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Why All the Fuss?

Toby is fussing again. It is not yet a full cry, although it may become one soon. It is more like an urgent moan, over and over. Uhh, uhh, uhh. His face is twisted into a miserable grimace, and mine probably is too. I put him down on the living room floor to play with his toys, but he holds his arms up to me. Uhh, uhh, uhh. I help him stand up, letting him balance his weight on my shoulders. He is quiet for a moment. Maybe that's all he wanted  -- to stand up. Then he starts again. Uhh, uhh, uhh.

I look at the clock. Seven minutes have passed since I last looked at the clock. We're still an hour and forty-eight minutes from his next nap, which will inevitably last only thirty-two minutes. Thirty-two minutes of peace. Thirty-two minutes with no "uhh, uhh, uhh." I think I will tear my hair out. I think I will pick a fight with my husband. I think I will throw this baby out with the trash. How will I make it through the day? Even if I can make it through today, what about tomorrow? I feel the now-familiar panic rising through my body.

I can't do this anymore, I think. Then I remind myself, I have to do this. I am his mother. When Toby came home from the hospital, he seemed like the best baby in the world. He latched on perfectly (if painfully), he slept peacefully between feedings, and he never cried unless he was hungry. He was ridiculously good-looking; not a squished newborn, but a real person, with a gorgeous tuft of light-brown hair and bright blue eyes that seemed to really see me from the start. I was relieved. I knew a lot about babies, and I understood that what kind you got pretty much depended on the luck of the draw. After graduate school, I had worked as a social worker, doing in-home therapy with depressed new moms. I knew about "temperament" and how some babies had more trouble blocking out stimuli than others. I knew that some babies tend to be regular and predictable, and that others have no internal timetable. I knew that there were "hard" babies and "easy" babies, and I felt lucky. I thought I'd been handed an easy one. I was in for a surprise.

Sarah Trillin is a clinical social worker and mother who lives in rural New Jersey.

Tough times

I can't say exactly when Toby became fussy. It kind of snuck up on us. When he was about two months old, we noticed that Toby's sleeping schedule seemed to be moving in the wrong direction. He was waking up more and more often in the wee hours and seemed very gassy  -- farting all night and spitting up all day. Some nights he woke up crying every hour or two. Other nights he could only sleep on one of our chests. The pediatrician suspected that Toby had a dairy allergy, and a little blood in his stool confirmed this. I cut all dairy out of my diet, and Toby's gassiness receded a bit. But he still spit up about a hundred times a day, and continued to sleep terribly. There were other issues, too. If Toby heard a loud noise, he would pause for a moment, then let out a blood-curdling scream, followed by whimpering that lasted for ages. He hated bright lights. And he couldn't bear to be around more than one or two people at a time.

Getting desperate, I contacted a developmental pediatrician I'd worked with in my social-worker job. He reminded me of all the things he'd taught me about newborns. Between 8 and 14 weeks is when babies are most likely to have "colic." His theory: Colic isn't actually a sickness, but rather a result of a baby's oversensitivity to stimuli during a time of very rapid brain development. Stimuli both internal (gas, other pain) and external (noise, light) could be overwhelming during this period. He reassured me that most babies become less fussy after this developmental spurt  -- although he also pointed out that his two children were sensitive way beyond their colicky phases. He made suggestions about ways to reduce stimuli in Toby's world (i.e., lowering lights, keeping noise to a minimum). Most important, he said, was for me to get rest and support. In other words, there isn't much you can do to change a fussy baby. You just have to get through it without going off the deep end.

In Toby's fourth month, his night sleep was much improved, but his naps continued to be painfully brief and the fussiness was as bad as ever. A new problem was also emerging: Toby had the world's youngest case of separation anxiety. If anyone other than my husband or I held him, he screamed his head off. Worse, he was developing a perpetually worried look-his face scrunched up in misery with the threat of tears always just behind his eyes. It was as if he feared we would abandon him. Sometimes he'd smile or laugh, but more often he seemed discontent. Once in a while he'd make happy, cooing baby sounds, but more often it was that miserable fuss sound  -- uhh, uhh, uhh. We became obsessed with getting Toby to smile. We also became obsessed with a question that would plague us for many months to come: Why is Toby fussing? For me, it was always followed by a more painful question: What am I doing wrong?

