The coyote is lying on the side of the road. Lazily, softly, as if it is sleeping. But dead—this is obvious. A dead coyote, the color of maple, with thick, lustrous fur that makes it seem pettable and friendly. My tires whiz by its body with one final indignity: the spraying of filthy sleet.

The air outside is frigid. It is early morning, January, and from the gunmetal sky fat snowflakes fall quickly to the earth. I notice how long the coyote’s ear is, splayed backward and open, now quietly filling with snow.

A little further up the road is another coyote, in similar posture. Then 50 yards later, one more. A trio of coyotes, struck down, I imagine, in quick succession. Perhaps they were a family. Perhaps each was running to the aid of its fallen mother or brother. At the thought of this, I almost start to cry.

The snow starts falling even faster now, in a diagonally blowing wing that howls faintly and whips around my car. I slow my old Saab, make sure the lights are on, but the other traffic, I notice, is moving at its usual highway pace of about 90 miles an hour.

I have a baby in the car with me, just two months old. She rides, well-anchored, facing toward the back. I peer at her car seat in my rearview mirror, and my heart stutters. My baby, Muirgen, sees no dead coyotes; she only hears the music on the radio or the soft cadences of my voice. I take her to the art museum where I work. She lies quietly underneath a baby gym or in my arms as I make phone calls. I nurse her and type with one hand.

But I hate to drive anywhere with my baby. I hate to leave the house. Catastrophe and death, I fear, await us, as if we too were coyotes, scrounging for food in the wasteland of winter fields, dodging speeding semis and Jeeps in our quest for a small puddle of water from which to drink.

I can picture clearly the accident that will kill us. It plays in my mind like a film. I feel the steering wheel spin through my helpless hands as the car flies off the road, flips in the air. There is a pause, during which time we hang upside down, wondering, suspended, What is happening? Is this real?

I can almost hear the delicate whisperings of angels as they hover by our impending wreck. But this is not reassuring—instead, it is terrifying—and then angel whispers are drowned out by a crash, massive and final. Glass and metal crush and smash. I scream and reach out for my baby, but we are both strapped in too tightly, unable to escape.

This is the scene that I picture when I drive or even think about getting into the car. There are more scenes, equally horrible.

I picture my child burning alive, myself overcome with smoke, unable to rescue her. I see her in a tiny coffin, being lowered into the ground. I cannot bear to even imagine this horror.

This pervasive sense of doom and dread, the heart palpitations, nausea, the crushing pains in my chest—it is anxiety, I learn. Just one little word for this terror that haunts me. I am simply anxious.

Am I also depressed? I tell the psychiatrist that I don’t think so. Oh, but anxiety goes hand-in-hand with depression, especially post-partum, I am told. I must have PPD—post-partum depressive disorder.

I bristle at this diagnosis. I have read horror stories about PPD-suffering new mothers who lost their minds and smothered their babies. I love my child; I am certainly not sad that she exists, or that I am her mother. I am not crazy. I would never hurt her. In fact, all I can think about is how to keep her safe.

It is, I learn, hormones that are most likely the cause of the problem. I am seriously depleted, running on empty as far as estrogen goes. Stop nursing, I am told. Take Zoloft. Take Paxil. Go on a vacation and leave your baby behind.

This PPD that I am told I have renders me consumed with worry, even during quiet, happy times. I hold my daughter and rock her, read to her, sing. She gives me a radiant, gurgly smile and looking into her chubby face, I feel joy. A nanosecond later, I am sure that we will be savagely murdered by the repairman who is coming to fix our washer—so sure of it that I can imagine exactly how he will corner us in the kitchen with an enormous knife. I will try to flee, but he will catch us and pull us back, stabbing brutally, relentlessly, before we can wriggle out the window.

I picture all of this while sitting on the couch frozen in terror, clutching my baby. Then I have an idea. I steel myself to get up, lock all the doors and post a note saying we had to run out. I huddle on the couch with the baby, hiding, keeping still, until the repairman gets the note and drives away.

Only then can I breathe normally.

I tell my husband about my horrible daydreams, but briefly, and always with a touch of humor. (“I just thought Satan was speaking to me through our child. Ha ha. I think I’ll go lie down on the couch.”)

I don’t want to scare him, but I just want him to understand that I need help and hugs and comfort. This he offers, but because I am not completely honest, he never understands either the depth of my fear or how close I might be to a breakdown.


The word “anxiety” is interesting to me. It slides off the tongue and sounds almost elegant, but is derived from the Latin angere, which means “to choke.” Anxiety is a disorder that is sadly commonplace, and, by definition, frustratingly vague.

Anxiety can be either low-level, or “generalized,” or it can manifest itself into full-blown panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsiveness. According to psychiatric literature, anxiety is often not attributable to a real or appropriate threat and can be a symptom of other problems, physical or psychological.

The sort of anxiety I have feels like full-blown panic sometimes, but apparently it is only generalized. There are people much worse off than I am, those who actually pass out from fear, those who cannot ever leave their houses.

After consulting a pharmaceuticals textbook, my university-clinic doctor prescribes low doses of Valium because, she says, “That’s the most cost-effective way to treat this.”

I don’t take the Valium because I am still nursing, and because I need to drive. Instead, I make up excuses not to come in to my part-time job in Cedar Rapids. “My car tire blew out,” I say. “I can’t find my keys.” Oops—couldn’t call in sick (had to e-mail; the coward’s way out) because I misplaced my phones.

I buy life insurance—much more than my father says I need. I want to be sure that my child is cared for, in case the worst should happen. I hope she will remember how much I love her, but I know that if I die before she reaches a certain age, she’ll probably retain no memories of me at all. That doesn’t matter, I tell myself. It is now that matters. Do the best you can for her now. Keep her healthy and safe.

While Muirgen naps, I go online and visit the PPD survival group chat rooms. I see a posting from a woman who, it seems, is just like me. She got pregnant on her honeymoon and now is struggling with both PPD and trying to maintain a good relationship with her husband, who claims he hardly knows her anymore.

