I have these little meltdowns. Intense but rarely outward-facing – implosions rather than explosions. Something goes just wrong enough and I completely shut down. It’s happened before, as Alexis can attest, but has grown more common since Poe’s birth, no doubt due to the added stress caused by sleep issues and trying to keep a tiny human that stubbornly refuses to obey common sense alive. The first post-birth meltdown occurred when I tried to install Poe’s car seat to get her home from the hospital. I had spent a good 20 minutes up in the hospital room looking over the instruction manual and watching YouTube videos and felt capable of installing the seat.
I was not.
At the first sign of trouble (buckling the seat into the recessed bars in the back seat of the car was difficult) I melted down. The world and everything in it was terrible; I was worthless; fate was set against me, and my best bet was to give up and take a forever nap in the Hudson.
Alexis rubbed my back, her mother said some kind words, I took a few deep breaths and was quickly ok again. The car seat didn’t have to be rigged that way. It had another option in which you could thread a seat belt through the base of the car seat and secure it that way. Simple enough. Except I couldn’t get the seat belt tight enough. The car seat wiggled easily back and forth. I pictured explaining Poe’s auto-related death to the police. Meltdown #2 tapped me on the shoulder. Everything was shit. I was shit. We were never going to get this car seat installed, and we were going to have to walk home with Poe, and she was going to die of exposure.
Encouraging words, deep breaths, and I was able to try again and find success.
The next meltdown occurred when putting together the hand-me-down swing/rocker we had gotten from a close friend of Alexis’s. I won’t bore you with the details because it was exactly the same as the first two meltdowns. Minor technical thing briefly doesn’t work, everything is shit, this product is designed to ruin my life, I want to put my head in the oven.
Take a deep breath, rewatch the YouTube video, realize I am putting one piece into another piece backwards, easily rectify the issue, voila.
Often, in my previous life, I was able to avoid these sorts of meltdowns with a deep breath and some perspective. In the addled/stressed state of taking care of a newborn, I lack these coping mechanisms, so I feel that my flaws have been laid completely bare. I am a petty, easily disturbed, rage-filled manchild.
But ultimately these meltdowns are meaningless when they are directed at inanimate objects. So, I broke the new needle to my record player on purpose when it wouldn’t snap easily into place and then had to go stand alone in the other room for 10 minutes. Who cares? No one got hurt.
But then I noticed the moments happening in relationship to Poe.
The first few days home were filled with a sort of hormonal bliss. Poe wouldn’t sleep for long stretches and Alexis was on essentially no sleep at all, but it didn’t matter. We both felt the soaring accomplishment and appreciation of new parents. I had never loved Alexis more and felt a need to take care of her that I have never felt for another person. Poe was a miracle and the fact that she had constant needs was outweighed by the fact that each moment brought on new and exciting developments.
Then the aura wore off a bit and reality settled in. Poe wouldn’t sleep in the bassinet for more than 20 minutes at a time. In fact, she wouldn’t sleep at all unless she was on someone or directly next to them in bed. This meant that someone needed to be awake at all times while she slept to prevent asphyxiation or the dreaded SIDS. By nature, this ended up being Alexis most of the time. I would take the early shift (9 pm – 1 am) but then Alexis would take over and get 0-1 hours of sleep between 1 am and 7 am, when I would wake up and relieve her. I was averaging 6 hours a night, so I was outwardly functional, but I became obsessed – monomaniacal – about getting Poe to sleep on her own so Alexis could sleep. Alexis’s lack of sleep became a profound source of anxiety for me, and the only solution was to get Poe to sleep by herself.
