truly capture the experience. It was like aggressively revising a short story, needing to get across some intangible feeling but not quite hitting it, trying again. I ignored visitors’ cues that they did not want to hear every gory detail. If someone gently attempted to steer the conversation to another topic, I steered it back, undeterred. I needed people to understand what labor and birth felt like. That there was a stretchy, interminable period of time in which not only could I not speak, to say “I am cold” or “I need some socks,” but also where words—language in its entirety, really—had been erased. There was nothing but that clean, bright pain that swelled and swelled. That animal place made me question who I was—what I was. I had always felt that my self somehow occupied my body like a figure in a tower. But at a certain point during childbirth, my rational mind—that human consciousness I’d always identified as me—unhooked itself and dropped away.
· · ·
When we were kids, my younger brother collected X-Men comic books. This was the early ’90s, before the movies, when the X-Men were still a little obscure—peripheral superheroes, in terms of pop culture. Their story line hadn’t yet been smoothed out for mainstream audiences, and their world was deep, expansive, complex, often contradictory, the characters depicted different ways by different writers and artists. I never bought any of the comic books myself. I fancied myself a serious reader, and spent most of my time reading Emily Dickinson and writing Dickinson-esque poems full of dashes and capital letters and death. But I eagerly read every comic my brother brought home.
I was particularly obsessed with the female X-Men: Rogue, Jean Grey, Psylocke, and Storm. There was also Jubilee, but her immaturity and relative weakness disinterested me, even though I should have liked her the most—a young teenager like me, a girl, insecure and seeking approval. Jubilee hung out in malls, wore a pink crop top, big hoop earrings, and a yellow coat. Her superpower was a little pathetic—she could make unimpressive fireworks with her hands—which was sort of the point, I guess, that she felt lesser, in comparison to the others. Every once in a while there was some consolation story line where Jubilee got to save the day, in an anticlimactic kind of way, by distracting the villain with her mini pyrotechnics so that one of the stronger mutants could finish him off. Half the time, though, she couldn’t muster up anything, and her power fizzled like a defective Roman candle. Pfaff pfaff, went a little sparkler between her palms—a cool trick, but not much of a power.
The other female X-Men were forces to be reckoned with. In the ’90s-era art by Jim Lee, they were Amazonian, like the supermodels of that decade: tall, muscular, and voluptuous, with Cindy Crawford eyes, Cindy Crawford hair, Cindy Crawford thighs. Their uniforms were shiny and metallic, their breasts like missiles. I was mesmerized by them, and spent hours studying their inked contours. Their powers were strong and lethal, and they often suffered because of them. Psylocke, my favorite, possessed a “psychic knife,” depicted in the comics as a translucent pink blade that extended from her wrist, against her clenched fist, and which she used to disable and read the mind of her opponent by jamming it into the base of his skull. In one instance, she used a special helmet to amplify her telepathic powers, only to have it overload and back up on her, leaving her writhing on the floor in her skimpy pink bathrobe. Storm, when her emotions got the better of her, created weather that was too much for her to control—electrical storms that threatened to destroy her. And Jean Grey, a telepath, could float and read minds, but always seemed depleted by it. She was often drawn bent over in pain, gripping her head with her hands, overwhelmed by her own abilities.
It’s interesting to me now that so many of the female characters were given powers that are essentially a literalization of empathy: extending oneself into the mind, or even body, of another. Consider Rogue, the X-Man who can “borrow” someone else’s powers simply by touching him with her bare hand. The downside to this is that she absorbs personalities and memories as well—entire identities—at the expense of her own. Sometimes it’s something she can control—keeping the other person’s entity apart from hers, holding the two together, yet separate. Other times her power becomes too much for her. Her identity is subsumed by the other, her memories, emotions, concerns replaced with theirs. In essence, she becomes the other person.
In The Uncanny X-Men No. 305, Rogue removes her glove to touch the bare skin of a silent, inscrutable prisoner the X-Men have captured. She intends to absorb his personality, read his mind, understand who he is and what he wants. But as soon as she touches him, he starts to laugh, those big comic book ha ha has blooming out of the illustration cells, and she realizes that something has gone horribly wrong, that he is barely human, some kind of decoy sent to destroy her. He explodes. She, a mirror to him now, begins to self-destruct. She unravels, literally, like a skein of yarn. Her arms, legs, and torso unspool into ribbons as she screams.
· · ·
Our son needed to be constantly held, rocked, bounced, swaddled. He chomped on my breasts until my nipples bled, until I sobbed in pain. He was colicky and screamed and spat up, waking us every hour or two, fracturing our sleep, our thoughts. We blasted white noise and passed him back and forth, zombies, in love and shattered.
