Eighteen years after The West Wing premiered, I discovered it courtesy of Netflix just two weeks before giving birth. Political dramas rarely entice me—I’d much rather get lost in a historical miniseries or light, fluffy comedy—but this show, recommended by many trusted friends, refused to let me go. The Bartlet White House is an idealist’s dream—fast-talking, fast-walking staffers with rapier sharp wit and all the integrity in the world serve at the pleasure of an intelligent president who prioritizes morality. I devoured episode after episode during maternity leave because I needed to believe people like this truly existed. But even so, I found relating to the characters difficult. They were working 20-hour days and changing history, while I could barely get myself together enough to prepare breakfast or shower. What could we possibly have in common?
And then, in a show that largely ignores the personal lives of its characters, parenthood takes center stage in a manner so heartrending, so realistic, that even now, months later, tears roll down my face just to think of it.
President Bartlet, portrayed by Martin Sheen, is proud of all three of his daughters, but from the beginning of the show it’s made clear that the youngest, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), is his favorite. During the first season she becomes more visible to the public when she starts her freshman year at Georgetown, a change that removes much of the privacy she’s previously enjoyed. As the target of both paparazzi and criminals alike, Bartlet understandably wants to increase her Secret Service detail. When she refuses, his usual softness and permissive affection melt away. For the first time we see him yell at Zoey, anger rising to cover his fear.
“You scare the hell out of the Secret Service, Zoey, and you scare the hell out of me, too. My getting killed would be bad enough, but that is not the nightmare scenario. The nightmare scenario, sweetheart, is you getting kidnapped. You go out to a bar or a party in some club, and you get up to go to the restroom, somebody comes up from behind, puts their hand across your mouth, and whisks you out the back door. You’re so petrified, you don’t even notice the bodies of two Secret Service agents lying on the ground with bullet holes in their heads. Then you’re whisked away in a car. It’s a big party with lots of noise, and lots of people coming and going. And it’s a half hour before someone says, ‘Hey, where’s Zoey?’ Another fifteen minutes before the first phone call. Another hour and a half before anyone even thinks to shut down all the airports. And now we’re off to the races. You’re tied to a chair in a cargo shack, somewhere in the middle of Uganda. And I am told that I have 72 hours to get Israel to free 460 terrorist prisoners. So I’m on the phone pleading with Ben Yabin, and he’s saying, ‘I’m sorry Mr. President, but Israel simply does not negotiate with terrorists, period. It’s the only way we can survive.’ So now we got a new problem, because this country no longer has a commander in chief, it has a father who’s out of his mind because his little girl is in a shack somewhere in Uganda with a gun to her head. Do you get it?!”
Zoey tearfully says she understands, Bartlet apologizes for yelling, and they embrace. Dozens of episodes pass by; this exchange almost forgotten. And then the nightmare described in Bartlet’s anxious rant is realized. At the end of season four, Zoey’s boyfriend sneaks ecstasy into her drink at her graduation party. She slips off to the bathroom of a packed, riotous club and vanishes. Molly, one of her Secret Service agents, is found dead in the back alley. Chaos ensues.Now, with the benefit of hindsight and several months’ worth of adequate sleep, I see clearly that my initial model of parenthood was unsustainable.
Bartlet, as predicted, slips at the edges. His health is already compromised by his worsening multiple sclerosis, and the emotional turmoil from Zoey’s disappearance pushes him to the edge of a full-scale breakdown. He paces the Situation Room, obsessing over what the kidnappers may ask of him and contemplating whether he will give in to their demands. He realizes he can’t remember what his military advisors have told him or what orders he’s given. Leo McGarry, his chief of staff, reassures him that no one will let him harm anyone or make any bad decisions, but this reassurance makes Bartlet realize how dangerous it is for him to be president in such a state. He’s no longer commander in chief, he’s a father who’s out of his mind, and he can’t be trusted to act in the nation’s best interest. Since his vice president recently resigned, he summons the speaker of the House, a political enemy, and puts the 25th amendment in motion. He will temporarily resign the presidency.
“I think it’s a fairly stunning act of patriotism,” says staffer Will Bailey when he learns the president is stepping down. “And a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood.”
Across the city, White House Director of Communications Toby Ziegler enters the world of parenthood as his ex-wife, Congresswoman Andrea Wyatt, gives birth to twins, Huck and Molly. Toby is known for his unique brand of compassion hidden beneath cantankerous aloofness. He cares too much, yet not enough. He expresses his love and devotion through a filter of anger, an unconventional pragmatic approach to something he knows and understands only in theory. He adores his ex-wife and so he constantly picks fights with her in an effort to prove they belong together. He cares about his family and so he throws a punch and spends a few hours in jail when a voter unhappy with Andrea’s pregnancy gets a little too hands on.
