When I was pregnant, I didn’t read parenting books. Seasoned moms said my instincts would be all I needed, and I believed them. Babies sleep. Babies poop. Babies eat. You put them down when they’re tired. You change their diapers when they’re dirty. You feed them when they’re hungry. And you do any and all of the above when they cry. I presume that advice is probably sound advice for most moms and babies. But as it turns out, the usefulness of instinct goes only so far with some situations.
My daughter arrived a few weeks early, yellow and small. It’s almost laughable to recall that we had trouble rousing her during her recovery from jaundice. I remember gripping my own breast in my hands and sliding the nipple back and forth across her mouth to make sure she got a little sustenance, and she’d just be out cold. But man, when she came out of it three weeks later? What a change.
My daughter cried. A lot. And cried and cried and cried. She had a whistle-register cry, and people used to joke that she sounded like Mariah Carey. She spit up constantly, and she was a dreadfully bad sleeper, sometimes going whole days without napping and usually waking up at least five or six times at night. My husband couldn’t help as much as he wanted, because he was at work all day, and anyway, my daughter just wanted to nurse. And nurse and nurse and nurse. I still remember one day when I felt completely liberated just to be able to set her in a bouncy chair while I stood—in her full view—across the room without her screaming hysterically. It lasted about 15 minutes.
Maybe she has attachment issues? Could it be reflux? She just doesn’t need to sleep as much as other babies. You’re putting her down when she’s overtired. You’re overstimulating her. You haven’t waited long enough between naps. Don’t look into her eyes. Don’t let her nurse for too long. Are you letting her nurse long enough? Maybe it’s gas. Is there an allergy? Try eliminating dairy from your diet. Maybe she needs soy. Cut out all chocolate. Is there a neurological problem? Don’t bounce her. Do bounce her. Have you tried swaddling? Have you tried the Miracle Blanket? The swaddle looks too tight. No, maybe it’s too loose. How about an Amby bed? Want to borrow my Maya Wrap? Put her down awake. Put her down sleepy. Set her car seat on the dryer. Run the vacuum. Don’t keep a quiet house. Do keep a quiet house. Never put her down. Sleep her on her back. Answer her cries. Ignore them. Did you test her for reflux again?
Don’t think we weren’t looking for answers—at the doctor’s office, in books, on TV shows, and of course, from other parents. Coupled with all the unsolicited advice I got, I feel pretty good saying I did my homework. Yet it seemed the more responsive I was to my daughter’s wailing, the more demanding she grew. Everyone kept assuring me this would all get better, but it just kept getting worse. And I, stupidly, just kept tightening my grip on my dream of being one of those “gentle parenting” parents who can solve any problem with a boob, sling, or co-sleeping. I was going to be damned if I let my baby cry it out.
Well, here is something the gentle parenting books—the very ones that most closely jibed with my fantasies of how parenting should be—fail to mention: A chronically sleep-deprived caregiver is far more dangerous to a baby than being left alone to cry. And getting a desperate mother the critical medication or rest she needs is ultimately a lot more important to baby’s wellbeing than breastfeeding is. If you are a mom who went through or is currently going through the sleep hell I’m describing, you know that these can be real-life either/or scenarios. This is not hyperbole.
There finally came a day, 8.5 months into my daughter’s life, when I realized I was in a truly precarious mental state. By then, I’d begun fantasizing about driving away from my house and never coming back. It sometimes took every last ounce of self-control I had to not harm my own baby. Mother-rage has to be one of the worst feelings in the world. I know from talking to other parents that these terrifying impulses happen to tired and isolated parents more often than you think, even with people whose babies have “normal” crying. But if a few nights of bad sleep or a few days with a heap of shrill crying can turn a regular parent into a regular nutcase, just imagine what eight months of it can do.
So, there came a point when I made a choice–to give the arrogant faction of the “gentle parenting” community the boot before I completely snapped. I didn’t allow their commentaries, judgment, or advice to sway me from doing the thing they’d so long warned me was “barbaric”–to just let our baby cry it out. Sure, doing that went pretty hard against the grain of my mom fantasies. But there was nothing left to try, and I couldn’t go on in that state of stress and exhaustion any longer. The process took weeks, not days, but it worked. After it was all done? We FINALLY got to meet our real baby. This one wasn’t miserable and crying and constantly looking at my aureole. She was rested, happier, more playful, and had a wonderful personality. She didn’t break, and our whole family’s life improved immeasurably.
So, now you see: When I talked last week about kids shattering their parents’ dreams of parenthood? Not being able to sing a lullaby was even smaller potatoes than I made out. I dreamt from before she was even born of holding and rocking my baby girl, comforting her crying, and being that mom that always knew what her child needed. Naturally, I wanted to be good at the one thing a mother is supposed to be good at—knowing her child’s needs and answering them. In my obsession with that ideal, I instead just got good at judgy parenting dogma, and I found myself putting that dogma ahead of our family’s wellbeing.
It took me 8.5 months to do it, but letting a parenting fantasy die so that I could make the best of our reality was one of the best things I ever did. Come to think of it, I did end up being that mom that knew best what her child needed, pretty much as I was told when I was pregnant. It just took me a while to tune out the peanut gallery and realize it. More than eight years (and a second child) later, I can tell you things turned out just fine.