The Neverending Scream
If you asked me — the pregnant me — what my single-biggest parenting fear was, I probably would have said something about making some kind of huge mistake and raising poorly-adjusted children into dysfunctional adults who never called their mother and you know, I don’t care about anything, I just want them to be HAPPY.
That would have been a big fat lie. I was mostly scared of getting a baby with colic.
We had a few bleak days with Noah, right at first, when he would go on extended nursing strikes and scream and scream and scream because he was hungry, but he wouldn’t nurse, so eventually I would cave and offer him some formula, usually in the middle of the night, while crying, feeling guilty and hurt and rejected but also thinking: oh, please please please just shut up.
It’s a weird place to be, resenting the very thing you wanted more than anything else in the world. You love your baby more than you’ve ever loved anyone…but in those dark, frustrating hours where the screams go on and on and on, you may not really like him very much.
But that was nothing — NOTHING — compared to what Jonna from Jonniker went through with her daughter Sam. We’re talking colic. REAL colic. And reflux. Basically my handful of bad nights times FOUR BAJILLION AND TWELVE. Luckily, she lived to tell the tale and has some advice and sympathy to help you live through it too:
Amalah: SO! I hear that you just had a totally fine and dandy time with your daughter. Like every moment was a magical ray of unicorn-y sunshine and soft-focus photography. Please, tell the nice people about how wonderful new motherhood can be!
Jonna: Well, part of the problem was that it WAS spectacular and magical and wondrous … for the first three or four weeks. Yes, I was one of those new mothers who was so impressed with how well her newborn slept! And how she never cried unless she was hungry! And how this was So! Much! Easier! than everyone warned me it would be! I HAD BIRTHED MIRACLE BABY, EASIEST OF THE EASY NEWBORNS. BEHOLD.
Yesssss. That was me, and I have the idiotic blog archives to prove it. And then, somewhere between weeks four and six … all hell broke loose. My daughter — my delightful, beautiful, much-wanted daughter — turned into the world’s tiniest hellbeast. I don’t remember how it started, exactly, but what I do know is that very quickly, things devolved into a life where we had a screaming, inconsolable child who did nothing but scream, scream and did I mention SCREAM? for upwards of eight to ten hours a day. Yes, really, EIGHT TO TEN HOURS A DAY, no exaggeration. And not exactly during convenient times, either. No, no — she usually got going somewhere between 10 and 11 p.m., and finished between 3 a.m. and … well, I believe the latest she went is 9 a.m. the next day, but really, does it matter? The point is, it would go, quite literally, all night long. Nothing worked, at least at first. Nothing. She just screamed. And screamed. And screamed. We tried holding her, feeding her, shushing her, walking her around in the stroller, wearing her in the Bjorn or mei tai, bathing her, putting her down, etc. I will never forget the day my husband walked into the kitchen to find me wearing a giant blanket around my shoulders and pushing our screaming child around in the stroller in never-ending circles around the island with tears streaming down my face. I think by that time I’d been at it for … two? Three hours? Of nothing but pushing the kid in circle after circle after circle. Oh, God.
For a little while, I was convinced it was a food intolerance (I was nursing), so I gave up … everything. I went cold turkey on dairy, tomatoes, caffeine and wheat. For a two-week period there (a very DARK, two-week period), I subsisted on vegan gluten-free bagels with fake peanut butter and low-acid jelly. If I so much as GLANCED at a tomato, my husband came undone.
In other words, we tried EVERYTHING. OVER AND OVER AGAIN. And still: she screamed until she didn’t feel like screaming anymore or just passed out from exhaustion — honestly, we never knew what it was that made her stop. And if she had a “good” night — meaning, anything less than five hours of screaming, and nope, I’m not kidding, that was a GOOD NIGHT — we tried to recreate the entire scene the next day, right down to what we had for dinner, what I ate, and what we watched on television. Everything. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work that way.
We were all exhausted, miserable and frankly, it was one of the darkest times of my entire life. Or, more specifically, I didn’t have a life, but it was dark nonetheless. I was merely coping. My marriage was strained, for we were both so completely consumed with the incredibly daunting task of enduring a full day’s worth of screaming, not to mention the fact that we were beyond sleep-deprived, and for a little while there, I thought we’d never recover. I considered giving away our beloved dog, because I didn’t see how we would ever be able to have the time to feed her, much less pay attention to her. I cried a lot. I blamed myself. I blamed my husband. He blamed me. He blamed himself.
This was … about as much fun as it sounds. And also, I was SHOCKED by this turn of events. Where was my easy baby? Who was this child? What had gone wrong? What had *I* done wrong? What had I DONE TO MY LIFE?
Did you know that things were like, NOT supposed to be like that? Did you know something was wrong, hellbent on getting someone to help you…or did you immediately go to that Bad Place of “I’m doing something wrong, I’m terrible at this and this is my life now forever and ever AMEN”?
