It’s Not All Mary Poppins

My Darkest Hour

My eldest was colicky. From about 4 p.m. through 1 a.m., the girl screamed. And screamed and screamed and screamed.

And screamed.

And screamed.

And screamed some more.

She was inconsolable. Nothing – nothing! – soothed her. Not nursing, not rocking, not swinging, not shushing, not rides in the car or the stroller, or warm baths. I didn’t know about swaddling back then. (I thought I did. I tried it, but I know now I was inept, so I don’t know if proper swaddling would have helped or not.)

Hour after weary hour went by, most of them spent with me pacing the length of our long, narrow apartment, from living room through dining room, pantry, kitchen and back. And forth. And back.

Yes, the baby had a father. No, he did not pace with her. He told me to put her in her cradle – but I couldn’t. (Read, wouldn’t. I was offended he would even suggest such a thing. Hindsight gives him more credit than I did at the time: my efforts were traumatizing myself and not helping her a jot.)

My refusal to set her down may or may not have been a mistake, but it’s not what I’m writing about here. I’m writing about that one night, when, driven to the very limits of my capacity and tolerance, when she had finally calmed, I had laid her down, oh, so very, very carefully, pulled my hands away slowly, slowly, slooooowly, and cautiously, one tentative tip-toe after another, my heart in my throat lest I hit a creaky floorboard, I moved out of the room. (She was sleeping in our bed, but for some reason I wasn’t going to sleep just then.) I was almost at the door, almost free, almost ready to stand up and take a firm step into the kitchen, let the tension drop from my weary shoulders and take a deep breath, when…

…with a hiccup and a cough, the wailing started again.

Nothing can match that despair, can it? Chilled and weak with despair, tears welled into my eyes. I just.couldn’t.do this any more. And then something – rage? desperation? hysteria? – something surged through me, a wave of heat and energy.

I spun on my heel, shot into the room, and, my voice hoarse and shrill with desperation, I clenched my fists and pounded the mattress, each fist a foot away from either side of her, and I shrieked. Louder than she was shrieking. Than she had been shrieking, for hours.

“Just! Go! To! SLEEP!! Please, please, baby, just go to SLEEEEP!!!”

When I saw her tiny body bounce a couple of inches up off the mattress, I froze for a split second. Then fled.

Sobs, mine this time, wrenched through me. I was stunned, horrified. I had crossed an uncrossable line in my mind. No one else in the history of parenting had ever behaved so badly towards their baby.

I don’t recall what happened next. I don’t know if I returned to my attempts to soothe her, I don’t know if I had a long shower to calm down and drown out her cries (cries which were no different in tenor, I might add, from the previous six hours’ worth; again, it seemed the one being truly traumatized was me, not her), I don’t know if I went for a walk. I simply don’t remember.

I only remember the remorse, the utter despair, the gut-wrenching self-loathing. I had never before in my life hated myself as I did that evening.

Twenty-one years lends perspective. I was 24 years old, uncertain of myself, unsupported (in any emotional way) by my husband. I was living in a strange city in a different country, far from family and friends. I hadn’t had more than two hours’ consecutive sleep in weeks. Every evening was an ordeal of endless screaming. I was sleep-deprived, beyond exhausted, beyond hope, beyond desperate… and yet, despite all that: I didn’t hurt that baby. I didn’t even think of hurting her.

Am I proud of that moment? No, I am not. I am also not ashamed of it. It taught me that in the depths of my own misery, I could not – cannot – harm my child. It taught me that I can be driven to passionate misery by my child and still love that child with a fierce, unyielding, uncompromising passion.

When you are expecting that first baby, when you are parenting that tiny newborn, I think people are afraid to tell you you might ever feel that desperate, that out of control, that hopeless. No one wants to let on you might act in a way that your calm, rational, well-rested self would find shocking. Why? Because they don’t want to normalize it? Because they fear that, if it’s normalized, it will lead to ever more violent outbursts against innocent babies? Because they don’t want to frighten you with something you might never experience? Because admitting they’ve felt that way themselves will open them to be judged and found lacking by the naive non-parent, a person who has no idea yet that they, too, could ever feel that way?

