The Bible is the ancient holy book of my tradition. It’s not a simple book of history and rules. It isn’t dead words on a page. It is a living book, an ongoing story, and as a believer, who am I to limit it? As God said to Job, “Who do you think you are, puny human? I set the universe spinning, and you want to tell me what’s what? Pfffffft.”
During the summer of 1992, when my boyfriend (the one I later married, had two children with, and then divorced) and I had our annual I-hate-you-we’re-breaking-up-forever fight, I started going to a Bible study. I had a very rough relationship with faith in my late teens and early twenties. I grew up in an Evangelical Protestant church and while I believed in God, I struggled with the dogma in that religion, but I couldn’t walk away from it. I wanted faith, but I didn’t know where to find people who wouldn’t hit me in the head with a Bible.
So I dabbled here and there, and I went to a Bible study for young adults that was hosted by a large, non-denominational church, and it seemed OK and I got a little bit comfortable, and as so often happens in these circumstances, someone brought up the topic of abortion, and someone said that women should practice self-control, and someone said it’s baby murder, and you know how it goes. Even if you were never at a Bible study with a group of people between the ages of 18 and 25 who think they know everything and believe they have an ancient, divinely-inspired text that backs them up, you know how it goes, and everyone was oh-so-right and oh-so-indignantly-angry at the loose women with their unwanted fetuses and I didn’t get up and go to my little silver Toyota and drive home like I should have done.
When there was a pause in the self-righteousness, I said, “It’s not so simple.”
Every head swiveled on its stalk of neck, every pair of eyes stared at me, slow up, slow down (Is she a slut? How did we not notice?), and then a female voice rose, a voice trained for a lifetime for exactly this moment, “It is simple. It’s a baby. You can’t kill a baby.”
“I don’t agree,” I said, wading in a little further, still not turning the key on the door of the Toyota, still not entering that safe womb of stale cigarette smoke and discarded diet Coke cans. “Women have abortions for complex reasons, and you can’t just let them die from unsafe abortions. It’s not like…”
The female voice again, this time louder, shouting me down, and joined by others, “Legal abortion just makes murder easy for women!”
More voices, a confusion of anger, and I found my way to my legs, my left hand wrapped around the handle of my purse, and I worked toward the door. Amid the choruses of, “We’ll pray for you!” and “Read Jeremiah 1:5!” and “You’re no Christian!” I heard that female voice above the others.
She asked, “Do you know you’re a bitch?”
I didn’t answer her, not even a raised middle-finger as I finally managed to slip through the door, partly because I couldn’t wait to enter the warm dark of my car, and partly because I was stunned to hear the word bitch in that context. If ever there were people who wouldn’t say shit if they had a mouthful, it was the Evangelical Protestants of my youth. Maybe these were a different breed, or maybe I was a spectacularly terrible specimen of sin: the abortion apologist in the Bible study. Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting question.
On every topic, someone, somewhere, is bound to believe that I have taken the bitch stance. I have taken the part of the bitches. I am a bitch.
Misogynist implications of the word bitch aside, I can live with it because worse would be if someone could describe me as milquetoast, boring, or (shudder) sweet. I care about things. I stand for something. I hope I am open to learning, to hearing new perspectives, and to engaging in civil debate.
I don’t ever want to be a person who knows what’s right. I want to be a person who wrestles with the truth. I hold rightness loosely, prepared for new information and new experiences that might shift my understanding.
The Bible is the ancient holy book of my tradition. It’s not a simple book of history and rules. It isn’t dead words on a page. It is a living book, an ongoing story, and as a believer, who am I to limit such a book? As God said to Job, “Who do you think you are, puny human? I set the universe spinning, and you want to tell me what’s what? Pfffffft.”
Rightness is tempting. A good/bad, either/or universe is easier to live in than one that requires careful thought, big mistakes, and the uneasy state of I don’t know. I’m sure it feels great, being in with the in-crowd, knowing all the right answers, and being so very very right about all the things. Imagine the scene in that Bible study after I left: they probably joined hands and spoke prayers out for awhile, in the Christian key of just, as in, “Lord, just protect Adrienne, and Lord, we just ask that you guide her and show her the error of her ways. Father, we just ask that you help us to love her in spite of her sin.” Then, perhaps a few praise hymns to get the world back into its straight lines: bad is bad, right is right, the ground below and heavens above.
What didn’t happen is, none of us listened. None of us learned. We didn’t struggle or connect. How sad, to lose such an opportunity. How much sadder, that we are missing those opportunities everyday.
