I was lifting Peanut out of her carseat when it began.
There was nothing unusual about this particular move. We were in the middle of the 3-hour drive from my in-laws’ house back to our home, and stopped halfway through the drive to fill up. She was happy as a lark when I climbed into the backseat of my small SUV to feed her. But as soon as I lifted her out of the carseat, she started to cry.
Very quickly her crying escalated to a full-blown scream. I thought perhaps she was just really, really hungry, but I put her up to the boob and she wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, it seemed to make her more angry.
As I lifted her to my shoulder, bouncing as best I could on the bench seat, I felt my milk let down (a tingly, pins-and-needles deal). I bounced her, rubbed her back, patted her butt, sang to her, tried Harvey Karp’s “SHHHHHHHHHH” noise right in her ear… nothing worked.
My husband finished filling up the car and popped his head inside. “What’s going on?”
I shrugged, eyes wide – I had no idea. While I continued trying everything I could think of, he drove us slowly into the parking lot of the grocery store next door.
These types of crying fits, where nothing consoles her, are very rare. She’s had maybe three of them in nearly four months. So we were at a loss as to what was causing this one.
It was 30 degrees outside the car, but my husband wanted to try bouncing her around. He zipped her up inside his jacket, taking care to keep all her parts covered, but quickly learned that wasn’t going to do the trick.
I tried feeding her from a bottle, but she quickly spit it all back up between screams. I could hear large amounts of air creaking noisily through her system, and assumed it must be gas. Really, really painful gas. I tried sitting her up, her back against my chest, bending her knees to squeeze the air through her little colon. No dice. The screaming continued unabated.
Eventually we just took turns; my husband in the driver’s seat and me in the back, handing her back and forth every ten minutes or so, each of us trying hard to console her, and failing decisively. Finally I sent my husband into the grocery store for some infant Tylenol, and 20 minutes after giving it to her, she finally calmed enough to nurse.
In total, her crying fit lasted ninety minutes.
I stroked her hair while she ate and she grew drowsy, her lids heavy. When she was finished, I gently lifted her back into her carseat, hoping she’d stay asleep.
To my horror, her eyes popped open. But then a tiny smile crept over her face. She looked up at me and cooed. As we got back on the road it was growing dark, but for the next twenty minutes, until the sunlight was completely gone, she smiled and gurgled, cooing and giggling. This baby, fully possessed just 20 minutes earlier, was once again the happiest baby in the universe. A few minutes after darkness fell, she turned her head to the side, stuck her thumb in her mouth and promptly fell asleep.
I took a deep breath, and another.
My blood pressure was starting to come down a little, but I was jittery and shaky. The entire episode had sent my cortisol levels sky-high, and I felt the same way I do when coming down from a huge adrenaline rush.
My husband heard me taking deep breaths in the backseat and asked what was wrong. “I’m just trying to calm down,” I explained.
He shook his head, genuinely confused. “What are you stressed about?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe that 90-minute crying fit she just had?” I asked sarcastically.
He shrugged. “She’s a baby, and she’s going to cry. No need to get stressed about it.” He returned his attention to the road in front of him, not fazed in the slightest.
His glibness irritated me. But there’s no use explaining it to him. He’ll never get it.
Because he’s a dude.
Women, in contrast, are biologically programmed to respond to a crying baby. In particular our own crying baby. The reaction doesn’t just entail our milk letting down. Studies show that crying babies give their mothers a higher heart rate, blood pressure, and hand grip strength (wtf?) during a spell. We’re even able to perform tasks faster and more precisely after hearing a baby cry (supermom!).
What I’m describing is a primal fight-or-flight response, buried deep in Mom’s cavewoman brain. And it’s damn hard to turn it off.
I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: a woman’s body is an amazing machine, and it reveals many of its talents upon becoming a mother. This particular mechanism doesn’t make me feel very awesome, but it is useful for Peanut.
She gets the good end of this deal, because when she cries, I can only focus on one thing: making the crying stop. I’ll do whatever it takes. Her crying is like fingernails on a chalkboard inside my head. Not just because it’s loud and piercing (that’s universally true for anyone). To my ears, it’s ten times louder and more intense, because my brain is programmed to be sensitive to her cries.
Interestingly, women who have “easy” babies react to crying more strongly. Women with “difficult” babies have a muted reaction. Conditioning, I suppose. That may be the only documented negative to having an easy baby.