I wrote this piece for a wonderful reading series here in Chicago on behalf of CHIRP: Chicago Independent Radio Project and its First Series. I read this at The Beat Kitchen on Wednesday, and shared the stage with some amazing, funny, gifted and brilliant people.
It was an early spring afternoon in 2011, when my husband Scott and I had the following exchange in the front seat of our car as our one-month-old daughter Abigail screamed the sort of screaming reserved for my nightmares from the back seat:
“Can we agree right now that we are never going to do this again?” I said.
“Yes,” Scott replied.
When posed with the opportunity to write on the topic of my first child, I find myself almost unable. Because to designate a child as “first” assumes there will be a second. Maybe even a third. But on that day nearly two years ago, Scott and I made a permanent decision that our first child would be our only child.
On that day, we probably weren’t barreling down the south suburban back roads that lazily roll over the manufactured hilly stretches of that area, but it sure as hell felt like it. We’d just run like criminals from a family party, scooping up our inconsolable, red-faced and, what I now term the unfair assessment of the inexperienced, horribly behaved infant, and headed for the safety of our home. Our home, a place that at that point had come to resemble a war bunker, only with less canned goods and, presumably, more contraptions containing empty and expensive promises of lulling a screaming, colicky baby to sleep.
The ubiquitous “they” don’t like to talk to soon-to-be parents about colic. To be fair, “they” don’t like to talk anyone about it. I mean, some of them manage to eek out a sentence or two, but the information contained therein is something akin to a fart you try desperately not to rip in polite company: you drop just enough ass to warn all nearby that something is amiss but run away quickly because you just don’t have the courage to explain it away.
And that’s a foul and disgusting analogy, I know, but so is life with a colicky baby, and we were completely unprepared for it. And I remain, nearly two years later, unbelievably pissed off about it all.
Abigail Grace came into this world during the infamous thunderstorm that followed weeks of snow. We’d only just cleared Lake Shore Drive of the many stranded buses and cars left over from Snowmaggedon when I began to have contractions that stopped and started for days and days and days until my daughter finally decided that, on second thought, she would join us after all. I went through an unmedicated labor for 27 hours before I was given an epidural and eventually the emergency C-section that would bring Abigail into our lives.
For the first couple of weeks, most of our problems pertaining to Abigail centered on my faulty tits and what turned out to be their near-inability to produce breast milk. Once I finally made peace with my body’s shortcomings, and that I was never going to be one of those earth mamas whose juicy, copious bosoms sustained her child and therefore provided the just the leg up she’d need to get into Harvard or land a TV deal with HBO, I really assumed our troubles were over.
“She’s eating four ounces of formula,” we’d cheer. “She was so hungry! God, I can’t believe she was just so hungry!”
In the days after we switched to formula, Abigail gobbled up her bottles, and would subsequently settle down as quickly, and so it was understandable how easily we were lured into a false sense of security. Colic is a sneaky assailant. I can’t tell you when the screaming started; I can only tell you that it did. And it went like this:
[SCREAMING BABY NOISE]
For twelve hours a day. Sometimes more. Usually more. She would sometimes sleep for 45 minutes, she would sometimes sleep for two-hour stretches, sometimes four, and always without exception on our chests, no matter what we tried, but mostly she would just do this whenever she was awake:
[SCREAMING BABY NOISE]
In those days, my inner monologues resembled something like this:
“Dear God. I cannot give her back, but right now I’m going to bounce and rock this screaming, awful human being in the pitch black dark for another hour and I CANNOT BELIEVE WE FUCKING DID THIS WHY DID WE DO THIS OH MY GOD THIS WAS THE DUMBEST FUCKING THING I HAVE EVER DONE and I love her, God, I know I do so help me figure this out but I JUST FUCKING WANT MY OLD FUCKING LIFE BACK OH MY GOD I HATE EVERYTHING.”
And day after day, the endless screaming became the soundtrack to our lives, the only constant, and one night, after braving an evening out with a girlfriend of mine who lived nearby, an evening that included me drinking four dirty Sapphire martinis on an empty stomach, I got behind the wheel of our car, skunked out of my mind.
I cried and cried and cried, and, about a half-block into the drive, realized I truly couldn’t see, and pulled over and cried some more. I just could not go home, and I could not give her back, but I couldn’t take one more day where all that waited for me was the screaming.
After several minutes, I put the car in drive and stupidly finished the trek home. It was, quite literally, only two blocks away but it seemed like miles. I pulled into our driveway, got the car into the garage, and stumbled into the kitchen, into my husband’s arms.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I drunkenly blubbered. “I cannot do this anymore.”
As luck would have it, that evening was the first time Abigail went down in her crib and slept on her own for at least three hours. Without saying a word, Scott got me into bed and for the rest of the night attended to Abigail. The next morning I was faced with a scared husband, a mighty hangover and a terrible scrape on our car that, to this day, I still wonder if I managed to put it there when I pulled into the garage.
Loving and wanting a child – our Abigail Grace – was never the issue. We’d tried for two years to have her, after all. But all children are an absolutely daunting proposition, and the conceit by which we go into having them is a bit galling when you think about it. Those who parent in any capacity will tell you, I think, that there is this moment where the realization of the permanence of parenthood leaves you wounded. You are gloriously broken open so wide, made so raw, that you know your time is up and it is simultaneously the most humbling and wretched moment of your life. The luxury of basking in your own nonsense, marinating in your own backstory, is really, you now understand, for the unencumbered.
Having suffered through and, blessedly, received treatment for postpartum depression, I would never suggest that any woman just nut up and get on with it already. Depression in any form doesn’t work that way, colic doesn’t work that way, and recent studies have shown a strong association between babies with colic and postpartum depression in their mothers.
I do not do well with chaos and I was swimming in a sea of it, not understanding that there were probably a few life rafts out there for me to grab on to. But in the moments when Abigail would sleep? When it was just me, her and as many episodes of Brothers & Sisters as I could get through on the iPad? I would stare at her scrunchy, solemn little face, feel the weight of her tiny body on mine, and knew I had to do whatever it took to find those rafts and see the shoreline again. I was lucky enough to be able to make that determination.
At the risk of sounding glib, “It gets better” isn’t just for gay teenagers. It’s for new parents, too. After four months, as suddenly as the screaming started, it stopped.
Just this past Saturday, Abigail, Scott and I lounged around our dining room table, each of us on our respective devices – Abigail, scrolling through clip after clip from her favorite show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, by herself, on the very iPad I used to get through those dark days. Instead of caterwauling at ear-piercing decibels, Abigail now greets each sunrise – and us – with a hearty, “Morning!” as though she were a waitress in a diner and about to ask us how we like our coffee. Yesterday she learned how to point out her name, spelled out on a sheet of paper among three other options, and in that instant I understood the meaning behind every love song ever written.
When Abigail was about nine-months-old, I was making my way home from the train after work and it dawned on me that I did not dread walking in the door to care for my child, that I’d finally arrived at a place of loveliness, of grace. And in the 694 days since her birth, I’ve wondered if I’ve earned that grace, wondered if there was something I lost with her in those early days. I suppose remembering that you may have repeatedly referred to your infant as an “asshole” on Twitter will have that effect. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Our present is littered with laughter and joy and that needs to be enough.
And for all that we now understand about babies, about ourselves, Scott and I will leave the business of breeding to others, and I will stand here on the shoreline, life rafts at the ready for them all.