Who's the boss?

When my daughter turned one, she decided to hasten the arrival of the Terrible Twos and began to throw daily tantrums fuelled by emotions worthy of a Greek tragedy.  Seemingly without provocation, I frequently found myself in a public place wrestling a screaming, kicking toddler off the floor, draping her over my shoulder and leaving the store with my face burning from embarrassment.

Her tantrums leech the pleasure out of things I normally enjoy, like browsing the local library, drinking a coffee while it’s hot, shampooing my hair without a tiny, fully clothed person coming into the shower, grabbing onto my legs and demanding that I read That’s Not My Meerkat.  Chores such as grocery shopping are even more tedious with a toddler who pleads to be unbuckled from the trolley with indefatigable persistence and runs away to grab cans of lentils and jars of olives off the bottom shelves.  She makes it impossible to hold her hand by tucking her arms under her armpits and swivelling her torso violently from side to side.  When I try to pick her up, she lifts her arms high above her head so I can’t get any traction and slithers down to the floor where she howls as though I’m attempting to kidnap her.  It’s like she has attended a defensive martial arts course without my knowing.   

The worst scene for tantrums is in the car, where her screaming is amplified, her rage inflamed by the seatbelt which stops her from rolling around on the floor as she would like to.  While driving, I’m helpless; my arms can never reach whatever toy, book or scrap of popcorn she demands.  One time, she screamed for her stuffed toy spider, furiously yelling “Spider!” and “Incy Wincy!” with all her might.  I waited until the lights turned red, unbuckled my seatbelt, contorted my body like I was auditioning for Cirque du Soleil, and handed her the spider.  

“No!” she shrieked, hurling it to the floor.  

“Spider!” she yelled a nanosecond after the spider had left her hands.  

We repeated this cycle a few times before I snapped, “I don’t know what the [expletive] you want!” 

The next day, I had a sense of deja vu as I rushed around the house packing her Bag-Of-All-Eventualities (cardigan, hat, shoes, bib, baby wipes, nappies, water, single servings of snacks, wooden puzzles, lift the flap books) and she grew tired of being left alone.  

“Kiki kaka!” she screeched, pointing at her stuffed koala.  I handed her the wretched koala.  

“No!” she bellowed, and hurled the koala away.  

“Kiki kaka!” she yelled again, pointing at the koala. 

I handed it to her.  She threw it away. 

“Kiki kakaaaaa!” 

Then: a moment of which I am incredibly ashamed.  I put my face inches from hers and snarled, through gritted and bared teeth, “Get it yourself”, with an expression that must have made her think I would bite her.  I have never behaved like this to another human being, not even when I was bullied by a belligerent man at work or when I confronted neighbours who were drunkenly partying until 4am on a Tuesday night.  Yet this person whom I love, whose mere existence is a daily source of wonder, can drive me to act more savagely than I ever have in my adult life.

I never wanted to be a parent who yells or swears.  I imagined that parenthood would reveal an infinite, inner reservoir of patience from which I could draw. I underestimated the effects of sleep deprivation and lack of personal space, especially for an introvert who feels oppressed and frazzled by noise and crowds.  In the absence of crowds, even one noisy person can drive me to despair.  Looking after a toddler involves attending to the nonsensical whims of a tyrant who wants to eat two kilos of cheese and a litre of moisturiser for breakfast and to leave the house wearing nothing but a pair of tights on her head.  She cares not for your sanity, well being, or the fullness of your bladder.   There are times when deep breathing and counting in my head, when attempting to reason in a clear, calm voice, and time-outs and closed doors have lost their effectiveness against the power of her battle cry and flailing limbs.  

Whenever I raise my voice or drop the F-word, I spend the next days tortured by guilt and self-loathing.  

It is not helpful when strangers, especially older women, approach you as your toddler writhes and wails on the floor and say things such as “You won’t win,” or, even worse, “Who’s the boss?”  What do these old ladies expect me to do - prove that I’m the boss by spanking my child until she apologises?

The only helpful thing I have heard is, “Yeah, this phase sucks.”

