by Folakemi Emem-Akpan
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© September 2006 Folakemi Emem-Akpan
I stare out the window, at the burning red sun sinking in the west. I’m sure the sun feels like me, like my heart…depleted, tired after pouring out its energy into undeserving humans all day. In addition, I feel helpless, trapped by the same life I’d once craved. I force out a tremulous sigh.
One of the twins lets out a yell, fierce and very long, and my heart begins a mad dance of pain.
Ungluing myself from the sanctuary of the window, I plod to the bedroom. In a far corner of the spacious room, in his cot, the boy is kicking at his blanket. His face is scrunched up in absolute concentration and for a while, he’s lost to the world. He doesn’t even see me.
Something tears at my insides and I feel like curling up, throwing up, giving up. Up, up, up.
“Shut up.” My voice is as low and as menacing as I can dare.
Teju opens his eyes, sees me hovering over him. He exchanges his yell of terror for a smile and his whole face changes. His face seems to fill out, and his dark six-month-old eyes turn to pools of pleasure. His smile pleases and displeases me at the same time. It’s made him so beautiful I wonder if this baby came out of me, just your average kind of woman. At the same time, I know he’s asking to be held.
Right now, I can’t even hold myself upright, let alone anybody. Let alone my baby. When he waits for me to pick him up and I don’t, his eyes search mine for an improbable answer. I turn away before I burst into tears the same way I’d done yesterday.
In another crib, Tayo, the other twin is sleeping. She’s curled in the foetal position, perhaps still confused about now being on earth rather than in my womb. She’s sucking hard on a finger, and I know she must be dreaming of nursing.
My heart lurches against my ribcage. I want to sleep, I want to slip into unrecognizable darkness and silence.
Teju lets out a whimper from his corner. I follow suit, my own whimper longer and sadder than his. I’m tired and my shuffling feet soon carry me out of the oppressive room, away from Tayo’s sleeping form, away from Teju’s silent contemplation, away from my babies.
What kind of mother am I? I wonder briefly as I regain my solitary watch at the living room window. The sun’s disappeared completely, and in its stead, an angry blackness reigns. Frustrated, I drop into a chair, the tears welling up in my eyes now. They arrive, one drop at a time until my face is a glistening river. All the while, I’m contemplating what kind of mother I am.
I pretend to be fast asleep but peep at my husband from beneath my long lashes. Tom’s dressed up now, ready to face the challenges of another work day. In silence, I admire his well-tailored suit, the broad sweep of his shoulders. I envy him his job, his license to get out of the house daily. I envy him greatly.
Once upon a time, ten months ago to be exact, I had a job. It didn’t pay much but I loved it. But the five months old pregnancy I lugged about my midsection slowed me down, until I was finally admitted into the hospital. Thus began a downhill journey into the maze of sickness. The doctors prodded and stung my skin with needles. The nurses brought cup after cup of water and needless chatter. Tom stopped by often, wearing a wide smile and nervousness. I took it in stride, counting the days I would be rid of my burden.
Labour broke on me like a wave of nausea. One minute I was reading a worthless romance paperback, and the next I was clutching my distended stomach and screaming blue murder.
The memory of that day is still as fresh as ever. The tears leap to my eyes again, just like I knew they would. In retrospect, those four months of confinement in the hospital are better than my days now. The needles hurt but at least didn’t cry, and they weren’t dependent on me for survival.
“Funmi?” Tom calls out, coming near to see if I’m awake.
I shut my eyes tighter and try to relax the stiff posture of my body.
He bends down and drops me a kiss. “See you in the evening. Take care of yourself…and the babies too.”
He leaves on a trail of perfume. When I’m sure he’s gone, I bunch my feet under me and rise shakily to me feet. You can do this, I tell myself. It’s just another day. Another day like the rest of them.
The twins are still asleep, holding tight to each other as if they can somehow sense that their mother cares little for them. The blanket’s off, so I pull it to their chins and waddle to the living room.
My husband made me tea. It’s sitting on the dining table, letting out curling steam. My throat clogs up in my neck.
You’re such a lucky woman. My friends say it over and over again, marveling at how an African man could be as sensitive as my husband. I’d nod and reply, of course.
He’s a good man, Tom is. But he’s also thickheaded. For two months, I’ve been trying to tell him how I feel. When I do, my tongue becomes thick and ponderous but I try anyway. I talk of the black hole I’m being sucked into, I talk of how drained I feel all the time. He looks at me, shakes his head and tells me to keep it cool. You need to rest more, he’d say. I do try to rest more. I lock the babies in the farthest room so I can’t hear them when they bawl. I try to lose myself in dreary sitcoms. I try all sorts of things, but this heavy burden presses down on my shoulder.
I am a mother.