I write to her. I say, “It’s so hard to be hit with all of these changes at once—getting married, being pregnant, possibly moving house, having a baby.”

Her husband, like mine, probably had about two weeks to look around and say, “Wow, we’re married…” before being faced with a nauseated, exhausted woman, a woman whose pretty face got puffy, whose nice clothes no longer fit. A fat, tired stranger—and then, suddenly, two strangers, one of whom cries a lot and has stinky diapers.

“Of course it isn’t easy for us; we’re the ones actually experiencing all these things,” I write, “But it’s got to be almost equally weird for these men.”

She writes back that we are kindred spirits, in the same boat, exactly. She tells me that her son is named Vegas. I assume, rather stupidly, that she is Hispanic, but then she explains that her baby is named after Las Vegas, where she honeymooned.

“Good God,” I think, “She named her kid Vegas.” I can’t bring myself to send her another note.

I drop out of the chat rooms. I resist the psychiatrist’s reluctant offer of psychotropic drugs. I decide to handle things on my own, to let my body adjust naturally.

There are some women in this online PPD group who are seriously ill. Their children have been taken from them. They cannot get out of bed. They are hallucinating and could be dangerous.

Some are glad that their mothers or in-laws are taking care of their babies. Some desperately long to get their children back. They all have to wait, though, for the drugs to kick in, for their hormone levels to stabilize. This could take weeks or months.

Meanwhile, their babies are growing fast, sadly apart from their mothers, swaddled and alone with relatives who may be forcing outdated, even harmful baby-care practices on them—feeding the newborns “pablum,” insisting that they only get a bottle every five hours on a strict schedule, that they not be picked up when they cry so as not to “spoil” them.

Some women vent about this. I read their postings but keep silent, feeling grateful, despite my own problems, that I am not in their shoes.

The biological point of anxiety, its reason for existing, is to help us run from danger. But if the danger is all in our minds, well what’s the point of feeling “fight, fright, or flight” in response to that?

I understand that PPD is essentially the result of a chemical imbalance, but it seems like a disorder we should have evolved not to have. Post-partum is a crucial time, a time when we need to be fully present and strong for our babies. As a species, how can we afford to have up to a quarter of all new mothers paralyzed by fear, wracked by tears and hallucinations, hearing demonic voices? What could possibly be the benefit of all this?

Does PPD keep us safer by, in a seemingly sexist, eerily fundamentalist way, keeping us at home? Does the very presence of this disorder spur husbands and relatives to help more with the baby? Or, is PPD just a sick example of natural selection—weeding out the neurotics, the especially paranoid?


I am driving home from work, south on the Avenue of Saints from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. I remember the coyote I saw the previous summer, when I was heavily pregnant but could not yet even imagine how much my life was going to change. That coyote stood in a field that had just been mown, hay tied in neat bales that dotted the landscape. Her ears were back, and she looked scared, as if thinking, “What happened to everything I knew? Where is the long grass that used to hide me?”

Everyone says that coyotes are smart, that they are brave, adaptable hunters who will eat flesh or fruit, whatever they can. But many farmers see coyotes as nuisance animals, predators that will steal and kill their sheep or chickens. Coyotes are, therefore, unpopular guest on the land that they hunt—and the rest of the land is being taken from them and used for new roads, new subdivisions.

The world is changing for coyotes. I realize that the world is changing for me. Still, the coyote adapts, using its innate cleverness to negotiate the changing landscape. Of course, I will need to do the same.

The image of the anxious-looking late summer coyote is imprinted on my brain.

When I see, months later, the dead coyotes, I wonder if she was with them, if her life is over now, if her presence has been savagely erased.

I don’t believe that my life, with all its blessings, is really anything like a coyote’s. But it is the coyote that reminds me how quickly things can change.



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ELIZABETH COLLINS is a writer and writing/literature teacher, whose blog (http://prettyfreaky.blogspot.com) attracts an international following to its mix of memoir, personal and political essays, and quirky observations. Collins, a graduate of the University of Iowa's MFA program in English/Writing, won the Columbia University Nonfiction Prize in 2001, as well as other writing awards. Her essays and short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines, including The Massachusetts Review, Natural Bridge and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Collins currently writes YA novels--and her latest, also entitled Pretty Freaky, is about a foreign adoptee's quest to help her adopted American boyfriend find his birthmother. She is also at work on a memoir about teaching.

56 responses to “Coyotes–A Portentous Image of Anxiety in Iowa”

  1. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    This is all very familiar to me.
    It will get better.
    It will even pass, mostly.
    They may just be chemicals, but what IS our brain if not chemicals and neurons in the sulci and gyri?
    It’s just life.
    The anxiety will eventually begin to unclench.

  2. We writers face enough emotional battles. To add PPD on top of it and to deal with thoughts of motherless babies and splattered coyotes is hell. Yet, you found another place for its worth: this great beautiful and sad tale. It’s my favorite piece from you. Oddly, as I read this, the wind is howling outside my home.

  3. Greg Olear says:

    This is a fantastic piece, Liz. Really well crafted and moving.

    I never thought about PPD in an evolutionary sense before. Fascinating to consider. (And I have done a bit more thinking about this than some, as PPD is one of my wife’s areas of interest in her graduate psychology studies, and I have read her papers).

    To your point about “seemingly sexist”: Lance can correct me on this, but I believe it was Warhol who said, when asked what he thought was the greatest anachronism there was, replied, “Pregnancy.”

    Again, great stuff, and welcome to TNB 3.0.

    • Gloria says:

      The Warhol quote is priceless. Ha!

    • I appreciate the welcome to the world of 3.0–it took me long enough to get here!