But that gruff, dark exterior crumbles and falls away the first time we see Toby alone with his brand new children. He stands in a darkened hospital room, looking down at two perfect newborns with respective blue and pink caps. He stares at them, hands in pockets, before he finally finds the words he’s looking for.
“I didn’t realize babies come with hats,” he whispers. “You guys crack me up. You don’t have jobs, you can’t walk or speak the language, you don’t have a dollar in your pockets but you got yourselves a hat. So everything’s fine.” His soliloquy continues as he wipes spit-up from Huck’s mouth, and when Huck reaches up to grab his finger he seems taken aback. “You holding my finger, son? Hey Molly, your brother’s holding my hand. You want to hold my hand?”
A nurse enters the room, and he stiffens, answering her questions and observations about how sweet the babies are with neutral “yeahs.” She turns to the television in the corner, where home movies from Zoey’s childhood play. Leo stares at a much younger Josiah Bartlet wipe his daughter’s mouth, looks down at his children, and straightens. “I have to get back to my office now.”
We next see him running toward the rest of the White House staff as they prepare for the president’s temporary resignation. “The President’s gotta get out of the West Wing. I don’t know what we’ve been thinking.”
Leo asks why he’s out of breath and if the babies are okay. Toby replies, “Yeah, they’re great. And if somebody was hurting them, I’d drop napalm on Yellowstone to get them to stop. Letting some prisoners out of jail wouldn’t be nothing, and I’ve known my kids for about 45 minutes.”
For this child we have prayed.” These words, a riff on 1 Samuel 1:27, are printed in black vinyl on a shiny silver background, framed with pale unpainted wood. They hang over the recliner in my daughter’s bedroom, positioned in such a way that prevents me from seeing them when I rock her to sleep. But I can still feel them above and behind me as I hold her, heavy with sleep, close. Her tiny chest expands and compresses against mine, and the half-puff, half-wheeze of her breath is a miracle.
I did pray for this child—for her existence, for this moment and a thousand like it. But for several weeks after she was born, it was difficult for me to look directly at those words. I couldn’t read them without my mind wandering to the woman who first spoke them—Hannah, whose prayer for a child was so passionate and desperate she was mistaken for a drunkard. Many women, myself included, use her words when announcing pregnancy after infertility, but so rarely do we mention those that immediately follow, the ones that mean she will leave her child at the temple with the priest rather than keep him to herself.
Those first weeks of motherhood were so hard, I thought back on my prayers for a child with something almost like regret. Not regret for my daughter—never that—but rather regret that I demanded motherhood from God without understanding the magnitude of what I was asking. For all my fervor, I barely knew how to change a diaper. My swaddles were weak and ineffective, my breasts useless and noncompliant. Who was I to have petitioned the Creator with such urgency, such anger, when I had done such a poor job of preparing to receive his blessing?
But a sufficient preparation for parenthood does not exist. You can read all the right books, visit all the right websites, and follow all the unsolicited advice. The transition from before to after is still as shocking and clarifying as ice water to the face.
This truth made itself plain a few nights into parenthood, when I found myself asking, “Is this Jane’s baby?”
These words felt wrong even as I said them. Part of the wrongness was rooted in how speaking them pulled everything around me sharply into focus. I peered down at the wailing, poorly swaddled newborn in my arms. My brain felt fuzzy as I tried, and failed, to recall the beginning of the situation I found myself thrust into in media res. Did this baby belong to Jane, the pregnant character on the TV show we had been watching hours earlier as we’d drifted off to sleep? That didn’t feel right, but as my mind struggled to regain purchase with reality, I couldn’t say why.
Until, that is, my husband’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “That’s Florence. That’s our daughter.”
The cold, angry fear in his voice was an effective stimulant. Reality crashed back in with dizzying swiftness, and my heart sank as I quickly put the pieces together. I had been sleepwalking with our days-old infant in my arms. I had fed her an entire bottle, burped her, paced the room with her, comforted her, bounced her, all while unconscious.
I placed her in the bassinet, sank down on our bed, and sobbed. Dark visions of all the things that could have gone terribly wrong assailed me. I thanked God that in the absence of coherency, my body had known what to do. What little maternal instinct I’d managed to pull together at that point had guided my arms, keeping her steady and safe when I could have just as easily tossed her on the floor, thinking she was a pile of clothes needing to be laundered.
