Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Clueless and the Baby Blues

I came home on a third Friday of my son’s life. My wife sat in bed with our three-week-old baby boy, surrounded by a sea of pillows. Her look lacked life as if she was painted in technicolor grays. She had remained in the same clothes all day, unlike herself. Her blue eyes were that of dark clouds ready to release globular raindrops. I was not sure if this would be a second or third storm of unmanned tears. Her face mixed memories and desire into a withered lilac. I was almost certain the emotional storm would not be the first for the day. I said my usual hello, and she responded with a “hey,” but without eye contact.

It was early April and our cruel winter had disappeared. This was the winter that Spokane made the national news because of a blizzard. My family called from Texas, Mexico and Ohio to see if we were okay. My family is scattered like big snow flakes in the wind, making modern technology the only mortar of connection. Somehow, Facebook is not the same as face to face.

The winter was also the last third of my wife’s pregnancy. When our son came, she no longer had to teach the helicopter parent fused freshman that had drove her nuts. The wasteland of excuses that peppered her in teaching the New Testament at Jesuit University would be only a memory. She, before the birth, had been looking forward to a break from teaching. Yet, now my wife looked clouded by fear in handful of dust.

She starred out unfocused onto our Russian painting we bought online with our son finding his voice in coos on her lap. Aleksey Popov’s impressionistic rendering of cows gazing in an open pasture had no effect on her. His staccato autumn browns and quick greens strokes were ignored as if they were a side painting at a major show. Her gaze was else where, and I had no idea where. I asked how her day went. She answered in a sharp lifeless stroke of a meaningless one word answer, “okay.”

I was clueless to help. And like the clueless, I asked the stupidest questions attempting to draw her out. My concern took on the makeup of pale white concern, yellow eyebrow jokes and the red rubberball nose of annoying questions. No wonder she remained in a melody of melancholy. No wonder her husband felt foolish.

“How was your day?”

“Did the baby do something new?”

Her minimalism answers left me looking for answers. I wanted to be there for my wife, but nothing helped. The baby fell asleep in her lap. I looked through the black prison bars of my silly attempts at being there for her. She was taking good care of our baby, but isolation that we surround new parents was slowly descending on her. She showed the beginnings of the baby blues. I showed the signs of extreme helplessness.

When we took the prenatal class, this was one of “those things” to look out for. But beyond the warning, we were given no practical advice on what to do. What I was doing was clearly not working. If anything, my attempts were bouncing off as lifeless mud. I kept asking annoying questions, because I had nothing else.

I suspect that the baby blues are more a function of the isolation, which happen two or three weeks after a birth. We all need attention to live. The first week or two, when we need to get our bearings, we are surrounded by people wanting to do stuff for us. Meals appear from friends and family. The under cooked chicken, the too large of a frozen lasagna, the homemade lasagna, and the cool Thai food takeout from the hip young mother all paraded in our home for us in the first two weeks. Our friends would drop off the dinners, quickly see the baby, say the obligatory “how cute,” and move on to their next activity. Few stayed longer than half hour for fear of overwhelming us and to go on to their next project. We have busy lives.

My mother flew in from Florida to help. She wanted to be there for us. She walked around our house rearranging things for us. I just wanted to be with my new baby and my wife. I stayed home with my new family to fill myself with euphoria and possibility that is our son. The parade of things done for us was too much. It was not enough.

Then after two weeks or so we are left alone. People had done their duty to do stuff for us. I had those two weeks with my new son and wife. Then I had to return to work. My wife had to work through the struggles of nursing for the first time with no one with her. People went back to their lives. Strange, we have become like self-contained atoms, bumping into each other out of social convention. Our friends did what they could for us, but modern life pulls us apart in flood of appointments, to do lists and the general course of getting things done. Their lives made it hard to be with us. I went through this thought pattern as I looked at my wife on the bed. My philosophizing was due more to my guilt at my own helplessness to be there for her.

I had to return to work, leaving my wife with little sleep, drenched in hormones, and a new baby demanding attention. Naturally, a deep sadness descended on her at the end of the week from lack of company to be with her. The reality was that with so many people providing help for us, there was a lack of people being with us through those first two weeks.

She needed others as we all do. She needed attention as we all do. I remember a Christmas Eve sermon by Dr. Samuel Wells at Duke Chapel that drew the distinction between doing things for others and being with others. Doing “for” others is a level that drives us apart. “With” must lead us to the heart of the love. His sermon was a fire that burned with the importance of presence. He used the passages for his meditation:

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” –Isaiah 7.14

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” —which means, “God with us.” Matt 1.23

When I heard it online, I thought back and realize that, out of accident, I had found the narrow path for us in finding how to be with each other. “For” and “with, they are different. Do we hide behind doing “for” people, when being “with” is hard? When stupid questions get in the way? Critics thought T S Eliot’s Wasteland was due to a loss in belief. Maybe the Wasteland is fueled by lack of being with each other. “With” defines love. “With” can also be difficult, as my concern to do for my wife pointed out.

Thinking back to my wife on the brink of the Baby Blues, somehow I found an answer. The answer had to do with being “with” her. I remembered I asked her if she wanted to take a warm shower. She nodded mechanically. I took our son, and she went through the motion of getting warm water rushing over her body. As I heard the shower going, I had an epiphany beyond me.

She might have pulled out without what I did next, but I believe I stumbled into what help her out of the black hole she was entering.

I called several friends from our church, old wiser people than me. I was smart for once and failed to tell them about my wife having the baby blues. They would have repeated my mistake of wearing the shield of concern. We need people to be with us more than we need people to do for us. Doing for someone can be demeaning, while being with someone heals us. Two couples took me up on my offer to go out to dinner. They wanted to see the new baby and to be with us.

We all went out for yellow cheese Mexican food, the kind my cousin Clarissa hates. A greasy version of my heritage found throughout the country full of chimichangas, Pico de gallo with the peck to the tongue, and hard shell tacos. Over good conversation, over mediocre margaritas, (my wife’s a virgin huckleberry version), over chile rellenos my Mexican family would be embarrassed to eat, over silly talk and jokes, my wife’s color return. Our friends’ presence pulled her out. The baby looked out to the bright purples, reds and blues of the restaurant, happy to see the newness of life.

One of our friends loves to poke at his wife by ordering lemon with his water, then asking for the sugar to make his own “free” lemonade. His wife loves to hide the sugar from him. And like all running jokes, it takes on the aspects of ritual. My wife’s laughter over their mock bickering made me joyous. No one mentioned the baby blues, and it disappeared in refried beans, Spanish rice and good friends to be with. It dissolved into mixture of lemon, sugar and bad puns. It was the last note of baby blues I would notice in my wife.

The next day I noticed a pimple forming at the crease of my nose from the greasy food. I wore it like a trophy. Joy flowed like a living water waterfall. My wife and spent the weekend together with our new son.

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