The rocker helped, but even then, Poe would (LIKE A NORMAL NEWBORN BABY) sometimes wake up quickly or need multiple feedings in a row. One night, we tried to put Poe down in the bassinet and she immediately started complaining. She had been fed 10 minutes prior, so I thought she just needed to be soothed. I took her out of the bedroom and told Alexis to try and get some sleep; I would handle it. I took Poe out to the living room, put her in the rocker, turned on the fancy vibrate feature, and set the rocker to swing Poe automatically. She was unmoved. She squealed and writhed and cried. I tried to give her a couple minutes to see if the swing would take effect. It didn’t. She simply got more upset. “Fucking impossible,” I thought to myself. “You just had a full feeding 10 minutes ago, and I know how big your stomach is – I REMEMBER THE LACTATION CONSULTANT’S DEMONSTRATION. YOUR STOMACH IS THE SIZE OF A PING PONG BALL SO YOU CAN’T BE FUCKING HUNGRY AGAIN.”
The rage rocketed up my spine and I picked Poe up from the swing. Brusquely. With anger. I stopped myself. I had just picked up a helpless infant like a sack of flour because she wasn’t conforming to the adult logic I was laying out in my brain. What was wrong with me?!
I took a deep breath. Poe was fine. Still hungry, but fine. Even in my rage, I had picked her up carefully. Quickly, with an ugly thought behind the action, but I had supported her shoulders and neck and had kept her safe.
It happened again. Nearly the same circumstances, but this time I had been asleep. We had put Poe down at 10:30 pm after a full feeding and after a long day in which Alexis had gotten in zero nap time. It was now 11:20 and Poe was up and screaming and writhing. Again, the rage bloomed in my brain like blood in water. I held Poe in bed and bounced her gently, shushing her like fucking famous Dr. Karp said to. No effect. Alexis headed to the bathroom to pee, ready to nurse upon her return if necessary. “Please calm down, Poe,” I thought. “Please go to sleep. I need to get Alexis more than an hour of fucking sleep tonight.” Poe’s complaining intensified. The rage pressed against the insides of my skull. I rocked Poe in my arms. Hard. Too hard. I stopped myself in horror. I was one degree away from shaking a baby. One degree away from a fucking crime. I put Poe down next to me in bed, put my hands over my eyes, and cried.
Alexis came back into the room and rushed to my side. She asked what was wrong, fear in her voice. I felt hopeless, helpless. I couldn’t control myself around a tiny infant. I was a terrible father. I wasn’t fit to do this.
Deep breaths, time, perspective. Alexis was able to calm me down and ease me into a productive discussion. In retrospect, I hadn’t rocked Poe very hard. Certainly no harder than she was rocked in the womb when Alexis exercised or walked down stairs. But still. The feeling behind it was dangerous and absolutely terrifying.
As any parent will, I’m sure, tell you, it’s completely mind-bending to have this tiny, barely human ball of cuteness that completely dominates your life. Poe is a twentieth the size of most humans, and yet she’s had a far more significant effect on my life than any adult (sorry, everyone) – at least in the short term. And she follows no logic, or common sense, or decency. These may sound like the most obvious things ever stated by a human, but when you are holding this human jelly of contradictions with a face in your arms, and she is bawling and making sucky face, even though you just saw her drink two full boobs worth of milk, it feels like she is ACTIVELY trying to ruin your life. Toss in a dash of stress and sleep-deprivation (even if it’s minor on my part) and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
It’s getting better (as all of this will have to, or I’ll be very seriously considering the forever nap in the Hudson). The episode of vigorous rocking scared the SHIT out of me and has made me extra vigilant. I’ve had a couple more episodes and will undoubtedly have more in the future (why, just the other morning I said ‘fuck’ more times than a Scorsese film because I couldn’t get the moby wrap correct after five fucking tries, while Poe cried and cried on the couch.) but I’m coping. I catch it a little earlier and am able to put deep breaths to earlier, better use. I also absolutely paint the air with cursing when something is especially frustrating. But harshly whispered, not yelled (well, mostly). Verbalizing allows me to release the steam before it becomes physical.
And I’m seeking help. There are a lot feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability that can come with being a father, and American males (and certainly myself) can really struggle with that sort of thing, no matter how sensitive and theater-y they think themselves to be. So, I’m seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. An event that is touted as joyous and life-affirming is sending me to seek professional psychological help.
How’s that for a motherfucker?