by Gabrielle Rivard
I took Harry to nursery school on Monday morning. He was happy to leave me and ran into the living room of the old house in Southeast Portland to the arms of Miss Monica, his teacher. He joined a group of a half-dozen toddler children, the offspring of the city’s working parents, who left the school on bikes equipped with baby seats and orange safety flags, or in Subarus weighed down with multiple car seats.
In the picture from his first day, Harry’s wearing a green patterned bandana to help mitigate his runny nose and chambray Toms slip-ons. I took the photo with my iPhone, full of excitement — not for his day, but for mine. After dropping him off, his baby sister would hopefully take a good nap, and I would have three hours to myself: a novelty, a sensation unknown to me for months. I returned home and lay sprawled the rug with my phone and my coffee, watching the news on TV and scrolling mindlessly through social media, alone; the guilty sensation of having committed a criminal act nipping at the sides of my tentative enjoyment.
Enrolling Harry in school for two half-days a week had given me a three-and-a-half-hour break in the procession of hours that make up the life of a mother of young children: a sea of hours, a mountain of hours to be gotten through, like a penance, and simultaneously treasured, rolled over in one’s palm like precious jewels.
As I nursed four-month-old Frances I tried to focus on her little face, her baby sounds; to commit to memory the gentle feeling of her soft body nestled sideways on my lap as I sat on the floor; her blue eyes half-shut, hand clamped crablike to my index finger. I knew even in the moment that this time would slip away — that I couldn’t hold onto it in the way I wanted, and my eyes welled up with emotion, as if to acknowledge and formalize this fact. The instant, punctuated by tears and properly recognized, rolled away and joined the million others I noted every day and uselessly tried to collect into some palpable thing I could pick up and take with me. I looked away from her face, back to my phone to scroll through the fusillade of dispatches from the campaign.
When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything — grab ’em by the pussy.
Already behaving erratically since his debate on Monday, Trump imitated Clinton’s pneumonia-induced collapse from last month and fired off the most grotesque, personal, and fact-free attack at the nominee yet.
Such a nasty woman.
We had long since broken the unspoken national pact that expected our leaders to behave in a certain way. We were, as a country, lost in a no-man’s-land, where presidential candidates were accused of peeping on girls in beauty-pageant changing rooms, and nobody blinked. Where presidential candidates were associated with judging beauty pageants, period. The stories coming from Washington dripped through the papier-mâché crust of my sleep-deprived mind like water torture, each more enraging than the last. I slogged through the daily barrage of news in a fugue state, humming with a whine of anxiety.
To say that I was having some difficulty with the precious jewels of parental life was an understatement.
Rather than carrying the moments with my daughter in a safe place, too many of the hours were saturated with a dry, helpless anger that seemed to well up from a spring of despair and frustration I recognized from other times in my life but didn’t expect in the context of motherhood. It was the frustration of having to ignore catcalls on the street. Of being ignored in meetings. Of listening to a boyfriend dismiss my feelings with a cruelly timed word. It was the helpless rage of womanhood, writ large. The trappings of being female. How was I supposed to know it was a real trap? Steely teeth, sprung tight onto my leg, or maybe my breasts: it had looked shiny and real. They don’t tell you about the rage.
Here was the thing I wanted — a baby — and in place of the dreamy-eyed joy I’d been promised I was greeted with sleeplessness, an odd sense of loss, a misplaced feeling of finality and loneliness. Nothing in my previous postpartum experience had brought forth this kind of furious sadness.
Anger crept in around the edges of everyday interactions until it became a constant, simmering fury that burst out through clenched teeth, directed at anyone in my vicinity, most often the children. I usually managed to remove myself from their presence before I hurled the Tupperware across the kitchen or used too many four-letter words, but not always.
At the end of the day, softly touching their sleeping faces in the dark, I was horrified and full of regret, certain that I’d inflicted irreparable damage to my two-year-old’s psyche that all the soothing apologies I made couldn’t fix.
* * * *
Frances was born in June. In four months the world had morphed from a mostly tolerable, sometimes enjoyable place into a grim landscape of hunched shoulders and bleary eyes. I’d had visions of waking in the dreamy haze of predawn and sitting with her on the outside porch, sipping coffee, savoring moments: Harry’s babyhood had been this way, a sweet period of new tenderness and awe. I’d expected the same of my daughter’s first summer.