      Speaking of pregnancy (I feel like puking when I think about pregnancy, sorry to say–and I love my kids, but if they hadn’t been “surprises” then I don’t know if I ever could have consciously chosen the bodily torture that is pregnancy and childbirth! And then it STILL isn’t over…add years of sleeplessness on top of it, and the need, each time, to lose tremendous quantities of weight). Wow. A lot of work.

      Thanks for reading,


  4. Angela Tung says:

    i really like this piece, and how you tied together the coyotes and your own anxieties.

  5. Gloria says:

    Liz, this is so amazingly, beautifully written. Nick B. posted a link on his page and described your posting of this as “brave,” and I think that’s accurate. Look at you telling the world you’re afraid – and that you are struggling with PPD! It’s sad that the exclamation point there at the end of that last sentence needs to be there. But it does.

    After my twins were born, I went through a month of torturous PPD. I would imagine dropping one of the boys and I could actually see their brains spilling out of their cracked skulls. I went through a three day period where every few minutes I could hear somebody whispering my name from just behind my right shoulder. But, like Irene said, it does pass. It doesn’t sound like you’re going to be one of the mom’s who never gets over the hump. I’m sure this does little to relieve the pain now, but maybe it is a glimmer of hope?

    Can I make a recommendation? You don’t know me and you certainly didn’t ask me for my advice, but who knows – maybe this will help you, too. Quickly: recently, after five years, I went off of the psychotropic drug cocktail I took every day to control mood and depression. The first few weeks after stopping the meds were PPD-level horrible. I have two friends, a married couple, both psychologists, who explained that pharmaceutical companies don’t ever do any testing about how to go off the drugs – only how to stay on them and manage the side effects. These two friends recommended a book for me called The Mood Cure, which describes changes you can make in your diet to help facilitate emotional balance. I’m not suggesting that you don’t have a great diet, but it is, at least, a very interesting read and may give you some ideas you’ve not thought of – and it’s better than drugs (since you’re obviously not into that idea).

    Thank you for writing this. It is amazing.

    • Thanks, Gloria.

      Actually, I am long over the PPD, but your account of your own struggle is hauntingly familiar.

      New moms really do need more treatment options. And you are certainly right about the mood-drugs. In my teens and early 20s, I took them, but if I ever forgot a day, I had terrible headaches and dizziness, and going off them was the same thing.

      I will take a look at that book–sounds interesting. Although I am not still a mess as I describe in the essay, I have always been rather moody. Self-care (enough rest, exercise, decent food) is very important, I know.

      I appreciate the read and your insightful comments.


  6. Zara Potts says:

    Liz, this was hauntingly well written and beautifully crafted.
    Anxiety is such a curse. I fight it as well as I can, but it often gets the better of me.
    Amazing piece.

  7. KayK says:

    I have PTSD. Some people say I just have an over-active imagination. While I was pregnant I imagined all sorts of horrific scenarios I had to try to save my unborn child from, then again once she was born. I have a hard time leaving my house, the slightly nervous looking man at the quik-e-mart is going to pull a gun any moment, I know my escape plot if I can’t get out the door, leaving what I came to purchase, behind. Driving can be a nightmare, I slide my seat far enough back you might confuse me for a hommie rolling down the street in my Corolla … that way when the passing car shoots through my window my head is hopefully far enough back that it is hidden by the metal frame. Don’t even take me to the movies on a crowded night, I will be on ultra alert, fearing a stabbing in my back through the seat or a crazed lunatic storming the theater with a gun. I take Klonopin at night … it helps just enough, most of the time.

    Thank you for posting your story 🙂

    • Kay–

      Thanks for reading, and what you mention above sounds like exactly what I was thinking (at the time). Driving was very strange for me, but mostly because I had just dropped off my baby at day care, and then I would get so frightened, I’d have to pull over and throw up.

      Even to this day, I still sometimes get a bad feeling (heavy worry), and for some reason, I am usually in the car when it happens. Maybe there’s something about feeling like a captive in a car–both trapped and vulnerable to someone hitting you, etc.

      I think PPD and PTSD are probably much the same, when it comes to how they feel, at least.

      I have to hope that for you it will ease up some.

      Good luck and thanks again,


  8. To concur with Greg, I haven’t thought about PPD in an evolutionary sense before; there’s some food for thought right there.

    But in the meantime, God, to have such a churning inside you… anxiety, especially in its acute forms, can be such an awful thing. I know I sound redundant right now, but beautiful piece.

  9. D.R. Haney says:

    In Virginia, where I grew up, I saw dead possums by the side of the road — lots of them. I see them still in L.A. Not so many dead coyotes, though I see live coyotes as a matter of course.

    I’ve suffered from an anxiety disorder, as I’ve written at TNB, and had the unfortunate experience of being mowed down by a car in a crosswalk, as I’ve also written at TNB. I think, because of the accident, I have a form of low-grade PTSD; sometimes, when I cross the street in heavy traffic, I have a flashback and geek out, with weird spasms.

    I think PPD is, at base, a form of separation anxiety; that some mothers feel exceptionally close to their unborn children and miss that closeness after birth. But that’s part of a larger theory, which isn’t terribly original, and one that I don’t have time to flesh out here. Not, I expect, that there’d be any clamor for it.

    I’m so happy to see you back on TNB, Liz.

    • Gloria says:

      I like your theory, Duke. After the boys were born, I remember standing in the shower holding my still-large belly and crying. I called it the “Empty Womb Syndrome” to explain to myself why I was so sad.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Thank you for the corroboration. I never dared to mention it when I first arrived at it, thinking I’d be shot down by women who’d obviously know far better.

        An addendum would be the sadness experienced after intercourse. Men have their version of it, which is also related to separation anxiety, but also, in their case, to an uncanny sense of their mortality.

