What Colic Taught Me

by Deb Abramson

What Colic Taught Me

It was probably earlier than week four that our baby developed colic, but it was at that point that my husband, Alex, and I finally decided to admit it. Ezra had begun to wail for hours at a time. His cries were dreadful, lurching here and there, climbing higher and higher, as if scaling a dark and craggy cliff, bats circling, yellow moon: a horror story. Our evenings  — and sometimes our days  — were consumed with the task of trying to calm him. We bounced him, rocked him, wore him. We lay him across our stomachs, our forearms, our knees; we patted him on the back until our hands began to ache. We bathed him, we gave him massages with lavender oil, we fed him drops of chamomile tea. We turned down the lights, we turned on the vacuum cleaner, we held him in his car seat on top of the clothes dryer in the basement of our apartment building and fed it quarters  — a slot machine, a gamble.

Really, the odds were against us; so little of what we did had any effect. Sometimes, Ezra fell asleep for a short while. He breathed in gentle, rhythmic sighs. His fingers uncurled, his limbs softened, yielding to our bodies, to our conception of how babies should be. But he woke up crying before long. And what had soothed him earlier might now make him wail even harder. There was no system we could divine, no pattern on which we could rely. We were not building, through trial and error, a foundation of knowledge about our child’s preferences. We were not learning anything at all. Ezra, our son: still a stranger, impenetrable. His cries were so large and loud that they seemed to envelop him; they were so resistant to our efforts that they scared us. It was exhausting.

Often when Ezra was having a colicky bout, I put him into the frontpack, zipped him inside my jacket, and walked him. We went for miles through quiet, stately neighborhoods. Ezra cried out into the night. He held his fists tightly against my chest. The bones of my feet ached. I loved him and I hated him. We were a hot spot, an ember of touch and terror traveling these cold, broad streets. I peeked into the windows of the grand houses we passed, Victorians with fairy-tale details. Inside seemed like a fairy tale too: books lined up neatly on cherry-wood shelves, heads bent over the evening paper, silence.

For three months, meals went half-cooked; newspaper articles went half-read. The phone rang and rang. We did not answer. We did not do much of anything. Sometimes I cried. Sometimes Alex yelled. Sometimes we were rendered numb by stress and fatigue, by the need to get through the next hour, and our mouths hardly moved when we spoke. At night, before we passed out in the rumpled mess of our bed, we wondered whether we had made a huge mistake. "I mean, what was really so wrong with our lives before that we had to go and change everything?" my husband said. It was just us against Ezra, the interloper.

Push And Pull

Babies come equipped with certain attachment-promoting behaviors, so called because parents can’t help but respond positively to them. These behaviors are, as BabyTalk contributing editor William Sears, M.D., writes in The Baby Book, "so irresistible they draw the parent to the baby, in language so penetrating it must be heard." A baby coos or whimpers, and his parents run to him. He curls his fist around Mom’s index finger, and she falls in love. Dad wants to cuddle and protect; he and the baby grow more attached.

A baby’s cry is the most powerful of these behaviors. "It is the most effective mode for attracting a caregiver," writes baby guru T. Berry Brazelton in The Earliest Relationship. "A crying baby sets off an automatic response of concern, responsibility, and guilt in parents." But, as Dr. Sears notes, the colic cries are a very different beast: They "sometimes invoke anger rather than sympathy." These cries fall into the category of detachment-promoting behaviors: They engender bad feelings toward the creature we are supposed to be nurturing, and they shut down our caretaking impulses.

Ezra’s colic did make me angry. It made me furious, in fact; it made me want to flee. I was helpless, incredibly frustrated. I was at my wit’s end. Of course I loved him, but when he cried like that, he became so heavy in my arms, an impossible weight, a burden, something I didn’t want to hang onto.

Indeed, he himself seemed to be pushing me away. He cried harder, sometimes, when I tried to comfort him. He looked at me with such rage in his eyes. He lifted his head from my shoulder, rejecting the warmth of my skin. He arched his back, his body forming a close parenthesis, cutting me off from his secrets, keeping me at bay.

