When Sammi was a newborn, the sleep deprivation was expected and, though unpleasant, not unreasonable. Ronni had not slept well, and I was ready for Sammi not to sleep well. When her 90-minute-maximum sleep schedule extended into three months, and I was back at work, I gave in and hired a postpartum doula to come twice a week and give me five consecutive hours of night time sleep. I felt no end of guilt around this; other mothers could survive on this kind of broken sleep without help, and even if they were miserable, most of them could not afford the kind of help for which I was paying someone. I needed that sleep to function, and so I fought past my blame of my own body for needing it, and I slept for five consecutive hours, twice a week, for about six weeks, until I had to quit my job. Every night after that was broken into tiny fragments of light, fractured naps between feedings.
Still, this all felt temporary. Time crawled by as winter turned to spring. Sammi was growing more slowly, but she was not sleeping any better. Against the raw and crackling synapses in my brain that convinced me it was wrong, her new pediatrician and every other adult in my world convinced us to sleep-train her when she was eight months old. We opted for a method that seemed less cruel than others and promised she would be sleeping through the night in a maximum of twelve days.
Nothing can describe the kind of screaming she maintained for hours every night. Following every lesson in the sleep book, I waited as far from her in the house as I could between scheduled “check-ins,” but the sound followed me. I cowered on the hardwood floor, hands over my ears, rocking like a traumatized child. I felt the screams vibrate through my heart. I was exhausted by months of sleep deprivation, fear of illness, and the completely new world I was inhabiting, but there was something more.
A mother understands the quality of her baby’s scream.
She was not screaming in frustration. She was screaming in pain. I knew it. I said it. I said it on day one and day four and day twelve and on day twenty-seven, when no one could believe how long it was taking to sleep-train Sammi.
Five months later, when she was finally diagnosed with a cardiac condition that involved, in part, her aorta wrapped around her airway, we were told that anytime her blood pressure rose, she would feel her airway constricting. It would hurt, they told us. Don’t let her get worked up until she’s had surgery.
Before we knew for sure, before a CT scan confirmed the diagnosis of double aortic arch, I blamed myself for being a poor parent who could not teach my baby to sleep. It must be, I thought, that she knew I didn’t really believe in sleep training; or that I was eating something that upset her stomach as it passed into my breastmilk; or that I hadn’t checked her bedroom well enough for drafts or spiders or wild wolves which must be charging at her crib as I rocked on the floor, listening to her screaming from the floor below.
After we knew for sure, I blamed myself for not pushing her doctors to find out what was wrong. I knew all along. I knew something was wrong; I knew that was screaming-in-pain, and I had not stopped it. I had not fixed it. All she needed was to be calmed, have her blood pressure drop so that her aorta would stop strangling her. Instead of holding her, I left her alone in there, to scream and choke all by herself.
Once I knew, I didn’t stop holding her. Not ever again. I am holding her still.