I don’t have a mother anymore, so Tom’s mother came to stay one month after the children were born. We usually don’t get along too well, but two babies born at the same time were enough to draw us close. We buried our differences and cooed to the babies together all day long. We even exchanged recipes.
She left, and I was left alone. For the first two months after that, I did quite well. I bathed the babies early, loved them enough, took good care of the house, and always welcomed Tom at the end of the day with a sprightly kiss and a warm meal.
Then it came upon me.
It wasn’t steadily, not gradual, not anything. One morning, I woke and couldn’t get myself out of bed. Darkness was thick in my head and the portion that wasn’t thick with darkness was empty. My thoughts chased each other around in my head, ricocheting off the empty walls. In a way I can’t explain, I survived that day. And the next, and the next, and the next.
I take a tentative sip of the tea. It scalds my tongue but jolts me fully awake. I will survive today, I tell myself gravely. Maybe this terrible darkness will be gone by the time I wake up tomorrow. But I know I’m lying to myself, a grave sin indeed.
Sitting down, I try to concentrate on the things I’m supposed to do today. First, I need to bathe and feed the babies. And perhaps a bath for myself. A book to read perhaps. I’ve since stopped working. Even without Tom’s insistence that I do not return to a paid job after delivery, I know I’d rather face a shooting squad than be a salaried worker right now.
By the time I’m through with my thoughts, the tea is tepid but I drink it anyway. Somehow, through this little ritual, I can still be close to my husband. Because if the truth be told, the gulf between us is now so wide I could drown in it. He feels it too and tries hard, as hard as he can to reach me, touch me, understand me. But how can he understand? A woman, and especially an African woman, is supposed to be imbued with motherhood tendencies. How can he understand how worthless I feel, how useless, how inadequate, how depressed?
Gathering my thoughts around me like a protective cloak, I stand to my feet and walk to the kitchen. Running on automatic like a zombie now, I fill the electric kettle with water, plug it in, scratch at the on switch and rest my back on the nearest wall.
There are cobwebs in my head. Thick, dirty cobwebs that make my head swirl and roar alarmingly. Tayo is sitting on my knee, playing away at a rattle that only compounds the noise in my head. Teju sits quietly on the floor, across the room from us. He’s staring at us through wisened young eyes. It’s as if he knows, knows that I am afraid of taking care of them. Afraid of them.
I’m not actually afraid of them. I’m only scared of my responsibilities. Will I ever be able to take proper care of them? Is their future safe in my hands?
Tayo starts pulling at my hair, even as a headache begins at the base of my skull. I think of Tom’s warm hands, his perfumed body, and his soft tones. Then my thoughts swirl to my babies, their soft bodies, their absolute trust in me.
I yank Tayo’s hands off my hair, stand and settle her beside her brother. She acquiesces but with a slight whimper.
“Good girl.” I plunk a tray of biscuits in front of them. I know they will mangle it, but at least it will keep them busy for some minutes.
I escape into the bedroom, into my phone. I speed dial my husband.
“Tom,” I begin breathlessly, only to find out I don’t have anything to say. I’ve called him on sheer impulse, nothing but impulse.
“Are you okay, Funmi?”
“Yeah. I just…”
“What of the babies?”
“They’re fine. I have a headache.” I say what I haven’t planned to say and it sounds ridiculous.
Ever the gentleman, he asks, “a headache?” I can picture him frowning and scratching at his temple.
I try to rein in my thoughts but I am unsuccessful. They seem to be slipping through my head like fine sand. I take a deep breath and say, “Yes…and I…I’m so tired. I think I need a break.”
A silence I don’t wish for stretches between us. I’m sure he’s wondering if the babies are safe. He finally speaks, “a break from what?”
Motherhood, wifehood, I want to say but wonder if I will sound sane. “I think I need bed rest.” I say slowly, “maybe a week…and maybe I need to see a doctor.” The real word is psychiatrist but I don’t want to alarm Tom. Not yet.
He takes a deep breath. A very deep one. “Someone’s just come into the room. I need to go. We’ll talk about this when I get home, Funmi.”
I nod in obedience only to remember he can’t see me. “Okay.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?” He asks again.
I whisper a low yes and disconnect the call. Leaden feet carry me back to the front room. I need to see a psychiatrist, I tell myself. I say it with the right amount of conviction. And perhaps relief.
There are voices in my head, an oppression in my heart, and two babies to tend to. I return to my former seat and watch over my children. A lump births in my throat. I bite back on it with a vengeance.
The twins are fast asleep, urged on by a generous dosage of piriton. They will be out for two hours. It’s not the first time I will deliberately knock them out, and it won’t be the last. The drug was gotten over the counter and I hide it in the spare room where we keep junk treasures.
With the realisation that I now have two hours free to do whatever I please, I pick up the paperback I’ve been reading on and off and stagger to the living room. My favorite chair receives me without a word of complain.
