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First Person

A Struggle to Stay Calm When Baby Can't

October 14, 1998|TERRI PORTER CONIGLIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I've heard that time flies during the first year of parenting and so I've thrown myself at the mercy of each calendar page to slow it down, yet still it marches on. I kiss him all over every day because one day I expect that my son will push me away, that it will not be acceptable for me to kiss him from the nape of his neck to the tips of his wee toes, and to smell his sweet head.

The extent of my role as his mother astounds me. There is so much to learn and no book that teaches quite like the child himself. I actually welcomed El Nino. We spent days in our pajamas watching the rain, reading books and playing peek-a-boo.

My role as his mother was beginning to feel familiar when suddenly his two-hour naps became 30 little minutes. My most diligent attempts to return him to sleep failed. His refusal to resume rest came in the form of a horrible cry that took away his hunger and interrupted our nights.

As his temperament continued to sour, our days grew longer and my patience grew shorter. It is not easy to admit that his crying made my blood boil and his sleeplessness made me want to run, but it did.

I don't have a history of anger or abuse, so I kept telling myself that these feelings would go away. How could I even dare think otherwise? But as long as his crying continued, my emotions continued a downward spiral.

I'd handled all sorts of critical situations at work in which I was able not only to keep my composure but to perform brilliantly under pressure. Why now was I losing my patience? I took his misery personally. My perceived ineptness and lack of self-esteem led to a depression that was so embarrassing it stood in the way of any sort of recovery.

"He's just teething," everyone volunteered. "Give him a cold rag to chew on. He'll be fine." I tried the cold rag. I tried everything short of an IV dripping Valium. Homeopathic tablets, skinned apples, Tylenol, Motrin and Tupperware lids--you name it, I tried it. The most any of them did was provide temporary relief. Very temporary.

So there I was in the hallway listening to him cry, feeling like all I could do was cry too. I took some cleansing breaths, but my mind raced with his every wail. Tormented between the disciplined school of letting him cry and the emotional school of "for God's sakes pick him up," I didn't know what to do. Is it my fault that he won't stop crying? Mommy can't think.

I remembered a phone number from a billboard that read, "Parenting. It's the hardest job you'll ever love" and rang them for help. I was forwarded three or four times before I spoke with a woman who asked me straight out if I felt like I was going to hurt my baby. "God, no," I said. "But I am incredibly frustrated and would like to find a parenting group in my area." She asked me to phone back in two hours for a list of local groups.

Well, two hours later our situation was completely different. Baby was up and happy, and we were out the door to the park. I didn't call her back. What I didn't know is that the help line considers each call an emergency situation. And by not calling back, I had unknowingly committed a crime. Even if I had not hurt my baby.

The woman used her "star 69" function key to track down my phone number and didn't hesitate to call my husband's pager number, which was on our answering machine. When my husband answered the page, she urgently informed him that my agitated tone and failure to comply with her instructions led her to believe that this was a potentially volatile situation. She was afraid for the safety of our son and wanted to know where I was.

My husband was on a movie set in the middle of the desert and shut down production to find me. When I returned from the park, the answering machine was filled with messages to call him. When I found out why he was calling I was shocked, horrified and embarrassed. I sank to the floor with the phone in my hand and a sick feeling in my stomach. I envisioned police cars screeching up onto the lawn to take our son away.

Although the phone call started an avalanche of emotions that I didn't want to face, I'm still glad I called. I don't know where the discipline came from that day that helped me pick up the phone instead of shaking my baby. I feel for the parents whose lives are devastated because they lost control and in a few short seconds caused irreversible damage.

I know it is child abuse and I agree that it is shameless. But I also understand how it happens. How the baby's screaming races hot through their blood, and their heart pumps faster and faster until they can't think straight and their rage takes over. Yes, they are only babies and mommies should know better, but humanity doesn't always work that way. When that moment passes and they regain control, they must feel sick. Helpless. Embarrassed. Remorseful and devastated.

Women who find themselves shipwrecked on Mommy Island deserve help. Remember, there is no "poor baby" without a "poor mommy" nearby. If you know what I'm talking about and think you need help, get it.

My frustration that day was as serious as anything I have ever felt in my life. But I have now learned to relieve my tension by talking about it and reminding myself that I am my son's teacher. I am his vehicle to understanding behaviors, emotions and associations. He has to know that he can trust me so we can have a foundation from which to grow.

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