Stress.

This is my very good friend Shannon. She’s the most calm person I know. Even when she’s furious, which is very rare, her manner is always placid and always, always competent — steady as a rock. One of the first times she came over to see the babies, Jack was having one of his freak-out sessions — he was at his worst, when he would pitch absolutely horrifying fits worthy of a two-year-old — and I had to leave him with Shannon to run and make a bottle in the kitchen. I apologized profusely as I thrust the writhing baby into her arms and rushed out of the room. Five minutes later, I came back to find Jack as calm as I had ever seen him, nestled under Shannon’s chin as they both gazed out of the window. Since then, Shannon has been one of Jack’s absolute favorite people, and even if it’s been a couple of weeks since she’s come over, he rushes to get to her as soon as she enters the room. I think he is drawn to her calm, steady nature — the exact opposite of his mom.

Once he hit about three months, Jack was a very difficult baby. He cried constantly and when he wasn’t crying, he was looking at me with what seemed at the time to be a distrustful, resentful look, as though he was constantly assessing my abilities as his mother and finding me woefully lacking. I am not proud of this, but sometimes I looked right back at him with an equally distrustful, resentful look. I could get Emmeline to nap, could get her to settle down, could get her to lay, contentedly, on her play mat, cooing the sounds of a happy baby, but there was always this other baby in the room, screaming out his constant dissatisfaction. I was tense, always, dealing with this unhappy baby on top of the other new mom issues I was muddling through — the fear and anxiety of not knowing how the hell to take care of two infants; the isolation of being by myself during a long, Chicago winter; and the remnants of post-partum depression that hung around for a while. One day, while changing Emme and listening to Jack wail from his crib, I looked down at Emme’s face and caught her staring at me, intently, her little brow furrowed and a look of worry carved into her face. I was immediately aware of my own facial expression: tight lips, brow lowered, angry eyes. ¬†From that day forward, I took note of the babies and their habit of regularly studying my face: one would cry, and the other’s head would swivel towards me to gauge my reaction. It was at that point I knew I had to take my head out of my ass and start trying to manage my stress and tension in front of the babies, lest they become little stress balls themselves. I didn’t have the luxury of self-absorption anymore. It wasn’t about me, it was about them.

Researchers think there are a number of horrific things that can happen during a baby’s brain development as a result of stress: kids can develop a low stress threshold, the immune system can be compromised, learning and memory can be affected — exposure to stress can even lead to the development of a smaller brain. These adverse affects can start as early as during fetal development: bad news, given my level of stress (due to my job and how lousy I felt throughout most of the pregnancy) during the 8 months I was pregnant.

I think back to all of the times I got frustrated during their first six months…when instead of picking Jack up when he was crying, I walked away from him. Or when I raised my voice. Or when the frustration showed clearly on my face. I think Jack might have been a baby who was particularly tuned in to the stress and anxiety rolling off of me, and reacted to that — and instead of responding in a positive way, I most often got more upset, more stressed out, more tense. I know I can’t do anything about the past, but it’s hard not to think about what damage I might have done by not being able to handle my anxiety better. It’s such a vicious cycle: I stress about my stress. I get anxious about my anxiety. Now, I focus hard on masking any stress or anxiety I might be experiencing (next step: getting rid of it all together…ah, wouldn’t that be nice), not hovering, and not running to them every time they slightly cough. (This, I’m not mastering so well. I’m terrified they’re going to choke. Justin hung an informative, laminated sheet in the nursery that explains how to give CPR and what to do if a baby starts choking, and every time, EVERY TIME, it looks like one of them might have something caught in their throat, I scream for Justin and then start screeching, “DO YOU WANT ME TO GET THE SHEET OUT OF THE NURSERY?” Really, I’m just looking for a reason to get the hell out of the room. Let’s just assume that if I’m home by myself and it happens, I’ll handle it a little bit better.)

I’m incredibly grateful that these babies have one calm parent in the mix — Justin is every bit as calm and competent as I described Shannon.

And I hope and pray that Jack won’t carry my impatience and frustration in his DNA for the rest of his life.

Janie Hightower - January 29, 2012 - 10:25 pm

You’re being too hard on yourself, Daughter. But I do have an idea for you to try — pretend you’re on stage, playing the role of a Saintly Mother, who gets riled at nothing, does nothing but smile beatifically at her little darlings and makes soft cooing sounds at them.

Janie Hightower - January 29, 2012 - 10:26 pm

By the way, I’m awfully jealous of Shannon in that picture.

Marsha - January 29, 2012 - 11:49 pm

I agree with your mother. Of course, I’m of her generation! But really, none of us has training at parenthood…so it’s always a learning game. My philosophy was always to do what was easiest for me first…and if that didn’t work to try something else. And babies need to learn too. So don’t worry about mistakes you might have made. Your kids have great parents who are looking out for them. Having two at once is a challenge so cut yourself some slack and things will be fine.

wendi - January 30, 2012 - 6:16 pm

goodness you Are being hard on yourself but I am hoping that writing about it in some way is cleansing (like a detox?). two things. I keep reading about nature vs nurture and how nurture definitely affects things but nature trumps (so a stressed out mum might not be as damaging as you’d like to whack yourself over the head with). the other thing is rather than masking or concealing or covering up how you are feeling is to openly acknowledge it with the babies? I know they are too young to understand the words perhaps or the complexities of your words, but might there be value? I read this great thing about how (and this is totally for older kids) when you out-loud acknowledge something, there is great comfort for the speaker and listener. cause you are not trying to fix it. just saying I notice. I see you. I see myself. I’m totally hippy-ing out right now. and emailing you back…

Shannon - January 31, 2012 - 8:36 pm

I totally agree with the other ladies. You are definitely being way too hard on yourself. You have raised two very happy and content babies and will continue to do so. You are a GREAT mom!

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