Does Every New Mother Have Secret Homicidal Thoughts?
By Dana Norris
It’s Christmas Eve, 3 pm, and I’m lying in bed doing that thing you do where you’re sobbing hysterically with your hand over your mouth because you don’t want to bother anyone else in the house. And there are a lot of people in my house.
My family is sitting in my living room, just on the other side of my bedroom wall, quietly watching the movie Elf. They’re visiting me in Chicago for Christmas, but mostly they’re here to see my brand new, six-day-old baby son. The baby is asleep right now, so they’re making me sleep too. “Go to sleep!” they yelled while pushing me into my bedroom. “Go to sleep right now!” But I’m so tired I’ve lost the ability to sleep. All I can do is cry quietly and hope no one notices.
It doesn’t matter if I fall asleep or not, because in 25 minutes, I’m going to have to get up and feed my son again. When babies are born they immediately start to lose weight, and you have a two-week window in which to get them back up to their birth weight or else . . . I don’t know, I didn’t ask, but my doctor made it sound like it was bad. This is my first baby and he was born small and he has lost weight, so now I have two weeks in which to get him to gain weight and the only way I can get him to gain weight, to make sure that he’s healthy and thrives and is always swiped right on Tinder or Grinder or whatever sex app people use when he comes of age, is to, per my doctor’s orders, make sure that he eats at least once every three hours.
I have, according to the lactation consultant I called in a blind panic when my baby stopped latching the day we brought him home from the hospital, a low milk supply. So when my son eats, I need to make sure that he spends 20 minutes on each breast, which is 40 minutes total, and then I have to stimulate my milk production by pumping. It takes 15 minutes to set up the pump because there are hundreds of bullshit plastic parts to stick together, and then I have to pump for at least 30 minutes, which I do, in my living room, in front of my entire family, nipples being sucked in and out of clear plastic tubes where my Dad can see and I’m so tired that I don’t even care. And then I have to take the pump equipment apart and go and wash it out and sterilize it for the next feeding so my baby doesn’t get botulism or whatever terrible titty milk disease exists, and the three-hour clock starts at the beginning of a feeding, not at the end, so when I’m done I only have one hour until I have to start over again. I use that time to go to the bathroom or eat food or stare at a wall and think, “Why did I do this?” And then I feed my baby again. And again. Eight times a day, once every three hours, which accounts for, you may notice, every single hour in a 24-hour day.
Everyone tells me to use my precious one-hour window to go to sleep, to get the only sleep I am going to get, so I close my eyes and I try, I try, I try to sleep, I need to sleep, I have to sleep, I haven’t slept in six days and I will never sleep again and I am so tired that I can smell colors and I know that the walls are moving when I’m not looking at them and I know that I need to stop crying and I need to stop trying to figure out exactly where my family is in the movie Elf.
I need to calm down and go to sleep because if I don’t sleep I am going to die.
Six days earlier, at 5:55 am on Thursday, December 19, my son, August, was born, and my world contracted and then exploded in a blast that still dazzles me. He was part of me, part of my body, and then his head, shoulders, back, legs, toes emerged into the world and I saw him for the first time, pink and screaming and covered in his own shit from the waist down, and something in me unknotted, released, and I wept with a joy I have never before known. My husband and I were in a hallucinatory state of happiness. We spent the two days at the hospital after the birth in a love cocoon, spending every moment together as a new family, spending hours staring at this new little man, his fingers and toes, his nose, his ears, the way he sighed in his sleep or moved his mouth when I was near. It was like staying up all night with a new lover — you’re so tired, but you’re so deliriously happy that you just don’t care. This person, this love, is worth it and you don’t need sleep because you don’t want to miss a moment of this love.
The hospital room was large with a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on dozens of downtown Chicago buildings and a tiny patch of lake. I fell asleep one night, me in the hospital bed, my husband in the couch bed the hospital uses to ruin the backs of new fathers, and our baby asleep in the bassinet between us. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of my son shifting, and through the large windows I saw a fog rolling in, across the city, from Lake Michigan. The fog was thick and had a dusky golden glow from the reflected light of the city all around. I watched as the fog slowly obscured all of the surrounding buildings until it was just us, my family, in this room. I felt enveloped by this fog, protected, me and my tiny, new family. We were alone, sleeping, safe.
But then they make you leave the hospital. And you learn that newborns are negative feedback machines. When they’re happy, content, in love, joyous, they . . . stare quietly. Or sleep. But when they’re tired, or hungry, or uncomfortable, or any other of the thousands of iterations of negative emotions, they scream. They scream a scream that makes you wonder why you did this thing. The sound of your baby crying tears at you. It’s like your own heart, outside of your body, screaming for help. It resonates through your every cell and wakes you out of the deepest sleep with a heart-stopping startle, and you will do every single thing you can do to make that sound stop. And when it does stop, and the baby finally sleeps, and you drag your body back to your bed to finally, finally slip into sleep yourself, you do not know how long you have until that terrible sound starts again. Five minutes? An hour?
All you know is that the sound that wakes you will be your baby screaming.
My family eventually goes back to Indiana and my husband goes back to work and I’m on maternity leave, alone, doing nothing but feeding this baby and struggling with the feeling that I can’t make him happy. So my brain tries to help. It offers suggestions for how to make this situation end. Take a bowl, fill it with water, take the baby, hold his head under water, just a little bit, just for a few seconds, just until the crying stops. I am terrified of these thoughts. I am terrified of myself. I can’t sleep and I can’t think these thoughts. I’m a new mother and I hate this. I hate it.
One night, after the baby is asleep, I stare at my husband with damp eyes for a beat too long and he says, “What?” I want to tell him. I want to tell him about how when I’m alone with the baby all day I’m thinking horrible thoughts and it means that I’m crazy and a bad mom and I deliberately brought this new life into the world but now I want him to go away so I can sleep. I want to tell my husband but I’m afraid that he’ll hate me, or pity me, or be scared of me. Because I’m scared of myself. I open my mouth. I say, “Sometimes . . . when the baby cries . . . I think about stopping him. Like, putting his head underwater or . . . something.”
My husband immediately hugs me, which is good because it probably doesn’t mean instant divorce. He lets go, holds my shoulders, looks me in the eye and says, “Honey. Me too. I think about putting the baby’s head in water too.”
I am stunned. I smile. He smiles. I say, “Pinky swear that we’re not going to kill the baby,” and he does. We start to giggle and then cackle with laughter, the way two people in the middle of a temporary, self-created hostage crisis do.
I try new thoughts: is it possible that every single parent has, at least once during their child’s infancy, usually at 3:26 am, actively decided not to murder their infant? I start thinking that maybe I’m reacting quite normally to an extreme state of sleep deprivation. I start thinking it is wholly unnatural to lock a person away with a newborn by herself all day. I start to make sure that I see other people, take the baby out. I start to make sure that I tell the truth when people ask me how it’s going. I seek out other moms and tell them that I feel like I’m failing. I start asking for help.
Everyone I reach out to reacts in the same way: yes, this is the hardest thing you have ever done. Yes, it is impossible. Yes, you will somehow do it. And then, one day, a few months from now, without any warning, your son will stop screaming. He will sleep through the night. You will sleep through the night. In the morning you both will wake up and you’ll go to your son’s crib and he will smile and laugh and hold out his arms to hug you. And you will struggle to remember this time when you were so staggered by exhaustion and ignorance and terror that you couldn’t trust your own thoughts. You will struggle to remember because you will be on the other side then, with us, and you will finally know that this is a time of deep, dark, endless loneliness that ends. And in which you were not ever, in any way, alone.
Lead image: flickr/London looks