By the time I stepped outside the leaves were on fire. Bright flaming red and auburn glowing from the branches. I’d been holed up in my house since Olivia was born, going on eight weeks. We brought her home from the hospital, wrapped in a soft pink blanket that was probably too hot for the sweltering August day. Over the last two months, I watched from the bay window, as the trees transformed from the emerald green of summer to the amber warmth of early autumn.
The blurry days came and went, but out the window, the shivering leaves announced fall’s arrival. The long hours of breastfeeding and pumping and rocking blended together, but those trees marked the moments, like a clock keeping time in my hectic existence. I watched the shadows flicker in the night when I couldn’t sleep and the sunset fell behind the rich glow of butter yellow leaves.
That day I stepped outside, the leaves made me realize that time had passed around me. Through me. The leaves blazed on fire, the color of saffron and rust and terra cotta telling me that a new season sits before me. Olivia cooed from her stroller, the pink blankie now appropriate for the crisp weather. Her soft little hands balled into a fist and she scanned the blur of colors dancing over her. I watched her in awe, taking in the world around her.
Those moments were rare but filled me with purpose. The moments where I knew this tiny human would be all right, and so would I. The rest of the time I felt nothing but panic. I swallowed the fear and forced myself to walk down the pathway, out of my front yard. Out of the safety behind my window, watching the fall leaves. My stomach lurched when I closed the gate, but Olivia’s wide eyes reminded me that I had to start with one step.
We strolled along the pavement that glistened with a fresh coat of rain. The puddles in the street glimmered with oil, creating a rainbow in its reflection. The thumping in my chest grew louder. The images returned. What if a car veers wide, taking us both out. No, taking out little perfect Olivia but leaving me here to grieve. My hands shook, but still, I stepped. One foot then the other, watching Olivia watch the kaleidoscope of leaves.
I hadn’t slept more than two hours at a time since her birth, the nightmares of gunshots through my head waking me up all too frequently. When it wasn’t a gunshot or volcanic eruptions, I was certain I’d fallen asleep on top of her, suffocating my new beloved baby I waited a decade to meet. What sort of mother has these visions? Was I the only one? Why did Olivia get stuck with me? Focus again on her rosy little cheeks. She yawned. My heartbeat slowed.
I scanned the trees as we walked around the corner. The trees that had been there for years. Did they feel the pulsing of impending doom? Because it came down over me in waves. Other times, it pounded up from the ground like a drumbeat. Those trees watched the seasons come and go, rise and fall.
My feet keep walking, the rhythm softening the anxiety that crawled on my skin. My eyes darted all directions, checking the cars for dangerous drivers, signs of malicious intent. My phone buzzed, a Facebook notification from the group, I Love Being A Mommy. I scrolled through the pictures. Young mothers glowing and smiling, laughing with their friends while their babies lovingly suckled on their one discreetly covered breast.
I threw the phone in the diaper bag, part of the arsenal now required to leave the house. Bottles and diapers and wipes, oh my. At the end of the last season, my belly full and hopes high, I watched the days pass on my front porch, cold lemonade in my hand. Now the leaves are on fire, and it’s all I can do to walk around the block.
No one told me I’d be afraid every second of every day. No one told me I would love this little being so much it made me afraid to lose her. No one told me it would bring up my own childhood and how I was wholly unprepared for motherhood. But her face. Her little toes and fingers made me bubble over with joy. Her bright blue eyes and velvet skin watered down the boiling fire in my belly.
She wriggled and fussed, fist in her mouth, gnawing for food. I sat on a bench, my body not yet returned and feeling alien. I served her now. I prepared my cover, anxious with Olivia’s cries growing. I’d just recovered from learning to breastfeed, which felt something akin to razor blades sawing into my nipples. The milk leaked and dripped as I fumbled to get Olivia to latch. She did and I exhaled. I could smell the softness on her head. I never knew softness had a smell. Not until her fuzzy scalp that smelled like baby powder had the magic to heal and soothe my shattered nerves.
She sucked and gulped and I let my head fall back. The withering leaves of autumn waved at me, their final gasp before falling to the ground, devoid of color. The tears came on swift and unapologetic. They streamed down my face, filling my vision with cloudy puddles. How long until I fell to the ground, colorless? Olivia ate, unaware of the failure that held her in her arms.
Without noticing, a woman sat beside me. She had grey hair and her skin rippled in waves on her face. Her eyes, bright blue just like Olivia’s. I didn’t wipe my eyes. I just looked at her and back at the leaves, wishing I was back behind my window.
“They say you should enjoy every second, every precious moment of this blissful experience.”
I closed my eyes as the tears fell harder.
“I would like to tell them to fuck off,” she said.
My watery eyes opened wide and I turned to her, smiling for the first time all day. She adjusted her purse on her lap, her wellies crossed at her ankles.
“I like you,” I told her.
She let out a laugh and leaned in to take in the scent of a soft newborn baby. “Truth is, it was the most difficult time of my whole life. I cried for three years straight. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. Just thought that this is how life goes when you’re a mom.”
I nodded and wiped under my eyes. “How did you get through it?”
“I don’t know, to be honest. I slept more than I should have and cried when nobody was looking. I felt hopeless... until I didn’t. I don’t think that did me or my baby any favors.”
“When does it get better?” Olivia pulled back from feeding and I removed my cover, placing her on my shoulder, over a soft cotton burp cloth. I rocked side to side and pat her back as I spoke to the woman.
“About a year. It’s like someone turns the light on, and you realize just how much dark you’ve been living in.”
“A whole year?” Olivia burped, a pile of white spit-up missing the cloth entirely, dripping down my back. I shrugged and wrapped her in her perfect pink blanket, settled her into her stroller, and let out a deep sigh. “I don’t think I can make it like this for ten more months.” I put my head in my hands and started crying again.
“So here's the thing,” she said. “It’s the secret nobody tells you. We all feel it. In some form or another. Your life is altered forever and always. In massive, earth-shattering ways. You feel like you’re splintering into a thousand pieces, but it just means that you are hanging on just as hard. You can do this. I can see that you’re a good mother.”
“Ha! From the bags under my eyes and the spit-up on my back?”
“That’s exactly how. You look at other moms and compare yourself, right?”
“You are showing up. And if you can keep showing up, that’s all that little girl needs. Nothing more than a mom who decides every minute to show up for her. Tired, hungry and beat down, you show up.”
I reached across and held the woman’s hand, not having noticed the other had rocked Olivia to sleep. “Thank you. I don’t know what else to say.”
“No trouble, dear. When you feel the fear take over and you want to crumble underneath it, remember, it’s simply a season. It always passes.” She winked and stood up, leaning over for a glimpse at Olivia. “Certainly looks like a happy baby to me.”
I watched her walk off, feeling the crushing weight on my chest lift. For the first moment in two months, it did not hurt to breathe. I took a few minutes to enjoy the wide-open space. The cool breeze kissed my cheeks, and I got up to walk home.
I forgot to ask that woman her name, too consumed with my own struggles. I looked for her every day when Olivia walked to the neighborhood park, but I never did see her again. But I knew after that day that I wasn’t alone.
Olivia snoozed peacefully, cozy, and perfect. I walked under the leaves on fire and shivering in the wind. One fell from the branch, waving back and forth as it settled on the breeze, landing on Olivia’s lap with the softness of a feather. I took that leaf home, a reminder that I can do this. It would sit in her baby book, pressed between wax paper. It never did lose its color.