I pull the car into our spot in the driveway, just in front of the ornamental grasses I planted to hide the water meter from plain view — a blight on the front of our none-too-attractive- in-the-first-place duplex. I’m returning from my weekly escape, the grocery store, with a bag of size 1 diapers and a large bottle of Extra Strength Mylanta — now an essential item in our medicine cabinet. The air is brisk and cold and pushes me toward the walkway and the front door. Before I get there, before I feel my arm brush against the dead brown fronds, almost as soon as I exit the door to the car, I hear it: the oven fan whirring at full speed in the kitchen. It is a sound that pierces right through any hide of optimism I might have grown while wandering the fluorescent aisles of the market, picking through winter produce and surveying the shelves of baby food, daydreaming about feeding sweet combinations of apple and pear, blueberry and oatmeal some bright day in the future. It is a sound that makes me freeze mid-step and tense from my brow through my shoulders and into the exhausted muscles in my legs, making it impossible for me to use them to bolt–a thought I have at least once a day now. It’s supposed to be a sound that comforts, calms and soothes, an industrial shot of white noise. Instead, it has become the sound of futility and desperation. It’s a sound that echoes in every room of our home and spills out the front door onto the walkway, into the driveway, into the car and all the way to the grocery store and back. It is a blizzard of sound swirling around me, numbing me, and behind it, over it, above it, all around it is the other sound: the sound of a baby screaming. Of my baby screaming.
I thought I could will myself to have a calm child this time. My first — my son — had been born with huge open eyes that seemed never to shut. My abiding memory of his infancy — birth through maybe six months — are of his eyeballs staring at me from every part of the room at every hour of the day and night. Friends and family who might have thought we were exaggerating our description, or that new maternal hormones were amplifying normal baby behavior for me changed their tunes as soon as they, too, came under the searing gaze of The Eyeball Baby. When he did nap, it was for minutes, not hours, at a time. I remember a few years later, being at a party with some friends whose two-month-old I had seen picked up out of her crib sleeping, transferred to a car seat, driven across town, taken out of the car, brought into a crowded house full of voices and music, and passed around to cooing guests — all while she slept soundly. I was astonished and apparently my face said so, because my friend, Kim, who had seen at least half of this process unfold and who knew my son, looked at me and said, “No. You’re not crazy. He never would have slept through all of this.”
Though I said I knew it to be ridiculous at the time, part of me must have bought into the idea that all of my son’s sleep problems were because my husband and I were nervous parents. When I found myself pregnant a second time I promised myself it would be different. I was so ready to be laid back and flexible. To let her cry for more than five seconds before leaping up to tend her needs. To avoid curtailing our social life because of her schedule. She can nap in the car on the way to my friend’s house, I told myself. I was going to roll with it this time around. I had had a hard pregnancy — much harder than my first–with so much pain, nausea and discomfort on every possible bodily level. I fooled myself into believing my delivery and early days would be easier, should be easier. I had earned it, hadn’t I? And everyone but everyone had told me: second kids are easier.
My writers group is planned for a Friday before Christmas, and I am excited to debut my new daughter to the women in my life who have been supporting me through this pregnancy and who were with me through my son’s infancy. I imagine it will be like when my son was little — she will smile and coo and I will let her “aunties” pass her around while I munch pita and hummus and sip Mary’s homemade lemonade. I am excited, a little nervous, but tell myself, “It will be fine. You can handle this.” I figure if she starts to cry, I will just nurse her down, the way I did when my son melted down at a faculty party when he was a month old. No, it wasn’t ideal or easy, but you do what you have to do and people just have to understand.
I walk in and everyone crowds around, peering in at this little person who looks so much like my husband that it’s startling, a little unnerving. I pull her out of her car seat and lift her up. Almost immediately she starts to fuss, so I set myself up among the firm pillows on Mary’s couch. Someone brings me a goblet of water and a plate of nibbles. I begin to nurse her and she eats for a few minutes and then pulls off. Her eyes are big, her face neutral. She is absorbing the room, the people. Aunt Kimmy wants to hold her and I am all too happy to hand her over. “Come here, baby,” I hear Kim say, reaching across the coffee table to scoop her out of my arms. As I pass her over, her milk-drowsy eyes fly open and her face crumples into a sorrowful wail. It’s almost exactly that fast. At first we smile and cluck and coo and say things like, “It’s okay, sweetie” and “Mama’s right here.”
