As parents, we thrive on firsts. We celebrate them and brag to our friends and fill in the blanks in our baby books. First smile, first wave, first steps, first words. Life with a new baby is full of joyous firsts. But what about those other firsts? The ones that nobody talks about. The ones that don’t have a cute little blank in the baby book.
When Adeline was only a few weeks old I experienced something I wasn’t prepared for: I got angry with her. Really angry. And it was scary. We brought her home from the hospital and she was the most beautiful little thing we’d ever seen. We wrapped her up in her swaddle blanket and called her “the burrito.” We took turns rocking her to sleep and I nursed her all the time. We were tired, but it was awesome.
And then she started screaming. For hours every night, from about 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. she would just scream and scream and scream (and there was plenty of screaming during the day, too). The only thing that helped even a little bit was to bounce her and shhhh her. So I would sit there on the exercise ball, bouncing up and down for hours at a time. My abs and back and legs were soon sore and exhaustion settled over me like a bag of wet sand. The lights of the city at night filtered into the room, giving everything an orange-ish glow. I said “shhhhh. shhhhhh.” over and over again, stopping only for a moment to catch my breath. And when I was too sore, too exhausted, too out of breath, I would stop and she would scream. Immediately and insistently, she would scream. I knew this was something that babies did, but I didn’t know that when it’s your baby those screams are the worst sound you’ve ever heard. And when it’s the middle of the night and you’re exhausted, they tear your soul apart.
And suddenly I understood the pamphlets and the PSAs and the billboards, all promoting the slogan: “don’t shake the baby.” Because in that moment, everything in you is fighting the urge to lift her up in front of you, shake her and yell, “Please, for the love of god, just stop crying. Just sleep. Just give me a break, please, before I lose my mind.” It’s not that you want to hurt her, it’s just an instinctive response when you want someone to listen to you. But she’s your baby and you love her and you know you can’t do that. So you just keep bouncing her and shushing her and you close your eyes and you let the rage simmer inside of you.
And the thing was, I couldn’t talk to David about it. I felt ashamed and I was sure there was something wrong with me. No mother in her right mind would be angry at her baby. I was sure David wasn’t feeling this and if I said anything about it he’d look at me like I was crazy and take the baby away. So I tried to act like everything was ok and I kept my rage a secret.
It went on like that for a week or two. Finally one night when she was, mercifully, sleeping for longer than twenty minutes, I had to break the silence. I skirted the issue at first, just talking about how hard it was, how much I needed sleep, how her screams were so painful to hear. And then David did the most helpful thing he’d done in those first few weeks: he said it first. “Sometimes I get angry at her and it’s really scary.” Yes. Thank you. Yes.
We talked it through and we supported each other. Those first few months were really rough, but together we made it. Sleep issues persisted and I have certainly felt anger at other times. And I know that as she enters toddlerhood she will give me new and entirely different reasons to be angry. But knowing I’m not the only one going through this makes such a difference. And that was another first: the first time I knew that David and I could do this parenting thing and, together, we could even do it well.