This summer has been unbearably hot. So far, there have been six heat waves in Philadelphia, with the high humidity like a wet, hot towel wrapped around my head. This is also my first summer with a baby, and he’s changed everything about summer life. We’ve been indoors a lot, listening to our air conditioner, staring at each other.
Being stuck inside with him is mostly fun. Like any mother, I love him more than I ever thought I could love anything. He laughs a lot, babbles, does cute and funny baby stuff. He also needs to nap and eat frequently, so it’s not as if we could be out in the woods on some crazy hike, like I’d imagined us doing before he was born. But it’s still difficult to accept that I can’t spend endless, active, unrestrained time outdoors, or really, just outside of the house, like I have for most of my life. Four walls and recycled air quickly become oppressive.
Like my friend, who also is a new mother says, some days you feel like a prisoner in your own home.
A few days ago, my son and I were sitting on the living room floor, and I was staring at the shadows cast on the wall by the late afternoon sun. They were beautiful lacey silhouettes of my indoor plants, and I took a photo of them. Later, while my son was napping, I sat down with the intention to make a monochromatic sketch of the photo. The first color I chose was yellow-ochre; and as with my moment of observation of the shadows, as I painted I got lost in the value changes of yellow.
After looking at the sketch, I thought of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. In the story, the woman narrating is in “recovery isolation” after the birth of her child, at the will of her husband who thinks it will help her “hysteria”—it seems as though her husband was trying to treat postpartum depression or anxiety. She is confined to the nursery of their house (to “rest”, I suppose) where she stares at the room’s yellow wallpaper all day, and after hours of staring, becomes lost in its patterns. She slowly starts to lose her mind. In her hallucinations, she sees a woman, whom she believes is trapped inside the paper.
I mention this story not to compare my own situation to the one imagined by Gilman, but to point out that postpartum life can feel isolating. Feeling edgy, lonely, hopeless at times are all normal feelings, and I’ve felt all of these. Nonetheless, I feel lucky to have our son, and our dog, and our little summer dungeon, because it’s really not bad. Really, I’m not alone (my son and dog, and friends who text) or that cut off from the world (we do have phones and Internet), my husband comes home from work at night (he would rather be home all day, he’s my best friend). I get short breaks while he naps to write a little or draw a little. Our son is healthy and a generally happy baby. I have a friend whose son was ill for months after he was born, and she compared their nine-month, indoors-only experience to Mary Lennox’s in The Secret Garden— alone in the house, staring longingly out the window, hiding from the cholera epidemic. Her joke made me laugh, she had said it to make light of their experience, but I knew how hard that must have been for them.
There’s also this thing that parents go through after having a kid—you just get cut off from your old friends, and the things you used to do that made you happy. I know that friends don’t always call or text because they don’t want to be a bother or interrupt a nap attempt, because that’s how I thought about correspondence with my friends when they became parents. But even if you can’t reply because your baby’s crying, or you forget to reply for a few days because you’re exhausted, a text or email or voicemail makes you really happy. Believe me.
Currently, the summer heat is still cranked up. We’re still indoors most of the time. My escape is to focus on the present. I try not to let my mind wander into autumn. When I find myself imagining what we’ll be doing when he can sit independently and the days are cooler, or what I’ll be doing when he’s down to fewer, longer naps, I actually physically shake my head to let those thoughts leave. When I do this, it makes my son laugh, too, which is a further reminder to just stop and be in the present with him. I don’t want to think back on this time and recall not noticing my son’s roulette of facial expressions, or not realizing he’s staring at me while I stare at my wall or my phone. Soon enough he’ll be older and stronger and able to brave the elements with me.
It sounds simple, but I’d rather laugh at how my yellow-themed sketch reminded me of Gilman’s undone narrator, and be thankful I’m not tearing wallpaper to shreds, attempting to free the symbolic trapped woman in the walls.