        • Gloria says:

          I certainly can’t speak for all women, I only have my perspective. Prior to having the boys, I’d had two other babies, both of whom I’d put up for adoption. I had my daughter within months of turning 16 and I released her for adoption when she was three months old. (I later got her back, when she was almost six.) I’d had another baby when I was 20, whom I released for adoption when he was 24 hours old. (This will be a part of my next TNB post.) I never meant to have the boys. I got pregnant on my honeymoon – the one time in 4 1/2 years that my husband and I had thrown caution to the wind. Neither of us planned on getting pregnant; we just wanted to raise our daughter and be done with it. When I was near ready to pop with the boys it dawned on me: this was the first time I was pregnant with a baby I was going to get to keep. (I didn’t find out I was carrying twins until a week before I gave birth, so I thought if “it” in single terms.) So, standing there in the shower, knowing I would never be pregnant again, I felt really sad for the loss of my body’s amazing ability to grow and nurture and form life. I would like to say, though, that there is definitely a chemical component to post-partum. A woman’s body and brain goes to war with its hormones and other chemicals and it’s really, incredibly fucked up. So, I don’t think the Empty Womb Syndrome is the sum total of the problem. But I believe it does exist.

        • Wow, Gloria–what a story you have! I feel for you and am amazed at your ability to cope. I am adopted myself (another story), and I think (I hope) I have a bit of perspective on how it must feel to relinquish a child.

          You are right about the body and brain being at war, and it IS crazy that that even happens. What a time for it to happen, too.

          I know how you feel about being sad about no more babies. I think I am getting too old for all that, and while on the one hand, I wouldn’t want to do it again, I still feel conflicted and a bit sad to think about it.



    • Thank you much, Duke.

      Intriguing idea about the separation anxiety. One weird thing about having (I mean giving birth to) kids is that it is so uncomfortable at the end, but still, after the baby is born, you miss the kicking–which might have been very painful and annoying while it was happening. You feel bereft.

      Which is ironic, because you *have* a child now, an actual, outside-the-womb child.

      But I think the sleep deprivation and hormones are to blame, too–still, it is like going through a war, and so the body remembers. Much like your accident–the body remembers the pain and wants to protect itself.



  10. Thanks for this Liz – missed you on here. (Not that I’m on here all the time – anyway…)
    Great piece – I will definitely be sharing this.

    The rude awakening of motherhood – from all the sweet wondering and dreaming and holding my big belly to the scary icy cab ride with my mother-in-law talking incessantly about babies found in dumpsters right after we were discharged – all after a harrowing birth ordeal that lasted days for me. I could never shake the image of the babies she was talking about – I obsessed over it and held my baby tighter and tighter and never wanted him away from me. This is definitely why I had a hard time going back to doing gigs and doing my music – I never wanted to be away from him. And when Dominick was six weeks old we started looking for houses because I had to leave the city – something I never thought I would do – a simple subway ride would send me into panic – I felt so unsafe all the time. Someone getting into a fight – I imagined them grabbing my baby and throwing him on the tracks – a loud bus honk and I imagine my baby going deaf – cigarette ashes in the wind from a smoker in front of us – I imagined lung cancer for my baby. In some ways, yes, of course, I’m trying to protect my baby – but I possibly took it took far – maybe – I don’t know – but I knew it would be better for us here.

    I think it’s safe to say – I was going through a postpartum sleep deprived, hormonal shifting, mourning my old life with intense deep love for this new someone I felt closer to than anyone ever in my whole life – even my own mother. I never thought it was depression – but it certainly was tremendous anxiety. And they don’t prepare you for this – how hard this transition can be into motherhood – how all relationships change, how tired you’ll be, how judged you will be all the time from all sorts of sources. This is my subject of study as I get my masters – because there is such a need for support for the new mother. There are alot of studies now about sleep deprivation being a big reason – and of course – duh – sleep deprivation is a torture tactic – and we’re supposed to be responsible for this baby who needs you all day and all night. And breastfeeding can release “feel good” hormones that can offset these panics – which helped for me. You asked about the evolutionary reason – maybe so that we’ll nurse more? I’m grasping at straws.

    I don’t know many mothers who have not had a trying first year. And obviously, there are varying degrees of PPD, as you wrote about. There are those who are chemically changed for good (this actually happened to my mother). And then there are those who get through it.

    And I suppose there are the mothers who breeze on through with no problems at all? Who are they? Do they exist?

    thanks again Liz – hope to meet you one day!

    • Stephanie,

      What a great subject to study–you are so correct that there needs to be more support for new mothers. I always say that men have no idea how hard it is to be a woman–and not for the obvious reasons. Just from the judging by others and all the self-judgment. And the sleep deprivation…my husband complained, but he wasn’t the one who spent 10 years without an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

      If there are mothers who had no problems, then I think I might hate those mothers…sorry. Not that I want anyone else to suffer! But come on…

      Thanks for writing and reading!


      • I would hate those mothers too – no need for sorry.
        I remember being so tired I was weeping and had to meet some moms for coffee with our babies
        and one of them spouting off that of course their baby sleeps 12 hours straight ever since
        four weeks old. I hated her so much – flames on the side of my face. It’s like dangling a danish
        in front of a starving person. Flames.

        • I hope people like that are lying. I have to assume they are lying because it is So Unfair.

          My students always manage to ask me what it feels like to have a baby, and I always laugh and say something like, “Umm…you basically pray for death…” I don’t mean to scare, but it’s better to be somewhat prepared, isn’t it?

          Then they always say, “My mother LOVED being pregnant. She said the babies just come right out, no problem.”

          Sure they do.

          And after the birth, everything is wine and roses.

          Well, kids are great, and I do love babies, but yeah, the sleep deprivation is not even something I can even describe–at least not right now, in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep.



    • Greg Olear says:

      Yes, the sleep deprivation, which Stephie endured more than I had to…

      Curious that two of the activities that you want to be on top of your game for — caring for newborn babies is one; performing surgery is the other — are ones that you often have to accomplish on very little sleep.

