The existential crisis of motherhood

By Catherine Newman

Sometime toward the end of the last millennium, my son Ben got a letter in the mail. He was six weeks old at the time so he couldn’t read, even if he did already have the male pattern baldness of an accountant. It was addressed to “Mr. Benjamin Newman.” “Hey, Mr. Newman, you got a letter,” I told him, but he was opening and closing his fist in front of his face, mesmerized. Also, he was doing his slimming imaginary-bicycle leg exercises.

I opened the letter for him. It was from our insurance company, such as it was, given that we were graduate students at the time, and the university hadn’t really made an effort to wow us with benefits. This was the same insurance company that had you fill out a paper insurance card and then tear it out along the perforations, like a coupon. When a doctor’s office or hospital asked you for your insurance card, this is what you presented to them: your own name, written in blue ballpoint, on a perforated paper card. They took it skeptically, as one might, given that it seemed like maybe it was less about health and finances and more about, maybe, Chuck E. Cheese and your membership there.

This was also, I should mention, the same insurance company that had sent me a form letter a week earlier stating mildly that they weren’t going to pay for my—and this was typed in— “elective surgery,” given that I’d chosen an out-of-plan anesthesiologist. When I called to explain about emergency c-sections, and how they worked—the lost heartbeat, the alarm sounding on the wall, the room filling with competent, terrified rushing—the boy I spoke with, whose name, inexplicably, was Joe-Boy, put me on hold for an hour, and the hold music was a country radio station that was not all the way tuned in. I sat in my milky t-shirt with the phone and the scritchy-scratchy in-and-out country music—truck khhh khhh khhh left me khhh khhh khhh whyyyyy—and an itemized bill in my hands for twenty-four thousand dollars, plus a suddenly-angry baby whose face looked like a prune—a red balding prune that grunted and tore at its own belly-button stump—and I wondered if the whole rest of my life was going to be like this.

On top of fighting the insurance company and learning important things from the hospital billing department, like that a shot of morphine was a relatively better deal than a Q-tip, I was also in the process of becoming a mother. It was neither easy nor natural, this mix of desperate love and loving dread and dreadful horror about the days and the fact that it was always still nine in the morning and how would I survive until bedtime which wasn’t even bedtime in the usual sleeping sense? I cried a lot, like the time the baby’s father helped our housemate install a new washer and then returned to our room where I, with an apparently peacefully sleeping baby in my arms, burst into tears and boohooed out the words, You abandoned me. “I feel like we, uh, kind of need a working washer,” he said, not unmystified, and not for the first time. “I was just in the other room!” I refused to be consoled.

My leaking breasts were a huge presence, but not such great company. I wished constantly, like prayer, that the baby would live. That he would stay alive, my own beating heart, so that I might live too. I also wished, secretly, that the baby would just, kind of, evaporate during the night. He breathed milkily into my face in the dark and I could not close my eyes. His shaky-lipped five-week-old smiles shattered me. I was the walking wounded in every possible way.

My entire life had become an existential paradox: I could endure neither my love for the baby nor the idea that he could be lost to me. It was, all of it, exquisitely beautiful and entirely unbearable. Plus, the self-corrosion it took to care for him was not in my repertoire. Was I the same person who, hugely pregnant, hunched over a jigsaw puzzle of Princess Diana’s face collaged together from the flowers left by mourners, a glass of ice tea in my hand? I was not. I was hungry and heartbroken and just plain broken. I was constantly thirsty. I was burstingly full and as emptied out as I could be and still be an actual living person. I was in a state of sublime, euphoric enchantedness. The baby kicked around on his changing table like a wind-up toy made out of my love for him, and, for the second time in a day, I mopped his urine off of the framed Man Ray postcard of lips in the sky, waiting on hold while Joe-Boy played Tetris or did whatever it was he did.

Now I unfolded Ben’s mail, and it was a form letter, with the specifics typed in. DearMr. Newman” it said. Because our records indicate that you were not yet a member of our company at the time of its occurrence, we will not cover the following procedure. And typed over the dotted line? “your birth.”

Catherine Newman is the author of the books Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness.

Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936, by Man Ray

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