It has been just over a month since our daughter was born, and I have now heard independently from several different sources an alarming admission. Paraphrased, it goes something like this:
This, to the outsider or non-parent, sounds incredibly dark. Shaking babies, it goes without saying, is bad. It can give babies permanent brain damage or it can kill them. It is a really sad, upsetting thing to think about. But while I can’t speak for the broader population or prove my point with any real numbers, almost all of the parents I know and have discussed this with have admitted to having those feelings in the first few weeks of their baby’s life. I suspect it is a fairly widespread impulse, widespread enough for healthcare professionals to repeat warnings about it ad nauseum prior to giving birth, even while (I hope) the numbers of people who actually do shake their babies are much smaller.
I bring this up now because I had this impulse, and because the first month of having a baby was absolutely fucking harrowing. I am telling you this here because, in the darkest moments, I went online seeking some sort of confirmation that what I was feeling was, at best, fairly normal, and at worst, not totally abnormal. It took me a long time to find it.
What we don’t talk about when we talk about parenting
My wife and I have both felt a disconnect between the way people talk about pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenthood and our actual experience of it. People like to say that pregnancy is a “magical time,” and that childbirth is a “beautiful miracle.” Pregnancy was not magical for us, as my wife spent the entire 9 months extremely nauseous, and the last few months in intense physical discomfort. She also wasn’t allowed to drink for most of the first year of the Trump Presidency. Let that sink in for a second.
Childbirth, likewise, was not something I’d classify as a “beautiful miracle,” because I reserve the word “miracle" for things that are both uncommon and unexplainable, and childbirth is both extremely common and totally explainable. Nor was it “beautiful.” A sunset is beautiful. A puppy playing in the snow is beautiful. My wife is beautiful. My wife in indescribable agony is not beautiful. It is torture. It had another beautiful thing (our baby) at the end of it, but the process itself was, in a totally objective manner of speaking, a complete goddamn nightmare.
The common phrase for the first few weeks of parenthood is “it’s a special time.” That, too, is misleading. It is certainly different than what we are used to. It is certainly an adjustment. But the comments of “Oh, it is such a special time,” and “Haha prepare to never sleep again haha!” failed to capture, I think, the enormity of those first few weeks. Afterwards, we kept looking at each other and saying, “Why didn’t anyone tell us?” Of course, people did — they tried to. But they held back just a bit, or we didn't quite gather what they were trying to tell us.
Why aren’t we honest about this time?
I suspect there are a few reasons for this. The first is that most people don’t want to scare the shit out of new parents. That is fair. If I had known what was coming, I would have been terrified. Better prepared, but terrified.
The second is that unless a parent is in those first few weeks themselves, they’ve gotten to a point where their baby is, on the whole, far more delightful than it is difficult. It doesn’t take much — our daughter over the past few days has started giving us her first smiles, and holy hell, that alone almost makes those first few weeks worth it. I am sure in a few months it will be hard to not look at this time with at least some sense of nostalgia.
The third, and perhaps the most insidious, is that Americans in general suck at confronting the darkness within. There is nothing darker than saying, “Yeah, in those first few weeks, in the blackest hours of the night, I felt something akin to hate for the small defenseless newborn in my care,” so most people don’t do it. Better to tamp those feelings down than to give them voice and publicly reveal yourself to be a bad person, mentally ill, or worse, kind of a drama queen. Darkness that’s tamped down instead of dealt with, of course, tends to bubble out in horrifying and uncontrollable ways, but hey — "horrifying and uncontrollable darkness” could replace “E pluribus unum” on the penny as the US motto at the moment.
The fourth and final reason is that it’s just a really hard experience to put into words. Plenty of people said, “Guys — listen to me. It’s really exhausting. It is not easy.” But with a few exceptions, those comments failed to warn us of the encroaching darkness. I am a professional writer, so I am going to make an attempt at explaining it myself now, before I’ve had the chance to let this period be shaded by nostalgia.
What even is a baby
“The comedy of man starts like this,” Father John Misty says, “Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips. So nature, she divines this alternative: we emerge half formed and hope whoever greets us on the other end is kind enough to fill us in.”
The thing about a newborn baby is that it is basically still a fetus. The features that they will take on in life aren’t totally discernible. Their eyes are puffy, their heads are weird-shaped, and they are covered in hair. Their motions are erratic, as they do not yet know that their arms are, in fact, attached to their bodies. They are cold for the first time. They are hungry for the first time. They are frantic to be neither of those things. But the only method they have of telling you this is by crying. So they do that, a lot. The only other things they do is poop and sleep.
This does not mean you don’t love them. But in descriptions of meeting their children, many parents veer towards the hyperbolic — an instant connection of deepest love, and all that. And I'm sure for some people, this is true. But the thing is, a sizable percentage of mothers don’t feel this instant connection, and are shocked, to some extent, at the alienness of the baby that has now been thrust into their care. Mothers, who just went through the most physically grueling moment of their lives, are not given any serious amount of rest. Breastfeeding must happen immediately, tests need to be done, stitches sewn, nurses and doctors consulted. Fathers are left in a daze at seeing their wives go through that trauma, and, even more so than women, have trouble fully fathoming that they are now fathers.
For the record, I cried the first time I held my daughter. It was a pretty wonderful experience, and she was beautiful, in her weird, monster-y way. I did feel big feelings, and a lot of them were good. But it was, like so many major life events, a situation that was not-quite-as-described. It had been described so many times as an experience of unadulterated joy, and it was much more complex than that.
