Love with Teeth

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.