If I wanted to do this blogging and writing thing with a bag on my head, I would have had to make that choice at the very beginning. I don’t think I would do it differently even if I had it to do over again.
I kind of hate it when bloggers write about blogging because duh, most of my readers aren’t writers at all, so apologies in advance.
In November, 2010, I decided to take a short break from blogging and and all things internet-y to spend some time with my youngest son, Carter, during his fall break from school. That was true, but it was only half the story. Over the summer of 2010, No Points for Style had gained a respectable readership. I wasn’t playing in the big leagues by anyone’s definition, but my blog was growing and it was thrilling. I wanted (still want) nothing more than for people to read my words. Yes, I’ll cop to it: I want to be famous on the internet, and maybe even famous in the real world. That’s more complicated than it sounds, because it has more to do with wanting to be heard and needing my life to matter in some broad way than it does with fame per se, but I don’t guess I’ll figure everything out right here, right now, so, on with our story.
While watching my blog gain readers was exciting, it was also terrifying and confusing. I’m still not exactly sure why. Comments and emails about how I am poisoning Carter by giving him medicine, or how I’m ruining my relationship with my older kids by sharing stories of my marriage to their dad, or the occasional generic hate-filled diatribe peppered with misspellings and grammatical errors don’t particularly bother me.
I do know that I was paying far too much attention to the noise in the blogosphere (and social media more generally) about what was and was not OK in a blog and I pretty much tied myself in a knot over what other people might find acceptable.
Which, well, let’s back up a little bit, because this is what I do. I define myself, not based on my own preferences, talents, abilities, limitations, etc., but based on what others expect. And this is no small thing. In fact, it’s been pretty much sucking the life out of me for as long as I can remember. On meeting me for the first time, people tend to think I’m shy, but I’m just taking a few minutes to suss out who you would like me to be so I can be that person for you.
However (and this is one big-ass however), I am also an extremely passionate person with strong opinions, and I don’t just share those opinions; I deliver diatribes. In meetings, at church, at community events, in groups, I’ll be sitting on my hands thinking, “Be quiet. Just skip it this time,” but alas, I’m what you call mercurial, and before I know what I’m doing, my hand is in the air and there I go, speaking, and I have big gestures and high volume to go with the words. Put the passion and the fear together and (as my husband would be very willing to tell you), there is one sorry-ass puddle of shame-filled Adrienne to be found in the after.
Oh, Lord, The After. It can be ugly.
The After wasn’t particularly applicable to writing for a long time, in part because my audience was tiny, but more because writing gives writers as much distance from their subject matter as they choose. If a topic feels safe, I might dance right into the heart of it, and if it is dangerous I can stay safely away from the tender center.
And authenticity, integrity, blah blah blah. We analyze and dissect these ideas in the blogosphere as if they were real, achievable goals, an endpoint that some will reach and some will ignore in favor of a well-managed online identity and the product endorsements that are the supposed result of such bedazzled lives.
For the record, I always thought that was the falsest of false dichotomies. Whether we aspire to authenticity or not, we are all carefully managing our online identities with every word we share. I just had no idea how trapped I would become between the two non-existent poles.
I have never lied here in the virtual pages of No Points for Style, which is not to say that everything I’ve written has been factually accurate, but storytelling is the very definition of subjective. The truth as I have written it here belongs to me and no one else. The facts? Well, I don’t know to whom those belong. God, I guess, or maybe the past, but certainly not to me.
Even more strangulation has come in the form of replaying over and over the random bits of advice I’ve heard across the years. Be funny, said some; focus on mental health advocacy said others. Write shorter posts, from one corner; be more casual from another.
Why I even listen is beyond me because I know good and well that the only real advice I need is stop investigating your damn naval and write, you foolish woman. Some of it will suck; some will be brilliant. Most will be passable. Just fucking write.
I took that short break from blogging in the fall of 2010 and when it was over what happened was this: I found myself sitting at my keyboard, staring at the screen and thinking not about what I wanted to say, but how you would receive what I did manage to say, which is sort of like dropping a soggy wool blanket over a dancer: it stops all the art and replaces it with futile, ugly struggling. I tried several times to find my way back in, without much success.
I don’t know how one negotiates two desires that are so entirely at odds. I want to speak, and speak loudly, and be heard. I also want to hide under the bed where no one will ever have reason to call me names or fart in my general direction.
