It was supposed to be a relaxing family vacation, one my husband and I both needed. Eight months into parenthood, we were dying to escape to our friends' serene island house for a few lazy days when we could gaze at the ocean instead of piles of laundry. But that first night, while our pals' kids were sleeping peacefully, our baby girl was utterly inconsolable. Instead of enjoying wine and conversation by the fire, we paced in a guest bedroom, trying everything we could to stop her howling: more milk, more rocking, another lullaby.
I'm not sure what time it was when my frustration turned to anger. All I know is that in a heartbeat, I was mad. Mad to not be enjoying this rare time with friends, mad about the cumulative hours of sleep I'd missed, and mad that all future "vacations" might look like this. But hovering on top of that rage was a darker layer: I was mad at my daughter. My sweet baby. Why was she doing this? Why was she so hard on me, after everything I sacrificed for her, day in and day out? Why wouldn't she stop crying?
In the wee hours of that night--my heart racing, my jaw set--I went to console my daughter and whisked her up more roughly than I meant to. My husband caught my eye and said, "My turn," taking her from me gently--and I started to cry. I retreated to a quiet room, stunned at the wave of rage I'd felt. What if my husband hadn't been there? How did I get to that place? And did it mean that I was unfit for this uber important job? Later that night, that anger seemed impossible. Yet it had been real.
After returning home, I felt deflated and alone. I was sure none of my mom friends had ever faced the feelings I had experienced on that trip. They all appeared so kind, competent, and on the ball. We'd talk ad nauseam about swaddling and nursing, but no one had ever mentioned anger. I was too ashamed to be the first. It's one thing to fume about a stubborn toddler acting up at a store, but an innocent infant who can't even crawl? It struck me as abnormal, even monstrous.
Adding to my confusion was the deep love I felt for my daughter. I had wanted her--and waited for her--for so long. I was happy to be her mom, in love with her and my new family. How could I possibly have gotten so mad at her, simply for being a baby?
I don't like to talk about difficult things. I avoid conflict when I can. Fortunately, I have a husband who is more willing to draw out the dark stuff, and he pressed me to open up about the episode when we returned home. "I just felt so infuriated at the moment," I finally confessed. "The adrenaline started pumping, and I couldn't think straight." Instead of judging me, he admitted he was ready to boil over sometimes too. It was clear: No matter how content we were in our roles as parents, that night certainly wouldn't be the only time that we'd deal with bolts of anger.
Of course, babies are a source of amazing joy, but they test our emotional equilibrium too. When you consider the lack of sleep, surging hormones, relationship tension, and the mental and physical stresses of new parenthood, well, we're all human. Everyone has a breaking point, and we each have a way of reacting when we reach it. Some parents cry. Some yell. Some slam doors or punch walls. Some have terrible thoughts. I realized it wasn't strange to feel the way I did. But I had to confront those emotions to move forward.
I've come to understand that one of my most important responsibilities as a parent is to be prepared for the moments when I am overwhelmed. My husband and I forged a plan in which we always have each other's back. We keep an eye out to see when the other person is getting heated, and offer a time-out with no judgment. We made a vow that if one of us was on our own and started to feel out of control, we'd put the baby down in a safe place and count to ten, waiting until we calmed down before picking her up again.
That muchanticipated weekend away turned out to be anything but relaxing, but it did give us what we needed: a few parenting epiphanies that I hold close to me still, with two wonderful girls who are years out of diapers. I learned that you have to know when to give yourself a break by leaving the room (or the house, if there's someone to fill in) and taking a few deep breaths. I learned that you have to talk about the tough stuff--with your partner, your friends, or a counselor. When you do, you will see very quickly that you are not alone. Whatever emotions you've been bottling up will be less scary once you share them and receive empathy and understanding in return. And perhaps the most important lesson is this: Facing an emotional challenge and getting the tools you need to deal with it will make you a stronger parent. I know it's worked for me.
Your Anti-Freakout Plan
We all have days when we reach our limit. The important thing is that you acknowledge the frustration and anger welling up inside you and that you don't take it out on your child. "It's difficult to be the mother of a crying baby," says Carole Morgan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. "Try to avoid feeling guilty about your emotions, but attempt to regroup so you can get back to taking care of her." Do your best to understand why your infant is crying. If the answer is unclear, take her outside for a walk to clear your head, or ask a partner or neighbor to step in until you can steady yourself. If you ever feel you might harm your baby, put her in her crib and call in a backup right away. "If this is a recurring issue, seek help from a therapist," Dr. Morgan adds. - Jessie Wohlgemuth
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of American Baby magazine.