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What a Scream!

Before Murphy was born, every mother I knew said, "Your first son was a screamer? Then your next one will be an angel. No one gets two screamers." My friend Kim said, "My first was a nightmare baby, yelling from the moment he woke up. But the second was a dream, a Buddha baby." Another friend said that her first was a dream and her second, three months in hell. "But I guess that's the way it goes - you get one easy and one hard," she said.

Now, I don't go in for maternal prognostications. I never thought, when I was pregnant, that being shaped like the bow of a ship meant that my babies would be boys, even though they ended up being so. I didn't put any stock in the ring-over-the-belly gender-determining test. I didn't believe that it was bad luck to get the baby's room ready. It seemed pretty clear to me that all this voodoo on the part of mothers is an attempt to exert some kind of control over that which is cosmically uncontrollable. I am not like these mothers, I thought. It's all a bunch of hooey.

Except for the bit about not getting two screamers in a row. That made solid sense. If there is a compassionate God, surely he's not so cruel as to send consecutive screamers to an innocent mother.

Five weeks after Murphy's birth, I put him in the stroller, with him screaming like he's on fire. I've fed him, changed him, burped him, rocked him, and checked to see if anything's poking him. Everything's fine except for the nonstop screeching.

When my first son, Spence, used to cry like this, I'd become paralyzed with anxiety and helplessness. With Murph I've become practical: His screaming doesn't seem to have a cause, and it's not going to stop. So I manage to move through the days, my wailing companion in my arms, with resignation and faith that it will all turn out as well as it did with Spence.

I push Murph in the stroller, howling, to the preschool to pick up his older brother. He screams down the street, he screams in the 7-Eleven as I buy a soda, he screams as I open the gate to the preschool. He continues screaming as I pick him up and scan the playground for Spence. Suddenly, Barbara, the teacher, appears beside me. "Sounds like something's poking him," she says. "I've checked," I say. "Nothing's wrong. He's just a screamer. Spence was a screamer in the beginning, too."

"Usually, you don't get two screamers," she replies.

"Well, I did," I say. My sane self knows not to hear accusation in her pronouncement. But it's hard not to hear, "What egregious sins have you committed that God would send you not one but two screamers?"

Barbara stares hard at Murph, who's still wailing. "That's not normal screaming," she says. "It sounds like something is really wrong with him." I shift Murph to the other shoulder to give my left ear a break. "No," I say above the noise. "Nothing's wrong. He's just a screamer."A month later I stand on the same playground talking to Mako, a Japanese American woman whose husband is Jewish. Mako is a first-class overachieving mom. She speaks only Japanese to her trilingual child. At the preschool this year she has taught units on Hanukkah, American birds, and germs. For school potlucks, she makes sushi.

Mako and I have had our second children around the same time. We bring them to school occasionally and jiggle them on our shoulders as we watch our preschoolers show off. "Is Murphy napping yet?" Mako asks, glancing at Murph, whose usual shrieking isn't at full volume right now. I can only hope she knows that the cloud of passed gas I move around in emanates from Murphy and not from me. I keep meaning to ask the pediatrician about it. How much gas can one infant pass? Is this normal? I sure as hell am not asking Mako. I think of Pigpen in the "Peanuts" cartoon. My second screamer, with little wavy lines coming off him.

Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom by Brett Paesel (Warner Books, 2006)."]