I used to be the best mom ever. If I were the type of girl who used the word shit with regularity, I’d probably go so far as to say, “I was the shit.”
And then I gave birth to my son. And to be honest, in his first year of life all went to shit.
I remember a particular morning in late July with vivid detail. Breakfast is still on the table and there are half-dry nursing rings staining my pajama shirt. Everything is leaking—my breasts, Anna’s fourteen sippy cups scattered throughout the house, and my eyes—because I’m one week postpartum which makes me happy and sad all at once.
The baby yawns, the first sign of readiness for a nap, and I lay him down in our bedroom right after my husband leaves for work. It is his first day back in the office and I’m appropriately nervous.
I swaddle my son tightly and lay him right next to a white noise machine in his perfectly 68-degree dimly lit bedroom. He’s drowsy on breast milk so I rub his cheeks and leave with a confident, “Night night, sweet boy.” This time around I know exactly how to get babies to sleep. I’ve read the books, I know the theories, and I’ve put in my time. This ain’t my first rodeo, y’all.
So when he’s crying, merely 28 minutes later, I’m dumbfounded. In my mind anything less than an hour isn’t a sufficient nap, and I march into the room to pop in a pacifier and tell him so. I haven’t even emptied the dishwasher yet, let alone brushed my teeth or dressed his big sister. No, 28 minutes doesn’t work for me. This is just a fluke.
But then it happens the next morning, and the one after that. Soon it happens during the mid-morning nap, and the afternoon nap, and the bedtime hour. Each day that passes another nap goes down the drain until he’s three weeks old and barely sleeping. He only knows 28 minutes, and I only know…nothing. I can’t get him to fall asleep, I can’t get him to stay asleep, and the only time he’s not crying is when I’m nursing or holding him. Don’t even get me started on how car rides are going.
The months go on, and soon he’s four months old and still not sleeping, like, ever. I decide to be brave. When people ask how we’re doing, I tell them the truth: it’s really hard at my house. The responses aren’t encouraging.
“He’s just a newborn; this is what they do,” say the moms.
“My baby was like that and he still isn’t a good sleeper at age three,” say the other moms.
“Can’t you just hold him while you vacuum? There are plenty of great baby carriers these days,” say the most unhelpful moms of the bunch who clearly haven’t tried vacuuming with a lightly sleeping 20-pound infant strapped to their middle while big sister asks to be held too.
No one understands that I’m not really looking for advice on how to parent or sleep train or not sleep train; what I need is affirmation. More than anything, I’m longing for someone to meet me in this awful place of screaming and yelling to tell me, “Yes this is hard. He is not a great baby. He is cranky all the time. You have every reason to be exhausted and discouraged.”
Months and months pass without a lot of sleep. My baby grows bigger but he doesn’t cry any less. His sensitivity, persistence and opinions seem to only grow stronger, no matter what techniques we try. Oh sure, we have our beautiful smiley moments and my love for him is fierce and protective, but at the same time I also don’t really like him. A few friends ask if I might have postpartum depression, and while I suppose that’s possible, I think I’ve simply run out of reserves. The noise and the demands are all encompassing with no light at the end of the tunnel. Will he ever be happy? Will I ever be happy?
When he is seven months old, I call my parents for help. I need 24 hours without screaming and the grandparents swoop in without questions. While my husband and I love catching up and sleeping in, the best part of the weekend is what happens when we return. My mom, a baby whisperer, assures me they had a great time with the kids but adds, “He is a hard baby. I think he’s more difficult than you or your siblings ever were.”
Later, when I tell my husband what she said, I smile bigger than I have in months.
My mom’s words are part of a turning point for me, in part because they affirm my feelings, but also because she unintentionally gives me permission to reassess the starting line. Until that point I thought much of children’s behavior had to with parenting skills. While I still think moms and dads play a big role in teaching a child the way to go, I also believe some children are born with a head start. My daughter, the first born, fooled me into thinking that how I parented played a large role in her easygoing demeanor and great sleeping habits. My son’s arrival proved otherwise. In retrospect, it’s not rocket science. Some kids are great at math, and some are better readers, and some are natural athletes, and some are naturally sweet and some are naturally quite spicy. My son continues to teach me that I need to order extra water most days. Eventually, with patience and love and consistency, I think I’ll have to order less of it.
The hardest baby ever turns two in a few weeks, and both of us have come a long way since the infant days. He still spends a lot of time on my hip and cries more than his sister ever did at this age, but he also plays independently and sleeps like a champ. His opinions about food and clothing preferences constantly keep me on my toes, but he also cuddles better than a baby koala. I no longer think I’m the best mom ever, but in his little mind I seem to be which is all that matters. These days we try not to call him hard or difficult or strong-willed. We simply call him Owen. And without a doubt, Owen’s opinions and persistence will change the world someday.
He just has to let me put him down first.