Norris Geyser Basin
Eight years ago, Groom asked, “So, will you marry me?”
The answer, of course, was “Yee-haw, Moondoggie!”
And later that night, I got pregnant.
…which means that seven years ago this summer, I was the hormonal, exhausted, dazed caregiver of a three-month-old baby. I spent that summer not in Eastern Europe or Iceland, but on the couch.
The phrase “three-month-old baby” is perhaps too spartan for something so profoundly, infinitely complicated. I mean, I knew babies. I’d been a champion babysitter from the age of ten; I’d worked the church nursery with my sister (14 howling babies left me unphased; getting peed on by a newborn boy with a wild and independent penis was merely cause for laughter and a quick mopping up; having a child barf in my face was easily filed into my pantheon of New Experiences); I’d been a live-in nanny in Boston during college; after that, I’d been a live-out nanny in Minneapolis and Billings.
In short, the babies could wail, the toddlers could tantrum, the preschoolers could manipulate, the school-agers could negotiate—all while I sat lolling in the corner, picking at a hangnail, losing at Clue, Jr. while dusting off a pacifier. No biggie, them kids.
So it was shocking when my own child whupped my sense of easy competency and healthy detachment. Who knew having my own child would jettison me into panic and anxiety and an irrationality like I’d never known? Who knew having my own child would alter me organically, at a cellular level? Who knew a damn kid could make every single day feel the length of an Ice Age, each minute on the clock frozen into an icicle that was then embedded into a slow-moving glacier?
And these were the good days.
In terms of personal revelations, I learned very quickly that I don’t excel at consistency in intense situations. I don’t excel at patience when every single one of my bodily orifices is dripping. I don’t excel at kindness or small talk or driving or dressing myself when I’ve not strung together two straight hours of sleep in months. To put it simply: if the world is ever attacked by a vengeful race of robots, and everyone is killed off except about 46,000 human beings, and we’re all relegated to traveling in space for months and months, constantly chased by the ‘bots, running low on food and water, assaulted with every kind of stress–DON’T ELECT ME PRESIDENT. I’ll have us all dead in a day.
In my defense, though, Girl was not an easy baby those first months. Sure, I knew babies don’t sleep much. I got that.
But, both anecdotally and in the literature, the nightmare stories of non-sleepers would go something like, “He’s still up three times a night!” or “She only sleeps two-hour stretches, and I’m desperate!”
If it meant I would get a solid hour of sleep, I would have willingly had all my teeth extracted with a needle-nose pliers and then, using little more than my bloody gums, gnawed off my left arm (a true hit, since I’m left-handed); then, with my left arm strapped in next to me on the passenger seat, I would have gladly driven–one-armed–the 2,056.1 miles to San Francisco, where I would have, at a pre-set time and date with The Sandman, dropped my offering of flesh off the Golden Gate Bridge, into his waiting hands. And if I’d run out of gas during the 2,056.1 mile drive to San Francisco, be assured that I would have ditched my car on the side of the highway and started hitching, one-thumbed, my other arm tucked into my duffle bag, just to get there on time…if, if, if it meant The Sandman would honor his promise to hand over the gift of sleep to me and my Girl.
She really, really wouldn’t sleep. She didn’t sleep like nuthin’ I’d ever seen before. Her longest stretch of unconsciousness in the first months of her life was 45 minutes, and that occurred only if she was being held by an adult who was sitting upright on the couch. Oh, and before you try to bring any suggestions or superior experience to the table here, fair warning: I might have to rip your head off and spin it in a Cuisinart if you do (just a little lingering after-effect of the lack of sleep). Honest to Rip Van Winkle, we did try everyfreakingthing. Front, back, up, down, over, under, swaddled, hanging from gravity boots, with salsa, never on Sundays, toasted, and on roller skates–no matter what, she wouldn’t sleep. Occasionally, a cd of a waterfall fuzzing and burbling along, all placental-like, would make her eyelids droop. Momentarily.
Eventually, we hit upon a solution that would at least guarantee us our 45-minute stretches at night: I’d get her to sleep by holding, rocking, nursing her, and then Groom would, with all the gentle fluidity of Shields and Yarnell trying to pry their way out of an invisible box, ease her into her car seat. After that, strangely, out of some weird sense of propriety, we’d pick up her car seat and set it into her crib. And thusly, we would get our 45 minutes.