To speak and to be treated civilly is too much to ask if one is doing one’s speaking on the internet. All of us who put our hearts and minds into the public in this medium know that. If we haven’t experienced it directly, we’ve witnessed it.
If I wanted to do this blogging and writing thing with a bag on my head, I would have had to make that choice at the very beginning. I don’t think I would do it differently even if I had it to do over again. There’s nothing to do from here but shut the whole thing down, or take a leap back into the heart of the thing. I don’t know if the world needs my words or not, but I do know that I need to speak them. I am made of, for, and by words, and to be silent is to wither.
Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.
—Vincent Van Gogh
I’m not talking about the regular rules that our parents speak aloud – no running in the house; don’t sing at the dinner table; if you wear your tap shoes in the house you’ll scratch the floors and you don’t want to know what will happen next, young lady!
I’m talking about the underneath rules, the ones that make it impossible to get along with your in-laws because you don’t know their rules and they don’t understand why you don’t know them because they make so much goddamn sense and everybody knows this is how people with an ounce of common sense/human decency/intelligence behave and what the hell is the matter with you?. They are so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them without a shock of some kind – a family crisis like an addiction, divorce, or someone deciding to go to therapy.
The most important rules in the family in which I grew up are tightly related:
Thou shalt not be needy.
Thou shalt not seek attention.
Thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.
Thou shalt blame thyself for all things.
Thou shalt solve all problems with guilt and shame.
Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret.
Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of others’ misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret. (See previous rule, “blame thyself for all things.”)
Thou shalt cultivate shame vigorously, hanging thyself on all available hooks.
Of course, these are not the rules my parents intended to teach me, but they’re the rules I learned.
Hence, I don’t know how to talk about my marriage to Robert because I don’t have much practice. If your familial tradition causes you to scream internally, it’s all your fault how could you do this you are such a goddamn loser what a waste why couldn’t you make it work what is wrong with you, it’s damn hard to take a step back and start sorting out the parts that are not your fault.
I’ve been sitting on this story for weeks, unable to find my way in. The internal screeching is loud, insisting that I rise above; take the high road; be the bigger person.
Also, every time I think of something that happened in our marriage that hurt me, I think of something that I did that, somehow, caused me to deserve it. This should probably come as no surprise since that’s how Robert and I fought when we were married, except that back then I was saved the effort of thinking of the thing I did that was worse than the thing he did because he did that part for me.
Clear as mud? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me, either. How could it? I make sense of my life with words and stories and I have denied myself this story until now.
Since Robert moved out on July 4, 1997, I have carefully engineered a neutral narrative of the relationship that was central to my early adulthood. I have said, “We were far too young to get married,” “We brought out the worst in each other,” and “We didn’t have the tools we needed to make our marriage work.” I’ve spoken about my first marriage as if it happened to someone else; stripped it of its emotion and meaning.
To be clear, I am in favor of dignity and integrity. I’m proud that, post-breakup, I didn’t go out and talk trash about Robert to everyone who would listen. The cost, though, was the truth. In telling the story of our marriage in neutral terms over and over again, I denied myself the healing that comes from telling my story. My truth.
And you know what I say about he truth: it ain’t about the facts.
My story doesn’t match Robert’s, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It only makes it mine, if I will claim it.
My story begins with the rules that shaped my psyche. To say that I arrived at my first wedding (all of 22 years old) with low self-esteem would be an egregious understatement. More like the weight of my shame was roughly equal to that of a Volkswagen I wore strapped to my back.
I viewed my life not as something to be lived, experienced, and enjoyed, but as an exercise in contrition. Every moment was an apology for my very existence; every aspect of myself (body, mind, spirit) in dire need of reformation.
Robert concurred, which probably explains why our marriage sort of worked in the beginning. We agreed that I was broken and he was the savior who could have married a better woman but chose me instead. Repairing my faults – depression; tendency to gain weight (though at the time we married I had never been truly fat); messy habits; inability to cook; love of books and reading; devotion to made-for-TV movies; interest in politics; affection for very long showers; desire for education; and refusal to even try to understand why Robert and so many others thought Seinfeld was funny – would be my project. By conquering them I could become, if not worthy, at least acceptable.
So we moved into our lives, the contract signed and sealed but unacknowledged. My flaws were my demons to conquer if I was to earn my place in the home of the man who deigned to marry me.
He had done me a great favor by marrying me, so I set out to make the best of it.
And then there was this:
I had finally done something right, after all.