I was desperate to start writing again—who was I, if I was not writing?—but I tried to be patient. I e-mailed my adviser from grad school, a writer and mother herself, who had warned me against having a baby, whom I had ignored. She wrote back: You will not be able to write in any real way but take notes on every little thing that seems like nothing right now and then someday you will look back and see what an interesting story it might make. And so I took notes. So many notes! What on earth to do with all the notes?
I forget about him, that he exists. He is still so new. I wake up, and there is the white ceiling, the sunlight coming through the shutters in hot, shimmering stripes. Then I turn my head, and there he is. Oh my God.
We stand at the window, me holding him, watching the cars go by. Days since I’ve been outside. I put my hand on the glass, to feel if it’s hot or cold, to remember what season we’re in.
I was taking some other notes, too. A different kind. I had a Word document on my computer called THE BAD THINGS I IMAGINE HAPPENING. It was single-spaced and went on for pages and pages. I opened it whenever I was gripped with some vision I couldn’t shake and typed it out.
I imagine waking up and finding him very still in the bassinet.
I imagine him falling from the deck of a ferry, the kind we used to take all the time in Seattle. Disappearing into the churning wake. I would jump in, but of course, I would never be able to find him.
I imagine having to kill him to spare him from a fate worse than death. Would I be able to do it, if the time came? In what situation, exactly, would I do it? How would I do it? What would be the fastest, most painless way? What if I did it and then it turned out I didn’t really need to do it? What if I hesitated, did it only halfway? What would I be thinking right before I did it? Would I be thinking anything, or would some kind of nameless, wordless, desperate animal-me take over? What would I sing to him while I was doing it?
I should have been writing a novel; instead I was writing this. This is what I did with my imagination, which I had once used on a craft that pleased me, fulfilled me, before I became a mother. Maybe I just couldn’t help it. Maybe it was an involuntary reflex, to burn up all of my creative energies each day in a bonfire of fear so there was nothing left to work with.
You would think that fiction would have been the perfect escape. That after a day of diapers and nursing and pacing around and around and around the same room I would have jumped at the chance to depart, mentally, and transport myself to another time and place, into another person completely, as I had always loved to do. There were plenty of instances—little scraps of time here and there—that I could have done something with, had I had the capacity. Time I spent sitting at the desk with the computer open while the baby napped in a vibrating bouncy chair in front of the running dishwasher, lulled by the rinse cycle. In the same room where I’d knelt on the floor to push out my baby, Post-its still clung to the walls, full of notes for my book. I couldn’t decipher them anymore. I could barely remember why I’d wanted to write the thing, much less manage to travel back into the world of the book. I tried to call up the characters I had been so taken with just before his birth, the setting and plot that had once obsessed me, but nothing stirred. Perhaps imagination was not limitless, as I’d always thought—there was a specific amount that had been doled out to me, and I was using it up on these dark fantasies.
I wondered if what I was experiencing was normal, if all new mothers had it—the way we all had “weak pelvic floors” and leaked when we sneezed. One day I read an article in the Washington Post about parents who accidentally left their babies in hot cars to die, because they forgot the baby was in the car seat in the back, sleeping. I stayed up all night in the bathroom, crying until I threw up.
It happened over and over: a piece on the mothers and children of the Holocaust; a podcast about a woman, a survivor of Pol Pot’s regime, taken to the Killing Fields with her two children. Every hour some atrocity, flying up out of history to remind me that the world was an open wound; turning me into each mother, my own son into each baby. Even though it wasn’t happening to me, right this moment, it was happening to someone; it had happened and would happen. I had always known this, of course, but now I understood it. I felt it in my body—what had once been a sort of empathetic concern that I could turn on and off, or at least push away for a while, had become an inescapable physical state.
I tried to erase these visions, to instead think up a short story or two, or a new chapter, but the visions grew back, swift and invasive. I Googled “postpartum depression.” Excessive crying, perhaps, applied to me, but one symptom from a long list didn’t seem like enough. I was not hopeless, numb, angry, guilty. I did not feel “disconnected” from my baby. My baby was a gorgeous little tyrant, with his satin skin and milk breath, his eyes locked on mine, his small hands on my face—he was perfect, intoxicating. All of this was a shadow to the sunlight of my love for him. What I was experiencing was not described in any pamphlet. Excess of empathy was not a bullet point on the Mayo Clinic web page, nor was Feels like every mother who ever lived.
I’d thought my main writing challenge would be prioritizing it. I had heard so many cautionary tales from women who let the baby become the main thing, let motherhood take over. (Let it. We use that phrase, implying that these women were weak or not vigilant, that they forgetfully left a door open and allowed something in, something that filled up every room in the house, every room in your heart, all the room in your head.) I could no longer shapeshift into the narrator of my novel, but I effortlessly became every parent in every news article. I didn’t write, but I added to my list of horrible things.