      And yes, my God, New York is no place for a baby. Talk about anxiety…

  11. J.E. Fishman says:

    The coyote’s fatal flaw in the age of automobiles is its tendency to run straight, which can bring it quickly from a natural area to a highway. And, by the time it knows what happened — if it ever does — the car is upon it and it’s too late. Maybe, too, it’s like that for a person with PPD.

    Nice piece, Liz. As affecting as the “delicate whispering of angels.”

  12. (If I repeat what others have said, I apologize… don’t have time to read the other comments at the moment.)

    I just wanted to say that though I didn’t deal with PPD much (or maybe I didn’t have time to realize I had it), having three kids in less than three years was draining (to say the least).

    Too many women think they have to act “normal” (whatever they think that is) because, let’s be honest here, who wants to admit life isn’t perfect once a baby is brought home, when everyone else “seems” to be loving every minute of it? New moms need to know it’s okay to say they’re exhausted or think they’re going to lose it if their baby cries one more time. They need to feel comfortable breaking down to their spouses and friends when they think they’re going crazy. (But also, other mothers need to acknowledge that feeling and empathize with those moms, instead of feeling the need to act like they’ve never felt that way themselves.)

    What you wrote reminds us it’s better to vent and look for help – that finding women going through the same thing will help them realize they’re not alone. It’s also a good eye opener to friends and family who know someone dealing with PPD (whether or not they’ve been diagnosed). And hopefully, after reading this, they’ll go out of their way a little more than they would have before, to make sure their loved one has the support she needs.

    • Jessica,

      Thanks, and I am glad you added your thoughts.

      I think many of us have heard horror stories about the occasional mom-who-cracked, but it’s hard to recognize new-mother stress in oneself. For me, it was especially odd because I didn’t feel depressed, but I had also never felt anxiety, at least on this level. I really thought I was going to die.

      Strange to think that your body can do that to you, for seemingly little reason.

      Anxiety is always a problem trying to get help for, I think. It’s either help or no help–the former most likely in cases of extreme, incapacitating panic.

      Add to that doctors brushing off new mothers as simply “tired,” which is certainly true, but it does go much deeper than that…



  13. Tawni says:

    I could relate to this piece so well.

    I’ve gathered from the comments that you are past the PPD phase of early motherhood, as am I, but for the first year I went through the same thing you describe. The terrible visions of all the horrible things that could happen to my new baby, the sudden inability to sleep (thanks to new-found mommy hyper-vigilance), even during the rare moments I was given more than two hours in which to do so. The complete and utter exhaustion unlike anything I’d ever experienced. (I figured out why sleep deprivation torture works so well. What a depressing revelation.) Suddenly this new tiny human was depending on me for everything and my shoulders had never carried anything so heavy.

    I also got married four months into the pregnancy and moved from Los Angeles to Oklahoma when my son was two months old, so I was a mess. I was in a new city, with no friends and none of my own family around. I felt lost and isolated, with the new stressful job of keeping an infant alive and no previous baby experience under my belt. I never had the desire to harm my baby, I just had extreme anxiety, panic-attack riddled exhaustion and hopeless, bewildering depression I’d never felt before in my life, thanks to the roller-coastering hormones of pregnancy, breastfeeding and getting no more than two hours of sleep at a time for months on end. My son was huge and wanted to eat every two hours like clockwork, so I didn’t dream for half a year. (He didn’t sleep through the night until he was nine months old.) That really messes a person up and I didn’t realize it because I’d never experienced exhaustion like that before.

    I stopped breastfeeding at six months at the recommendation of my doctor, in an attempt to straighten out my hormones. He then put me on Effexor, an anti-depressant, but I only lasted a month on it because it made me feel worse. Because everything went somewhat back to normal once I started getting more sleep (not “old me” normal, because you never get to be the old you once you have kids, but at least “new, more manageable me”), I now think that one of the main causes of my postpartum depression was the sleep deprivation. Even now that my son is four, if I have too many days in a row without a good night’s sleep, I sometimes feel a bit depressed and I catch a glimpse of the awful PPD days. I don’t discount the PPD hormones, I just really don’t think I gave the complete and utter exhaustion enough credit for causing my problems.

    That said, I don’t think PPD is just a tired thing, I think we don’t give the huge adjustment of becoming a mother enough credit either. You are mourning the loss of your old self and becoming responsible for a new life, all at the same time. You will never have your old life back. Goodbye, freedom. And even though you knew this going into the decision to have a child, it doesn’t prepare you for the reality of it, because nothing can. It’s huge. This might also explain why new fathers go through PPD as well. They have nothing hormonally going on, but they are making the same huge psychological adjustment (as well as losing sleep along with you, if they’re doing it right).

    I think it is so great that you’re sharing your PPD experience here because I think it is still a hush-hush kind of subject for many. I definitely encountered nervous laughter and silence when I tried to talk about it with friends, hoping to hear that what I was going through was normal. So thank you for this. Really great topic and beautiful writing.

    This made me giggle: “’Good God,’ I think, ‘She named her kid Vegas.’ I can’t bring myself to send her another note.” 🙂

    • Tawni–thanks for your thoughtful note.

      When I was pregnant, we moved several times (several!) and had just gotten married, I was just about to start graduate school…it was stressful new things times ten. But the no-sleep-past-two-hours thing is the hardest. You do adjust. It seems crazy, but you do (and then, as you point out, you are grateful for the new normal, even if it is nowhere near as good as the old normal amount of sleep).

      You are right that no one wants to hear about anything bad. I think it’s mostly because people don’t know how to respond to that. I don’t think we should be ashamed to say it’s not all perfect all the time. Then again, I always try to keep it real–simply can’t do otherwise.



  14. Marni Grossman says:

    The whole idea of PPD is incredibly frustrating from a feminist perspective. “Great,” you think, “another way for the world to tie women to our biological processes.” But, of course, you can’t shrug it off because it’s real and it’s painful. This was incredibly moving and- dare I say it?- brave.