She was born one day after what would have been my grandmother’s 89th birthday. My mom had started hoping for a June 25 labor as soon as she learned my due date — June 29. “Well, maybe she’ll have Mormor’s birthday. Wouldn’t that be sweet,” she said, wistful.
As if I had any control over it. I would have been fine with June 25; I’d been counting down the days since March. At 32 weeks: the baby would probably be OK if she was born now. At 35 weeks 5 days: I’m as pregnant as I’ve ever been. At 37 weeks, full-term: I’ll take it.
I loathed being pregnant; it felt so alien. I looked enviously at women on Instagram in tight-fitting maternity dresses, their hands curved along the radius of distended bellies, backs arched, luxuriating in gestational bliss. I thought they were full of shit. I was also jealous: not for one second did I feel attractive, or sexy, or “womanly,” that catchall descriptor for everything round and feminine, during those long months. I wanted the baby, and I did feel excited. But any anticipatory tenderness was eclipsed by the feeling of being invaded; conquered by biology and the hormonal directives of the placenta, which I learned was programmed to override a woman’s body — even going so far as to force her blood pressure up to dangerous levels, all in service of the fetus.
I ran my hands over the distended plane of my abdomen and gingerly checked for stretch marks, hoping I could emerge from this ordeal unscarred, as if from a fire.
It wasn’t just the discomfort: I felt vulnerable in a way I never did while not-pregnant. The extra weight and the awkward slowness rendered me helpless and clumsy. At five feet ten and nearing two hundred pounds toward the end, I was a bloated distortion of myself: caged in a sweaty costume of extra flesh, short of breath, slow to stand up, unable to tie my shoes, lumbering through Target. I couldn’t run if someone were to lunge at me out of the bushes; I couldn’t conceal my bulky form if I needed to hide. I couldn’t even sit for longer than it took to eat dinner, a heavy pressure building up in my pelvis, pushing on my cervix. Every minute I spent upright, my mouth flattened into a straight line of anxiety, certain that the force of the baby’s head and the weight of the amniotic fluid would finally break through my mucous plug in a wet pop — a decisive and potentially disastrous end to what had been a normal pregnancy.
I knew what came next, if that were to happen. That story was the tale of the premature baby: wires and oxygen masks, an antiseptic smell hovering around the hard, clear plastic of a NICU crib. I’d read enough first-person accounts from mothers on BabyCenter that the scenario was familiar. I tried to stay away from the internet for a while, but it didn’t take long to get sucked in to the stories of women in my “Birth Club.” I bookmarked several particularly tragic posts and followed these unlucky women as they endured the worst time of their lives: stillbirths; 26-weekers who almost made it; the woman who learned of her fetus’s anencephaly early on but insisted on following through with the pregnancy to its inevitable end. In the photos, the doomed baby sat cradled in his mother’s arms, dressed in a tiny blue doll’s hat, his family gathered around him, smiling for the camera at his birthday-slash-funeral.
* * * *
Frances stayed with me for thirty-nine weeks, five days, twenty hours. She was born June 26, 2016, at 8:16 p.m.: 20:16, 06/26/2016. A full-term baby. I was glad she was healthy, but when they passed her to me through my bloody legs and up to my chest, crouched backward on the hospital bed, I could have been crying with happiness, or it might have been with relief. My only thought upon holding her body — waxy, white and gigantic though she weighed only seven pounds — was joy that it was over. And that I would never do it again.
I don’t remember whether I said this aloud, if it alarmed the nurses. The baby felt ancillary to having my body all to myself; to never again feeling that kind of anguish, and not just the wretched pain of birth: the months of being cocooned in a dull sheath of worry and fat, unable to feel anything beyond a baseline of nauseous or not nauseous, exhausted or slightly less exhausted.
“It’s over, it’s over!” I repeated, lulling myself into a kind of anticlimactic stupor as they wrapped Frances in a blanket and pressed her to my chest.
There is no applause at the end of the grandest, most gruesome performance of your life.