Parenting really does require you to relinquish yourself: your sense of control, your desire for punctuality or solitude or inconspicuousness in a crowd, your time, your sleep, your capacity to think clearly.  But I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for small moments of calm in the hurricane of noise.  A morning run that used to be my daily entitlement has become a weekly escape that brings me to near delirium with joy.  Every tantrum peters out eventually.   When it’s over, she lays her teary, warm face on my shoulder, hiccuping with the fatigue that comes from crying for a long time, and I remind myself that there will come a time when she no longer kicks and rolls about on the floor, but that may also be a time when she is too big for me to carry.  I inhale the scent of sweat in her hair and hold her, loose-limbed and warm, in my arms, and thank God for this girl who won’t let anybody be her boss. 

A change of heart

‘The Baby’ is no longer an abstract concept.  Here she is: resting her weight on my hip as I carry her to the park, surveying the world with her bright eyes, thinking her own thoughts, breathing warm, milky sighs into my ear, revealing pink gums when she smiles.  

When my husband and I had intense debates about the pros and cons of ‘having a baby’, the baby was an idea, an intrusion, the end of my life as I knew it.  At the time, life involved 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, a slavish devotion to morning exercise, overseas trips, and spontaneous excursions chasing ramen, gelato, or sunshine and sea breezes.  “We’ll have to spend all our money on it,” I said (referring to the baby), “My career will suffer and I’ll be bored out of my mind.  Our world will shrink.”  

And shrink it did, especially in the first months when I staggered around the house in a stupor of fatigue.  At first, I was too exhausted to feel bored.  Then, my daughter began to assert herself as an adventurous little person, and her sense of wonder gripped me and carried me along. 

She is completely without pretence.  Emotions dance across her face so clearly, they almost come with captions: the shock of her first lick of lemon, the agony of a lentil stuck in her nose, terror tangled with delight when her father throws her in the air.  When she laughs, that cascade of pure joy feels like something sacred.     

An unwitting master of mindfulness, the baby doesn’t agonise over past events or fret about calamities that lie ahead.  To her, there is only now, and whatever is in front of her demands to be grabbed and shoved in her mouth, whether vaguely edible (a shrivelled pea that rolled under the couch) or not (Birkenstock sandals, Macbook charger, a fistful of hair).  Her world may be small but, oh! - what wonders it holds!  Ducks to chase; sand to eat; glistening spiderwebs to touch; muddy sticks to chew on; endlessly surprising games of Peek-A-Boo to play.  

Each day, I’m constantly fighting guilt that bubbles to the surface at the smallest provocation, such as when I tell her through gritted teeth to “Go the [expletive] to sleep”, as well as the thought of future traumas, like her first time at daycare.  She, however, has no inkling of the impossible standards I impose on myself.  I committed a classic parenting mistake by leaving her on the bed for a moment and she crawled off the edge like Wile E. Coyote.  Minutes later, she smiled at me, though I was weeping mawkishly with remorse.  Each time she opens her arms to me, she teaches me to be compassionate to myself.  She trusts me completely, backflipping off my lap with utmost confidence that I’ll catch her and opening her mouth for the food I offer, not caring that dinner is only a fried egg and defrosted blueberries.  She reaches across the high chair and anoints my forehead with blue mush as though absolving me from motherly self-condemnation. 

I used to think having a child was an act of vanity, a desire for a ‘mini-me’.  But I see none of myself in her.  I love her not because she mirrors me but because she is a mystery.  What is she thinking as she blows raspberries on my neck at 4am?  Why does she find it hilarious when I gasp in mock surprise?  

She continues to reveal small facets of herself and, although she’s never spoken a word, she holds my heart completely.

Fighting anxiety to find joy

Steps I took to prepare for my first baby: consulted a pelvic floor physiotherapist; lifted dumbbells; skim read ‘Birth Skills’ on my Kindle; persisted with daily jogging; watched episodes of ‘One Born Every Minute’. 