Robert and I both fell extravagantly, unreservedly in love with our Tooter (no one called him Jacob until he was three). He was pure light, all soft-sleepy sweetness and milk-drunk joy.
Our love for him was so large, it erased everything else. For a time, I was (almost) everything that Robert and I thought I should be.
Some stories are like laundry. The longer you put off telling them, the bigger they grow.
This story, the one about my earliest adulthood and my relationship with Jacob and Abbie’s dad, has reached the ceiling, toppled over, and begun to spread across the hall and into the bathroom.
So now the whole family is going commando, the house is smelling a bit putrid, and I’ve written half-a-dozen versions of part four of this story, none of which feel, precisely, like the truth.
In any case, this story, the one about my relationship with Robert, is not the one I set out to tell. I was trying to find my way into the tale of Brian’s and my messy start as a blended family and how we screwed up everything that could possibly be screwed up and were just beginning to get our feet under us when Carter was born. Carter being Carter, his arrival tossed all the pieces back into the air and left us lost and gasping until last week.
Not really; we’re still lost and gasping, but not as much as we used to be, so I’m calling it progress. The level of stress/pain/anguish rises and falls, but overall things get more difficult as time goes by. Such is the nature of a mental illness like Carter’s, but we are less surprised by the shifts now, more aware of the beast who lives here with us, inside our little boy. Less surprised = better.
I wasn’t especially interested in the story of Robert and me because I thought the life had drained out of it by now. This Monday it will be 14 years since he moved out of the house we’d shared, so the wounds have healed by now, even if some of the scars are twisted, lumpy things. I don’t feel much when I think about those years now except a sort of wistful regret.
When I started to write the story, I ran into so much ugliness—not the top-level ugliness, but the underneath; the stuff that makes up the whys and wherefores of it all—that I got scared. It was like somebody turned off the word-faucet.
This is the power of writing and telling stories, and this is also the curse of the story teller. The telling is an act of peeling away, of revealing, but the problem is not that one finds oneself in front of a crowd, bare-assed and raw. Ultimately, the problem is finding oneself bare-assed and raw in front of a mirror.
Much of what I see in the mirror hurts, and not in a distant way. The pain is now, today, because what I did then, I do now. Who I was then is who I am now.
The sameness is not obvious, which has enabled me to tell myself that I am different now, at least until writing the story stripped me bare. Robert treated me badly (Even now I hear him, Jesus, what are you complaining about? It’s not like I beat you or anything!), in ways I would not tolerate today.
Except that I do tolerate that treatment today. What the hell are you complaining about? It’s not like you deserve better.
Not Brian. Never think it. Far fewer people now than in the past, and still.
I turned off the words and put my clothes back on not just to protect myself, but because Carter needs me. He has bugs in his hair (not really) and the dogs destroyed all of his toys (they never did). His teeth are growing in wrong (they’re fine) and there are gorillas hiding in the bushes in our backyard. He needs someone with him every minute of the day, and me with my face in the computer does not match his idea of with.
So my story stalled, and the words backed up, and last week I had a sloppy, obscene emotional breakdown. I wailed to Brian that Carter is eating me, consuming everything that I like about myself and my life, including my ability to use words to make sentences and sentences to build stories and stories to make some kind of peace with the chaos swirling inside me.
Telling stories heals me, but telling stories requires two things of which I have a critically short supply: time, and emotional energy. Sometimes (as you well know if you are not new to No Points for Style), I stall out altogether.
Eventually, No Points for Style starts to hang over my head like an obligation, as if I’m a high school junior and I should be studying for a math test but instead I’m watching TV. My God, how I hate that feeling, when something I love, something I created and that fulfills me and of which I am deeply proud, feels like a burden.
Eventually, Carter starts to hang over my head like an obligation, as if I’m an employee and he is the job I can barely tolerate. My God, how I hate that feeling, when someone I love, someone I created and who fulfills me and of whom I am deeply proud, feels like a burden.
Come what may
I won’t fade away
But I know I might change
Nothing comes easily
Fill this empty space
Nothing is like it was
Turn my grief to grace
This article originally appeared in the Winter, 2010 issue of Brain, Child Magazine. I am reprinting it here because this is a key piece of Carter’s and my history that is missing from No Points for Style.