These are good reasons, I think, and valid concerns. And yet…

We do need to know. NOT so as to give us permission to behave badly, but so as to give us time to develop strategies, in advance of the maelstrom of emotions, the blurring, blinding fatigue, the hormonal lunacy that follow childbirth. To let us know that it is possible to resent, to be enraged with, to regret, to – just for a moment – hate the child that so burdens us — even as we know we’d die for that child, even as we know that we love it as we’ve loved nothing in our lives.

We need to know you can feel all that: love, hate, regret, joy, despair, rage, transcendence, sorrow, pride, loneliness, fulfillment, and much more — and be a good mother.

In fact, if motherhood doesn’t teach you the heights and depths of human emotion? I don’t think anything can.

Perhaps it’s even true to say that without these heights – and depths – motherhood would be less complete.

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August 10, 2007 - Posted by | aggression, controversy, parenting, the dark side

34 Comments »

  1. Mary,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for articulating so honestly and beautifully our need to know all of the feelings that course through us as sleep-deprived new parents and that feelings of despair and utter love can co-exist. If only I had known what you so eloquently speak of, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so ashamed of myself during my “darkest hours” with my now two-year old. Here’s to the lucky parents-to-be who get the benefit of this knowledge by reading your entry.

    Comment by Peggy | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  2. Um…..I did that, too.

    It never occurred to me that it was bad. I thought pounding the mattress (or pillows, or sofa cushions) instead of the actual baby was an acceptable way to release tension!

    Comment by L. | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  3. One of the few pieces of good advice my mother gave me when I was pregnant the first time was “punch the pillow”. Everyone gets to that point at some time in their parenting life – if not with their babies then with their teenagers! I personaly have to admit to begging my babies to go to sleep, and literally stamping my foot in anger at them. Children are not nice! they are not TV adverts, or dolls. they are nasty, manipulative, annoying little prsonalities, and acknowledging that is never a bad thing:-)

    Comment by juggling mother | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  4. Oh, I have had my darkest hours too. Thank you for sharing yours so eloquently.

    I think it wasn’t the mattress-pounding that caused your remorse, though– it was the fact that the baby moved a wee bit as a result of the nearby pounding? And maybe the whole moment?

    I am glad this moment doesn’t haunt you anymore though. But I do think that we need to be told more honestly in our parenting careers that we can be capable of great anger toward our beloved offspring– even when the offspring can’t help their own behaviors. Especially with colic.

    I look back now and wonder that I could have been frustrated with a three-year-old child, or a baby– because I am not frustrated with my children now. But I laugh at myself and think of course it’s easier now– and the only thing we can learn from this is that it does GET easier, but that doesn’t make anything easier at the time.

    Comment by jen | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  5. Amazing article. This should really be read by every expectant mother. When my daughter was a newborn I had moments with that intense emotion. I never did anything more than scream but I felt terrible because of it. Nobody had ever prepared me for feeling that way. I wish they had so I would have known I was normal.

    Comment by Carissa | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  6. I think most mothers have had these moments. The moments where we drop them down just a smidgen too soon to hit the mattress softly, whip their little legs up just a touch too roughly to change a diaper, grab an arm just a little too tightly for a talking-to, in our frustration. Not enough to really hurt, not because we want to hurt. But somehow, enough to let off a teeny bit of steam at the same time that we warn ourselves that this is the edge. We scare our child, we scare ourselves. it lewts us both know how serious this could become if we don’t back up a step. These moments are the ones that tell me I really need a strategy to deal with the current crisis, that cause me to hash out some of my very best plans. I don’t know if it’s possible to make some of those harder decisions about where to draw a line until it seems REALLY vitally important. Until we know we just CAN’T deal without taking charge on something we might have been waffling over before.

