My first child was born in the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity of August in southeast Texas. I would sweat just carrying the infant bucket seat to and from my car. My clothes always smelled vaguely of body odor and breast milk. I hid out in my air conditioned home, just me and my son, feeling trapped.
I was not one of those mothers who fell in love at first sight or stepped into motherhood like a puzzle piece sliding into place. My transition was more of a baptism by fire. So it was fitting, in a way, that it began in such an inhospitable season.
When baby blues appeared to be growing into full-fledged postpartum depression and anxiety, and my mother suggested that I get out of my house and exercise, I resisted. My body was still sore and battered from giving birth. I would have preferred a massage or a full night of sleep -- to comfort my body, not (as I saw it) torture it. But something had to change. I wanted to enjoy motherhood. If fresh air and endorphins could help, it was worth facing the heat.
"But something had to change. I wanted to enjoy motherhood."
I started walking at a local botanical gardens in October. Every morning, I clicked my son's seat into the stroller and ran through a list of complaints in my head. The baby didn't sleep. My pelvis felt like it was splitting apart. The humidity. The mosquitoes. The sweat I wouldn't get to bathe off because the baby never slept. It was difficult to appreciate the vibrant orange mums, the sweet mint and calming lavender in the herb garden, the meandering paths under pines and Japanese maples and past leafy green camellias with huge, delicate pink flowers. A voice in my head chanted with every step, "I'm so hot. I hate this."
I'm stubborn, so I could stay grumpy for twenty, thirty, forty-five minutes. I could hate what I was doing even as the anger fueled my stride. Other people wandered and marveled and somehow weren't a frizzy, sweaty mess. I charged. My laps around the gardens were proof that things in motion stay in motion. They were also probably evidence that my mental health was slipping -- I became afraid to stop, and I was intensely competitive about how far and how fast I walked, as if I could push my body so hard that I transcended it, transcended everything.
On a particularly stubborn day, I walked for two hours straight, and when I stopped, my hips gave out. I barely made it back to my car.
But a strange thing began to happen. Although my walks started in a place of irritation and dread, at a certain point, the voice that kept me riled up about everything went silent. I didn't transcend my body; in fact, I felt every step, the dull ache in my hips, the grip of the plastic stroller handle, slick with my sweat. What I seemed to have transcended was my mind, or at least the part of it that sounded alarm bells and caught me up in self-doubt. At some point, I was able to slow back down, to walk without the fear that, if I stopped, I might disappear. I was able to see further in front of myself than the stroller I'd been relentlessly pushing forward.
"What I seem to have transcended was my mind"
I don't know why I never sought help for postpartum depression, but many women don't. I know I would have benefited from talk therapy or a support group, someone else to say that I hadn't failed in my start as a mother. Maybe I could have felt better sooner -- in air conditioning. But I don't regret my compulsive walks at the gardens. Over several months, I shifted from pursuing speed and distance to telling my son about flowers. Some days, we swung on a bench in the shade and watched the clouds slip lazily across the sky. Strangers said hello, and I told them about the cardinal nest at the back of the grounds or the bamboo where teenagers carved their initials and declarations of love. I met my first real mom friend, and we talked as we followed our newly walking babies through the gardens, something we still do.
Five years later, a mother of three now, when I think of my motherhood, I think of camellias. When I look back on my children at any age, I see them petting daisies, chasing squirrels through a maze of foliage. Our gardens are a constant, a place to breathe and rest, walk and run, play and explore – even in summer. I became a mother there. And ever since, I've had the pleasure of watching my kids grow into themselves on the same meandering paths I used to walk, wondering what would come next.