A little of both, I think. At first, I was convinced that it was just how things were — after all, everyone spent my entire pregnancy telling me how HAAAARD babies were and how I’d NEVER SLEEP AGAIN and oh, look! They were right. I really didn’t sleep. At all. And oh yes, I assumed that this was what parenting was like, and that I just wasn’t strong enough to hack it. People kept telling me that the first three months were the hardest, but I couldn’t believe they were ever THIS hard, you know? And yet … people had more than one child, didn’t they? So what the heck was wrong with ME and MY baby? I honestly couldn’t see a way out of the tunnel.
The worst part, I think, was that conceiving her wasn’t the easiest task, and I had a rough pregnancy (think 7+ months of puking). And I just felt so GUILTY. Like, I wanted this SO BADLY, and spent so much time trying for it, and then spent so much of my pregnancy feeling guilty because I wasn’t this glowing earth mother-type and, in fact, hated every second of it. And now, here I was with this baby that I loved unconditionally — no question about that — but who, let’s be honest, I didn’t even LIKE. I HATED feeling that way. I hated myself, and I most definitely had moments of — well, not hating her, exactly, but perhaps resenting her for being the exact opposite of what I expected, and for not being able to communicate what was bothering her.
And when I admitted that — when I admitted I was wishing this very difficult part of her infanthood away — I felt guilty. Like I didn’t deserve to have a baby in the first place, if this was how I was going to feel, and thinking that one day I would look back on this time and wish I’d cherished it more. Which, today, makes me laugh so hard, because seriously? WHO WOULD CHERISH THAT? God, I just want to go back in time and SMACK myself for feeling any of that, because SERIOUSLY. IT WAS BAD. AND THOSE FEELINGS WERE OKAY. And it had absolutely no bearing on what kind of mother I was, or would be. Truly — my life today, just a few short months later, is NOTHING like it was back then. Nothing.
And then, somewhere along the line, I started noticing other symptoms beyond the epic screaming. She was throwing up a lot, and by “a lot,” I mean two or three times after every meal, though it is important to note that some kids also have “silent” reflux, which involves little to no spitting up. She couldn’t lie flat on her back without gurgling and gagging. She had a headcold that seemed to never, ever end. I noticed that the screaming almost always began after a feeding and/or after she threw up. And one day, she threw up what smelled like pure stomach acid — I remember being shocked that it didn’t burn a hole through the fabric on her bouncy seat, it was that potent. And of course, immediately afterwards, she started screaming for hours. Turning to Dr. Google, I thought maybe — MAYBE — some of this could be attributed to infant reflux. I hightailed our asses to the pediatrician, and later, to a pediatric GI specialist. And I got the tiniest glimmer of hope that maybe we didn’t have to live like this forever. If we were very, very lucky.
And were you very, very lucky? Was it reflux? Was it colic? Can you have one without the other?
Well … yes, to sort of everything. After several trips to the pediatrician and later, a specialist, some time to find the right medicine, etc., (I’m making it sound SO EASY, when really, it wasn’t, but who cares right now), we learned that it was definitely reflux. But they also determined that colic was likely a factor. Colic, as you know, is sort of this nebulous, catch-all term for Screaming of Mystery, no matter what the origin or how it really manifests itself. So on the one hand, hooray! We had a diagnosis! And a plan of action! On the other hand, oh CRAP! One of the diagnoses was something that has no cure! And ends like, ELEVENTY MILLION WEEKS FROM NOW. (Note: it’s not really eleventy million. More like at 12-14 weeks old. But try telling that to people who don’t sleep. Ever.)
Tell me about the End of the Screaming and how it happened. Because it did end. (Do you hear that, Terrified Readers? IT DID END.) Gradual? Sudden?
The medicine helped. A lot. And although it didn’t stop the screaming altogether, after a few weeks on the right medicine at the right dose (for reflux), the screaming sort of … abated a little. And that’s when it turned from VOLUME ELEVEN to … something more manageable, which turned out to be the colic portion of our show. And colic alone was a piece of cake compared to what we were used to. For starters, it was only for two to three hours a day, max, which sounds like a lot, but compared to eight to 10 hours a day, we took it happily. The tone of it was also different — yes, it was inconsolable, yes, it was frustrating, but it no longer felt like she was screaming in utter agony, the way she was with the reflux. The spitting-up also slowed down a bit, and I felt like we were getting somewhere. Eventually, a few carefully cultivated (yet still ridiculous in hindsight) soothing techniques started to work.