I imagine someone (who?) putting him into the washing machine, closing the lid, turning it on. I would have to watch (why?).
Sometimes, now, I tell people about that list. I make it a funny story, about how crazy new parents are. Washing machine! I mean, come on, it’s a little funny, that someone would spend a year dreaming up this shit instead of writing a book.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I thought I would be better at it than other women. I thought I knew how to protect against that loss of self: take the time you need to write; equal partnership with the father. We had those things down. My husband rushed home from work, took the baby from me, and booted me out of the house, to the coffee shop across the street, where I sat with my fingertips on the keyboard, eyes closed, listening to the Bible group meetings full of young tattooed Christians, my breasts slowly filling with milk. Here was the time, so where were the words?
Words themselves—the great bank of them I had always been able to draw from—had been swallowed up into a kind of fog. I knew they were there, but I couldn’t get to them. When speaking to people, I paused a lot midsentence, trying to find that perfect word that had once been right there.
In one famous, long-running plot line from the original X-Men, Jean Grey pushes her powers to their limits by extending a telekinetic bubble around a shuttle that contains the other X-Men and carrying it to safety. In the process, she weakens herself and is exposed to deadly levels of radiation. She dies. Eventually she is resurrected, a kind of clone of herself called the Phoenix. The Phoenix mistakenly believes she is the real Jean Grey, and is more powerful than Jean Grey ever was. But when the Phoenix realizes that Jean Grey is actually dead, she goes insane, becomes the Dark Phoenix, and attempts to destroy the universe. The other X-Men are forced to kill her—this copy of a person they once loved.
My little superpower, the power of words and imagination and expression—which had once been so much a part of me that I had taken it for granted, like the taste of water or the presence of air—had blown up into something huge and uncontrollable, like the Dark Phoenix, and then reduced itself to ash.
· · ·
The fellowship ended—the one I had hoped to use writing a novel—and all I had was a couple of chapters and a wall full of Post-its. It wasn’t a total wash: I’d been a good teacher, an obsessive mother, a terrible writer. On the whole, I’d kept my head above water, just barely. We moved again. I had another shot at a fellowship: writing, teaching. The baby was one—I knew I should have already made my way out of the fog. I would focus. Buckle down.
Dutifully, I wrote. I put in the hours. I thought I could write my way back into writing, that if I just kept going I would get somewhere. But I remained unable to transport myself. I wrote bland, useless scenes, descriptions of trees, flashbacks into the misty past. There was no conflict. Nothing bad happened to anyone. The imagination—that workhorse room inside my brain—remained dark, shut down. I wondered if I had damaged it irrevocably by imagining all those horrible things—or if I was now afraid to use it again, like someone who’s been bucked off a horse and broken a bone. Once, I’d written fast, driven by visions. The scenes I saw in my mind were alive, moving. Somehow, giving birth—both the physical act of it and the more intangible process of becoming a mother—had ripped that ability away.
My husband got a teaching job on an island west of Seattle, and we moved into his family’s cottage on the Kitsap Peninsula. I thought about quitting writing. I thought maybe everyone had been wrong about me, that I should face facts and pick another career. I stopped going places where I might meet new people or see old friends. I dreaded the question What do you do? I didn’t want to have to reply, Nothing. I didn’t want to have to admit that I’d been devoured by motherhood. Worse, I didn’t want some well-meaning friend to tell people I was a writer. I had almost been one, once. But I wasn’t anymore.
I didn’t stop putting words down, but I didn’t consider it writing. I wasn’t making anything I could use. It was just to stay afloat.
One day my son, age two, left a sippy cup of water upside down on top of my closed laptop and it sat there all night, slowly draining into the motherboard. I didn’t even try to figure out how much writing was gone—didn’t check to see what was backed up and what wasn’t. I knew I’d lost a lot, maybe a year of work. I didn’t really care.
What had happened to the writer I’d been? She had self-destructed. She was gone.
· · ·
In the world of the X-Men, death is rarely permanent. Resurrection is always an option. Jean Grey, years after morphing into the Dark Phoenix and being destroyed, appears again. She’s been asleep the whole time, suspended in a kind of cocoon, waiting for the right time to return.
Eventually, the excess of empathy I was suffering from started to wear off, like an old spell. I stopped crying all night on the bathroom floor. I started sleeping. I grew a skin again, that barrier between oneself and the world that is necessary for survival. Was there something I could have done to fix myself faster? I would love to say that I took action, that I had some kind of agency. But I just waited. It didn’t seem as if I had any other choice. It was something beyond me, outside of my control. It was a fog; it lifted.
