I almost killed my daughter after she was born. She wasn’t a colicky baby; she slept most of the night. She ate so well, I swelled with parental pride. She had big blue eyes with flecks of gold and her face lit up every time I walked in the room. Never in my life had someone loved me so unconditionally—without words. Walk out of the room—tears, screams, agony. Walk into the room—a smile pinched upward, blue eyes rimmed with red. It was difficult to be so loved.
It was a scary time in my life. I was only twenty-two. The pregnancy and delivery had been enough to kill me. My husband was drinking more than ever. I wasn’t the kind of person who particularly liked staying home. Even in high school, I spent many summers in summer school because I had simply wanted to. Staying at home with a new baby, having just quit a job I had had for five years, having a marriage that seemed to be reeling away from me, was solitude I wasn’t prepared for.
It had been a summer day—maybe like a day like this one. Not too hot but sunny, stifling heat in the car with the windows rolled up. Bella would have been a few months old. And because I no longer worked, I now felt resigned to clean all day: feed baby, scrub grout lines, feed baby, wash the coffee pot, feed baby and serve my husband something hot with two sides and buttered bread and a cracked-open beer when he got home. (This is not to say that he expected this of me. This was what I felt was my role since I was not working. To be perfectly honest, we were both under a lot of stress. He felt the enormous pressure of supporting three people on one income. I felt depressed having given up my life—my dreams of a PhD, of writing books and traveling Europe, of having white carpet—yes, I know how vapid that sounds—to raise a baby I never wanted. But we didn’t talk about this. ) I wanted out.
I strapped her into the car seat, tucked her chubby little arms under each shoulder strap, clicked the button at the bottom. The car seat dropped into the latched base with a snap. I shut the door.
Had the garage been empty, I might have pulled in, left the car running, watched the windows slide down. But it wasn’t, so I stood in the glare of the sun, let my head go heavy. Having moved from Bella’s view, she started to scream. I could have walked away. I could have gone into the house. Dan had just bought a gun (having a baby was a very intense experience for us–we were young and unprepared), but it was a shotgun. I didn’t want to kill Bella, that I knew, but I wanted out. I didn’t want to be the me I had become with her. Call it selfish or immaturity—I wanted nothing to do with it. It was my life I wanted to end–not hers.
So I got in the car and I drove. I had no agenda; I might have listened to music, in fact, I probably did. I drove aimless around the desert for a while, meandering down long stretches of highway, going just slightly above the speed limit, pumping the brakes softly when necessary so as not to wake Bella, who had dozed off in the lull of forward motion. As I crested Mt. Top off Highway 138, it occurred to me that I could drive us straight into the other lane of traffic. Just swerve ever so slightly into any number of tractor-trailers lumbering up the steep hill and just like that it’d be over. I pressed my foot down.
The riveted bumps that divided the two sides of traffic hummed with our intrusion. A warning put there years before to help weary drivers stay alert on the dangerous mountain roads. But Bella didn’t stir. I watched a big white tractor-trailer plod around the bend at the bottom of the hill. He tooted the horn giving me fair warning, but again, I pressed my foot down.
I didn’t fantasize about my death—what my family or friends would or wouldn’t say—I didn’t dream up all the compliments that would be given in my absence—how my parents would be devastated—Dan, a crushed shell of a man. Had I considered all that, I wouldn’t have done it. I loved my family. I loved my friends. I loved Dan. I loved my daughter. Who I didn’t love was me.
I was barreling toward the truck, hurtling right towards it. The truck now honking violently, its lights a panicky Morse code. I couldn’t look anywhere but the grill—that front silver piece, the slats like tiny windows. I knew I’d chicken out if I looked away.
But then, without cause, Bella cried, wailed. A shrill so piercing, I couldn’t help but to feel that hook of mothering—the one that makes your breasts hurt, the one that stirs your battered body hurtling through the dark to shush tears, the one that makes you steer your car back into your lane of traffic.
I remember the driver’s face, his wide eyes, locked on me in horror—his mouth a perfect Oh shit. I remember the smell of Bella’s hair when I pulled her out of the car seat, her back damp and warm. I remember telling Dan that I needed help while we tucked clean sheets around the corners of our mattress days later. I remember the look on his face—his forehead without a wrinkle, without a judgment, his green eyes gone gray—how a broken heart looks behind eyes you have loved for years–how scared he looked, the sheets loose in corners, taut in others.
I had severe post-partum depression. They gave me meds; they made me talk. I learned to say what I had to so that the doctor could feel like I was progressing. I buried my guilt in the deepest part of my soul. I have tried to tell myself that since that moment I have been a perfect mother–or rather a better mother. I have made it all up to my two beautiful children by tickling them every night to tears, by kissing them so often they ask me to stop (especially now that they’re older). But sometimes, on a day like today, when there’s not a cloud in the sky, not a task on our agenda, I might raise my voice too loudly, might sigh too heavily at their bickering voices—their arguments over books, remotes, who was using the bathroom first—and I feel the smallest little lump of guilt start to form—for all the dark, dark times; for all the things I said too harshly at them or too hastily; for all the times I didn’t or did (INSERT MISTAKE HERE). And then I swallow.