I begin to read.
It’s some stupid live-happily-ever-after novel, and I suddenly feel nauseous. My breath stinks and I’m dressed in a torn nightgown. It’s past four in the evening but I have absolutely no desire to be desirable. I can’t get myself to go to the bathroom, bath, brush, and look clean.
Settling deeper into my chair, I nod off into a semi-conscious state. I’m floating in that foggy place between reality and dreamland when a knock startles me. It takes me more than a minute to realize it’s coming from the front door. The paperback is now resting haphazardly on the floor besides me. My slippers are off, my hair flying in different directions.
I feel awful, as awful as I look. But I rouse myself from the chair anyway and take faltering steps towards the door, towards the disturbance.
“Who’s there?” I’ve not used my voice since I spoke with Tom in the morning and it sounds feeble, even to my weak ears.
An involuntary shudder runs through my body. Yemi was once my best friend, she still is, but she's fed up with the hopeless hole I’ve thrown myself into.
I unlatch the door. Yemi’s laden with two heavy baskets and a hearty smile. It seems she’s come for a long stay. My heart begins to bleed. What if she finds out I drugged the babies? I force a smile that doesn’t reach my heart.
She smiles another terrific smile. My own smile gets wider. Despite myself, it feels good to see someone other than Tom and the children.
“Took a day off work. Thought I’d spend it with you.” She’s already moving into the bowels of the house. I follow gingerly. “Where are the babies? I’ve missed them something awful.”
I stop mid-step. Yemi turns back when I do not answer her question. She asks again, “the babies?”
My brain snaps back into place. “Sleeping.”
She leads the way to our room. Neither of the kids has changed positions. My heart refuses to slow down. I’m burdened with visions of Yemi turning around and accusing me of trying to kill my own children.
It doesn’t happen. Instead, she pulls me by the hand. “Let’s go sit in the living room and talk. It’s been a long time.” She notices my drab appearance. “Are you okay?”
I nod quickly.
She has a way of repeating questions when she feels I’m lying. “Are you okay?”
I’m in the process of nodding again when the tears flush my face. I lean back on the closest wall as a huge sob escapes me. She gently leads me out of the room, sits me in the same chair I’d been sitting before and starts to ask me questions.
“What is it?”
I can’t answer. The flood of tears wouldn’t let me.
I shake my head a fierce no.
I break down again.
“Tell me about it.”
I swallow back some waves, take a deep breath and begin.
I am waiting at the door when Tom arrives. The food is still warm on the kitchen’s table top, and for the first time in a very long while, I greet my husband with a smile. He replies with a smile of his own.
I reach for his briefcase and lug it successfully to the dining table. I’m not far from tears, but I’m trying, really trying to speak without crying. Since the depression came on me, I’ve always melted into tears any time I try to talk to Tom about it.
I will not cry today.
“You look fresh.”
Not too long ago, Tom would have told me that I looked pretty, but considering the fact that I’ve been letting myself go for weeks, fresh is a good compliment. After Yemi left, I’d raced to the bathroom, scrubbed myself down and rubbed talc. I feel fresh externally. Inside, my heart is doing a thousand miles per hour.
“Thank you. I made dinner.”
If he’s surprised, he’s doing a very good job of not showing it. “What of the children?”
“Asleep.” At the thought of them, my heart even begins to race faster. After waking up from their piriton-induced sleep, they’d consumed copious amounts of Frisocreme, played some, and promptly fell back into the waiting arms of sleep. They’re still sleeping.
He frowns intelligently, “it seems that’s what they do always these days.”
I shrug off the reply I should have given him.
“You called me?”
I know he’s asking me why, but I’m not prepared to talk about it.
“Yes. Won’t you have dinner?”
“Later. Are you okay? You said you needed to see a doctor?” There’s concern in his eyes, and it is killing me. I don’t want concern; I want help.
I walk to my favourite chair and sit. “I think you should take a seat.”
“Are you pregnant?”
His question makes me laugh. If only it were that simple, “No.”
He sits. “What?”
“There’s something inside my head,” I begin.
He stares at me without comprehension.
“Remember, I tried to talk to you about it.”
“You said you were tired.”
“Yes, and I am a lot more tired now. Tom, it’s worse than that,” my voice has gone an octave higher, “I feel inadequate, isolated…sometimes I don’t think I’m capable of taking care of Tayo and Teju…”
“It’s the truth. It’s like…like…” a constriction creases my heart. Red tears rush to my eyes. Tears of anger, frustration, guilt, hopelessness. Everything mixed together.
Tom’s face is a sea of bewilderment.
I swallow back my tears and continue. “I’m not a good mother, I think.”
He wants to object, slap me on the back and say of course you are, but he thinks the better of it and keeps mum.