    Bub&Pie, too, has written a fair bit about rage in parenting, it might be worth dropping her a note.

    Comment by kittenpie | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  7. Thank you for being so honest. When my baby was very young and I was confessing my boredom and frustration, a friend of mine confessed that when her child was a baby she would scream at him. It was actually quite liberating and reassuring for me to hear that. She was someone I respected as a mom and I was happy to know that, though I hadn’t screamed at my baby, I wasn’t alone in loosing my shit (for lack of a better saying). It was nice to see that you didn’t always have to be supermom and that one minute of anger won’t ruin your child forever. Thank you too, Mary.

    Comment by kate | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  8. Thank you for a wonderful post, Mary. I remember putting my daughter in her crib with her screaming and shutting myself in my closet to cry–and she didn’t even have colic! I also thought that “losing it”–even though I never actually hurt my children–would traumatize them. I did learn when I sought treatment for postpartum depression that constant anger and irritation can be a symptom, so when I got help, I was much less stressed. And the kids weren’t traumatized by the few times I couldn’t handle my emotions properly. (I always remind myself that parenting is a long-range project; it’s what they’re exposed to over time that has significant effects.)

    Comment by Alison | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  9. I once took Lolly out of her bouncer chair when she was a few weeks old and screaming so I could kick the bouncer chair!

    I do remember feeling that intense anger ‘about’ my baby but not ‘at’ my baby if that makes sense. Even now I’ve been known to yell ” I love you but I hate your behaviour!”

    Comment by jenny | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  10. You are so, so, so right – this is something that *critically* needs more open discussion. Kittenpie noted above that Bub wrote about this last year – so did Amalah. But almost every mother knows the experience, and almost every mother fears speaking of it. So brave of you to put it out there. Thank you.

    Comment by Her Bad Mother | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  11. I may need to read more budandpie, because I feel rage has been a significant component of my mothering experience. Or maybe 2.5 years out, I need help with postpartum depression? It’s entirely possible. I’ve popped my kid 2 or 3 times in his life out of sheer anger, and it amazes me that people find this more offensive than if I hit him because I was totally calm and thought hurting him was the best way to achieve my goal. I knew it wasn’t rational, I knew it was stupid, but I don’t even know that I wanted deliberately to hurt him–I just wanted him to DO WHATEVER IT WAS I WAS ASKING. I probably knew it wouldn’t make him comply, but I did it anyway. That’s because I’m human, probably an especially bad-tempered human, and I fuck up. A lot. Luckily, I have made it a point to apologize to my son, explain why my behavior was wrong, and put lots and lots of money away so that he can both have the therapy he will need AND attend college. So this post is a relief to me in a he-who-is-without-dog-poo-on-his-shoe-take–the-first-step-on-the-white-carpet kind of way.

    I think it’s because parenting is hard work and stressful and often tedious work, and very few people are honest with preparents about this. Thanks for being a voice of honesty.

    Comment by stefanierj | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  12. You’re right….your barest soul is out there!
    No one talks about these moments. Nobody tells new moms that the day will come when they will feel so horrid, and so low. Thanks for sharing….I’ll be sending other moms over to read!

    Comment by Tammy | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  13. My poor first baby bore the brunt of those feelings – it never happened in the same way with the other two, maybe because I had learned not to take it personally.

    The worst thing was when you had tried so hard, been so loving, fed and changed, rocked and sung, tramped up and down the room – and the baby still cried. It felt as if she was throwing it all straight back at me.

    The teenage years were pretty hard too…fortunately, we get on very well now!

    Comment by z | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  14. I think it is so brave and great of you to write this, thank you. My daughter is now 3, but when she was born, she hardly slept for 3 months, didn’t eat well, and was generally unhappy. Don’t know if it was colic or what, but it was horrible. And there were desperate moments, and moments when I screamed so that she would stop crying because i was louder than her. No one tells you that you will feel this way. You are helping a lot of new moms right now!