The scariest thing, my husband would tell me later, was how perfectly normal I’d seemed until I’d looked him in the eye and asked if our baby belonged to a fictional character. We’d carried on a somewhat normal conversation until then, a logical back-and-forth to pass the time during yet another late-night feeding. My eyes had seemed alert, my speech clear and certain, my movements normal. My unconscious charade had fooled him, the person who knew me better than anyone. I was officially untrustworthy.
Obviously, this was my body’s way of waving a white flag. I was in desperate need of sleep. This is true of all new parents, but my deprivation went a step further than was necessary. From the night my daughter was born, I had been keeping myself awake for as long as I could by any means necessary, downing caffeine and watching hours of mindless television, pinching myself hard when I felt my consciousness slipping. Even when my husband gently forced me to lie down and take even a short nap, I snapped awake any time she made a sound. Anxiety transformed sneezes and sighs into chokes and screams. The thought of being unconscious, of not being able to care for her and, if necessary, come to her rescue, terrified me. I lost count of the times I sat up with a start, demanding to know what was wrong with the baby, only to have my husband sigh and shake his head.
Nothing was ever wrong. She was a perfect newborn, healthy and strong with just a hint of jaundice. She rarely cried and was easy to comfort. And in any case, there was always at least one other adult nearby capable of tending to her. But in my postpartum state, I didn’t trust anyone else, not even trained nurses. Not even her very capable father. I needed to be there for her, always. If I wasn’t fully present, even for one moment, one of the horrific scenarios that filled my mind might come to pass. But the truth was that in neglecting myself and focusing entirely on my child, I became my own worst nightmare. In trying too hard to keep her safe, I had put her in danger.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight and several months’ worth of adequate sleep, I see clearly that my initial model of parenthood was unsustainable. I’d thought that because I’d only become a mother through both divine and scientific intervention, I was required to devote every ounce of my being to this new role. But my husband couldn’t trail behind me forever, reminding me to sleep and eat and take pain medicine while I shouldered a load designed to be shared. And I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had needs and desires apart from the squirming six-pound life I’d brought into the world.
Months later, it’s clear that postpartum anxiety and depression were the culprits behind my obsessive insomnia. I’d thought that having dealt with generalized anxiety and depression most of my life I would be immune, but the truth is that my history actually increased my chances to develop postpartum anxiety and depression by 30%–35%. I pushed through as much as I could, but several months in, things were still pretty bad. I was sleeping more, but not well. I couldn’t close my eyes without imagining unspeakable horrors, and I ran to the nursery every time she made a noise. One especially bad night, I admitted to my husband there were times I couldn’t imagine ever being happy again. “Well, that sounds like depression,” he said kindly, as if it weren’t the most obvious diagnosis on the planet. I called my doctor the next day, and when he wrote a prescription for Zoloft, I filled it.
Moments before President Bartlet hands the reins to the opposition party, Deputy Director of Communications Director Josh Lyman expresses doubt regarding the decision. “It doesn’t say, ‘I can’t handle this’?”
Toby, with his newfound perspective, replies, “It says ‘I am handling this.’”
The speaker of the House signs the paperwork necessary to resign his post before assuming the presidency and the president ambles over to Toby. “So what do you know now that you didn’t know before?” he asks.
“Babies come with hats.”
President Bartlet smiles. “Yeah, they also come with those little theft protection devices, those little LoJacks on their ankles, so they can’t be boosted from the hospital. Man, don’t even let them take it off.”
After That Night, the night the motherhood fog had descended upon me, my husband and I agreed to take shifts. I felt like a monster the first time my baby cried and I didn’t rise to tend to her. I worried she would think I had abandoned her, that I didn’t love her anymore. I listened to her high, thin wail as her father rocked her, and my heart translated that forlorn sound into “why have you forsaken me?” But as her whimpering calmed and I felt myself slipping into restful sleep, I knew one day she would understand. As much as I’d like to track her every minute of every hour of every day, I know it’s no way to live.
While me placing my daughter in my husband’s arms and allowing myself to sleep a few hours is a far cry from resigning the presidency, it somehow feels the same. I know what it feels like to maintain a white-knuckle grip on reality and try my hardest to maintain control. I know what it feels like to have a focus so razor sharp, it slices through reason. I know that sometimes, in order to take care of everyone else, you must first take care of yourself.
As hard as it was to accept, motherhood could not be my identity. It was but one aspect of many, grafted in to add richness and complexity, not to erase everything else. I was still Olivia and everything that entailed. I needed to remember what it was like to be a wife, an employee, a writer, a reader, a Netflix enthusiast, a fan of peppermint bark ice cream. I couldn’t starve these parts of myself and expect to be healthy and strong enough to parent well. In fact, sometimes—like the terrible night that I, for the briefest of moments, did not recognize my own child—the best way I can parent is to stand down.