Thursday, February 12, 2009

Colic and Stuff

I want to pick up the thread from two posts ago and talk about the bane of any parent's existence with a newborn - colic. I'm not going to deal with the mystery of why some babies get it and others don't. As far as I'm aware, no-one has figured it out yet. What I DO know is that if you're a new father and you're left in sole charge of a colicky kid, you are almost guaranteed to be pushed to the edge of your sanity. I think it's about as close as the male of the species can get to understanding what many mothers experience with infants - being trapped in a situation you can't get out of and for which there appears to be no solution.

Both my kids had colic and now, 18 years later, I have no idea how long it lasted in each case. It might have been a couple of months, but I honestly don't remember and it seemed like forever at the time. I recall distinctly with one of my kids reaching a dark place buried deep within me when I understood vividly how parents can harm their new-borns out of sheer frustration. The baby is fed, dry and otherwise healthy and still crying loud enough for the neighbours to hear. One cold winter night I reached the end of my tether and yelled violently at one of my kids in his crib when he hadn't stopped crying for a couple of hours. The only reaction that caused was louder crying in fright on the part of the baby. But in that moment, I suddenly understood how shaken baby syndrome can happen - and while it doesn't excuse harming a defenceless child, it certainly explains why it occurs. A mental picture flashed through my mind of throwing the child against the wall - and I experienced a sudden fear that I might actually do it. I also understood all the tragic newspaper headlines and the human cost of choices made in the heat of rage and frustration. It is possible to love a child and at the same time to hurt it even to the point of causing permanent damage or death. I was immediately remorseful for having become enraged at my child and never did it again. Yet, I have often wondered in subsequent years if that child is carrying around the psychological burden that I fear I might have placed on his tiny shoulders so long ago...

So what is the main relief for colic? The only thing that worked reliably for us was taking the baby for a long car ride. We tried everything else - walking around the house holding him face down on my arm with the ball of my thumb in the baby's stomach; putting him in the car seat on the dryer or the washing machine while it was running; going for a long walk (which seemed to be the second-most effective method, although darned cold in the middle of an Edmonton winter). The good news is that the baby will, just as mysteriously as it began, get over the colic and you will regain some of your lost sanity.

I hadn't intended to write this much about colic. It's clear that putting this in print has some therapeutic value for me. From what I have read about all of this, I believe that fathers are at a bit of a disadvantage in the child-rearing department, compared with mothers. We don't have the same hormonal mix and tend not to establish the bond with infants that mothers are hard-wired to experience. I'm not saying that all fathers have this kind of struggle, nor am I saying that all mothers experience the nurturing response to the same extent. But in general, I believe it is true. This means that fathers of new-born children may not have the compensating emotional attachment to their small charges that enables mothers to cope better with the less pleasant aspects of raising kids.

That leads to the question of what fathers (and mothers) can do to mitigate the stress of looking after babies. Two spring to mind. I mention both of these because they were largely missing from our lives when our kids were little. The first is to build a support network around you and USE it. We had no immediate family who could babysit. Our friends were either childless and not interested or in the same situation as we were, so we had limited opportunity to get relief from small children, whether our own or someone else's. So if you can, work deliberately at establishing that network if you don't have any significant offers of help coming in. And if someone DOES offer help, take advantage of it! I had no clue that I needed to have such a network around me and put no significant effort into creating it. I just thought that was how parenthood had to be - some kind of bizarre and painful karmic investment. But no - it was just ignorance and obliviousness.

The second thing you can do to mitigate the stress of parenthood is investing in yourself, either on your own or with your partner, minus the kids. We had friends (with four kids) who took one evening every month to have a date with each other. We almost never did that - maybe we were stupid - but it was something we didn't place any priority on. I would live that part of my life quite differently if I had a chance for a do-over. I must admit, too, that I had other personal issues that I was trying to understand, so I felt as if I wasn't entitled to claim time for myself. While I don't advocate selfishness, I strongly recommend negotiating time with the mother of your children to do something healthy for yourself. That doesn't mean getting to go grocery shopping alone - although I must say I enjoyed that. I'm talking about keeping in touch with friends or going on a personal retreat once in a while. I never felt comfortable asking for that until I no longer needed it as much. I don't recommend that approach, even if you think you're being an enlightened man by supporting your wife with your continuous presence. She may not want or expect it of you, so at the very least, I suggest you talk to each other about those expectations.

Whole libraries of books have been written on this stuff, so I'm not going to pretend any of it is particularly profound - it isn't. Perhaps my experience is more a cautionary tale than anything else. I'm university-educated and my kids were healthy, normal children. I had taken pre-natal classes with the mother of my children and I was with her when both my kids came into the world. I had access to all the knowledge resources that were available 18 years ago (pre-internet) to anyone with the ability to read and understand almost anything in print. I was married to a member of the medical profession, so I had even more access to knowledge than most people. None of that mattered during those interminable evenings - every night for weeks on end - when I couldn't figure out what was "wrong" with the baby and felt almost entirely powerless to do anything about it.

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