Yesterday the whole family, cat included, tucked in for an early afternoon nap. It was blissful and lovely and–unfortunately–short lived.
After a couple days of more regular and frequent sleeping spells, the crabby, fussy, nap-resistant Felix of last week struck back. His old tactics were as sharp as ever: the full-lunged wailing in our ears, the headbutts to the chin caused by spastic neck control, the lips that curled down like a sour wedge of lemon, and the face that darkened to the color of a just squeezed zit. Any one of these sent a clear message that our baby was one miserable little creature, to which we, at the mercy of centuries old hormones and parental instincts, felt a mixture of upset, guilt, anger, and concern.
But Felix had been developing new skills at an amazing pace this week. He learned how to track my finger when I moved it in front of his eyes, and grab hold of things for short periods of time, and turn his head to look at things that interested him. So there were some new additions to his arsenal. During one frustrated fit, he grabbed the glasses off my face. During countless others he projectile vomited, because after all, nothing else says “It’s sick how unhappy I am right now” like spurting puke down the neck of the loving parent who happens to be slugging around and trying to placate your baby ass.
He threw up so much we started classifying his vomit. A couple minutes after feeding, the milk mixed with saliva formed an unctuous, creamy substance, that honestly looked a lot like semen. Quickly thereafter it curdled into a cottage cheesy mixture. The little gobs stuck to our clothes like ice cream smears, and when they came out of his nose they formed big white boogers that attached to the edge of his nostril and made him sneeze. This, I thought as the day went on, is the kind of intimate knowledge one gets of their child.
What also made yesterday different from last week’s terror of tiredness was that S was heading out for some solo time. In the past, we’ve both been around to share the fuss, passing the crying baby back and forth like a oozing cold sore. I wouldn’t be able to do that once S departed for the evening.
As the afternoon wore on, I hoped that Felix would get as bored with his crying as I was, but nothing seemed to calm him down. Even right after S fed him for the last time before leaving he was one grumpy dude, causing her to doubt whether she should go at all. Hoping to calm him down, I strapped him into his stroller and headed out before she could change her mind. Not only did I think it important for her to have some mommy free time, I also wanted to have a night with Felix alone, so I could get a taste of what I might have to deal with come September when S goes back to work and I take over this gig full time.
To sweeten the stroller ride, I thought we would head someplace fun–the wine store. Felix was a silent, wide-eyed observer the whole walk there, and when I ran into some neighbors he turned on the charm. I was the proud dad out on an evening stroll with his son, and all was well with the world. But unfortunately, Felix didn’t find the racks of Burgundies and Merlots nearly as interesting as I did, and within a minute of entering the store he started bawling.
“He’s really a good little baby, he’s just tired–it’s been a few hours since he slept,” I told the few people who looked at me sadly, shaking their heads as if I were one of those hapless idiotic fathers, unable to care for a child without the more capable leadership of a woman.
I’ve encountered this attitude before. The second time I brought Felix to the pediatrician a nurse, upon seeing me come into the examination room alone, asked where my wife was. I told her she was home recovering from the birth, to which she said incredulously, “You came alone?” I’m sure the new mothers in the waiting room with their two week year olds didn’t encounter such static.
But of course there in the wine store I did feel a bit embarrassed, as well as bad for the little guy, so I grabbed the first bottle that looked halfway decent and went on my way. When I got home about quarter to eight he had fallen asleep, so I decided to draw his bath and put him down early. I’m a So You Think You Can Dance nut, and I hoped to have him in bed by nine so I could watch the results show in peace. Leaving him downstairs sleeping, I crept off to fill the tub and lay out his pjs. Halfway up the steps he woke up in tears. I rushed back and tried to comfort him, but he became more upset when I pulled him out of the carrier, flailing his arms around and screaming in my ear so loud I was sure the neighbors could hear and were probably wondering what the hell I was doing to the poor kid. Or else they’d be shaking their heads sadly with a bemused smirk on their lips, like those people in the wine store. I felt pinned down in a catch-22, unable to get his bath and bottle ready with him in my arms squirming so much, and unable to stop him from squirming without a bath and bottle. Knowing it was a lose-lose, I decided to put him down and get his bedtime stuff ready.
When I came back a few minutes later to retrieve him, the unhappy little guy had worked himself into hysterics, crying so hard he was hiccuping and burping. I shook off my guilt and ineptitude and powerlessness and glued a smile on, and hummed to him, and barreled along like it was a completely normal night, changing him, then bathing him, then feeding him. But while the warm water soothed him, Felix never lost that trembly sniffling “I’m about to lose my shit” edge, and he started a routine of repetitive “LA LA LA” cries as soon as I started toweling him dry. These are his needy cries, the ones he lets out when he’s hungry or looking for a diaper change. The only thing that stopped him was giving him the bottle, and even then, whenever I pulled it away to burp him, he began to cry again.
WTF? I asked myself. We had gone through his bedtime ritual, the same routine that calms him down every night. With one big difference. Instead of the boob, he was getting the bottle.
In that moment, I felt so unable to care for him. If S had been here, she would have fed him right after our walk, calming him before bathing him. I had moved forward with the bath because I had only one bottle of milk and didn’t think I could stretch it over two feedings. Not only that, I selfishly wanted to get in front of the television in time for my damn program. I figured the bedtime routine would hold some magic of its own, quieting him and making him drowsy, when Felix was communicating in the only way he could that he was in need of holding and feeding and comforting. Comforting I couldn’t of provided.
Fortunately, after the bottle and a lot of rocking, he settled down. And by nine o’clock he had managed to get to sleep, while I had managed to whip up a quick omlet for dinner. S was happy with her time out on the town with her friends; it re-energized her to get away for the night. Which is great, because I’m going to need a lot more practice being with him alone–and I mean alone as in there’s not a breast a short distance away to latch him onto when he’s losing it–before I feel more confident and capable caring for him for a long stretch of time on my own.