Nine weeks after giving birth to my daughter, I scheduled a horseback riding lesson. I’d been stuck under a wave of postpartum depression that was stubbornly lingering, like the cold damp that refused to let up even though the calendar said spring. The advice from everyone—friends, family, even my doctor—was to do something for myself, something I had enjoyed pre-baby.
Horses, I thought. Horses would be that. My weekly lessons had never failed to bring me joy. I loved everything about the barn: the sweet smell of sweat and hay, the way curious heads poked out over the half doors of their stall, the feel of the leather tack, the power and harmony and effort it took to make the riding look seamless, effortless.
Horses were supposed to make me feel better. They always had before. But when the day of my lesson arrived, everything that could go wrong was going wrong. My daughter had received her first round of shots the day before and was more fussy and clingy than she’d ever been, sleeping poorly and waking up hourly to chomp at my breast.
After a night spent holding and rocking her, I watched dawn break to that annoying in-between rain/not rain— the kind of mist that somehow leaves you wet without ever feeling a drop. It would be too cold and muddy to ride outside, sidelining us to the small indoor ring whose roof shook in the wind, spooking horses and necessitating extra work on the rider’s part, effort I wasn’t sure I still had.
My instructor was running behind. I anxiously watched the clock as my lesson got pushed back 15 minutes, a half hour, an hour. My mind calculated how fast I would have to drive to get back before my daughter was due to eat again, a feat that was looking less and less likely.
As I sat shivering in the cold office, I was gripped by how stupid the whole thing felt. Horseback riding was something little girls with pigtails on ponies did. Horses were for skinny teenagers balancing lightly atop a nimble steed as they soared over a jump.
Horseback riding wasn’t for new moms whose hair was still falling out in clumps from the drop in pregnancy hormones, who was hiding her belly by hiking up her riding tights over the fleshy bump that no longer contained a baby, who should be saving money for diapers, formula and college.
I felt selfish. I felt silly. I watched the lesson before me and, embarrassed, felt the hot prick of tears behind my eyes.
It felt like I’d already given up so much to be a mom, in a million ways I had never anticipated. I loved my daughter but still hadn’t experienced that overpowering sensation of devotion everyone else seemed to have. Instead, my love felt like it was buried under guilt (as she drank and drank more formula and less breastmilk), fear (checking her breathing once, twice, three times during a half-hour nap), anxiety (was she making enough wet diapers? Was she sleeping enough? Was she too hot? Too cold?), and worst of all, an uncertainty about how I now fit in the world.
I had desperately wanted to be a mother and was so grateful for my daughter’s health and happiness, but it felt like large chunks of me were gone, scooped out, and I had empty holes I didn’t know how to fill.
I watched the group of high school girls flawlessly guide their mounts over a series of impossibly tall fences and felt almost a sense of grief—it seemed like even the barn, which had been a safe haven to me for so much of my life, would be another thing that didn’t align with my life as a mother.
A pair of tiny paws scratched against my thigh. I looked down and saw Sally, my instructor’s scraggly mutt, pressing her feet into me. I quickly rubbed her ears, expecting her to do her typical seconds-long pause before bounding away to nip at the horses’ heels. But instead of running away, Sally climbed into my lap. She curled herself around my belly, settled her head against my hip. The warmth. The positioning. The near impossible lightness of her tiny weight. The way her little body relaxed in my lap, like melting. Just like my daughter.
Sally craved comfort from me, but, at the same time, she was giving it, a two-way street. I had been so obsessed with my part in caring for my daughter, I hadn’t stopped to think that she was here as a person, capable of giving so much to me.
I wouldn’t know it then, how infinitely easier it would get as my daughter got older. A few weeks from that moment she would start smiling at me as I got her dressed, her face lighting up as if she couldn’t believe how lucky she was. Giggles followed that—a sound so pure and precious I would try to hold it in my mind, recall its echoing chimes whenever we were apart.
She’d reach for me, throwing her tiny body towards me if she was upset or scared, turning her bashful face to my shoulder when she was excited, snaking her arm around my neck into the first semblances of a hug. As she grew, the love everyone talked about streamed in and filled the holes that gapped in me; holes that I had no idea how to fill in those first shaky months of motherhood.
Now, at six months I feel like Kintsugi pottery—broken yet put back together with gold.
At that moment, I knew none of this. So, I did nothing but hug Sally. I gave and received her comfort as best I could. Then I went home to my daughter, with aching muscles, stinking of horse, ready to try again at being a mom.