* * * *
Driving home along Division Street, the oranges and browns of the autumn leaves pixelated into crunchy, heavy swirls, stark against a thin blue sky. The neighborhood was a forest of Craftsmans, yard signs planted in evergreen gardens out front.
I’m with Her
Black Lives Matter
Big Money Out of Politics!
I nodded in solidarity from my Volvo wagon, Beyoncé’s Halo turned up to full volume — a rare treat, to be able to listen to music loudly, with no children in the car, only my own eardrums to worry about. It tamped down the hum of anxiety, a nagging presence that in recent months had reached a heady crescendo of barely contained panic.
Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace
My personal election anthem: a rallying cry to Hillary Clinton — this omnipresent woman I had been taught to despise growing up, but who became a savior for me, for women, for rational people who looked on in horror at the rise of the loathsome caricature of Donald Trump.
Halo played over and over that week, the last days of the campaign. I sang along in the car, in the kitchen. It was my wooden stake, a talisman against the sickness that had seeped into the air over the past year, when Trump had become a fixture of our everyday lives, glowing repulsively orange on TV, spewing his disgusting rhetoric; a bloviating clown.
It’s like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had, you break it
It’s the risk that I’m taking
I ain’t never gonna shut you out
The election took on a shape of its own; it became a real and controlling force in my life. I thought about the election as much as I thought about food, or friends, or, sometimes, the children. The Election.
As the weeks limped toward the day we could exhale and watch Trump slither back to the rubbish bin of quasi-celebrity, I rode the roller coaster onto which the country was unwillingly strapped.
In the group text called, among other titles, “Benghazi Architects,” “beta cucks,” “don’t get too close to my libtard fantasie,” we exchanged memes and news all day:
It couldn’t happen. Look what he said!
Look at this email thing. What a load of shit.
He’s disgusting, he makes me sick.
God, what if he won?
“Bring back Mitt Romney. I’d vote for him,” my husband says, not joking. My stomach took on a fluttery nervousness that usually only showed up for things like international travel or surgery.
By early November, turning off NPR or being away from the television for a few hours — to say, sleep — was problematic. Every morning I groped on the floor for my iPhone to scan the alerts that had piled up overnight.
Whenever Something Happened we’d lob texts back and forth, trying to one-up each other on how ridiculous everything sounded:
“That’s it, I’m voting for Trump, I love grabbing pussies.”
“His supporters are so smart. MAGA!”
“You cucks just aren’t patriots like me, get on the TrUmP TrAiN”
“Lock her up!”
The absurdity of a Trump win made it unthinkable; we joked, but beneath the sarcasm there was a cold dread. Unthinkable, but millions of Americans actually supported this classless man, and the Republican Party was willing to abandon any pretense they had of caring about “family values” and throw their support behind a reality TV douche who called Mexicans murderers and rapists, bragged about sexual assault, and clearly hadn’t the faintest knowledge of policy or history. The man had been married three times and had five children with three different women. He called Barack Obama an illegitimate president. His campaign rallies attracted the repulsive underbelly of America: the racist, putrid mess that had been stewing and festering in its own dark hatred for forty years, as the GOP strung them along, promising them they’d be allowed to carry assault weapons into grocery stores to “defend themselves” against the coming tide of brown-skinned foreigners who were coming to take their jobs and fuck their women. The rich man — who literally lived in a gilded tower and had probably paid for half a dozen abortions — was somehow their beacon of hope: a voice for the coal miners and the religious zealots, the evangelicals and the billionaire hedge-funders; the gun freaks and the closeted racists, all of them emboldened, screaming their lunacy on Twitter and town squares.
How could this be? I was shocked into a numb resignation.
That we’d reached this point as a nation left me breathless, indignant, and full of rage: I could not wait to watch him lose and then banish him from my life forever, an idiot TV person I never had to lay eyes on again.
* * * *
That August, I’d taken Frances to Powell’s on the bus. It was one of the only times I took her out alone; her sleep schedule had become so arduous that we’d given up on dinners out or excursions in the car. Harry had often slept in his car seat under the tables of San Francisco restaurants, but Frances required silence and a strict routine that quashed any thought of venturing out. That afternoon I was alone with the baby and climbing the walls, desperate to grab some tiny slice of summer before it disappeared. I made sure she was fed, and figured I had an hour and a half, tops, before she started to lose it.
