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What Colic Taught Me

A Scary New World

In the first few weeks of life, a built-in filter that theorist Louise Kaplan refers to in her book, Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual, acts as a "stimulus barrier" to protect babies from the barrage of sights and sounds, surfaces and smells, that make up the world outside the womb. The newborn takes in only the tiny cluster of sensations that he is capable of handling; the stimulus barrier shields him from the rest. He appears not to hear the dogs barking in the middle of the night; he can fall asleep in the thick of a party, oblivious to the camera flashes, the thump of the music, the moist heat and heavy breathing of wildly dancing bodies.

But soon enough, the barrier dissolves, and he is left to struggle with the thousand unfamiliar impressions that assault him each day. His skin feels just right, and then, out of the blue, uncomfortably cold. Strange sounds disturb him. A shape approaches him and then retreats; what makes it come and go? The world is chaotic, without a predictable structure, without rules that can be counted on. Inside, too, confusion reigns: fatigue, hunger, gas. A baby is still learning what each of these means; for now, because he lacks internal "organization," they can overwhelm him. Gravity is unrelenting. So little lies within his control.

How much lay in my control when Ezra was colicky? Did I recognize the life I was now living? I was also disoriented, confused, helpless, hurt. My home had become a foreign place, each day a difficult surprise, without rhythm, without a recognizable form. My nerves were taut wires, my sleep cycle was thrown out of whack. The slightest disturbance made me cry: I was missing a sock, I stumbled walking the dogs in the woods, a spice jar fell and shattered.

Ezra's colic made me cry too. "Why are you crying?" I sometimes said to him  -- sometimes yelled at him  -- through my tears. "Ezra, why are you crying?" But deep inside, I think I knew why. We were both having trouble adjusting to this new setup and all the demands it made on us; we were each, in our own way, grieving for the lives we had lost. Although we seemed like enemies at times, we were really partners, wandering a strange landscape, trying to find our way. We were in this mess together, day after difficult day.