I crept onto our eleventh-floor balcony with my infant swaddled in a scrap of a well-worn sari. Yellow-breasted sunbirds darted about and palms rustled in the early morning monsoon breeze. I peered over the edge and an image flashed before my eyes: my infant and I splayed on the ground below. I slid the door shut, locked it, and pulled down the heavy blinds, lest I be tempted to venture outside again. My baby slept oblivious, her fontanelle against my chin. What was wrong with me? I was sure that I didn’t love my daughter the way I was supposed to, that I was not cut out to be a parent, that I had made a terrible mistake.
I called my husband at work, begging him to come home as soon as possible to save me from this hellish day-in-day-out ritual.
When he did, I shoved our daughter into his arms, but seeing her smiling, when all she did was cry while I tended to her needs all day, made me resentful and angry. While he rocked her to sleep that evening, I wailed, threw pillows, and showered fully clothed, hot water, salty tears, and breast milk streaming down the drain. I blamed him for yanking me away from a life in which we were equal partners.
My daughter was born a year after we had relocated from New York City to Singapore for his job. For weeks after her birth, I alternated between boredom and rage. I often laid with her in bed, fiddling with my smart phone, while she nursed herself to sleep or made awkward, jerky movements. I had imagined that my motherhood would be inspirational; I am a writer, after all. But my Sisyphean reality silenced me. When our families called on Skype to congratulate us and ask if we were “enjoying every moment,” I would flee from the room and burst into tears.
Soon after that morning on the balcony, I mapped my route to Bedok Reservoir in eastern Singapore, where a woman and her 3-year-old son, both in red t-shirts and their fingernails painted red, were found dead in late 2011, when I was in my third trimester.
Mother and child were bound at their wrists by a red thread, a nod to a Chinese proverb that states an invisible red thread connects children’s souls to people in their lives. I imagined the way Ms. Tan, the dead woman, must have cradled her toddler in her arms, perhaps singing a lullaby as she walked down the bank of the reservoir, the calm, clean water slowly submerging her and her child. Ironically, the anxiety and shock that had driven me to lock the balcony door (and keep it locked for months) also kept me far away from the reservoir.
A score of physical and cultural factors made me ashamed at my inability to feel joy. Screening for postpartum mood disorders was not standard procedure in the hospital in which I gave birth, nor did my OB/GYN ask me about my mental health at my six-week check-up, and I doubt I would have made mention of my troubles even if he did. Mental illness carries a great deal of stigma in Singapore, and suicide attempts are criminalized.
Furthermore, male and female bodies are co-opted by the state here. “National Service” means that Singaporean men are conscripted for two years while women are exhorted to counter a falling birthrate. This rhetoric has the unintended consequence of quashing any discussion of ambivalence about motherhood or its traumas. There was no talk of postpartum mood disorders in the middle-class Singaporean Chinese mothers’ groups in which I found myself. And they, surrounded by their mothers and mothers-in-law, their Indonesian domestic workers and their Malaysian confinement nannies, had little time for a lonely and homesick American.
In expatriate circles, there exists the expectation of “yummy mummy-ing.” And the transient nature of expatriate life is not always conducive to revelations that challenge it. A fellow American neighbor saw me a few weeks after giving birth and said, “Skinny jeans? Nice!” How desperately did I want to tell her that the reason I had “shed the baby weight” so rapidly was because I wasn’t eating anything and nursing around the clock? Rather than confessing, I posed as someone living up to her un-feminist praise, occasionally sharing photographs of myself on social media, smiling with the baby in a sling.
When my baby was 3 months old, I burst into tears again on Skype, this time in a conversation with my mother-in-law.
“I don’t want to do this,” I whispered.
She booked the next flight to Singapore. For five weeks, she literally held my hand and pushed me out the door, if just to take a turn a walk around the block. She liberated me from the notion of conforming to others’ notions of a “Good Mother,” encouraged me to get professional help, and gave my condition a name: “depression.” But most importantly, she shared that she too struggled with mothering and motherhood, a most freeing and radical revelation, as this is rarely, if ever, acknowledged in South Asian American families like ours.
It took two years for me to see through the proverbial fog of depression, and while the gloom still descends, I now have better tools with which to cope, including a chosen family and a new professional life that mended that early loss of autonomy.
My daughter will be 4 soon and I have very few memories of her from her first year of life; I cannot recall her first smile, her first tooth, her first step. One day she will ask me why her baby book is empty. What conversations will I have with her about this difficult time in my life? I still find it nearly impossible to articulate those all-consuming and terrifyingly invasive feelings that prevented me from enjoying my daughter’s infancy, but I hope this essay will serve her well, should she find herself in the same situation.
The reservoir no longer feels like a demonic place that once invited me to claim my life. It has transformed to a nurturing place where I claim my own mothering instead. My daughter and I somersault on its grassy banks and I watch her zip along its paved paths on her scooter with her father. Together we spot herons and kingfishers and marvel at brilliant sunsets before we head home.
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