Blame Needs a Target

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.

floorNothing 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.

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Disconnect

There are things you just can’t do in the trenches of a war, any kind of war. If you try to do them anyway, it will feel like method acting — a pantomime, a view of yourself from above, a dream about what you’re doing.

As we came to terms with the kind of baby Sammi was — easily sick, unable to fill her belly for more than an hour or two at a time, mysteriously unwell — things that other overwhelmed new moms could do became unavailable to me. I had to quit my fantastic job in order to keep Sammi out of daycare, but we could not join mother & baby groups or go to baby yoga classes or anything else that involved lots of children and their germs. I left work in January, and we spent a long winter indoors.

People told me how lucky I was to be home with my daughters. It made me want to run away, forever.

I didn’t want to be home with my daughters all the time, and I also didn’t want to be the kind of person who didn’t appreciate being home with my daughters. Many years later, when they were in elementary school, I would finally recognize that luck, along with the utter joy of walking them back and forth to school, but when they were newborn and three, it was a prison sentence.

I had nothing to talk about with other mothers of newborns, I felt, which worked out fine since I had exactly one friend with a baby. She was wonderful, but my resentment of her baby’s capacity for sleep was like a thick tar roping through our relationship. We had a connection, but sometimes we’d run into that tar, my patience would snap, and I’d feel unjustified in telling her why I was so angry — so I wouldn’t tell her. I’d walk back into the prison that was my house and watch Mary Poppins with Ronni, again, nursing Sammi for hours on the couch.

ConnectThere was another connection that wasn’t working out for me, and that was with Sammi herself. Ronni had been a hysterical newborn, comforted only by me — not even David could hold her if I was nearby. Her preference for me lasted until she was nearly two. Sammi, on the other hand, would go to anyone. At the end of the day, when David came home from work, I would hand Sammi to him, and he would drape her over his forearm and walk around the house while I, freed from touching her, would scramble to make a dinner. That was the year I felt the first urges to learn to really cook — a skill that would come to serve me very well. In the stolen moments after David came home from work, I learned my first soup and pasta recipes.

David was in love with her in a way that I could not be. I could not attribute it to her fussiness — Ronni had cried even as she nursed at that age — and in retrospect, I believe that my very soul was warning me not to get attached to her. I cuddled Sammi, nursed her, held her, changed her, never had one fleeting thought of hurting her — but I resented her so deeply that it shut down several tunnels to my heart.

From the outside, and even when I thought about it at the time, our first nine months look very much like I was a mother with postpartum depression. I was convinced something was wrong with my baby; I had horrific insomnia; I had middle-of-the-night panic attacks; I worried all the time that I would never feel like myself again. I now believe that while the hormones played a part in this, the larger issue was that my instinct to protect her and myself was clawing its way through my veins, screaming. It was giving me armor, which I was able to rip off only when I had the right weapons to fight our way through the battles.

Connection is another luxury, like love, which has a high price in a war. If your main goal is survival, you take with you only what you absolutely need.

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