That lasted twenty minutes. Over the monitor, I heard her start fussing. I went in to check on her, unwrapping her and changing her diaper. She whimpered and cried, so I wrapped her back up and rocked her back to sleep. This was her usual routine for a mid-sleep diaper change, but it didn’t work: as soon as her head touched down in her crib, she erupted in crying.
This went on for almost another two hours. She cried and fussed, she spit out her paci every chance she got. Occasionally I got her to doze off in my arms, but as soon as she neared the crib she immediately awoke in a fresh wave of sobbing. I walked her up and down the house, counting the laps, feeling the small of my back begin to protest with a dull throb. I tried setting her down in my lap in front of the TV, fearing that this weeknight routine had become necessary. But no – as soon as I settled in, out flew the paci followed by a renewed stream of sobs.
It wasn’t pretty. Voices were raised, mistakes were made. I suppose I can say that I didn’t yell at her, since I was turned away from her and leaving the room. But she was definitely the precipitating cause and subject of my temper. “I don’t know what you want!” I cried out in desperation. “I’ve tried everything, and you just keep crying!”
It dawned on me that I actually hadn’t tried everything. Placing her in her Monkey Chair (a bouncy chair adorned with fluffy primates), I stormed out to the garage to dig out a bag of breastmilk, frozen into one-ounce cubes. I ran the bag under hot water until they melted, all the while muttering under my breath about the inscrutability of my daughter’s sudden implacability. While the bottle was warming, I picked her up and attempted carrying her around the house. “I don’t get it,” I told her, my voice lowered in volume, but still with a perceptible edge. “I’m feeding you and then if that doesn’t work, I’m out of ideas. I’ll have to just let you cry it out because I’ve rocked you and I’ve held you and I’ve walked you all over this house and nothing’s working.”
I’ve attested before to my daughter’s easygoing nature. She really doesn’t fuss much, and this episode was without a doubt the most difficult of her life so far. But she still proved to be pretty easy: she sucked the bottle dry, burped nice and loud, smiled at me in gratitude, then fell right asleep in my lap. I left her there for half an hour just to ensure that the sleep was real, then I carried her upstairs and laid her down. She slept the rest of the night.
I suppose this post is an attempt to confess, to purge myself of the guilt of losing my temper and yelling. I didn’t call her names and I didn’t refute my love for her. And given her response, it seemed that all she cared about was being fed; once her belly was full, she was back to her usual smiley self. I was less afraid that I had emotionally scarred her this time than I was about the possibility of scarring her some time down the road.
Because this time the experience was not just of inconvenience (although I certainly felt that way), but of panic. Something was wrong with my baby, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. The longer this went on, the more afraid I became. In hindsight, I can’t help but feel foolish that it took me so long to figure out she was hungry. But we’ve come to learn how to interpret her various types of crying, and her crying wasn’t her usual “I’m hungry” crying. It read much more like her “I’m tired and cranky” crying, which is usually remedied by rocking her to sleep. The longer she cried, and the longer my attempts to meet her needs proved unsuccessful, the more anxious I got that something was wrong. My frustration – no doubt matched by hers! – came from wanting to take care of her and not knowing how. As angry and frustrated as I felt, it wasn’t ever directly aimed at her. After all, if she could tell me what was wrong, she would. Naturally, though, this added to my frustration: I have to figure this out! And the longer I go not figuring it out, the longer my baby suffers!
So I can forgive myself for losing my temper. The crisis was problem-solving, and it took me longer to solve the problem than anyone would have liked. This may be overstating the case, but in some ways, my little girl became a machine that needed to be fixed, a squeaky wheel demanding oil. She wasn’t another person in the equation; I was the only person with any agency. She had a need that required addressing, and the alarm was going off to signify as much. Once the problem was solved, all went back to normal.
But I know this will not always be the case. My baby girl is growing and developing into a human being. She can grab things now. She can smile and recognize my face and voice. Before long, she’ll have enough command of language to add spoken words to her repertoire of “alarm.” And I’ll be thrilled when the day comes and she can actually tell me, “I’m hungry.” But before too long she will learn to assert her own ego. She will learn how to say no to me. And then I will no longer be free to treat her as if she is just a mechanism that requires a certain fix. She will develop her own will and she will assert it. This will frustrate me and make me angry, and I will be angry at her. The problem will not be something apart from her – the problem will be her defiance. And I’m afraid. Not of having a defiant child, but of how I might behave towards my defiant child. (Well, okay, I’m also afraid of having a defiant child.)
Parenthood, like any challenge of adult life, brings out our true nature. It brings out the best in us… and the worst. I’ve been amazed at how my best self has shone through my everyday actions since my beautiful daughter was born. I’m also amazed at how my worst self has shown up in new ways too glaring to ignore. I shout sometimes when I get angry. I’ve never been particularly proud of that, but now I’m so ashamed of that part of me that it feels wicked and evil, like sin. I know plenty of parents have yelled at or because of their children; plenty of good parents, even. But I don’t want to be a father who yells, at least not in anger. (Cheering from the bleachers or the audience? You bet.) And if my beautiful daughter is like every other child in the history of humankind, this part of me is definitely going to be tested again, and with a child who is developed enough to provoke it and take it personally.
And that’s the challenge for my best self, I suppose. To work on the parts of me I don’t like so that I can be the best parent I know to be. Just as my beautiful daughter is growing and developing into a wonderful person, I also need to give myself the permission to grow and develop into a parent.
St. Paul put it so well: “Love is patient… it is not irritable or resentful… Love bears all things… endures all things.” And that doesn’t just mean I need to be patient with my child and the frustrations of parenthood. I need to be patient with myself as well.