In the four months since Carter’s birth, I had memorized the shadows’ patterns on the ceiling of my bedroom, changing from long and bright on sunny mornings, to dim and faintly green in the late afternoon. This day, though, in late November 2002, was overcast and gray. The room was dark, the shadows barely visible. I wanted to read a book, but when I had tried that on other days, my arms shifted as I turned the pages and Carter screamed. The noise of the television disturbed him, too, as did the flickering light cast by the screen. I kept the air purifier on high because the white noise drowned out some of the sounds of barking dogs in the neighborhood and the noise made by sticks on the metal porch roof that clunked around on windy days.
Carter and I were lying on the futon under my bedroom window. The fingers of my right hand were not quite numb. I could feel a vague burning, a tingling in my fingers, and in an effort to relieve the pain, I made a fist: clench, unclench, clench. I knew—from many, many hours of lying there—that the clenching and unclenching would not help. My hips throbbed from lying in the same position—curled on my right side—for so long. I carefully, so carefully, moved my legs, trying to straighten them a little to relieve the ache there. As I moved my lower body, my upper body shifted just a bit and Carter’s mouth lost its grip on my right nipple. Eyes still closed, he was frantic, pitching his head around on the sheet, searching with his mouth for the only thing that comforted him. Pay no attention to the woman behind the breasts.
I turned over to give my right hand a chance to come to life. Carter, once he had a good grip on my left breast, sucked and swallowed for a few minutes, sighed, and began to breathe deep and slow, his body limp. I lay there with him for an hour and a half. My left hand burned. As the time crept by, I found it increasingly difficult to ignore my discomfort. My feet were ice cold; my back ached; I was thirsty. Since the futon was directly under the window, I couldn’t see anything outside except the underside of the porch cover. The harder I fought my internal blackness, the more I felt it descending on me, saw it dripping down the walls of my bedroom like roofing tar, stinking and steaming and filling every crevice and corner with my desperation. As uncomfortable as I was, the alternative was worse. I would have sooner chewed off my own arm than wake Carter if I could help it.
When he woke, calm and alert, I spent a few minutes cooing and talking to him, trying to elicit a smile. I didn’t succeed, and when he became restless and fussy, I climbed off the futon. I stretched my back and hips, felt blood moving into the places it had been restricted, and carried Carter to the bathroom to change his diaper. I tied him tightly to my chest with a baby sling and left the house. Moving fast, I walked down the street, around the block, across to the park. I tried to expel the furious energy that threatened to overtake me like a disease. The wind was cold, the sky gray and dark, and I crunched through the fallen leaves, cursing at the neighborhood dogs that barked and startled my baby. Carter screamed, quieted to crying, then fussing, then amped up to screaming again. I walked faster.
This is not what I expected.
Once upon a time, my husband, Brian, and I wanted to have a baby, the “ours” in “yours, mine, and ours.” When we married in 2000, our children—my son, Jacob; my daughter, Abbie; and Brian’s son, Spencer—stood around us while we said our vows. Having our own child seemed like a great idea, the perfect way to cement our new family; then there would be one person to whom we would all be related. How hard could it be? We only had to look to our other children to find proof of the excellence of our parenting methods.
Late one evening not long after the wedding I said to Brian, “I don’t think we should wait to have a baby. We should do it now.”
If I remember correctly, Brian’s response was, “Right on!” I shoved my diaphragm to the back of a drawer and we got on with making a baby.
Except making a baby didn’t turn out to be so easy. For eighteen months, in spite of religious temperature-taking, perfectly timed intercourse followed by hours spent lying on my back with my butt propped up on pillows, lots of peeing on sticks, and a shockingly expensive regimen of vitamins and herbs, no pregnancy. As the months wore on, I started to wear down. Sometimes I cried. Occasionally I was angry. Mostly I stumbled through the first few days of every cycle in a fog of disappointment.
On a morning in early November, 2001, six days before our scheduled visit with an infertility specialist, I forced myself from the bed, exhausted after many nights of bad sleep. With twenty minutes to myself before I had to wake the kids for school, I pulled a pregnancy test from the stash on my nightstand drawer and stumbled into the bathroom. I had long since given up any significant hope for this exercise; it was just what I did on the twelfth day after I ovulated. I went to the bathroom and peed on the stick, laid it down, and brushed my teeth.
Many times in the preceding nineteen months, I had believed (known) that I was pregnant and had been shocked when the test was negative. This time, when I saw that second line on the test, my stomach turned inside out. Dizzy, I sat down on the edge of the bed next to Brian and turned on the bedside lamp.
“Can you wake up?” I pulled the covers away from him.
He squinted at me. “What?”
