GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
From PRX and NPR, welcome back to the SNAP, our "Rites of Passage" episode. My name is Glynn Washington. Now, everyone knows that the time immediately following the birth of a child is one of the happiest times of your life. Everyone knew this - everyone but Megan.
MEGAN STIELSTRA: For the first few months after my son was born, I just called him the baby, or sometimes him with a capital H. Is he eating? Not eating? Pooping not pooping? What color is the poop? How long ago was the poop? Did I mark the poop on the spreadsheet? I had spreadsheets. I had stuff. White noise CDs and magnetic locks and this super high-tech video monitor with a remote wireless screen and night vision, which made the baby glow electric green in the dark like he was a CIA target. It was a little unnerving, actually. It had two frequencies - an A channel and a B channel in case you had two kids in separate rooms. And what's interesting about this is that one of my neighbors must have owned this same monitor because on channel A I saw my baby and on channel B I saw somebody else's baby. And if I could see some else's baby then somebody else could see mine.
At the time we lived in a third floor walk-up in uptown surrounded by other third floor walk-ups. Jumping onto a neighbor's Wi-Fi signal wasn't much of a stretch, so perhaps the fact that I could toggle between babies shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was. It was huge. I was obsessed. On one hand, it was totally creepy, stalking even. But after I got used to the idea, it was sort of magical, like, walkie-talkies and CB radios when you're a kid, connecting someone across the void. Who knows who might be listening? Who knows who's in that condo on channel B? A baby, to be sure. But it wasn't the baby I was obsessed with. It was the mother. Did she sit there watching my kid in the dark? Did she question his bedtime, wonder where I got his pajamas? How might she react if I left a sign in his crib that read, stop looking at my baby, you voyeur? Or what about this one - yay, new friends, do you want to meet up at the park?
Or, what about the truth - I am terrified, I am so terrified that sometimes I can't even breathe?
The baby had been born in the middle of a Chicago blizzard and that relentless, pounding snow stayed through January, February, March and into April. I am a part-time college teacher, no paid maternity leave. And since I took the winter term off to be with the baby, my husband Christopher a web designer, picked up extra projects to cover the difference. He worked all day, came home and went back to work, sleeping three, maybe four hours a night, all while carrying the mortgage, the bills, the baby and me.
Christopher, I'd whisper - middle of the night, night after night - the baby's not breathing.
Honey, Christopher would say - he was so tired, he was trying so hard to be patient - the baby is fine.
The baby is not fine.
He can't breathe.
I was scared to sleep - the baby might suffocate. I was scared to go outside - the baby might freeze. I was scared that he wasn't eating, wasn't latching, wasn't gaining, wasn't doing what the books had said he would do. And one day after a particularly awful bout of screaming - him - and crying - both of us - I looked into the mirror and wondered who that girl was looking back. I was un-brushed, un-washed, wearing the same yoga pants and empire waist shirt every day. We all have things about ourselves that we know to be true and suddenly I couldn't remember any of them. I couldn't write. I couldn't laugh. I couldn't connect with my friends.
At the time my understanding of postpartum depression was primarily shaped by Brooke Shields's memoir, "Down Came The Rain," a crippling depression, suicidal thoughts. But since what I was experiencing, while heavy, didn't seem that heavy. Dark, but not really that dark. Scary, but not like that. It didn't occur to me to ask for help. I mean, I wasn't going to hurt my kid. I wasn't going to hurt myself. Right?
Now four years later, I know that the symptoms and intensity of postpartum depression are as varied as the flowers in a greenhouse. I wish I'd told someone. I didn't need to feel so alone. Just me and the frozen Chicago winter with my tiny, fragile baby and channel B. Whenever the baby would fall asleep, I would stare at his Day-Glo body on the monitor, making sure he wasn't levitating or exploding or whatever other horrible thing I'd imagine. And then once assured of his safety, I'd flip the channel to see how that other mother was doing. Maybe her kid was eating. Maybe she changed clothes occasionally. Maybe for her, snow was not a terrifying apocalypse, but a Hallmark-like sprinkling of picturesque flakes. And yes, I know it was completely intrusive and unethical and above all else, ridiculous. Sometimes there was a baby wiggling and doing baby things, but mostly there was just an empty crib, until one night I flipped over to channel B and heard crying. It wasn't from the baby. He was fast asleep, an angel. But somewhere in his room a woman was sobbing heavy, gasp-y, gulp-y sobs. They went on. They went on and on. I shouldn't have listened, but it was the first time since my son was born that I didn't feel alone.
What finally changed things was spring. May was a godsend, a great mammoth hand reaching down out of the clouds and pulling me to my feet. The baby became Caleb, laughing, connecting, learning about the world outside my lap. I'd strap him in a backpack and we would walk through uptown, finding magic in everyday things - plastic grocery bags, tapping a glass with a spoon, water in a dish. And one morning he reached for a yellow street-cleaning sign stapled to a tree and all at once, I saw yellow as if I'd been blind to it for years - brake lights, parking lanes, flowers, taxis - woman in a yellow shirt pushing a stroller. I stopped. She was pretty, early 30s, wearing yoga pants and her shirt had an empire waist. She looked nice - and tired, and interesting, like there were all sorts of secret things about her that were set on pause for the time being. She looked like how I saw myself. We nodded at each other in solidarity. This, I had newly discovered, is the way that moms do it, acknowledging the fact that even though you don't know each other, you're still a part of this great cosmic team. And then you check out each other's kids. Her baby was grabbing his toes in the stroller - so sweet, so adorable, so - familiar. I looked closer. Yeah, I knew this kid. And suddenly I saw him not all face-to-face on Lawrence Avenue, but electric green on tiny handheld screen. I looked back at the mother. You know - and then I stopped because really, what would I have said, stop looking at my baby? Do you want to meet up at the park? How about the truth? You helped save me. Your baby is beautiful, she said. So is yours, I said. We stood there. We stood there long past what is appropriate for strangers. I like to think that she was thinking the same thing I was, that maybe she too had flipped channels in the night trying to connect with someone across the void or feel less alone in this crazy world. Maybe she'd overheard me crying in Caleb's bedroom months ago when everything still seemed so cold. Maybe she'd needed me as much as I'd needed her.
How are you? I asked. She smiled. I'm getting better. Me too, I said. I'm getting better. It was something about myself that I knew was true.
WASHINGTON: "Channel B" was first written and performed for the 2nd Story storytelling series and recorded by Eric Hazen in the 2nd Story studio in Chicago, first published at the Rumpus, and later included in "The Best American Essays Of 2013." It was produced by Eliza Smith, with sound design by Leon Morimoto.
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WASHINGTON: Now, did you ever try to do one of those Hulk Hogan, off the ropes, clothes line moves to that one kid, but accidentally hit somebody else? Well, we did that. We would like to assure the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that it will not happen again. So sorry - big apologies to the CPB. PRX, Public Radio Exchange, told us to wear our wrestling outfit, but told everyone else to wear regular clothes. PRX .org. As you know, WBEZ in Chicago likes to wrestle in winter coats. We don't think that's fair.
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