I couldn’t put him down.
All day, nothing worked.
After six hours of trying to put my baby in his bed, his car seat, the swing, the wrap, anywhere, he passed out dramatically on my chest. There was a sudden thump of his face against me, and the pacifier bounced off the carpet. I instinctively braced myself for the wail I knew would follow the empty mouth. But none came. I noticed how heavy he seemed and looked carefully down. Asleep. More than asleep. After nearly a full day of laying him oh-so-carefully into his crib and tiptoeing away, only to see on the monitor his eyes flying open and his arms struggling against his swaddle, he had given up the fight.
That afternoon, six weeks after my son’s birth, I was supposed to call a client for our first talk about transitioning back to work. He was incredibly accommodating, telling me to call any time between noon and 5 p.m.
At 11:30 I nursed my newborn slowly in the rocking chair, his tiny tongue clicking and his mouth sucking rhythms in sync with our gliding. As always, I stared at him, wondering at how big he’d already grown. When he was still, I laid him in his bassinet in the dark, cool room to sleep. I just needed 15 minutes.
I stepped down the hall on light feet, avoiding squeaks, down the stairs and across the living room to my small corner desk. I was anxious about working from home with this little one in my care.
Could I do both? Could I do both well?
I opened a fresh document and double-checked the phone number. With one thumb ready to press “call,” I lifted the baby monitor and clicked on the screen to check on him one last time. And there he was, just one minute after being put down in a deep sleep — legs kicking, mouth grimacing, arms pushing small but strong against his swaddle wrap. Within seconds came the screaming that had become the soundtrack to my days. Screaming with breath held and eyes bulging, skin turning red and then purple. I dropped my phone and raced up the stairs to bounce and shush and nurse him again.
It would be OK, I thought. I had all day.
When I was 36 weeks pregnant, my husband and I listened to a few families we knew as they shared baby horror stories over a meal. Not their own stories, since none of them had had an extremely difficult infant. These stories were of the “my best friend’s cousin’s roommate’s baby” variety — and surely they were exaggerated. One friend told of a woman spending an entire day trying to get her baby to fall asleep, only to have him wake up over and over. The entire day. I’m a naturally nurturing person, and that sounded like a special circle of hell even to me. As we left, I told my husband, “We could have a baby like that. Can you imagine?” But we agreed the odds were in our favor — what was that, like 1 percent of babies?
Then we received The Happiest Baby on the Block DVD as a baby shower gift, and watched it together. We gaped at the screen as couples exclaimed how thrilled they were to have finally gotten three straight hours of sleep using these magic tricks. “It’s good to be prepared,” we said, “just in case we get one of those one-in-a-million babies.”
Much more often, and from people we actually knew, we heard stories about taking newborns to movie theaters and restaurants, babies sleeping for what seemed like two straight months, babies traveling in their infant carriers like silent little pieces of extra luggage. I envisioned the smushy babies of newborn photography. Passing my cooing infant around a room of friends. The three of us snuggling together in bed.
But a few short weeks later, there I was. Alone at home with my baby, my expectations of newborn bliss weighed down by darkness and disappointment. My cloud nine heavy with a storm, and fit to burst.
It was 4:30, and I had nursed myself empty. I had prayed. I had pled with my son to take the nap that would allow this call. But he never stayed asleep for more than a few moments, whether it was in the bassinet, the wrap or my arms.
As 4:45 approached he wailed on, and my knees popped and thighs burned as I bounced, head swimming with fatigue and movement and not enough calories and too much shushing.
I typed a one-handed apology to my client. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been trying since 11, but he won’t sleep.” That’s putting it lightly, I thought. I worried that he wouldn’t believe me. I worried no one would — that I had the mythical baby everyone warns you about, but worse. The baby that only exists in postpartum hyperbole, in stressed out first-time moms’ imaginations. The one you’re supposed to look back on and realize that — silly, hormonal, stressed out you! — it was all in your head.
I wanted to say so much more, to detail every moment in the day, to prove I wasn’t being flaky or inflating the situation to garner his sympathy. But I hit “send” and turned back to my screaming baby, back to the end of myself.
When that sudden quiet eventually came, I stood, dumb for a moment. What would I do now? He was finally asleep, and it was too late to make my call. I felt his heaviness against me. I felt the full weight of the day in that lumpy limp body. And I cried as emotions washed over me. Relief. Guilt. Deep grief. Deeper love.
I couldn’t put him down, but this time it was because I didn’t want to.
He had given up the fight. And so had I.
Part of me would like to say relief came that day in the form of a baby sleeping peacefully while I recovered. While I prayed different prayers and cuddled with my husband and savored a home filled with quiet.
But instead it came in a small space — 17 minutes, to be exact, before he woke again — where I began to truly grieve the loss of my expectations.
And, once grieved, to open my heart to a profoundly different kind of love. One based on pouring every drop of myself out on an exhausted, overwhelmed newborn boy who had nothing at all that he could offer me back.