From the moment she was born, my infant daughter was a healthy, gorgeous, brilliant monster intent on destroying me. She couldn’t figure out how to eat. She never slept. And she screamed.
A week before my beautiful monster was born, my friend Bethany gave me a metaphor. She said that becoming a mother was like suddenly taking to the sea in a raft. The first few months were awful, she said, because in a moment you were wet and cold and alone in the ocean, in a boat you had just insisted on building, even though back on land you slept in on weekends and basically did whatever you wanted. And come to think of it, you had never been great with sea vessels.
But you threw that away to go to sea on a rickety raft that you had assured yourself were fit to captain, even though your parents were awful captains who taught you almost nothing about how a boat works. Bethany said that she felt so much joy and regret mixed up together in those early months. For her, the hardest part was being close enough to the shore that she could still see it. Close enough that she could still remember what it was like to be dry and warm, but not so close that she could swim back.
The metaphor breaks down at a certain point. For one thing, it mentions nothing about how unwise it is to sail into shark-infested waters when you’ve been bleeding for six weeks into an adult diaper. It also says nothing about what it’s like when your first mate has colic.
Here is how babies are supposed to work: The baby in question needs something, and she cries until she gets it. These cries trigger an adrenaline response in a parent. Your body panics, because something is wrong with your baby and you cannot relax until you fix it. So you go about fixing it. Healthy babies are easy, the conventional wisdom says, because their needs are very basic. If they’re crying, they need to sleep, eat, be changed, snuggled. Once the need is met, they stop crying.
A baby with colic, which my daughter had, screams all day and night and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. It’s difficult to describe what that’s like: Tortuous feels hyperbolic, but it’s apt.
When our daughter was a few months old, someone on the radio was talking about torture methods used by the military. The first method they listed was extreme sleep deprivation, followed by listening to baby screams on a loudspeaker. My husband and I started laughing, quietly at first, and then maniacally, like villains in a superhero movie. It was maybe the first time I had really laughed in months, which was concerning. Were all of my laughs going to be rueful? I had never laughed ruefully before, and I didn’t like the feel of it, but before I could think about it anymore my daughter started screaming again. What you’re doing is banned by the Geneva Conventions! I shouted at the back seat, but she just kept yowling.
Hearing your baby cry upsets everything in your body. It’s a stress response that cannot be shut off until your baby stops crying, and if the baby doesn’t stop crying, you can’t shut down the stress response. It’s like hearing nails on a chalkboard all day and night, but the nails are screams and the chalkboard is the biological imperative to continue the species. There’s nothing you can do for a baby with colic, and it makes you feel utterly helpless.
So to expand Bethany’s metaphor, I guess having a baby with colic is actually like seeing a rapidly sinking ship that you are biologically wired to save, only when you get closer you discover that no one on the ship speaks English, and for some reason patching the holes only makes it sink faster, and everyone on the ship is screaming at you to save them, but nothing is working, so you do the only thing you can do, which is to jump on board and just be there while everyone screams. On the surface, this sounds like a beautiful metaphor on motherhood, but what it really means is that having a colicky baby feels as though you’re constantly going to drown in the ocean.
It’s hard to bond with a colicky baby, in the same way it is hard to bond with a feral cat whose tail is caught in a door: How do you feel close to anything doing that much yowling? Now, obviously a baby is not equivalent to a cat. For one thing, a cat is easier to toilet train. But there are certain things promised us in early parenthood: sleep deprivation to be sure, but also quiet moments of introspective joy, blissed out on otherworldly love while we rock our infants to sleep, or marvel over their perfectly formed ears, their impossibly soft skin. When your baby has colic, there are no quiet moments of introspection, because there are no quiet moments. Instead, there is just anxiety and guilt and fury and desperation and total, primal, utter sadness because your baby needs something and you don’t know how to give it to her.
And then … it’s over. The colic ends, usually by month four, and this new baby emerges. After the colic faded away, I found out I had a joyfully funny, delightfully weird and cheerful baby underneath, one who smiled so big you could see it on the back of her head. She still cries, but for normal reasons, like because she’s tired, or because we’re watching “Parenthood” reruns again.
In a way, we had to relearn how to parent once the colic was gone. Her cries had had no solution for such a long time that it was astounding to remember that there were things I could do to help her. “OH MY GOSH,” I would say to my husband, in a very genius voice. “We should check her diaper!” And we would check her diaper, which would be wet, and then we would change it, and she would stop crying. It was like magic.
I can already hear the chorus of grocery store parents waiting to chime in, so before you compulsively blurt out your mantra — Just wait till she’s older! — let me stop you. I know. Children are devious; they shape shift. As soon as you become an expert at caring for an infant, bam! — they turn into a toddler. It’s not fair. There will always be something. Someday soon will be the terrible 2s, and someday long after that her teenage years, and worst of all somewhere in between she might discover “Caillou.”
So perhaps a more accurate metaphor for motherhood is that it’s like throwing yourself onto a sinking boat, only it doesn’t sink; four or five months go by, and it kind of just rights itself. But inevitably once you’ve finally started to figure things out on the ship, it turns out it’s not a ship, it’s a spaceship, and everyone is looking at you again like, “We’re about to crash into an asteroid, what are you gonna do?” and you’re just standing there in galoshes shouting, “Have we tried oars?” I think that’s what parenthood is. Trying to row a spaceship.
Or maybe it’s like nothing. My daughter, my colicky first mate, is almost 1 now, and at present she is engaged in one of her favorite activities: peek-a-boo. She puts her hands over her eyes, and then rips them away with this look of absolute glee. My husband and I clap, and she crawls over to me and buries her head in my shirt. She is drooly and smiley and mine, mine, mine. She looks up at me with one of those face-splitting smiles, and all I can think is: Forget the metaphors. There are no other words for this.
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