At the bookstore, she gifted me with a nap as I browsed the aisles. Doris Lessing’s 1973 novel The Summer Before the Dark is the story of a woman in her forties coming to terms with her children no longer needing her during the course of a summer in which she reflects on her life. I liked the title; I brought it home.
It sat on my dresser, and I’d consider it while nursing the baby or preparing for bed: What if this is the summer before the dark? The summer before Trump is elected — the last summer before the darkness?
I shook off these hallucinations, reassuring myself with poll numbers.
It’s not going to happen. We’re safe.
I didn’t know that unwelcome visualizations of grisly potential events is a common symptom of postpartum mood disorder. Grisly imaginings came to me in vivid scenes: the plane going down; the dresser as it tips and pins the toddler beneath, squirming. In an instant, a fully formed narrative played through my mind like a movie reel, complete with narration: I’d bought the apple at Whole Foods and picked it out especially because of its perfect coloring. As I put it in the basket I had no idea it would be the thing that killed the baby. My training as a copy editor kicked in, and I’d see the headlines in front of me as the airplane left the ground: Two Hundred Killed in Horrific Air Accident.
I watched the soft spot on the top of the baby’s head pulse gently in time with her tiny heartbeat: What if someone put two thumbs on it and pressed? I shut my eyes, shook my head to drive the thoughts away.
A morbid retrospective attached to everyday objects; the nightstand, the stairs. Kitchen knives. They tangled around my mind like choking vines, leaving me unable to complete basic tasks unencumbered. The Summer Before the Dark sat mutely on my black Ikea dresser.
After the election, she couldn’t believe it had been true: the book had foretold what was to come. Donald Trump had won, and that summer truly had been the last one before the darkness set in.
* * * *
A rush of solidarity with my fellow Portlanders: We won’t let him win. Hillary is going to show Trump and all of his disgusting supporters just what women are made of. We’re going to blow him out of the water. We’ve got to. Instagram was full of photos of Susan B. Anthony’s headstone, decorated with “I Voted” stickers. I posted a photo of Hillary from the 1970s: #imwithher.
I made breakfast, tried to clean up the house, played with Frances. She had to be nursed to sleep for her three naps, had to be carried and held close, could not sit up on her own. I tiptoed out of her room after putting her down; any creak of the floorboards would send her into a wailing frenzy. A few days earlier I’d ventured out with friends to dinner, and spent ten minutes in a bar bathroom sucking out my own milk, my breasts uncomfortably full and leaking through my shirt: the secret rituals of motherhood.
When the first returns from the East Coast started to come in, a cold tingle crept down my spine. It was still early, but the results were not in line with the latest polls.
“She’s not going to win.” I said aloud, surprising myself in the empty kitchen. I stood up sharply, trying to shake the thought out of my head like it was just another scene from the disaster reel: Impossible.
Signing my name to my mail-in ballot the week before, I’d felt a surge of pride. I couldn’t fathom anyone willingly voting for Trump. I knew I lived in a bubble, but the televised Trump rallies, the police shootings, the horrific slaughter of innocent civilians at the hands of men with guns that should be banned during that hot, chaotic summer had shown what was outside of it, and I wanted no part of that America.
I did my best to ignore the dull fear in my chest, to will it out of existence: a tightening in the abdomen, mouth pressed into a sharp frown of concentration; the same feeling as when the airplane wobbled mid-flight, not unlike the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when Harry threatened to come seven weeks early and I found myself lying stiffly on my left side in the hospital, sucking up an intravenous cocktail of anti-contraction drugs through my arm.
I had the TV on, but I could barely bring myself to look at Steve Kornacki as he traced frantic circles and arrows across an electronic whiteboard, red and blue lines snaking through the flat image of America. There was too much red.
What would defeat look like?
A blackened hellscape.
The country unrecognizable.
A clown for president.
The anticipation, building for months, froze into a hard rock in my throat. The returns were not good. I ordered pizza and set the table in mute terror.
