Taco Bell's Canyon
After childbirth, panic.
This article is part of an ongoing series by Michael Lewis about the birth of his third child. Click here to read the other entries in the series. Michael Lewis first began his "Dad Again" column after the birth of his second daughter, Dixie, in 2002. Click here to read about that delivery.
There was a warning sign before the trouble began, but I missed it. The afternoon I brought Tabitha home from the hospital was also the day of our neighbor's glamorous wedding, in which Quinn and Dixie were to be the flower girls. In walked Tabitha, and off flounced her little girls with other grown-ups to the Mark Hopkins Hotel, to have their hair and makeup done, and then lead a bride to her doom. Good, I thought, the little monsters are gone for the day, and Tabitha will have one day of peace in the house, before the war resumes. But when I deliver mother's milk tea to her in bed, I find her sobbing. "I just wanted to be there when our little girls walked down the aisle," she says, as if they, not our neighbor, were getting married. This is unusual; her mind has a slight tendency to race to some tragic conclusion, but she usually stops it before it arrives. I hug her, pretend to sympathize, tell her that it's no big deal to miss just one of approximately 3,000 occasions on which her little girls will dress up like princesses and preen in public. And she appears to agree, and to feel better. Fixed that one, I think, and move on to the next. A family is like a stereo system: A stereo system is only as good as its weakest component, and a family is only as happy as its unhappiest member. Occasionally that is me; more often it is someone else; and so I must remain vigilant, lest the pleasure of my own life be dampened by their unhappiness.
On this first night, even after the girls return, it is not. I can't believe it: Five people in the room and there is nothing wrong with any of them. I'm like a man who has fallen from a 10-story building only to get up and walk away without a scratch. I'd count all my blessings, but I'd run out of fingers, so I stick with the big ones. For the first time in three attempts, my wife has given birth without needing doctors to save the child's life or hers. She's so physically robust that she declined a second free night in the hospital and came home early. Our baby is healthy and—a first in my experience of newborns—reasonable. He cries when he's hungry and weeps before he farts and otherwise appears to be satisfied with the world as he finds it. Even his older sisters have gone into remission. Eight hours of the full princess treatment distracts them for a few more from their suspicion that a new baby brother means less of everything for them. We spend an hour in front of the fire like a fairy tale family, listening to them relive their first wedding. "When we walked down the aisle, they played Taco Bell's Canyon," Quinn says, knowingly. (Named for its German composer, Johann TacoBell.)
When they're done, they yawn and go off to bed, sweetly, like fairy tale children, and leave us with fairy tale leisure—which we use to decode this year's Christmas cards, stacked up and waiting for weeks. There's the drummer in the rock band who sends us a card each year but each year has got himself an entirely new family. Not merely a new wife but, seemingly, new cousins, aunts, and uncles. Who are they? There's a couple we've never seen, apart from in the picture they've helpfully included, but who say how nice it was to get together with us not once but twice in 2006. Who are they?
Two happy little girls sleep in their bunks, and a new baby boy sleeps in the contraption Tabitha has rigged up beside our bed—having given away the expensive co-sleeper she swore we'd never again need because she was done having babies. In time she joins him, and so I curl up with Malthus'Essay on the Principle of Population, a new edition for which, oddly enough, I owe an introduction. "I think I may fairly make two postulates," writes Malthus, before advancing the most famously wrong prediction about humanity ever made. "First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state." And off he sets, with the cool hysteria of the Unabomber's Manifesto, to argue that my biggest problem circa 2007 should be a shortage of corn. On the other side of the Bay, fireworks explode. It's New Year's Eve.
Just before 2 in the morning, I'm prodded awake. It's Tabitha, with a look on her face I've never seen there before. "I'm sorry," she says.
"Okay," I say. "What's the matter?" But I already know it's serious. She's fighting very hard to hold it together. Her eyes dart around, and she fidgets as if she itches in 50 places at once.
"I don't know," she says, "I'm really, really scared."
She's like an addict in need of a fix that does not exist. She's terrified. Worse, she doesn't know what she's terrified of. All she knows is that she can't be alone, can't even close her eyes in my presence without shuddering with fear. "I think I might need to go to the emergency room," she says, reluctantly, and she might. But it's 2 in the morning, we have three small children in the house, the neighbors are all gone, and the nearest blood relation is 2,000 miles away.
"Tell me exactly what you feel."
"As if something really bad's going to happen."
Tears fill her eyes.
"I feel like I don't have any control of anything. I feel like I might be going insane."
Five minutes later I'm leaving messages on doctors' voice mails with one hand and Googling with the other:
At the top pops alternative translations of Psalm 48:6 (Panic seized them there, Anguish, as of a woman in childbirth). Skipping down I find what appears to be a relevant entry: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders After Childbirth.
"Have you ever heard of this?" I ask her.
"No," she says. But then a lot of unpleasant things can happen to a woman after childbirth, and you don't hear about most of them until they happen to your wife in the middle of the night.
"Don't leave me alone," she says, trembling beside me.
I don't think I've ever seen her scared of anything, and she is now more frightened than I've ever seen another human being outside of the movies. She's the little kid in The Sixth Sense. She sees dead people. Still, born with the ability to remain calm in the face of other people's misery, I feel more curious than alarmed. People who actually are going insane don't know they are going insane. Googling on, I finally come to a plausible-sounding Web page written by a psychiatrist named Christine Hibbert. "Three common fears experienced by women with a Postpartum Panic Disorder are: 1) fear of dying, 2) fear of losing control, and/or 3) fear that one is going crazy."
It's like finding the picture of the red-throated diver in the bird-watching manual right after you've glimpsed one for the first time. Postpartum Panic Disorder: So now the thing has a name. Roughly one in 10 women experiences it after childbirth. How, then, could we never have heard of it?
At length a doctor calls back: Stay with her, she says, and do what you can to calm her down. But she may become completely hysterical, in which case she'll need to go to the hospital.
The next six hours offer a new experience. She can't sleep; she can't close her eyes for fear of her mind thinking some terrible thought. But I know—or think I know, which amounts to the same thing—that she's suffering from some chemical glitch that would repair itself in time and that a pill would fix instantly. What she feels has nothing to do with who she is. It's a state of mind triggered by an event that she will never again endure. She might just as well have turned bright green for a day. But she doesn't know this. She's sure as Malthus that this terror is going to be with her forever—and yet she's as brave as she can be about it. Amazingly, the only thing that makes her feel better is me. I fix her tea, rub her back, and try to enjoy being the sane one for as long as it lasts.
Michael Lewis' most recent book is The Blind Side.
Photograph on Slate's home page of woman with her head in her hand by Photodisc Green/Getty Images. Family photographs by Michael Lewis and Tabitha Soren.