This deficit of REM sleep meant that neither of Girl’s parents actually knew his/her name anymore (I took to calling Groom “Bilko,” and he called me “Swansea”), but at least she was still alive, and that was saying something.
Then the colic set in. We just about didn’t come out alive.
My strongest memory from that period in the year of our Lord 2-ought-ought-ought is of a white Ikea chair. I sat in that chair, sobbing uncontrollably, holding a screaming Girl. She’d only been howling for about a kabajillion hours straight, and we’d been passing her off to each other every ten minutes, so as to avoid the tension and frustration that might spiral into something ugly, like putting her in the deep freeze, and we hadn’t actually talked to each other for weeks, outside of hollering in the other’s general direction (“YOUR TURN! NOW!”), and we hadn’t eaten or slept, so, although I tend to manufacture a little drama in daily life, this wasn’t one of those times.
Next to me, my sobs overshadowed by Girl’s ceaseless wailing, Groom stood, despairing: “Tell me what I can do. Just tell me what I can do to help.” All my brain could squeeze out was some second grade math: “Colic lasts, usually, the first 12 weeks of life, and she’s six weeks now. I, *gasp,* don’t, *sob*, think, *choke,* that I, *squeak,* can make it, *snot,* ONE, *hiccup,* MORE, *hack,* WEEK…muchlesssixmore *collapse.*”
Fortunately, the fog of fatigue kept me hazy enough through those intolerable six weeks, and they passed. And as the summer ripened, she stopped screaming ‘round the clock–although she continued NOT sleeping ‘round the clock–and we got through.
It is a marvel to me, as I look back on that summer, that we took a trip to a family reunion in Red Lodge, Montana. There, altitude aided the fog of fatigue in numbing me to the point that I didn’t know better than to enjoy myself. Save for when my dear, legally-blind father took a tumble down the stairs in the middle of the night, trying to find the bathroom in the rented condo, it was lovely to have a baby and a love and to be in the mountains.
After the reunion, some of us extended the trip by heading to Chico Hot Springs (host to one of the best dining rooms in Montana; just a little FYI for the steak lovers in the crowd) and then Yellowstone Park. In Yellowstone, we tip-toed through a wee hike (a pale imitation of any hiking I’d done pre-motherhood, but passably fine)
“Tried” is a very important verb in that previous sentence. Think about it: camping, whether in a tent, in an RV, or under a tarp, entails sleep of some sort. And we weren’t so much sleeping at all, anywhere, much less in a crowded campground, on a cold night, when Girl still slept in her plastic carseat. Plastic gets cold in the mountains at night, and the magical alchemy of plastic + cold = return of colicky behaviors. At 4 a.m., having slept not at all, feeling bruised and woozy from going 6 rounds with an infant caught in a state of rigor resisto when placed anywhere near her “bed” in the carseat, I was relieved by Groom, who saved the night (and the Girl)–for not the first or the last time in our relationship. He grabbed the little body of diapered, howling pudge, told me “Now get some sleep,” and proceeded to drive Girl around the roads of Yellowstone for a few dark hours; ultimately, when she nodded off, exhausted in a way she’d never been before, Groom pulled over and parked in the Norris Geyser Basin, where he sat until sunrise, snoring and drooling in the driver’s seat.
To this day, there is no greater proclamation of my love for the Groom than to lisp those golden, backlit words: “Norris Geyser Basin.”
By spelling each other and just letting the clock tick on, we got through those intense first month’s of Girl’s life, the summer of 2000. Once she got a few months older, we tried the Ferber method of sleep training; after a week, Girl capitulated and started alternating 1.5 hour periods of screaming with 1.5 hour periods of sleep.
Did you read me? An hour and a half of uninterrupted sleep at a time. An hour and a half. It was sweet, candied bliss on a stick.
Relieved and excited that the daily pressure towards infanticide had abated, we exchanged the marital high five known as a kiss and, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, assured each other that the worst was behind us.
Three years later, we had Wee Niblet.
He slept–I swear to you on my down pillow–twenty minutes at a time.