After an incredible labour, when my daughter almost arrived on a Fitball under a shower, and after another shower and a tomato and cheese sandwich at 1am, I lay alone in the maternity ward and willed sleep to come.  But it eluded me, as euphoric vignettes of the day flashed in my mind (wow! had I really given birth?) and a midwife came every few hours to take the baby’s temperature, prod my stomach, and check my blood pressure.  Then, it was morning, which brought a trickle of visitors, interspersed with meals, and more midwives who thrust thermometers in my ears and cold fingers on my belly.  Friends perched on the end of the hospital bed as I fumbled through conversations, conscious of the ice pack between my legs.  Through it all, the baby slept, whimpered, or made feeble attempts to nurse.  

By the next day, I had barely slept for 36 hours and the adrenaline was wearing off.  

Fatigue does strange things to your mind.  I began to experience the world like I was inside a glass bowl; voices were muffled, faces were slightly blurry, and I felt isolated and unable to express myself.   I cried a lot.  My exhaustion brought a sense of impending doom.  Instead of the rush of love that should have been surging through my veins, all I felt was the burden of keeping the baby alive.  How could I sleep when she might stop breathing at any second?  I pushed her bassinet close to the bathroom and peed with the door ajar so I could make sure nobody kidnapped her.  I assessed how long visitors took to rub antiseptic foam on their hands because, suddenly, the world was teeming with deadly viruses.  When a visitor coughed while she was holding the baby, a terrible rage rushed through me, so fierce and sudden that I began shaking.  

At home, it only got worse.  Every two hours, I fought to feed the baby, struggling against her thrashing arms and her lips that clamped shut.  While nursing, she fell into a sleep so deep that nothing - not even cold, wet flannels on her bare chest - could rouse her.  Defeated, I would stagger downstairs to hook myself up to the hospital grade breast pump we had hired from the pharmacy while my husband bottle fed her.  In those dark hours, alone on the couch, I was assaulted with horrifying images of harm coming to the baby.  I saw myself tripping on the stairs while holding her, or fainting as I bathed her, and trying to stop these thoughts was as useful as catching water with a sieve.  

Then, the real crying began.  Hours of wailing reverberated through the house.  Each soul shattering, shrill cry ended with a gurgling shriek, like a furious exclamation mark, and the baby squirmed and arched in my arms as I tried to comfort her.  She didn’t distinguish between 3pm and 3am; she didn’t care if I’d only had ten minutes of sleep or that my back hurt; she didn’t notice when I joined her in crying, my fat tears dripping onto her forehead and cheeks. 

“What’s wrong?” I pleaded, my voice hoarse from exhaustion.  “What do you want?”

Her only answer was to scream, crimson faced, until she ran out of breath and her arms and legs turned a mottled blue.  

I dragged myself through unrelenting, repetitive cycles of nursing, rocking, and changing nappies.  The less sleep I had, the more anxious I became.  I was convinced that a red spot was meningococcal disease, a cough signalled the beginning of whooping cough, every sneeze was the onset of influenza, and flushed cheeks indicated fever.  Sometimes, my fear that the baby would die was so powerful that I hyperventilated and doubled over, wanting to vomit.   

This was an aspect of motherhood for which I was unprepared.  I knew I would be tired but the anxiety caught me off guard, paralysed me, sapped my joy.  Fear traps you in the lonely prison of your own mind where worst case scenarios play out in vivid detail.  You tell yourself that things will be okay but you can’t trick yourself into believing it.  You feel ashamed because your trials seem trivial compared to other people’s struggles; they can cope - why can’t you?          

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Thankfully, as I teetered on the edge of not coping, things began to improve.  A doctor, who was diligent and disarmingly kind, gently suggested that I see a psychologist.  Friends brought food, told me I was doing a great job, and didn’t overstay their welcome.  I let people hold her, as long as they didn’t kiss her.  My sister vacuumed.  People listened as I wept over the phone.  I asked for prayer, binge watched The Good Wife, decided not to read more baby forums.  Blocks of sleep extended from minutes to several hours.  The baby grew fat and finally smiled; and I was ready to smile back.