“Yemi was here this evening and we spoke about it. I want to see a psychiatrist.”
The offensive word floats between us like an invisible fog. Tom’s lips hang open and he is powerless to close them.
I press on. “She thinks it is post partum depression. She has a psychiatrist friend, you know.”
He’s still mute.
“She said it is common after childbirth, especially for multiple births, and for women who are isolated,” I laugh, “and I am all of that if anything. Tom, I need to see someone…a professional before I run crazy.”
He says nothing still, but his eyes ask me if I’m not crazy yet. If I’m still sane.
“I’m okay now.” I answer his non-verbal question, “but I don’t know about tomorrow. I can’t even guarantee the next hour. I…don’t…I love my babies but…” my mind flashes back to the first time I dissolved piriton into their drinks. My eyes flush with new tears.
He stands slowly and begins to pace the room. I sit there, head bowed, knees crossed as I weep silent tears. His hand is warm on my back when he returns from his pacing. “Okay.”
I’ve been expecting a fight, a huge disagreement over money wasted on a mental people doctor. His agreement surprises me. I look up at him and it’s interesting to see an array of emotions in his eyes.
Pity, understanding, helplessness. And love.
I rise to my feet and hurl myself into his arms. The tears begin to pour in torrents. He rubs my back as I cry.
“It’s going to be okay. I’ve been so worried…so…” he chokes back on his words. I snuggle deeper into the warmth of his body.
I can hear Tom’s mother bustling about in my kitchen. Last year, I would have been downright angry. But this is not last year, and I’m no longer the Funmi I once was. She arrived yesterday, a day after I had that discussion with Tom.
I am grateful for her presence, grateful that my husband chooses to believe me this time, grateful he concurs with my decision to see a psychiatrist. I lean back into my chair and try to fall asleep. I stay there a long time, my mind drifting here and there but unable to sleep. It’s a curse, this insomnia. My mind feels trapped, very much alive in a deadened body that craves rest.
The wind brings in the aroma of frying meat. My mouth waters uncontrollably and I give up trying to sleep. For the millionth time today, I thank God my mother-in-law has come to stay. She has taken over the care of the babies, of me, of Tom, and for a record second visit, we are not bickering or withdrawing into sulky silence.
Giving up on the hope of sleeping, I reach for the closest one of a stack of books near my chair. I’d been surprised to see Yemi this morning, but she’d brushed off my surprise with a smile and handed me a stack of books.
“From my specialist friend. For you to determine if it’s really what we think.”
She ignored my thank-yous, pecked me and was gone. I’d stacked the books here, hoping to get around to them later.
The volume I pick is light. Diagnosing postpartum depression, the title reads loud and clear. I flip it open and begin to read. The smell of meat from the kitchen makes it kind of hard to concentrate but I need to read these books, know for sure what is wrong with me.
Wouldn’t it just be stupid to arrive at a doctor’s office only to find out I have another disease entirely?
Soon, I am lost in the book I am holding. The first page tells me I am not wrong, confirms Yemi’s suspicion that I am riddled with a common affliction of new motherhood. It tells me the disease has come upon me because I’ve become increasingly isolated in today’s world.
Postpartum depression has actually been around for years, the book tells me, but we’ve only begun to feel its impact more. This is brought on by the fact that in the past, mothering new born babies, especially in Africa and Asia used to be a communal job. Today, new mothers are often alone and bewildered at mothering a completely helpless baby, a job for which they are ill-equipped. I also learn that having twins has not helped my matter at all.
The smell of meat gets stronger and my stomach growls in protest. Sighing, I rise to my feet and begin to walk towards the kitchen.
It’s good to be alive, surrounded by people. It’s good to know that my disease has a name, a cure, and that I will soon be able to care for my babies by myself.
It’s good to have food to eat, food prepared by someone other than me.
I stop over at the refrigerator for a drink of cold water. I think of Tom and my face cracks into a smile.
The sun is warm. Tom is holding me by the elbow, gently leading me towards the doorway. I almost giggle. He doesn’t have to be here, but he insists.
“Even if it’s just this first time, please.”
His mother is at home, taking care of Teju and Tayo. To my utter amazement, Teju had smiled at me before we left. It’s as if he knows I’m trying to be a better mother, a better person.
I want to be. I love him and his sister enough to want to. I love Tom and don’t want to turn him into a miserable man. I love myself. I love life. I want to live fully.
“Are you okay?” Tom asks for the umpteenth time.
I nod as we reach the doorway. Taking a deep breath, I step into the doorway, into the psychiatrist’s office, into healing.
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You've done an incredible job of describing the journey down into postpartum depression, and the steps that must be taken if healing is to take place. There are so many lines that are 'favourites' that I can't begin to list them. Great job and great writing. Blessings, Jules.