“Gabby’s a little scared,” Nate told our friends, who’d arrived to watch the TV coverage with us. They assured me that it was still early. I put the children to bed and opened a big can of beer, ate the pizza without tasting it, and sat tensely on the bottom stair, where I could hear the TV but couldn’t see it. I refreshed Twitter on my phone.
It was starting to look bad.
The others downed dark, sticky shots of Fernet. I couldn’t bring myself to get drunk to dull the sensation of being sucked underwater, my face frozen in a stiff grimace. I went up to the baby’s room; I didn’t want any witnesses to my doomsday panic.
The plane is going to crash.
Someone had told me once to curl up my legs and stretch my arms out in front of me in a prayer pose to ease anxiety, and I dropped to the floor of Frances’s room, despondent, and tried to do something like praying. I stuffed my ears with earplugs so I couldn’t hear the groans and swearing from downstairs.
On Twitter, people were freaking out.It feels like someone has broken into my house.
Guys, there is no blue wall. It’s gone.
The darkness has won.
Walking past the grim silence of the living room, I went outside to the frigid porch, cowering under my hoodie. I drank another beer, something close to hysteria bubbling up in my gut. Where were the crashing airplanes? Missiles? Asteroids? The curtain had been ripped off of reality: I had no idea what lay underneath.
The street was quiet. No one else was outside, trying to escape the catastrophe that was happening to us all on the television. I rocked back and forth in some primal attempt to soothe myself as I cried.
“Don’t even tell me. I can’t look at it.” I went upstairs without watching a single minute of the election coverage I’d anticipated for months, mourning the loss of the feeling I’d wanted so badly: to share in the exuberance and joy of millions of women; to watch Trump slink away into the shadows.
Nate came upstairs. We lay silently in the damp hum of the humidifier. I went down the list of possible ways out, grasping desperately at fraying ends of hope: the electoral college. Voter fraud. Recounts. “Maybe they haven’t counted everything in Wisconsin. Maybe —”
“It’s over,” he said unceremoniously. “It’s done. There’s nothing we can do.” We shook our heads dumbly, blinking in disbelief. I suggested we have sex, to stave off the sad panic building in my chest.
The next day felt like a purgatory. A horrible thing had happened, yet it hadn’t really begun in earnest, and we were suspended in a dark place between two worlds. A dull stupor throbbed in my head. I couldn’t bring myself to turn on the television and switched on the 1970s clock radio I’d bought Nate for Christmas. Frances and I sat on the floor, letting the calm voices on NPR soothe the room, an audible balm. There was a call-in show, everyone shocked and terrified. The host at one point outright called Trump an idiot, and I got a little glimpse of what the next months and years would bring: it was a sudden pivot from feeling confident and protected, of respecting the person charged with representing us to the world, to all-out disgust with half the country — a division that played out every day online and on TV and in living rooms where people sat, dejected, worn out, utterly spent.
We had to go to a teacher conference at the Treehouse School. I pulled on my Hillary sweatshirt again, red-faced and angry. As my mother arrived to watch Harry I brushed past her rudely on the porch, not speaking. That she could smile on a morning like this made me acutely aware of the ocean of difference between us.
We stopped for coffee on the way to school. I sat with my sunglasses on in the café, everyone around us discussing what happened. I looked miserably at my daughter in her baby carrier and pulled out my breast to feed her, in some kind of personal demonstration against the evil that had been let loose, released into the air and spread out over the country like smallpox. A woman at a table across from us wept openly into her arms as her friend patted her back.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said to my mom, stiffly, as we returned home. She left looking sad. What did she expect?
Months ago, I’d set up a recurring donation to the Clinton campaign and they sent me a little sticker. I put it up in the front window, too late.
On Facebook people who hadn’t posted anything in years were sharing horrified disbelief. Camaraderie surged up through the bitter anger and sadness: we were all in this together. Whatever it was.
Rachel Maddow came on the air at 6 p.m. as usual. I looked to her for something; solace or hope. She had clearly been up all night, her eyes red and bloodshot, fatigue that makeup couldn’t conceal. She was as horrified and upset as the rest of us. I switched off the television and didn’t turn it on for a month.