We looked at the test for a few minutes, passed it back and forth. Finally, Brian started to laugh. “A baby! We’re having a baby!” we said, over and over, until the noise woke the children and we had to get them ready for school.
I’m telling you all of this now so that later, when the story gets ugly and you are tempted to think terrible things about me, you will know how very wanted Carter was, that my nose tickled in anticipation of his smell, that I could feel him in my arms when he was still smaller than a pinto bean. You need to know that I loved him even before he existed.
Who can describe the delicious feeling of a naked, slippery newborn babe? When Carter was born on that July day—at home, surrounded by my parents, my midwives, my husband, and our children—I was enchanted. His red hair smelled like rain.
Those first few days with Carter were nothing short of divine. Watching him sleep was a spiritual experience. Brian and I stayed in bed with him and took turns holding his naked body to our naked chests, loving him with our whole selves. Our older children, eight, six, and five, sat on our bed and petted Carter’s head reverently. “I can’t believe he’s our baby,” Jacob said. Together we investigated his sweet toes, his tiny bottom, the folds at his elbows. We took turns putting our faces in his hair to smell his rain smell.
By the time Carter was born, I had long believed that I was an expert on babies. I had cared for babies most of my life—as a babysitter, nanny, child care provider—and I’d already had two babies of my own. I love infants. If I can’t wheedle an invitation to the birth itself, then I’ll at least be the first person to show up after any friend’s baby is born. I’m quick to volunteer to babysit when new parents want to go out for a few hours. Through all of this, I’d developed a set of tricks that, if I kept working through them, never failed make a baby happy. I was confident in my expertise.
For Brian and me, compliments from strangers about our fabulously well-behaved children were so common that we’d almost come to expect them. “Thank you,” I would say, smiling secretly, smugly, in my deepest heart knowing that someday I would write the parenting book that would eliminate the need for any other parenting books. I tell you, we had this parenting thing knocked.
One afternoon when Carter was two weeks old, Brian took the older kids swimming. I was home alone with the baby for the first time. I left him, tightly swaddled and sound asleep after a long nursing, on our bed while I went to the kitchen to make myself something to eat. I heated my little frying pan on the stove for eggs and put bread in the toaster. From the bedroom came a sound that got me running—the terrified shriek of a baby in real danger. Carter had kicked off the blanket in which I’d swaddled him and was thrashing on the bed, screeching as if he needed people two blocks away to know…what? That he was scared? Angry? In pain? I didn’t know. I had rarely left the bed since Carter was born; he and I had spent most of our time there, me healing, him learning to nurse, a skill that had him flummoxed for the first few weeks. I learned fast that I couldn’t walk away.
I picked up my screaming baby and put him over my shoulder, patted his bottom, made shh shh shh sounds. He didn’t settle. I smelled my eggs burning and rushed down the hall with Carter in my arms to turn off the stove. I started using my happy-baby tricks. I walked with him hanging, face down, over my arm. I held him tightly, chest to chest, and swayed back and forth. We sat in the big blue recliner and rocked. I sat him in his bouncer seat on the dryer and turned it on. I put on music: rock, folk, classical, R&B. I tried nursing him, singing to him, walking in circles in the back yard, changing his diaper, leaving him naked, swaddling him, giving him a pacifier, letting him suck on my finger. I took him into the hall bathroom, which had no windows, to see if the dark would help. I would have dangled him upside down by his ankles if I’d had any reason to believe that that would work. I walked back and forth across the length of that house dozens of times, listening to his voice bounce off the walls. If I closed my eyes and concentrated, I could pretend that the sound was the air raid siren that used to sound on the roof of my high school.
Brian came home with the older children, all of them tired and hungry and sunburned, laughing hard at Jacob, whose bathing suit had slipped right off of him in the pool. I ran toward Brian, shouting so he would hear me over Carter’s screaming. “He’s been crying for hours! Can you take him for a ride to get him to sleep?”
“Holy shit,” Brian said, taking in Carter’s red, swollen face. “What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried everything.”
Brian shrugged. “I can try a car ride. I don’t think it’ll work, though. He only likes you.”
“I don’t think he likes anybody,” I said.
I buckled Carter into his car seat and Brian drove away, leaving me in a blessedly quiet house. I had just finished a few chores and was hanging the bathing suits and towels up to dry when Brian came back into the house and set Carter, screaming in his car seat, on the floor in front of me.
“He screamed the whole time! Twenty minutes in the car and he didn’t even slow down!”
