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 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.