Friday, April 17, 2009

Empathy

Some times are dark times for me. I don't know if my darkness is more or more frequent than others' - there's no way for me to measure such things. I have certainly been on and off antidepressants and therapy for all of my adult life, but I suspect that this is pretty common these days and is more an index of how a person deals with his or her feelings than the quality of the feelings themselves. During my dark times, I cry a lot (often while lying on the floor), I believe that nothing means anything, I feel deathly bored with myself and my life, I think that I am ugly and uninteresting and fucked-up and worthless, and I think a lot about killing myself. (In the interest of you not calling the psych ward on me right this very moment, dear reader, it is probably important to note here that I have NEVER EVER EVER taken any steps towards actually killing myself, as that would require a certain vim and verve and self-regard that I could not possibly muster when I am feeling this way. I just think about it, and sometimes talk about it to the slightly alarmed irritation of those who have heard it all from me before.)

Now, in many ways, my life these days is exactly right. As I have documented ad nauseam here, I love being a mother - and besides that, I am pursuing the work that interests me most. (To review: I'm a novice doula with four births and counting; I am training as a childbirth educator; I am working at a "natural" baby-goods boutique, teaching parents about all manner of sustainable/responsive parenting approaches [this is new]; and I am writing this blog [less and less, I know, but I'm doing my best, OK?! I'm kind of busy, OK?! God.].) The problem is that much of what I am doing is just getting off the ground and not bringing in much money yet and must be carefully squeezed in around my "real" work schedule. So, while things might appear to be working out perfectly, the truth is that most of the time, I am too tired, too hungry, and too busy to be truly healthy and happy. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that I have had a few very, very dark days in the past couple of weeks.

This past Monday was perhaps the worst in recent memory. I couldn't stop crying; my heart felt hollow and black, my body and spirit sucked inexorably inwards. I thought about calling a friend, but could not bear the idea of anyone I know listening to me weeping into the telephone for no identifiable reason. I considered calling some sort of mental health hotline or maybe even my old therapist, but what would I say? I knew that "I'm tired" or "I don't feel so good" or "I want to die" were not particularly helpful descriptions of my feelings, but there was nothing more in my mind.

On days like that, the baby's needs are a cross that I can only just bear. Smiling and playing and responding feel very nearly impossible, but I pull together every bit of energy I have in order to do it, terrified of what my college Developmental Psychology classes taught me about the damage that an unresponsive, depressed mother can do to her child. Unhappily, the great effort this costs me often makes me feel much, much worse as the day wears on; happily, the baby never seems to notice the difference. This past Monday, though, it felt to me as though the baby - now 15-and-a-half months old - did notice something. He had seen my face wet with tears in the morning, and while he did not seem at all upset or afraid or cowed, his behavior seemed somehow adjusted. He played quietly by himself in his corner of the living room for most of the morning, turning to me and smiling engagingly when something was especially fun, like a particularly rhythmic song on the radio or a particularly good bounce of his red bouncy ball. Each time he turned his face towards me, his smiles were so sweet and genuine that it was no effort at all for me to smile back and say an encouraging word or two, after which he happily returned to what he had been doing. Later in the morning, he began to roam around the apartment and ask for a little more of my attention. However, rather than shouting his standard, insistent "eh-eh-EH!" to be carried here and there or to be given something he shouldn't have (my cell phone, a bottle of vitamins, a felt-tip pen), he simply came to stand by my chair every ten minutes or so. I would crouch down and look him in the face, and he would laugh delightedly and put his arms around my neck. After a hug and a kiss, he would go off again to explore. In short, the baby's behavior towards me was so singularly undemanding, so gentle and loving, that it was impossible for me to not think that he was feeling some baby-version of empathy, that he was responding to my hurt with the best balm he could manage - smiling at me, hugging and kissing me, and leaving me alone.

Now, I know that it is not considered to be a Good Thing for a child to be forced to "take care of" his or her parents. It seems to me, though, that the baby's actions on Monday were less in the neighborhood of Trying to Keep Your Junkie Mother from Drowning While She Pukes in the Tub, and more in the neighborhood of common human kindness. (You may, of course, think that I am deluded in this matter. If so, kindly keep it to yourself, as I am enjoying this particular delusion.) In any case, there is no doubt that, instead of spiralling downward over the course of the day as it often does, my mood gradually began to brighten, buoyed by the baby's calm sweetness and his clear desire for my happiness and affection. By the late afternoon, I had stopped crying altogether and was even feeling sanguine enough to agree to go to a birthday party/concert where my husband would be playing music that evening. While it is true that I didn't quite manage to change out of my two-day-old depression clothes, I surprised myself by managing to get to the downtown loft space on time. The baby cautiously explored the loft while I chatted with tight-pantsed hipsters and ate Ghanaian curry and cheese-and-crackers. Later, the baby nursed to sleep, and I tucked him securely into the couch and went to the next room to watch my husband perform. It had been months since I had seen him play music in public - months since I had seen anyone play music in public - and I felt almost like my old self again, sitting on an air mattress in a grungy loft, drinking my second Tsing Tao, watching someone be absurd with a microphone and a sampler.

When the show was over, I went back into the other room to find my baby still sleeping angelically on the old couch. I folded him carefully into a carrier, and we splurged on a taxi ride home. It was around ten o'clock at night, and I found myself thinking that it had been a pretty good day.

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