As we do, I feel smugly confident. Look at me, the seasoned mother. Unflappable. I am aware on some level that my friends are watching me. Marion, mother of five children. Judy and her two kids. Mary with her daughter, now grown and successful and off on her own. I so badly want to be as competent as I believe these women to be. I want them to see me as competent and more, even, than that. I am performing, I realize, when the cries turn to full-voiced wails. No problem, I’ll just nurse her. She refuses. No problem, I’ll just take her upstairs into a quiet bedroom — Mary’s daughter’s, filled with stuffed animals and sports pennants, artifacts from her growing up. “Poor baby,” I say to no one. “She’s probably just overwhelmed.” I try to settle us on the bed, but she screams and screams and will not be comforted. I switch breasts. Maybe my let-down is too much on this side. She screams and screams. I try shushing. I try rocking. It’s okay, sweetie. Mama’s here. She arches her back and screams. I try to walk her around the room. She screams. Flails. Purples and reds. I can hear the voices of my friends downstairs, discussing Kim’s poems and Cindy’s memoir; Gabeba’s travels and Judy’s granddaughter, newly adopted from Ethiopia. Nobody is talking about the screaming coming from my child, though I am sure they can hear it, and I have convinced myself they are — no, not judging, not that, but evaluating — my ability to soothe her. Evaluating her temperament. Labeling her “touchy” or “difficult.” She is not affable and social like her brother, who loved people from his earliest months. She is not a “good baby.”
I am near tears now and realize that I need to leave. I am embarrassed that I’ve only been here for a half an hour and twenty-five minutes of that have been spent failing to calm my child. It’s not that I had expected to be able to participate in the discussion, but I had hoped at least to be able to sit there with her in my arms, enjoying the clear winter light streaming in and the sustaining energy of these smart, kind women. I make my apologies, trying very hard to appear composed though I am indeed coming apart, and say my goodbyes while wrenching this stiff, wailing body into a car seat that seems, suddenly, far too small to contain her. My friends hug me and tell me not to worry. They wish me a Happy New Year and promise to call on us soon. The minute the door closes behind me and I mince down the icy driveway toward the car, I am sobbing with her. Both because I can’t stand the idea that my daughter is in this much distress and because I realize that it’s not my friends who are evaluating my performance, who are comparing my daughter to my son. It’s me.
She is only a month old and the screaming never stops. We haven’t had the presence of sleep-deprived mind to imagine this to be anything but, at best, an all-day version of the normal infant “witching hour,” or at worst, a bad case of colic. But I’m starting to wonder. I remember these terrible crying jags with my son, the way my husband’s “bouncy walk” was the only thing — short of my breast — that could soothe him in the late afternoon into the later evening. This time, my husband has actually given himself tendonitis from the non-stop bouncing and, when I feed her, it’s the same pattern every time: suck hard, scream, arch and pull off, suck hard, scream, arch and pull off.
During the day she goes from quietly alert one moment, to red-faced shrieking the next. There is no lead up, no warning, no time for us to steel ourselves for the next round. It reminds me of the non-stop contractions during my first labor — like massive ocean waves cresting and drowning me over and over. We can create a pause if we take her outside in the frigid air — perhaps it stuns her? — or if we strip her entirely naked in the house. But it is just a pause, enough time for a quick, shallow breath before we all go under again.
By Christmas she has been tentatively diagnosed (based on observed symptoms only) with Gastroesophageal Reflux — a condition in which stomach contents are regurgitated back into the esophagus — and prescribed the antacid medication Zantac. Lots of babies have reflux, I learn, due to the immaturity of the digestive system and the muscle that marks the boundary between the esophagus and the stomach. For most, this amounts to little more than a lot of spit up. They’re even called “happy spitters.” They are messy, but not in pain. These babies rarely need medication, just time for their bodies to mature. My daughter is not like them. She never spits up and is always in pain.
By New Year, we’ve switched her to Axid, but neither of these medications are doing a thing. I am supposed to hold her upright for twenty minutes after each feeding, but she feeds constantly, so how to do this? Sometimes nursing soothes the throat, quells the fire. But sometimes it feeds it. We never know which it will be. Her voice stays hoarse from crying, and all day long we hear the terrible chirp in the back of the throat that we have come to recognize as the actual sound of the acid as it comes up from her stomach and then goes back down. She is twice-burned.