When we got home after a couple of days in the hospital, we put the bassinet next to the bed. Aside from shaken baby, the thing doctors harp on most is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which, as far as syndrome names go, is probably the most descriptive and melodramatic of them. Babies, they tell you, can die at any minute for no apparent reason. You must be constantly alert. So that first night, you are a) either listening to your baby fuss and squirm, or b) are hearing nothing, and are constantly getting up to check to see if she’s breathing.
This is where the infamous sleeplessness comes in, but what I found was that the sleeplessness itself was not the problem. I was pleasantly surprised at how well I could function on three hours sleep and a cup of coffee. What was alarming was the side effects. We need sleep to process the events of the day and our emotions, and there are a lot of emotions that come with having a baby. If you can't process those emotions away with sleep, they end up smashing into each other like a 32-car pile-up, and you become an unstable wreck of a human being.
My first few weeks were complicated by the fact that I’m pulling out of a long depression. Depression for me was rarely sadness — it was more often emotionlessness, so the sudden return of very intense emotions was that much more overwhelming.
There is a final point to make here: A newborn baby’s cry is torture. No, literally: the CIA coupled sleep deprivation with the sound of colicky babies crying to torture people. It makes sense, evolutionarily — nature would want us to address our babies needs, so why not make their preverbal way of asking for help something that causes us intense distress that we want to alleviate immediately?
But babies don’t always cry for an immediately discernible reason, and in the first weeks, you may not have figured out which cries mean "poopie diaper" and which mean "I'm hungry" and which mean "I have farts inside my body that I want outside my body but I don't know how to work my butthole yet." So it’s the middle of the night. I haven’t slept more than 2 hours at a stretch in a week. And there’s a inconsolable screaming baby next to me. It was never going to go well.
Emotional breakdowns are a fairly personal thing, so I won’t go through the details here, but I will say that I classify one morning as among the worst moments of my life. That level of anxiety coupled with emotional distress brings all of your worst feelings about yourself right up to the forefront, and, having just pulled out of a depression, my worst feelings about myself were fairly raw and fresh.
It made me crazed enough, in some moments, to wish I could do anything — anything — to stop the baby from crying. If it hadn’t been drilled into my head that shaking babies kills babies… well, I hope that I wouldn’t have done it. But I don’t know that I wouldn’t have done it. And not being 100% sure that you would never do something that could harm a baby is a rough, rough thing to know about yourself.
The “It Gets Better” of parenting
At week 5, those moments are still relatively fresh, but they aren’t happening any more, and our daughter is behaving less like a fetus and more like a human every day. It is still stressful and tiring and often not fun. It is sometimes wonderful, but enough is said about that everywhere else.
If you have a newborn or are about to have a newborn and you have read this far, know this:
You are not crazy. It really is this hard. It does get better, but it does so gradually, and that moment where you will actually sleep through a night may seem impossibly, desperately far off, so me saying “It Gets Better” won’t really help you right now. You’re putting in a lot of work with zero returns right now — no smiles, no giggles, no looks of recognition in the baby’s eyes — and that is grueling work. Allow yourself to admit this.
There are a few things that new parents can do to try and get through the first few weeks (which, I promise, genuinely are the roughest). This is what worked for me, it may not work for you.
- Go to therapy. The one silver lining of my depression was that I already went to therapy, and this was essential for getting through the first few weeks. My therapist gave me tips on dealing with the stress, but more importantly, he listened.
- Don’t take it out on your spouse — instead, commiserate with each other. My wife feels like an old war buddy now. We’re closer than ever. If we’d been at each other’s throats, our marriage would be over. It was that bad.
- Try putting in earbuds when the baby is crying. It keeps you from getting too stressed, but allows you to still try to soothe them. The “just put the baby down” advice that most people give is difficult because it doesn’t stop the baby crying, and, if you live in an apartment as we do, you can’t really escape that sound. Earbuds and music at least lowers the decibel level to something manageable. Of course, if you are on the brink of shaking the baby, just put her down and leave the room. But when you come back in, do it with earbuds or earplugs.
- Talk to friends that are parents, especially the ones that are willing to be frank with you. If it weren’t for a few friends and family who were bluntly straight-up with me about the difficulty of the first few weeks (“You’re gonna want to give the baby back,” “Hey: At some point in the next few months you’re gonna lose your cool. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”), I would have felt like I was going crazy and would have fallen into complete despair.
- If you need support and aren’t finding what you need from family and friends, the place I found it online was — don’t laugh — postpartum depression message boards. I admit that, technically, I have never been postpartum, as I have no uterus, but if you’re a man and you’re a parent of a newborn and you’re dealing with depression, then that’s the place where you’ll find people going through something that feels similar.
- Exercise and get fresh air. It sounds impossible in light of all the sleeplessness, but it is a requirement.
- Rope in friends and relatives to babysit. Go to the grocery. Sit in a park and stare, haunted, out over the trees. Go get a drink with your spouse. You’ll both be shellshocked, but getting away from the baby —even just to run errands — is a huge help.
It does us no good to not talk about these things, even if they're bleak. "It takes a village" is 100% true, but we are not organized into villages any more, so a lot of us end up feeling isolated and alone in our darkest moments. It doesn't need to be that way.
Featured image by Rick McQuinlan. That's another fun thing, by the way -- even if your baby's super cute, when they really start screaming, their face turns gargoyle-hideous.