    • Thanks, Marni–it’s definitely a topic which conflicts me. If there’s anyone “feminist,” it’s probably me. And while it feels dangerous to admit to physical weakness of any sort, if you are a woman, it is also important, I think, to say very clearly: You have no idea how bad it can be. If anything, in the end, maybe there will be more support, more help, more time off for women who have had babies. Imagine how much easier it would be to be a new mom in France or Sweden…I think they get two years’ paid maternity leave in Sweden.

      Meanwhile, back here in the good old U.S.A, I was fielding work phone calls the very same afternoon I got out of the hospital after giving birth. No one at work cared that I’d just had a baby; they simply wanted their press releases sent out…

      • Denying PPD’s validity only worsens the problem and is a detriment to the mothers
        who need the help. To me, there is no point to feminism if it’s going to hurt women by shaming
        them into not being able to admit weakness or that they need help.

        I think in days of old, women actually had more support, with whole families around to help out. As someone who is not from a tribal family – basically had no help at all from family – that shit is rough. And there’s so much riding on this crucial time after childbirth – babies need a sane and fairly rested mother.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          I was thinking about pointing out what you said about “tribal” support, Stephanie, and then I read your comment.

          So I’ll amplify a little bit.

          I was around many mothers and babies in a tribal society, and it’s certainly true that there’s no new mother who shoulders the burden herself. Mothers, sisters . . . there’s always somebody to take the infant and cuddle it so the mother gets a break — and saying “gets a break” is already inaccurate. Having somebody almost always not just available, but actively helping you with your child as a matter of course — that’s how I saw it working. So it’s not as though the mother says, I can’t stand this any more…I need a break. It’s not at all like calling your mother and asking for help.

          Of course, this is just one society, the one I worked in. But there are many like it. It’s something that urban dwellers in the industrialized world have mostly lost, and it’s a big thing to have lost.

          As for the evolutionary thing – new mothers with infants are in an extremely vulnerable state. It’s easy to see how anything selecting for hyper-vigilance would benefit both.

          Because it’s likely that every mother reading TNB had access to baby backpacks, strollers, automobiles, public transportation, it’s likely that most mothers have not had to think about, or experience, a life when they carried the baby, at all times. You and baby go somewhere, you carry the baby. You and the baby flee danger, you carry the baby. You work in your garden, you carry the baby there.

          Then the child can walk — really walk, not just toddle. Big difference. Everything changes.

          Ah, I’ll stop before I start teaching Human Origins again.

          Oh, but from a father’s perspective — my fear was that my son would stop breathing. I would go into his room and put my ear down by his mouth, to make sure. Looking for chest movement wasn’t enough. I had to grab hold of the breath, to be sure.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Great points, Don. You make me want to enroll in Human Origins. Fascinating stuff.

          Breathing, yes! I remember that from the first days in the hospital. I’d wake up in a panic to make sure the little guy was still going. It took awhile for me to accept that my superstition and vigilance was not the mechanism that allowed him to draw breath.

        • Thanks Don – I think more than anything we need to learn from the thousands of years before us. The last 100 or so years in an industrialized nation is a blip – not the norm. While I love that I am free to be what I desire (well – up until I had kids – no freedom whatsoever now) without too many constraints from being discriminated against with no rights as a woman, there are the things we lose. And having the help of the tribe is one of those losses in these modern times.

          And I also thank you, along with Liz, for pointing out the possible benefits of hyper-vigilance. On some level it made me a better mom – almost like I had to shock my system into putting my baby first at all times.

          And yes, let’s not forget the important role of the father in old times and now. Greg is a great dad. And because of working at home – he’s one of the new kind of daddies – he’s in the thick of it as much as I am. Which has created a whole assortment of other great things to write about. How sometimes Mom isn’t number one – how when I started going to class and would leave the house – particularly our daughter Prue attached to him like a Velcro creature that we still have not pried off – (maybe on her wedding day??)
          Fathers can be just as anxiety driven as moms in these early years.

    • Greg Olear says:

      All the well-intended feminism in the world cannot change the fact that women have babies and men do not. Nor sure it. We are all tied to our biological processes, men and women both. A feminism that seeks to create “equality” by obliterating, rather than celebrating, innate differences in gender is, as Stephanie suggests, pointless.

      The wave of feminists in the mid-twentieth century needed to achieve equal rights, because the rights of women, if we may use that term, were beyond second class. That is no longer the case — every other article about the recession concerns how women are faring better than men in high-level management jobs, or wives out-earn husbands — and it will be interesting to see how the new feminism recalculates its goals as the twenty-first century wears on.

      • I totally agree that we are indeed tied to our biological processes. Women should not deny that their bodies/brains can be wracked by pregnancy–rather, we should be acknowledged for the great biological sacrifices we make.

        Just as women shouldn’t be treated as smaller men when it comes to medicine (think of the lack of research done into heart disease in women, and how heart attacks manifest in the fairer sex–also how many physicians still brush off women who are having heart attacks…), women shouldn’t be dismissed for what they go through bearing children.

        True feminism must lie in recognizing and celebrating that which makes us feminine, while not allowing ourselves to be held in second-class status because of it. Feminism shouldn’t be acting like we’re men, because we are not, first of all, and also because no one can survive that much pressure–denying what one is and pretending we don’t need certain things (such as familial and societal support to help relieve the burdens).

        Childbirth still can kill you. It does destroy your body (or at least, it’s never the same unless you work in Hollywood and can afford extensive plastic surgery).

        Then you spend (and fathers know this, too), the rest of your life worrying about your kids, trying to ensure their survival.

        Wow–it’s pretty primal.

        Don–thanks for your comments, especially about how selecting for hyper-vigilance may be a benefit. You made me feel better. (I also feel worse that our society is so wrong-headed now when it comes to helping moms.)

        Steph–I, too, had no family around me. That is unbelievably hard. I hope you get a special medal someday…that’s a stupid joke of mine, as my midwife said to me, “Why suffer? Get the epidural. It’s not like you get a medal for refusing it.”