    Comment by Nataly | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  15. I remember thinking, when my first child wouldn’t stop fussing, that I could finally understand how some mothers end up on the evening news. I’m eternally grateful that neither twin has colic, because when they’re crying at the same time? It’s hard to be calm and rational. Now when I get overwhelmed, I either thrust the baby into my husband’s arms or put her on the nearest flat surface and declare, “She’s driving me CRAZY!” Which my husband knows is code for me walking away from a bad situation. We’ve even discussed how easy it is now to imagine how some parents can end up hurting their children on the spur of the moment. I’m lucky, though, that he’s there–I can’t imagine how lonely and desperate I’d feel without support. So thanks for sharing that extremely honest post!

    Comment by Kat | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  16. Hello, all: When I posted this, I was nervous. Some of you know this, because, in my nervousness, I emailed you. “Please come over and say something nice before someone comes along and flames me to a crisp.”

    I am very open with those closest to me, but I am cautious with new people. And to bare this kind of reality to the entire internet?

    Help!!

    I did it anyway because I thought it was something that needed to be said – but people don’t necessarily welcome hearing something hard, even when they need it. Especially when they need it.

    I am relieved and profoundly touched by these comments. It confirms what provoked me to write this post: there is much about motherhood that isn’t being said, and it doesn’t help women to leave it unsaid.

    It is not that mothering doesn’t bring happiness, bliss even, fulfillment, joy, purpose, direction, laughter… But that’s not all it brings. It’s also hard, demanding, relentless, tedious, boring, enraging.

    Just like life. It’s no fairy tale – it’s reality. In all its wonderful and gritty glory.

    Comment by MaryP | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  17. Mary, I miss you – I am more on the “fringe” of the blogging world than ever these days, and it’s been so long since I’ve been here. This post was well-written and representative of what I said to John the other night at dinner: “there’s not enough public knowledge of what a pain in the ass kids are.” It was a reference to a recent Colbert report interview, I don’t just generally make those comments about my offspring…. but the point underlying that half truth was that not enough people openly acknowledge how insanely difficult it is to parent – and those of us who do acknowledge it generally get frowned on. I wish more of us would/could be open about it. (P.S. My bad mom/baby moment was in the middle of the night when Quinn had reflux and I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t stay asleep. I remember standing over his crib in the dark and clenching my teeth and growling with wide eyes something like, “what is your problem, goddammit?” right before I started hating myself…for years I felt like I ruined my bond with him over the very few moments like that.)

    Comment by Kristen | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  18. Oh, Mary I just went and dredged up Bub&Pie’s post about rage and the post I wrote in response to her asking for others’ experiences. Just for some further moms talking about it stuff.

    Comment by kittenpie | August 10, 2007 | Reply

  19. I have to say, as usual you explain a complicated and frightening experience in a very reassuring way. All of us out there, as new moms needed someone to tell us that there would be nights like this. I remember putting Jeffrey to bed and for hours trying and trying to get him to sleep. Eventually after spending awhile crying on the other side of his door, I called a good friend and his advice was to put him in his crib, go outside and sit on the porch. I realized during that moment that I understood how people could cross that line. I can’t imagine ever hurting my child but I understand the urge.
    Thank you for putting yourself out there for all of us that are sometimes too afraid. It’s nice to know that other people out there have the same issues.

    Comment by Dani | August 11, 2007 | Reply

  20. Thank you for this.

    Comment by HeatherS | August 11, 2007 | Reply

  21. Awesome post Mary, as per usual. I think it’s very brave of you to put your heart out into the ether like that.

    I also believe that your honesty and your wisdom will serve a great deal many mothers, of toddlers and/or teens, accept more willingly and with less guilt, the whole experience of parenthood.

    It’s easy to share the stuff everyone talks about, it takes great courage to speak of the things no one talks about.

    Kudos

    Comment by Sheri | August 11, 2007 | Reply

  22. Think you forgot an important point. That child – the (oblivious) victim of this “darkest moment” – is now an amazing, intelligent, delightful adult. A positive shining light, with a caring heart. In other words, those parenting moments that traumatized you, only made you a better parent.

