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).”]
The exception to the rule
“Not really,” I say, swaying Murphy as he moans, mostly to break up his unpleasant bouquet. “He’ll nod off,” I tell her. “But as soon as he senses me relaxing, he fires up and screams like I just chopped off his finger. You know how it is.”
“Wow,” she says, adjusting the almost-sleeping Kodi in her arms. “No biggie,” I chirp. “I just have to stay tense and he’s happy.”
Murphy’s foot jabs the air and an odor rises from him that could kill small insects. I move a couple of feet downwind. Mako moves closer. “Have you tried rocking him?” she asks. “Oh, yes,” I respond. Have I tried rocking him? Does she think I’m a total idiot? “Hmm,” she says, as if this is some puzzle to solve. “Have you tried humming?” “Humming. Yes,” I say. “And he still won’t go down?” “Not with rocking and humming,” I assure her. “Hmm,” she says. “Have you tried rocking and humming in a dimly lit room?” Not with the baby, I want to say. Only by myself – after a day of screaming, a few cocktails, and a hysterical call to my mother. “I think Murphy knows it’s a trick,” I reply. “He’s incredibly intuitive.” “I guess that’s possible,” she says, sniffing the air. I move again. Mako follows. “Are you still breastfeeding?” she asks. “Mostly,” I say. “I use formula whenever my nipples feel like they’ve been stapled.” “That’s it,” says Mako. “That’s why he’s farting like that. It’s the formula.” She turns and walks away, quiet Kodi nestled on her shoulder.
Maybe the gas is connected to the screaming. Maybe Murph is in tremendous gastrointestinal pain. I stop formula. I give him Mylicon drops. I change my diet. I rock him, bounce him, sing to him. Nothing works. He rarely sleeps, and when he’s awake, he’s screaming, moaning, or making a cranky-old-man sound.
Murphy wails on my shoulder as I pick up a package at the office of our building. The building manager is a grandmotherly woman named Boo – and she’s a kid magnet. Around Boo, stoned smiles spread across babies’ faces like they’re mainlining. Everyone’s baby but mine. “Does he always do that?” Boo asks. “Scream?” I ask. “Yes. That,” she says. “It sounds like something’s wrong.” “Not that I can tell,” I respond. She hands me the clipboard I have to sign to get my package. “Maybe he’s hungry,” she says. “Just fed him,” I say, signing my name. “Have you tried rocking him?” “Yup,” I say, adding, “Spence was a screamer and he turned out fine.” “No one gets two screamers,” she says. “Guess I’m the exception to the rule,” I counter.
I’m aware that I’ve begun to sound defensive, but I can’t help myself. Then something in me switches. “Turns out there are some new studies coming out of Johns Hopkins,” I say. “Johns Hopkins? Where did I get that? “Babies who scream early are significantly brighter, and seem to be immune to certain cancers.” Boo’s eyes widen. “Really?” “Something to do with all that extra oxygen getting to the brain.” Boo stares at Murphy, who passes gas and wiggles, his wailing dialed down to a soft moan. “I had one screamer and he’s my smartest,” she says, her gaze contemplative. “I’m not surprised,” I say.
I see gurgling, quiet babies everywhere – peaceful, pink-cheeked cherubs, smiling as they lie in their moms’ arms, in strollers, on blankets on the grass. I marvel at these beings who bear no resemblance to the creature I wheel around, his howling so loud as to seem an agonized plea to be released from his earthly existence. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome, but I’m starting to prefer my screamer. Those passive, bland babies, I think to myself – who needs ’em? All they do is lie there. I’ve got a lusty, full-voiced maniac who lets me know just how he’s feeling every second of every day. Aren’t I lucky?