I did not watch Hillary’s concession speech. Twenty months later, as I write this, I still haven’t.
A couple of days passed. I read everything that was coming out, people trying desperately to organize and stop him from being inaugurated with the electoral college, people trying to get a recount, trying every avenue to stave off this absurd thing from becoming real. My Republican parents sent an email saying they thought it was better that we cancel Thanksgiving this year.
When Kate McKinnon as Hillary opened Saturday Night Live singing Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, who had died that terrible week, I wept. It felt like a wound.
I booked two Airbnbs at the coast, four days away from the city and our daily lives, which had been hijacked by the news. I continued my television moratorium but listened to NPR in the car as I drove Harry to and from school. As the media tried to figure out what they’d missed, where they’d gone wrong in pre-election reporting and analysis, Portland mourned. There were protests and clashes with the police. I found myself breaking down into tears spontaneously during the day, my daughter staring up at me from the floor.
We drove to the Pacific for a few days and I declared a news blackout. I turned the radio off and put on Hail to the Thief. “I never thought I’d be listening to this and crying again.”
Lay me down
In a bunker
Everything was imbued with new meaning in the post-election world. Things I had always taken for granted had fallen apart or come into question: the stability of the United States government. The legitimacy of our elections. The idea that despite its flaws, America was still inherently a force for good in the world. The feeling of shock and exposure seeped into everything: if this could happen, anything could happen. I waited for the other shoe to drop, tight with nervous tension.
I won’t let this happen to my children
Meet the real world coming out of your shell
With white elephants
At the coast we put the children to bed as early as possible and drank wine in the hot tub of our rental. We watched Twilight. We drove to a lighthouse and tried to look at the tidepools, but the wind was strong and cold, and I returned to the car with Frances, nursing her in the front seat as I watched the ocean churn. There is a photo of me on the balcony of the condo at Nye Beach, holding a glass of wine, eyes closed against the glare of the setting sun. I was worn out: with the collapse of democracy, with the betrayal of so many of my fellow Americans, with Frances’ waking up five times a night. We made a little bed on the floor for Harry and he got up and fussed several times, confused or scared, and I yelled at him more than once for waking me, overflowing with anger and regret at the same time.
I am so tired. I just need to sleep. Please go to bed. Please go to bed. Goddamn it, Harry.
We spent Thanksgiving at home, just the four of us with too much food. Nate cooked all day, and the air in the house grew hot and close with all the windows closed. At four o’clock we set a plastic plate of mashed potatoes with gravy, cut-up green beans, and pumpkin pie in front Harry and settled Frances in her swing next to my chair, halfheartedly filling our own plates and topping off our wine glasses. The sense of giddy, carefree merriment I usually felt on national holidays had evaporated, leaving a bland feeling of detached cynicism. Harry ate the pie and the rolls and started to get restless after ten minutes; Frances squirmed and fussed, and I begrudgingly put the Sauvignon blanc back in the fridge to nurse her. We put them to bed and set about cleaning up the colossal mess in the kitchen, the day turned back into every other: full of chores and the vague, constant sense of loss and disbelief that had begun to darken the edges of existence.
My mother gave me a coffee mug for my birthday: “I Am Not Arguing, I’m Just Explaining Why I’m Right.”
Every morning the dull fact of the election took a few minutes to settle in. What had been an absurd joke had become real. No one knew how to live here.
In Portland’s bleak December light, I stared in dismay at the Lessing novel still atop my dresser, unmoved since summer, its prophetic title stabbing me with little pricks of irony. How was I supposed to know that was the last summer anything would feel all right? Ridiculous fantasies in which I discovered in October that the title was a clue flitted through my mind. I figured out Trump was on track to squeak through with enough votes and made a frantic call to Jennifer Palmieri, who thanked me for my incredible detective work and redoubled the Clinton campaign efforts in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
I turned the book to face the wall.
About the Author:
Gabrielle Rivard is a freelance copy editor and copywriter. She’s worked as an editor and content manager at tech companies in Silicon Valley, as well as wire editor and copy editor at The San Francisco Examiner, and has a (mostly unused) master’s degree in library and information science. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her software-developer husband and their two children, Harry and Frances.