I remember really noticing that things had improved around 10 or 11 weeks of age. By then, we’d had at least a week or two of solid improvement, and I remember thinking that maybe life wouldn’t be so stifling forever. And by 16 weeks, the screaming was gone altogether. In fact, it was at 16 weeks that she had an EXPLOSIVE scream-fest one evening that was so sudden and so unexpected that we called the pediatrician right away — a sign that we no longer took the screaming as something she just DID, and saw it as an actual problem. And lo and behold, her medicine had to be adjusted, and all was well.
Okay, let’s circle back to your emotions. How did you cope? How did you not snap, physically, mentally? Because that situation honestly sounds like a breeding ground for PPD.
Well, as I’m retelling it, it sounds so much worse AND so much better than it actually was. The dark bits weren’t all-consuming, all the time — the days were quite lovely, and she could be a cheerful baby (provided it was DAYLIGHT), and remember, for a while there, I had no idea it wasn’t supposed to be this way. As the weeks wore on, however, things got … pretty bleak. For a few weeks, she wouldn’t (nay, COULDN’T) sleep anywhere but my chest. For every nap. For every night. For every. time. she. slept. Those weeks were the worst. I had to schedule my pee breaks for when my husband would be home, and I found myself scurrying madly away from her the second she woke up, depositing her in the bouncy seat and RUNNING FOR MY LIFE.
I’m not even sure how I got through it, to be honest. Surprisingly, I didn’t get PPD — I think I took on a weird sort of soldier’s mentality, and I’d begun preparing for each evening the way one prepares for battle. By day, I was okay — functioning, even, though I’m not sure how — but when evening rolled around, I just sort of…girded my loins for the worst, and was usually rewarded with exactly that, but at least I wasn’t disappointed, you know?
Talking to other people who’d been through it REALLY helped — The New Girl, one of my best Internet friends, had almost the exact same baby, and hearing her stories of coming out of it alive and thriving, with a baby she loved and a husband she enjoyed spending time with, made me feel like I’d get through this alive. And just having someone there to say, “I KNOW. I KNOW!” who really DID know, was encouraging.
Plus — and this is as twisted as it gets — there was this strange sense of accomplishment at the end of a rough night. I felt … strangely empowered, like I could survive anything. And you know, I think that’s true now. I think, in a creepy way, it made me a stronger, more patient person. A better parent, even. My threshold and tolerance for discomfort when it comes to parenting is higher than I ever imagined.
If you could go back and talk to that version of yourself, the one still mired in the worst of it, what would you say? How would you try to help her?
It ends. It’s impossible to believe that while you’re in it, but it does end, and it ends faster than you can imagine, even though it feels like it will go on forever. But don’t worry about when it ends: Take it one day — ONE DAY — at a time. Don’t think about the coming days/weeks/months. Focus on getting through today and today only. Before you know it, your last today will be behind you, and you’ll look down at your amazing, happy, non-screaming baby of your dreams and almost — ALMOST! — forget this ever happened. I promise.
And you know, what you’re going through IS exceptionally hard and it’s NOT normal, and all those people who tell you in a condescending tone that being a parent is hard, and that babies just cry? Feel free to roll your eyes directly in their face. You’re not a bad mom. You ARE doing a great job, and this is as hard as it gets, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently.
Put the baby down once in a while. Yes, even while she screams. Put her down in her crib or her bouncy seat, walk away and take five minutes to just breathe. She’ll survive unscathed, and those five minutes will recharge you like nothing else in the world. And then? Put her in the mei tai and put in earplugs or crank up your iPod and walk around the house or bounce her on the yoga ball or hell, put your laptop on the kitchen counter and check your e-mail and just … breathe.
Let your husband or partner take a turn and go take a bath without feeling the slightest bit of guilt. No, seriously. You don’t have to do this by yourself. I don’t care if he has to go to work. You have to stay out of a mental institution, and doing it alone is the quickest ticket into one.
Oh, and don’t try to solve it with products. My God. We bought every bed under the sun — the Amby! Two bassinets! A co-sleeper! A SnuggleNest! ANYTHING to get this kid to feel better and get some sleep. ANYTHING. And you know, none of them worked, and none of them were worth it. The exception: a good bouncy seat, which is a GODSEND to reflux babies, as the angle is just right for them — a tip I learned from the beloved Alexa, another reflux mom. So keep your wallet in your pants, sister.
Finally, did I tell you that you’re doing a great job, and that this isn’t your fault? Well, you are. You are also a badass, because this is some seriously tough stuff — the stuff of torturous NIGHTMARES — and look at you! You’re doing great. And when this is over, you’re going to be able to handle anything. Oh, and your baby is going to be so, so happy and wonderful. And super-mellow! And you know what else? YOU ARE GOING TO WANT ANOTHER BABY. AND SO IS YOUR HUSBAND. BECAUSE LIFE IS JUST THAT AWESOME. I know! I never saw that one coming, either!
Photo by sawamur
Published September 29, 2009. Last updated April 30, 2017.