But in retrospect, I don’t think Ezra was shutting me out; on the contrary, I think he was letting me in, allowing me to experience what he was going through, enabling us to get attached in a deep and potent, if not always visible, way. As trying as it was, I believe his colic  — beneath the surface of exhaustion and frustration and helplessness  — was an attachment-promoting behavior in disguise. I believe it helped us grow closer.

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.

A Mother Emerges

Sometimes a major challenge will bring two people together, so you might say this was a bonding experience, plain and simple. But it was more than that: The very toughness of the ordeal brought us both hope and taught us something encouraging about who we were as mother and son. Seeing that I would not give up (though I sometimes felt close) and that I could rise to the occasion built up my confidence. I believe it built up Ezra’s, too. I truly feel he understood, in that dark, hidden, essential place where language isn’t a prerequisite for comprehension, that no matter how bad he felt, we weren’t really going to fall apart.

No, Ezra’s colic did not break me; rather, it broke me in, opening the door to motherhood. Kaplan talks about the "personality reorganization" that a new mother must go through in the first few months if she is to be fully responsive to her baby’s needs. She learns to adjust, to yield, to let go. Among the many things she lets go of are her assumptions about who she has been and her illusions about the kind of mother she will be. She gives herself over to the real act of mothering, which, I have to say, is both lovelier and more brutal. Some women welcome these renovations; others cling to the scaffolding of their former lives. I am that type of woman. I wanted to cook a three-course meal and get the cloth diapers washed. I wanted to fit into my size-four dress, get back to my seven-and-a-half-minute miles. Ezra’s colic forced the issue; there was no way to pretend that it was business as usual, plus baby. The run had to wait. I was, first and foremost, a mother.

And I was doing an all-right job of it, down there in the trenches, though it looked very different from what I had envisioned. During the dreamy months of my pregnancy, I imagined myself rescuing my baby from whatever distress he experienced. I imagined that when he cried  — in my mind, a kind of chirping, harmless song  — I would hold him, rock him, nurse him, and he would stop. I alone would be the answer; my presence, my touch, would fix things. Hush little baby, mama’s gonna…the mockingbird, the diamond ring, the looking glass, the billy goat: Whatever it took, I would find it. But this mama couldn’t find it; instead, she had to just hold her baby and wait out the hardship along with him.

Letting Go

As the weeks passed, I mastered the art of graceful helplessness. I now recognize this as a valuable parenting skill, one that I expect I will rely on often as Ezra grows. Someday, he will be a toddler awakened one night by a bad bellyache, an adolescent disturbed by the waywardness of his own body, an adult contemplating the most difficult of decisions. He will get hurt time and again as he makes his way. He will face challenges that try him to his very limits. This planet is waiting to bruise him.

I realized during those awful few months that it’s not always possible to step in and erase the pain; I realized, too, that it isn’t even necessarily desirable. Children, it turns out, are very resilient creatures. My guess is that creating a safe, consistent environment that allows them, whenever possible, to work things out for themselves, serves them much better in the long run. Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, author of Playing and Reality, called this kind of environment a "holding space": The child feels supported, but he has room to move, to test hypotheses, to explore, and to claim ownership of all his various efforts. Watching Ezra struggle so hard  — and then come through just fine, with a bright, broad smile on his face  — gave me the capacity to construct that holding space as we move forward, he and I, both of us negotiating uncertain terrain every day.

Ezra can’t always hold the rattle just right; he can’t always push himself up to sitting. Sometimes he crawls backward, and the ball he is so intent on grasping gets farther and farther away on the kitchen floor. But he keeps at it, and though my heart clenches with the frustration he feels, I do not go and get the ball for him. Instead, I cheer him on. With each small failure, his muscles are discovering new patterns; his brain is making new connections. Soon enough he will be scrambling across the floor, and what pride and satisfaction my little boy will know when, at last, he reaches that red ball and pounces.

Deb Abramson is the author of the memoir Shadow Girl. She lives in Vermont with her family.