· · ·
I throw away the old novel draft, hundreds and hundreds of pages banged out by someone who couldn’t imagine anything but bogeymen. It feels good and awful.
When I start writing again, it’s halting, tentative. I’m afraid of what I might imagine, what I might feel. It had never occurred to me that I would someday have to be careful— that empathy could consume me, like the Dark Phoenix consuming a star, a universe, herself. It never occurred to me that the well of imagination might not be bottomless; that in fact I could burn through it like fire through oil, use it all up on horrible things, and have nothing left over for anything else.
We have friends over for dinner, and I talk about how much I dislike playing imaginary games with my kid. It surprises me, since I was an imaginative child myself and have become a writer—a person who depends on her imagination to do the work she cares about. And yet I can’t stand doing it with blocks and dinosaurs and Lego minifigs.
“I just feel like I can’t use up all my imagination on a war between Batman and the medieval knights,” I say, and everybody laughs.
“That’s crazy,” my husband says. “Imagination isn’t a finite resource.”
“Yes it fucking is!” I yell, slamming my hand on the table, startling everyone.
Maybe it is crazy to think of imagination this way, like a well that can run dry. Either way, I guard it, miserly, doling it out to myself like water in a drought, pouring it only on the good things now.
Sometimes I still test myself, just to check—I read an essay, one that once utterly undid me; I thumb through the news, scanning for something about mothers and babies, something that will crack my heart open, immolate me. I almost want it to happen. These things horrify me, but now I can hold them at arm’s length. The sensation is dulled, distant.
I told a friend recently that I was relieved, yet also sorry. Relieved because I didn’t think it was possible to go on like that, feeling so much, so constantly. Sorry because, for a short time, a portal had opened up to me that was now closed. It felt like a superpower—to be able to feel so deeply, to completely dissolve the boundaries between myself and others—but it was one I couldn’t contain. It was too much.
I realize that calling it a superpower sounds nuts. But to label it postpartum depression, if that’s the other option, makes me sad. It is such a small, clinical phrase, reducing the experience itself to something small and clinical. I can’t bear it, to box it all up or think of it as something you can have or not have, like a head cold. It didn’t feel like a sickness. It felt as if I could see something that nobody else could see. It felt like standing inside truth, bright and burning. It felt like being anyone, anywhere on earth; like being a time traveler, like being a god.
Does that sound insane? Maybe it will sound less insane if I say that I would never wish it on myself again. At the same time, though, I’m not sorry it happened.
· · ·
There’s not really a neat way to wrap all this up except to say that my son is now five years old, that I had another baby, and it didn’t happen again. This time when I went into that wordless, animal place, I knew that I would come out the other side.
He emerged in the caul: the amniotic sac still intact, which—depending on whom you ask—means he will have good luck, or be protected from drowning, or become the next Dalai Lama. The midwife tore the sac with a small hook, bursting the balloon of warm water onto my legs, and unwrapped him from his cord, which was looped once around his neck, once around his armpits. She laid him on my stomach, long and purple, and he looked up at me, his little face swollen from being shoved out into the world so roughly. It must be wild to be a baby being born—the sudden explosion of light and sound and sensation, your lungs filling with air for the very first time.
In The Uncanny X-Men No. 305, Rogue doesn’t stay unraveled forever. She does finally recover, shocked back into her body by another mutant who has bioelectricity running through his body, not unlike an electric eel. He gives her a jolt, and the loose spools—the messy pile of her—coil back together, form back into the shape of a woman. She becomes herself again, though shattered and confused. She is more wary, now, of using her powers—more judicious about sliding off her glove again and touching someone else’s skin with her bare hand, slipping into their memories and emotions and becoming them. Now she knows it can destroy her.
No. 305, along with all the others, is—as far as I know—still under my brother’s bed, in a plastic sleeve, in a cardboard box. Somewhere in there, Psylocke lifts her hands to her temples, her purple hair streaming, pink butterfly wings radiating from her head as she reaches out with her mind. Jean Grey slips on Cerebro, the helmet that amplifies her telepathy, and zooms through the lives of hundreds of suffering people. Rogue pulls her glove off, extends her hand. They all grimace and writhe; they clutch their heads, stuck inside someone else’s pain. On another page, Jubilee is humming, snapping bubble gum. She lounges in her pink sunglasses, making fireworks with her palms.
Alyssa Knickerbocker is the author of a novella, Your Beautiful Home. Stories and essays can be found in AQR, American Short Fiction, Third Coast, and elsewhere.
This essay originally appeared in Tin House #71: Rehab.