I carried Carter back to the bedroom and lay down with him. Finally, he consented to nurse, and then fell asleep. I lay there for twenty minutes, watching his breathing slow and even out until he was completely limp. I slid oh-so-slowly away from him, creeping off the foot of the bed without making a sound. Brian appeared at the door of the bedroom. “You did it!” he whispered. He looked a little stunned. I imagine I did, too.
Less than ten minutes later, Carter woke up, screaming.
Difficult as it was, the first three months weren’t so bad. Sure, it was awful to live with a kid who cried from morning until night, and then kept crying periodically until dawn. I hated to go anywhere in the car because Carter cried all the way from pillar to post. I believed, though, that by the time he was three months old, Carter would grow into himself, relax, get used to the world. Most babies who are high-needs in early infancy do improve at least a little around the anniversary of their conception, and if he had colic, he’d feel better after a few months. My expectation of imminent improvement kept me going.
As we moved into month four, I found it harder to convince myself that everything would soon be OK. He frequently stayed awake for ten or even twelve hours at a time. Some days (which would eventually become most days, and then all days), I couldn’t maintain my own illusions and I started to fall apart. Shocked into submission by the emotional appetites of a child whose needs were larger than any I had ever witnessed, I was focused on Carter to the point of obsession. My friends and family hammered at me to take care of myself. I should take a long bath, read a book, go for coffee with a friend, they said. They were right, of course, but I just couldn’t make myself walk away from my own, screaming baby. We visited one doctor after another after another: pediatrician, gastroenterologist, neurologist, and some whose specialties I don’t remember. They ordered tests and prescribed medicines, and Carter continued to cry.
Romantic ideals of motherhood tell us that our children bring out the best in us. True enough. I’ve done things for my kids that I never would have dreamed I was capable of doing; they’ve showed me my deep capacity to love, to value someone else’s life more than I value my own. But…
I wish there wasn’t a but.
Who can imagine feeling hatred for one’s own child? Who can imagine anger—not just a fleeting anger but a smoldering rage—toward an infant? I didn’t know it was possible until I experienced it. All parents are frustrated by the demands of parenting sometimes. Babies cry and will not be consoled; they occasionally refuse to sleep at night and need from their parents what their parents are loathe to give, like long middle-of-the-night car rides. I experienced all of those things with Jacob and Abbie. During the first two months of her life, Abbie had a habit of screaming from three to six every morning, at which point her two-year-old brother got up for the day, leaving me stranded, caring for two small children all day on just a few hours of sleep. But, as with most children, this didn’t last.
With Carter, I experienced an exhaustion broader and deeper than anything I’d ever felt, as much psychic as it was physical. By the time he was nine months old, I looked like a strung-out addict (as friends I met around that time have generously shared). I had never been more than twenty feet away from him and it showed. I held him day and night. During the day, he would rarely sleep and when I could get him to give up the fight, he was usually awake within twenty minutes unless I lay next to him, breathing on his head and giving him free access to a breast. Occasionally, he slept for awhile in the sling. He never (ever) slept spontaneously.
Most babies give something back to their parents by responding to them; when consoled, they relax; when rocked, they sleep. They learn to smile and then laugh. Carter took and took and took and rarely gave me any feedback that said I was doing something right. He didn’t smile until he was over three months old, and once he’d acquired the skill, he rarely used it. He didn’t laugh until he was almost two. All that giving without any positive feedback wiped me out. Many days, I believed that Carter hated me. On one very dark day, Brian had to talk me out of putting our baby in foster care.
When Carter was a few months old, Brian and the kids were sitting at the table eating dinner while I walked in circles around the table, bouncing Carter, grabbing a bite every time I walked past my plate. Brian’s face had the stunned and hopeless expression that he always wears in my memories of that terrible time. There wasn’t much conversation; Carter’s noise filled up every corner of the room and used up all the air. But in a lull, Spencer, my five-year-old stepson, said, “It’s a good thing we love Carter, or else we’d be banging him on the floor.”
There were other people in our world, people I expected would help us. Fact is, though, that when I told people that my baby cried twelve or fifteen hours out of twenty-four, they just didn’t believe me. I tried to tell people that my baby, who had a dry bottom and a full tummy, was still crying, and crying, and crying, and they were incredulous. “New mommy hormones,” they said. “Have you considered taking an anti-depressant?” they asked. People analyzed the way that I cared for Carter, searching for the ways that his crying was my fault. There was advice, mostly contradictory. There was criticism, sarcasm, and snark.