    Now, your (respected) words of wisdom would be helpful to survive those teenage years. How to help us be wise and patient enough to face the moments when running them down with your car just doesn’t seem to make a strong enough statement.

    Comment by Andrea | August 11, 2007 | Reply

  23. I know. I know. I know it.

    It is true mothers should know… And it is true why we don’t discuss that. I have a bit of spin for it though and sometimes I think it is an overall ignorance that to live with a baby is to act baby like at times. I’ll admit it.

    You have urgent feelings. Physical manifestations unlike a fully socialize adult.

    I have been too tearful and yell-y for the liking of some folks these days. What do they expect I spend an overly exclusive amount of time with a one year old and a near three year old. People yell and cry at me all the time. I think I’m doing splendidly in the portion I exhibit.

    Sniff.

    nice post.

    Comment by mo-wo | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  24. Oh yea and the amnesia. What’s up with that? Apart from its likely a good thing.

    Comment by mo-wo | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  25. I always thought I was alone in thinking like this but a crying baby can turn a usually calm person into a irrational one. I never had a nights sleep for 6 months with my first because of colic. I too felt like you and had to walk away several times.

    Comment by Lynette | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  26. Lynette: Every woman feels like this at least once in their motherhood. I am utterly convinced of it. It’s not fun, it’s not all of motherhood by any means, and it’s not an excuse to harm your child – but is it normal? Oh, yes.

    Comment by MaryP | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  27. Mary, I read your post yesterday & teared up & just had to walk away from the computer. What you say is so true – so painful and so true. You love, love, love them with every fiber of your being… while being _infinitely_ frustrated and angry at them/their behavior at the same time. And because nobody talks about it – that you can be irrationally frustrated beyond measure at a baby who isn’t even in control of her behavior, or a toddler who is instinctively seeking some independence – you can feel so guilty about those strong negative feelings.

    You’ve done us all – parents, non-parents, and parents-to-be – a service for bringing up the subject. Thank you for talking about this elephant in the playroom!

    Comment by Ms. Huis Herself | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  28. I just had a chance to read this…and boy could I relate!! I think it’s great that you wrote this. It IS something that should be talked about. If someone had told me there would be times that I would want the baby to just SHUT UP AND GIVE ME FIVE DAMN MINUTES TO MYSELF I probably would have handled it better.

    Thanks Mary.

    Comment by Bethany | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  29. Great post. So eloquent. So real. Have I ever sung you my rendition of “Go to sleep little shit-bird”? Really reassuring to anyone listening over the baby monitor I’m sure. Or how many times I’ve threatened to put the baby on the porch in a rubbermaid tub (maybe with a free sign on her??). But most of us… that’s as much as we are willing to admit. I don’t like to admit to standing over her crib clutching the rails with white knuckles while I shoot daggers with my eyes and wish she would just BE QUIET. Thank you so much for putting this post out there so we all know we aren’t alone.

    And, as an aside… does a daddy ever feel this way? Just curious.

    Comment by Homestead | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  30. Well said, something we’re all feeling and have experienced. We all have our stories, we don’t always share them, but thankfully you have.

    Comment by mamacita tina | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  31. So eloquent, and so clear.

    Although I don’t remember such frustration with my first, my second son has been a constant source. He is also my biggest joy.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Naomi (Urban Mummy) | August 13, 2007 | Reply

  32. Well said, Mary. Well said. Thank you.

    Comment by midlife mommy | August 15, 2007 | Reply

  33. I wrote something about this last month.

    http://shelaughsatthedays.blogspot.com/2007/07/motherhoods-best-kept-secret.html

    Comment by carrien | August 20, 2007 | Reply

  34. [...] all have these dirty little secrets. I posted about one of mine here. That was one I really had trouble confessing to. THAT one made me feel like a poor mother at [...]

    Pingback by Dirty Little Secrets « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | November 17, 2011 | Reply


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