        • Don Mitchell says:

          I’ll make a few more points, Elizabeth, if I may.

          Year ago, an anthropologist I knew (the late Sherwood Washburn) used to say something like, “It’s not whether differences among humans exist, but whether they have anything to do with the operation of a democracy.”

          Another approach to thinking about human variation (from graduate school, but it’s served me well for years) goes like this: all differences between humans have four components: individual, sexual, developmental, and populational. And the person exploring those differences has to account for all four, or any explanation is incomplete.

          Individual – I’m not the same as anybody else. I’ll never run as fast as Linet Masai.

          Sexual – these would be non-reproductively-related differences (because the reproductive differences can be taken for granted in this approach… men don’t have a uterus, women don’t have testes, and so on). Women are smaller than men, on the average, but they are not smaller men, as Elizabeth says.

          Developmental — you are not the same as you were as an infant, and you’ll be different as an old person, and at every stage in between. If you put the adult me in a room without water for a couple of days, I’m not likely to die. If you put the infant me in that room for a couple of days, I probably won’t survive. Children are not little adults.

          Populational — look around the world and populations of people differ from one another as groups. The average size of a Samon population is greater than the average size of a New Guinea highlands population. Why don’t I say “racial?” Because race is a nebulous thing, but a population of human beings is a definable entity, large or small. You can find it, you can examine it, you can talk to its members, and so on.

          The thing is, if you keep these dimensions of variation in mind when you think about things, your thinking is going to be more subtle.

          Take BPA, for example. An adult doesn’t need to worry much about BPA in bottles. But an infant does — dose/size, rapid development, hormonal systems still settling down, etc. etc.

          Finally, when talking about changing sex roles and necessities, I used to startle my students by arguing that, in 21st century North America, I could go down to a delivery room, pick up a newborn infant, and raise it successfully to adulthood all by myself — no woman needed. Technically, this is accurate but obviously ignores psychological/social factors. Obviously! But in earlier times, or in other societies, the infant wouldn’t survive very long. I would ask them to think about what that implied.

          I’d better stop. I’m supposed to be writing a novel, not revisiting my classrooms.

          But I will say again that I have yet to see a discussion — public or academic — about human differences/variations that couldn’t be clarified or advanced by taking into account individual, sexual, developmental, and populational dimensions and asking how all of them affect what’s being talked about.

        • I hesitated to respond, Don, because I don’t want to take you away from your novel! But thank you for the food-for-thought. Your classes must have been fascinating.

      • Marni Grossman says:

        I think I may have had too many gender theory classes and not enough anthropology. I can’t quite keep up.

        But. Some thoughts.

        1) I don’t necessarily agree that we ought to be “celebrating innate differences.” For one thing, sex itself is, in some ways, socially constructed. Men and women are not nearly as different as we’d like to believe. The binary that we’re taught in science classes is a fallacy. Sex is more of a continuum than an “either/or.”

        2) I also don’t believe in innate differences in gender. I don’t think you were saying this, Greg, but it’s always worth remembering that girls don’t inherently like pink things/have difficulty in math.

        3) Though the media would like us to believe that there’s a “he-cession,” this has more to do with the decline in the manufacturing sector than any real gains for women. (See: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=dont_call_it_a_hecession)
        While some women out-earn men, we still make 78 cents to the dollar. Moreover, in many parts of the world, feminism is still an urgent question. While it may sometimes seem like here in the US we’re quibbling over household chores, it’s more than that.

        4) Absolutely we should be talking about PPD. I just worry that in the larger context of our media, it’s another way to prove that women are “too emotional,” “unstable,” etc. Consider the people who believe that a legitimate argument for voting against a female candidate for President because “what if she’s on her period?”

        • Greg Olear says:

          Although I’m of the belief that the wage inequality has already tipped, and will cease to be as much of an issue as my and your generation assumes control, I’ll concede points 3 and 4.

          And I should have qualified that I’m talking about this country. Too much of the rest of the world consists of barbarians when it comes to women’s rights. In China, for example, years of neglect (to use a euphemism) of women and girl babies means that that country will have something like a 20:1 male/female ratio in 20 years. Mistreatment of women will bring about that country’s downfall. And don’t even get me started on the Muslim world.

          As for your first two points, by “innate differences,” I’m not talking about math scores and preferences for pink but about vaginas and penises. There’s nothing “social construct” about that. All the feminist theory professors in all the land cannot change the fact that women have babies and men don’t. (Until we can be cloned, that is. Then, all bets are off).

          Also: in terms of genetics, a male human is closer to a male chimp than he is a female human (insert joke here). So the gender differences, however small they might be, are profound.

        • A complicated discussion, to be sure.

          Women are still grossly underpaid, compared to men. Maybe the men who lost their jobs recently were not college educated, so it LOOKS like college-educated women (there are slightly more women than men in college now, I think) are now out-earning men . Also, all the finance guys who are out of work now–and were so highly paid before they were laid off–are skewing the stats, I think.

          Anyway, I remember having the same job as a boyfriend, and he earned $6k more, for no reason that I could fathom. The female H.R. director determined salaries. Another time, I had a female boss who underpaid the entire female staff–and it turned out that what she saved on our salaries (according to corporate budget), she got to take home. Nice.

          So women are just as guilty of routinely underpaying other women…but I digress. (And yet, if anything, women *today* need to earn more to pay for womanly upkeep, child care, etc. It’s not as though men still bring home more bacon, especially if women are single moms, which seems rather common.)

          Bottom line, after all this debate, is that I want the same rights as men and I want the same, manly salary (ha!), but I also want to be recognized as having different needs, and I want to be treated differently by physicians, respected more by employers and society, etc.

          I also don’t want people to expect that I will become my husband’s property after marriage…seems like that one still hasn’t disappeared, even if some women don’t want to think that’s what happens.

