When my friend Cassy first told me about her husband’s struggle to bond with their infant, I thanked my lucky stars we didn’t have the same problem. Sure, my daughter always preferred me when she was inconsolable, but it wasn’t any kind of toddler behavior like what my friend was going through.
Cassy experienced four months of solid hell, in which her baby wouldn’t be held, played with or even looked at by her husband without it resulting in a screaming fest. Her child wasn’t experiencing colic. Her pediatrician didn’t have a suggestion for her that they hadn’t tried. And Cassy’s husband shares 50/50 in childcare — he actually works away from the home less frequently than she does. Although it let up for a month or so, it picked right back up again.
Then, out of the blue, my daughter started doing the exact same thing.
It hit the breaking point one night when Shaun came home from work. Though he was all smiles from the moment he walked in the door, she wouldn’t look at him. She played and giggled with me, but when Shaun joined us on the floor, she started crying. Later, when she fell and hurt herself, Shaun went to pick her up. Normally, any form of comfort after a fall will at least slow her crying to a sob. Instead, she broke into an all-out wail. Poor Shaun did his best to remain calm, speaking to her in his low, musical voice. She screamed harder and pushed with all her might against his chest to get away.
It wasn’t long before Shaun plopped her down, looked at me stone-faced, and said, “I’m done with her for the night.”
In retrospect, I can’t blame him. But my only thought at the moment was, how dare you? So even though I’ve been caring for her nonstop from seven until five, suddenly it’s all on me for the rest of the night?
If you don’t have a child, this is the best I can explain what it feels like to care for a baby like mine: it’s like being hooked up to an electroshock machine, and every shrill cry is a zap that puts your body into total arrest. You carry the machine around all day, tense and bracing yourself, knowing you’re okay now but at any second you might be zapped again. It has a way of keeping you from ever fully relaxing. And as a SAHM who gets a mere two hours of physical separation from my daughter a week, you may see how this can be quite taxing.
So when my husband decides he’s “done with her” for the night, I am reeling. My mind goes instantly to Cassy, who I call once baby is in bed. I’m outside smoking a cigarette, because I just don’t care anymore. After I’ve told her what’s going on, she sighs. “I know this is probably not what you want to hear,” she said, “but if it’s like what we’re going through, I really can’t tell you if it will ever get better.”
She has a handful of suggestions for me, some of which worked briefly for her — but none that truly solved the problem. The only conclusion we can come to is that now, more than ever, it’s essential that we as mothers get breaks from our babies so we aren’t run ragged. And that we make time to maintain our relationships with our husbands, because this is the kind of thing that sends a wrecking ball into even the stablest of marriages.
Since that night, we have had glimmers of progress in an ongoing storm of difficulty. One morning Shaun took baby, alone, to the mall. I figured neutral territory would at least keep her from freaking out. And it worked. She napped in the car on the way home. I got two hours to clean my desk and organize my file cabinet, the SAHM’s equivalent of running a marathon.
But my daughter still physically pushes my husband away when he tries to comfort her. I feel for him as he takes a breath and shifts her from one arm to the other, hanging onto that singsong voice even though I know he’s minutes from snapping. I get so caught up in the haze of my long days alone with baby that I forget how hard it must be for him, to arrive home from managing a restaurant to be greeted by a baby who refuses him completely. My challenges and his challenges are different, and the bulk of our arguments stem from feeling like the other just doesn’t get it.
My friend Cassy was right: it doesn’t seem to get any better. At the same time, it’s not like we can turn around and undo having a child — and neither of us are the kind of women who would use divorce as anything but a last resort. It seems that our only path is to hope that once these babies can communicate with words, things will change. We can’t count on much, but we can count on the fact that no child stays a baby forever.