I take her to the doctor at least once a week for the first eight weeks of her life. Each time I’m there I ask the doctor, the same woman who has seen us since our first visit after her birth, “Just tell me, is this normal? Is it really reflux, or does she have colic, too? Is this just her temperament? Because if it is, I just want to know that and get used to it and get on with parenting my daughter.”
I am in tears during each of these visits, feeling like a brand new, first time mother who worries over every single hiccup. But I wasn’t even that mother with my son, so who is this woman second-guessing her own observations and instincts? The white paper crackles against the cold table. The baby struggles in my arms, serpentine, as we sit there and I feel helpless, frustrated, exhausted, and angrier than I ever thought I could be at my own child.
“No,” Dr. K. finally says, levelly. “This is not normal. At this point, she should be smiling and looking around. I’ve never once seen her smile in this office.”
She switches us to Prilosec, which is expensive and not covered by our insurance, tells me to make an appointment to see a pediatric GI specialist, pats me ineffectually on the shoulder, and sends us home. There we work to find the easiest way to dose a screaming baby. Hold her upright? Do it fast? Droplets at a time? Pin her down and stick the syringe into the side of her cheek while her mouth is already an open chasm of pain. Watch in horror as she chokes and gags and spits most of it back up.
We notice for the first time the commercials for antacids that feature happy little purple pills and cleverly animated fire-creatures dancing fiendishly but playfully in a cartoon stomach. How can anyone think this kind of pain is fun or funny? With each medication we try, the 5-7 day wait for efficacy is horrible, interminable. We pass the hours, days, and weeks bouncing her while sitting on the purple yoga ball under the maddening whir of the oven fan in the kitchen. One day, while my husband teaches his classes, my two-year-old son sits glued to episode after episode of Blues Clues and Dora, and I bounce her for seven hours straight. We joke sometimes that with all of this bouncing, our abs ought to be rock-hard and fabulous, but what we really feel is shredding pain in our lower backs and numb fatigue in our arms and shoulders from holding her. We bounce and know that improvement, when it comes, if it comes, will likely be incremental, but still we bounce and pray for immediacy. We long for a switch to flip, to turn this unhappy child into the smiling happy imp we imagined she would be by now.
It has taken us weeks to get an appointment to see the pediatric GI specialist, and when the day arrives, I don’t want to go. I tell my husband that I don’t want to drive two hours with a screaming infant to be told that I need to be patient with the medication, or that–and this is really my fear — I am blowing all of this out of proportion. But we go because in the end I cannot abide the notion that I didn’t do everything I could. Even if it is fruitless.
The waiting room is filled with colorful wooden trucks and blocks and beads I know my son would have loved, but he is not with us. We could not imagine wrangling both of them while trying to negotiate the doctor visit. I had been instructed not to feed my daughter for several hours prior to our appointment, and by the time we arrived, she was clearly hungry and unhappy. As I fill out forms at the reception desk, my husband walks her around the room, pointing out colors and shapes and the friendly expressions of the people sitting in the red and aqua armchairs. The receptionist hands back our insurance card and suggests, with a smile, “Feel free to nurse her while you wait.” I want to scream at her; doesn’t she know that I was instructed not to nurse? Doesn’t she recognize how difficult it is for nursing mothers to hold off for hours? How painful that is? How frustrating when nursing is the only thing that calms your screaming kid?
“I don’t know why they told you that,” she smiles, arranging pharmaceutical company pens in a plastic holder. “The doctor can do the tests either way.” I can see that she is trying to correct the communication error and to reassure me. I can even see that she is trying to be kind, but my daughter is squalling and lurching in my husband’s arms, and he is entreating me with his eyes to Take her! Nurse her! and I am snapping at him in my mind and maybe even out loud, No! We’ve gone this long without and I am not going to screw up the chances that the tests won’t be accurate! and I am worrying that all those kind, friendly expressions are going to turn any moment into disdainful and chastising scowls: Why can’t you calm your own child?