          What I want to say before I forget is that I understand the feminism debate here, I think. Still, I believe it’s not quite right. I think it actually serves to hurt, not help, women. Why should we deny that people really ought to cut us a break when we’re with child, or listen to us more, help us more after we’ve just had a child? I daresay that American women would be happier and nicer if there were more recognition of the fact that in the decision to bear children, we’ve leased out our bodies, put our lives on hold and will never financially catch up…

          We definitely don’t want men arguing that because we are women we are inherently emotionally unstable–and I don’t believe that’s even true. If anything, I think women have much more emotional intelligence than men and can better understand “gray” areas, have stronger (perhaps) senses of morality, etc. I am one of those annoying feminists who doesn’t just want equal rights, I actually want more than that; I do think on some levels that women are superior to men (sorry, men). I know how much more women deal with; I know that it takes some pretty complex skills to live as a woman in America right now. I don’t think many men could, as deftly, handle all the pressures that a working mom faces: social, political, financial, physical, medical, etc.

          Women telling other women to keep quiet about what it’s really like to be a woman doesn’t help our common cause, in my opinion. I remember in Martha Beck’s book, “Expecting Adam,” that a peer freaked on the author when she dared to faint and vomit while pregnant, saying something like, “You set back all women by giving in to the myth of morning sickness.” Well, I puked every day while pregnant, and I know it’s no myth. I also know that it’s a whole new bag of fruit after you have the baby. I know that the late stages of pregnancy really do (temporarily) kill off the mother’s brain cells–as much as (I assume) huffing industrial glue every day might do.

          I couldn’t remember my own phone number at one point. I have had very pregnant women who worked with me make amazingly crazy mistakes and hand me unintelligible pieces of writing or completely screw up appointments. I let it go, because I know how difficult it is to juggle everything and try to do it all, to hold onto a much-needed job while you are so sick and uncomfortable.

          What we need, I believe, is more acknowledgment (not denial) that parturition takes a tremendous toll on womankind. Then we need to thank all the moms–and give them more time off (paid), more support and higher salaries! I think more women need to demand this, and not act like they don’t need it.

        • I saw this and thought of the gender difference aspect our discussion here…

        • Interesting article, Stephanie. It does just go to show that some girls really do like dolls better, and boys prefer trucks. I have never been a pink-loving player-with-dolls myself, but had I, as a child, been offered a makeup kit, I would have been all over it. Same with a paint set, probably…but I can’t even pretend to have any interest in trucks, not even now. I asked my friend Danielle how she could bear to discuss “double pumper” firetrucks with her son. She told me you get used to it, but I wonder if I could ever do it…

        • It’s funny how even the color pink gets stereotyped as a way that girls are girlie.
          Because historically, pink was a masculine color – soldiers would come back with pink stains
          on their white shirts from faded blood – thought to be very masculine to wear pink, actually.
          It wasn’t until the 1950’s that pink became fashionably girl. So, in regards to color, there has definitely been a socialization. But as I have a girl and a boy – both kids like pink – our son maybe more so, since when he gets a pink item – he thinks it’s cool because he so rarely gets one.

          In regards to the link I posted – I’ve seen so many parents try to be gender neutral with their child – just like in the article – and learn that there are certain things that their boys just like and that their girls just like. And I’ve noticed it’s in very subtle ways with ours kids. Not outwardly, like with color or even athletics (both our kids love catch and anything having to do with ball playing) – but Prudence is definitely a little caretaker and Dominick is for sure the destroyer! Am I supposed to teach Prue, well – no – you shouldn’t be the kind very concerned with everyone’s well-being wants to cook on the big stove sweetheart that you are? Hell no! Am I supposed to shame her into feeling bad for being so nurturing? Ridiculous. And yes, I hope Dominick turns his love of destroying and building into something productive for society – architect maybe? These kids are their own people – for sure. And Greg and I have been at home with both of them equal amounts – I am not your typical mom and he is not the typical dad. So, in our home experiment – these gender differences are not socialized – they did not learn from us. Greg cooks and cleans as much as I do. Yes, it’s true – totally killer Greg makes a mean sauce.

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Fascinating about the color pink. Never thought of that, but it makes sense.

          I believe so much of us is genetic. I try to work with what I have rather than fight it. Like my curly hair. I spent years trying to straighten it to be like all the other girls. Then I stopped caring. Called a truce. Now, I celebrate my freaky hair. It’s different. Why fight it? Like my gender.

          My nephew plays with dolls. Occasionally someone will think it’s funny to say, “I bet he’s gay.” Should my sister discourage him? I’m with you Stephanie. I encourage him. He’s so sweet with the dolls. Very nurturing, as you describe your Prue.

          And how did you land a guy who cooks AND cleans? What’s up with that?

  15. Ducky Wilson says:

    Marni – Point #4 rocks. Thanks for making it. (Actually, thanks for making all those points.)

  16. Ah, point #4–with which I want to agree, and maybe my former self would have agreed (surely, she would have), but with which I now find fault.

    Yes, it makes sense politically, and it may not be politic to admit to any weakness or infirmity that women may ever have, especially as involves womanly functions. Still, if anyone tries to use that “emotional” or “weak” argument against women instead of acknowledging the great strain that comes with being a woman, plus all the sacrifices women make–well, those people are jackasses.

    I am not too worried about what they would argue against us. I think we can take them now.

    I should mention that I am reading Mary Karr’s new memoir LIT right now, in which she makes all the same points I basically have (pure coincidence–or we are on same wavelength), while also admitting some people will attack her recounting of how it really feels to be pregnant (one is spacey, particularly at the end) and have a baby, and how resentful, exhausted and despondent one may feel as a new mom.

    I think it’s better to be honest about how all of this affects women. Why pretend we are superheroes? We are just setting ourselves up for failure that way–and truly, women *will* be deemed emotionally unstable if they are having collective nervous breakdowns due to all the insane pressure of trying to do it all.

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