And then it got worse. When Toby was 6 months old, I went back to work part-time. We put Toby in a lovely home daycare near our house. My baby made his fussing sound for eight hours a day at daycare. The only time he stopped was to break into a full-fledged scream. He refused to nap. The weeks went on but he did not adjust. In fact, he appeared more and more panicked every time we left him. Within six weeks, Toby had been kicked out of daycare. I had to cut back to working just one day a week, when my husband was able to stay home with Toby. The other six days I listened to Toby fuss and wondered if having a baby had been such a good idea.

After Toby was ushered out of daycare, my self-doubt reached an uncomfortable height. Was Toby fussier than ever because I'd gone back to work? Was Toby picking up on some anxiety of mine that I was not dealing with? Did I just have no idea how to parent in a halfway decent manner? When we spent time with friends who had babies Toby's age, I felt worse than ever. I'd watch as our friends' babies smiled, babbled, and played happily, while Toby sat on the ground and made the fuss noise, too upset to even pick up a toy. What was the matter? Why was he so unhappy?

Most things people offered up to try to be helpful only made me feel worse.

"Wow, he really should be over colic by six months," one friend said.

"Maybe it's because he lives in the country, and you don't take him around other people a lot. That could be why he's so sensitive," another one offered.

Everyone had a theory. My husband and I had a hundred theories. I would lie awake at night going over them in my head. Maybe when those teeth finally broke through it would be better. Maybe when he could crawl it would be better. Maybe when he discovered object permanence and realized that my husband and I would always return, it would be better. Of course, even if one of these theories were right, there was nothing I could do to speed Toby through this awful phase. I had no control over his fussiness.

Turning the corner

Then one day I was talking to a colleague from work. I was telling her about Toby's inconsolable nature and how I often felt like it was my fault. "When I had my first daughter, she was the easiest baby in the world," my coworker told me. "She never gave me a moment's trouble, and I thought it was because I was the perfect mother. Then my second daughter arrived, and she never stopped fussing. That's when I decided that it's all biology." At that moment, I felt as if someone had handed me a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The blame I was piling on myself for Toby's fussiness was just as "deserved" as my colleague's crediting herself for her easy baby. Maybe it was biology, or maybe it was an anxiety that Toby was picking up on. Did it matter? I was doing the best I knew how. So was Toby.

Slowly, I accepted myself as a competent mother, and I also accepted Toby for who he was. My son was overwhelmed by light and noise, just as I hated crowded, noisy restaurants. Toby took a while to warm up to new situations  -- just as my husband had cried hysterically on his first day of school up until junior high. Toby was a worrier. Clearly, so was I. But Toby was also tuned in to people and activity around him in an intense and fascinating way. He was a lover of music. He was a snuggle bunny. The more I got to know Toby, the more I saw his "difficult" qualities in a positive light. And as I got to know myself as a mom, I liked what I saw. I could stick with my baby through thick and thin. I could take the time to really know my son, without demanding that he be somebody else  -- a perfect baby. Toby's fussiness helped me bond with him in a way I'm not certain I would have had he been the easy baby I'd hoped for.

It is 6:22 a.m. on Toby's first birthday, and he is fussing. But I am smiling. He is fussing because he's waking up from 11 solid hours of sleep, and he is excited to start the day. He can't wait to scoot around on his bottom, chasing the dog. He's eager to pull himself up on the window seat and cruise from one side of the ledge to the other. He is hungry and wants to stuff his mouth full of juicy, ripe melon. I can't wait to get him from his crib. A few months ago, we realized Toby had pretty much stopped fussing. Around that time, he also stopped spitting up and started taking decent naps. Was there a connection? Maybe, but we'll never really know, and it really doesn't matter. I will not hear any "uhh, uhh, uhh" today.

I will hear him say "dada" or "nana" (mama?) as he hands us something he'd like us to look at. I will hear his serious silence as he focuses on arranging piles of Cheerios on his tray, just how he wants them. And I will hear his squeals of laughter when his doggy finally lets him catch her or his daddy blows kisses on his neck. He still lets out blood-curdling screams when he is frustrated. We are trying to teach him the sign for "help," so he can substitute it for the screech when he can't get the big cup into the little cup. But we're not too worried. The scream hurts our ears, but it is very much Toby's scream. We could pick him, with that screech, out of a sea of 1-year-old boys. He is very much our child, and I love him with a love that's surely bigger than any in the history of mothers and sons.