I have forgotten so much about “normal” life. I have forgotten, for instance, that my husband is my partner and staunchest ally in this swirl and struggle; that he is the one person who I am certain knows I am not exaggerating the severity of her symptoms. I have forgotten too that the people in the waiting room are also parents of sick children, and that the waiting room of a pediatric specialist is no place for any such judgment. I have forgotten kindness — to others, to myself — because every muscle in my body is in a state of constant tense and retract. I feel like a small, nervous animal, always readying myself for flight.
The doctor removes my daughter’s diaper, explaining that she will need a stool sample to test for occult blood. This will tell us definitively if she has the dairy allergy which often accompanies and exacerbates reflux. I like this woman immediately. She listens to every detail we offer about the previous three months, while moving her hands slowly and deliberately across my daughter’s small, naked body. She is not screaming for the moment, but looking around intently. Her eyes are beautiful — huge and blue, just like her brother’s. I hear the telltale chirp, and then the doctor’s voice, “Oh, that’s reflux alright. Unmistakable. And yes, I see blood. Not a ton, but enough. No more dairy for you, Mama.”
Though I have just been handed a directive to cut major elements of my diet for the better part of the next year, instead of feeling daunted, I am euphoric. I’ve had enough of prayer. Here is something I can do to help her. Goodbye cheese. Goodbye ice cream. Nothing tastes as good as this news. Incredibly and, I hope, prophetically, my daughter sleeps in her car seat the whole drive home.
She’s up again. It’s 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. and I go to her, grope from the door to her crib and feel for her warm body, scoop her up. She stiffens against me; there is no yielding. There is never any yielding. In the night, when she wakes, she wants the breast and nothing more. She refuses the comforting touch, the hand gently stroking her back to sleep. Lullabies sung quietly into her hair only enrage her. Shhh, baby. Mama’s here. She refuses still, at six months, seven, eight, to be soothed by latex or silicone. No pacifier, no bottle. No formula. Only milk. Only flesh. Mine.
During these months, while the meds are still in flux, she nurses as if in defiance, as if she hates that which she knows will sustain her, all the while writhing on the pillow in my lap. I tell people that she “launches herself off of me,” that I am sure she will one day dive to the hard wood floor and break herself. I laugh and call her my “Flying Wallenda,” trying to equate this quality with freedom and brightness of spirit. But in the dark in her room in the middle of the night, I nurse her while I cry and cry and a feeling of rage so powerful pulses from me that I am surprised it does not light the room. I am doing all the right things: medicating her three times a day, reading the finest print on labels to be sure my milk supply stays free of all dairy. But this isn’t getting any easier. I am exhausted, embarrassed, and always demoralized. Why can’t I comfort you? Who are you? Why don’t you love me?
I know I love my daughter, I just can’t feel it. I know, looking into her blue eyes and at her face, which a friend has described as being made “of milk and light,” that she is smart, hypnotically beautiful and clever. But that hot reaching feeling, as if my whole body is propelled, reeling, desperately toward her, is missing.
By ten months old we have the medication finally right. But I am still not right. She is not screaming anymore, but I still can’t look at her and feel tenderness. I call a friend who has moved away. “I miss you, I say. I miss seeing you.”
“What’s the matter?” she asks. “I can hear something in your voice.”
I spend a few minutes avoiding, justifying, and qualifying my response. “Oh, things are okay,” I say. “It’s just…hard. You know. She’s just a very spirited creature.” I try to laugh it off but she sees through me. She is a mother herself. She knows.
“Sheila, you’ve had a hard time. It’s not been easy. No one thinks you should be laughing.”
“I don’t know my daughter,” I admit. “I don’t know who she is and it’s unbearable.”
I can feel the rage and the despair erupting from me with the tears that are always, always ready to come.
“That may be,” she says, “but she knows you. She knows that she can be what she needs to be, feel pain and distress and that you will be there. She has always known you and that is what’s most important.”
She knows me. I take these words and make them a mantra, a life raft, a buoy. They help me mark my long days with her, help me see through the fog of sleeplessness and rage. Therapy also helps. As does a diagnosis of post-partum depression and a smart prescription for anti-depressants. I have been here before. Many have been here before. There is real comfort in this knowledge. It’s not a comfort I can feel yet, but it’s a comfort I can keep close, the way I keep close the fervent belief that I do love my daughter, that one day my whole body will bloom into joy at the sight of her. It’s abstract and insufficient and not at all what I wanted, not at all what we both deserve. But I’ll take it.
Oh, my baby — I’ll take whatever I can get.