I don’t know why I wanted people to understand. Understanding would not have eased anything for me. In the first two years of his life, I never—even once—took a shower without listening to Carter cry from beginning to end. I even bought a sling that I could wear in the shower, but Carter was terrified of the water splashing around his head. It was not the fact of the crying that was the problem; it was the relentlessness that got to me. Day after day after week after month, he screamed. Sometimes I could think of nothing except finding a way to get out from under the noise of that kid.
By the time Carter was nineteen months old, he’d been to a dozen doctors, had a series of tests both simple and terrible, and had acquired a list of diagnoses as long as my arm, all of which made sense, none of which really explained the endless screaming: hypotonia (low muscle tone), right-sided weakness, sensory processing dysfunction, gross motor delay, fine motor delay, expressive language delay, self-regulatory disorder, pathological separation anxiety, dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), and on and on.
One day, I was at the kitchen sink washing vegetables for dinner. Carter crawled into the kitchen behind me and said, “Gruawmrth roompht.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I asked him what he wanted.
He repeated himself, but louder. “GRUAWMRTH ROOMPHT!”
I just looked at him, lost. He repeated himself one last time and then erupted in a wet, animalistic tantrum. In the time it took me to dry my hands and get across the eight feet of kitchen between us, he had a bloody nose and a huge lump on his forehead. He had hurt himself intentionally by repeatedly smashing his face into the floor.
In that moment I finally understood that mothering Carter was going to be hard, always. Something in me let go as I understood that I could stop looking for the solution, the answer, the one therapy or technique or diagnosis that would make it all OK. We could make the best of it, but it was never going to be OK.
It was hard, but he’s so wonderful and we love him so much and it’s all been worth it. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
My ass, I would. But that’s the script, isn’t it? It’s OK to tell the truth about mothering, as long as nobody tells the real truth. As long as we follow up the pain and the fear and the broken shittiness of it all with something nice, to make sure everyone knows that it was all just a passing thing, a crappy but temporary detour on the road to blissful motherhood.
I couldn’t do it. Some experiences are too big for social niceties, and I wasn’t able to tell polite lies for the sake of other people’s feelings.
I do like to teach, though, and since mothering Carter had made me an expert on the art of wearing a baby in a sling I began to teach babywearing classes. The owner of the parenting resource center where I taught asked me to lead a group for mothers of high-needs babies, and I answered with an enthusiastic yes. On a hot morning in late summer when Carter was three, I set up the classroom for our first high-needs baby group. I made a pot of tea, set out a basket of toys, and laid my handouts on the table. I was just settling into one of the couches when it occurred to me that I was a total fraud. As I sat looking out the window at moms parking cars and getting babies out of car seats, I realized that they would be looking to me for answers. They were there to ask me to solve their problems, and I had never solved my own.
Four moms and their babies came to that first group. I started by stammering something about how I’d had a high-needs baby and I knew how hard it was. And then the mothers in that room started to talk.
“Nobody believes me when I tell them how much she cries!”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him; I’m pretty sure he hates me.”
“Maybe it was a mistake to have a baby.”
“Sometimes, I imagine throwing her through a window, and I don’t think I’d ever do it, but it still scares me.”
“I must be doing something wrong. I think I’m a bad mother.”
We talked over the sound of babies crying, as fast as we could, trying to get it all said. The pain, isolation, and anger came gushing out. We used up a box of tissues and I had to dig through three cabinets to find a fresh one. We lost track of time and a group that was meant to last for an hour went for almost three.
The truth is ugly. Sometimes mothers are mired in regret over the decision to have a child. Good mothers. Normal mothers. Mothers who don’t hit or starve their children, who never lock them in the closet or leave them in the car while they go into the store. Some mothers who love their children also hate them. This unspeakable reality, this underbelly of family life, gets more horrifying the longer we hide it. There is only one thing I can do: tell the truth and hope that people who have not been where I have been will forgive me, and that people who have been there will forgive themselves.
I learned from those mothers, and from dozens of mothers since, that ugly truths are like mold: They grow best in the dark. When we throw them out into the air and sunlight, they lose some of their power. When we share them with other people, people who can hear us and maybe even understand, the ugly truths shrink. We see that they’re not the only truth, but just part of it. When I put all the ugliness that I felt out into the world, I found what had been buried under it: love. Not the sappy, sentimental love of soft-focus baby formula commercials, but the real stuff, love with teeth.
Carter is eight years old now. I love him, and being his mother is hard.