I wish I could tell you that things get better. I’m not really in a place to tell you that, though. I know you’re sitting behind the desk answering calls and filling out paperwork. I know that you tell people you’re “just a receptionist” while applying to grad schools and going to your prenatal classes. You’ve got big plans for yourself and your little one whose tiny heart sounds like big wings through the speaker at the obstetrician’s office. Even as you complain about how bored you are at work and how your husband stays too late on campus, you know you are happy. Sometimes, it hits you as you’re driving or lying in bed on a Saturday morning—it hits you that you have no right to be as stupidly happy as you are. You live in a cheap apartment, gave up your scholarship to follow your husband to grad school, and the only job you can get with your English degree is behind bullet proof glass at a downtown mental health clinic. And yet, you feel a sunniness in your ribcage, like somehow a sunflower patch grew there.
But you know how elusive happiness can be. It’s like an eel that squirms out of your hands the harder you try to grasp it and hides under the darkest, obscurest of rocks. You know you’re not special and someday, that happy sunflower patch will be torched.
And I guess that’s why I’m writing. Everything was torched. But not in the way you expected. Oh, I have what you were hoping for. I have a beautiful daughter, and I’m two years into my graduate program in writing. I’m doing the two things everyone told me I couldn’t do at the same time. And I’ve got to tell you, I’m not as happy as you are with your morning sickness and dead-end job. Maybe someday a future me will write a letter to the present me and tell me it all turned out okay. She’ll tell me that I finished my PhD, somehow managing to put together some kind of thesis. She’ll tell me that my daughter adores me, and that we have meaningful conversations about books she’s reading, friends she’s making, and dreams she’s dreaming. But right now, I’m tired. I’m tired of pretending to have something important to say, just to impress some professor here or some committee there. I’m tired of putting the baby to bed and rushing to finish grading papers. And I’m tired of picking smashed peas out of the carpet.
I guess you knew it wouldn’t be easy when you got me into all this. You knew it would be hard, and you knew you would be jeopardizing the happiness that somehow bloomed inside your chest, even as two little feet pushed on your lung cavity.
You didn’t expect the post-partum depression, though. Well, I think you might have suspected. But you didn’t know that sometimes you would hate your baby. That as that tiny thing would arch her back and scream, her face turning red, you would scream right back. That you would beg her to latch onto your bleeding breast. That even when she did latch and suck, you felt like she was consuming what made you you. But as she nuzzled her face into you and finally fell asleep, you knew you could never go back to being without her. You didn’t know that two years after her birth you still wouldn’t know how to raise a human child. You didn’t expect the guilt like a ball and chain clamped around your heart. Guilt for letting her watch too much TV. Guilt for reading while she plays by herself. Guilt for dropping her off at daycare. Guilt for crying in front of her. Guilt for doing homework while she plays with Daddy. Guilt for giving her pre-packaged applesauce for dinner because it’s finals week but knowing full well she gets packaged food every night.
You couldn’t have expected how hard it was going to be to start grad school three months after having a baby. To start grad school when you felt like you had been scraped out on the inside until you were only a shell. You couldn’t have expected how difficult it would be to leave that chubby, wriggling baby with strangers while you hauled a bag full of books to class. You couldn’t have expected how hard it would be to find help. To sort through insurances and providers to find someone who could tell you what was wrong with you. And how hard it is to wonder if this is just what life is now. If your moment of happiness has passed, and now the rest of life is just scrambling for something unattainable.
But maybe the one thing I can tell you is that although you don’t know what’s coming and it’s going to be the hottest hell you’ve ever been through, we’re doing it. That despite crushing mental illness and guilt, we are making it as a student mom. We might be dragging ourself through what feels like a field of barbed wire, but we do it every day. We dress our flailing toddler, read her stories, and somehow manage to strap her into the carseat. We go to class, read mountains of literary criticism and composition theory, and make lesson plans at night. We’re doing it, and some days it feels like failing. Others, it feels like winning a bloody battle. But we do it every day.
And maybe someday that sunflower patch will grow back. I’ll write when it does.
Sophie Buckner is a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. She recently received the Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award and the Long River Review Graduate Writing Award. Her poetry and nonfiction have most recently been published in Pilgrimage Press, The Offbeat, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.