Ten days after the birth of our son, one day after Christmas, Ron boarded a plane for Sweden. He had received a call to come for a final visit with his mother, who had struggled with cancer for some time. I never met her in person. Our relationship was limited to occasional phone conversations and a few letters. We talked the day after her grandson was born, and she expressed how happy she was to know her son had a son of his own. She also let me know it would most likely be our last conversation. I believe she held on, waiting for this continuation of family, for the arrival of this new life, before she was willing to let go of her own. As much as I did not want to be left alone with my newborn first child, I could not ask Ron to miss this final good-bye.
Now, totally alone with this new little human being, that I had little idea how to care for, still recovering from a long difficult labor, the earth dropped out from under me. The baby howled with a piercing cry every two hours. I was breast feeding him, but didn’t really know what I was doing. I had apparently missed instruction in this area before leaving the hospital. Each feeding left me gritting my teeth in agony. No one had ever even suggested how painful this could be, especially when it isn’t done properly. I didn’t even know there were a right and a wrong way! I cried, a lot. Finally, I felt there was no choice but to retreat to my parent’s home for help. I had not been dependent on their assistance for more than a dozen years. It was not a choice I made easily.
A friend drove me and the baby along with the stroller, car seat, playpen for sleeping and all the rest of the gear suddenly deemed necessities, to the Greyhound bus station, since I was still unable to drive. I held Erik on my lap for the entire three hour trip and, thankfully, he did not make a sound. The motion of the bus must have calmed the screech I was so afraid would erupt and disturb the other passengers. An older woman commented on what a good baby he was as she left the bus, and all I could think was “if you only knew.” My parents were at the station waiting to pick up their daughter and their first grandson – following four granddaughters my brothers had added to the family. The tension from the past week relaxed just a little, with my mother by my side to help guide me into this new world of parenthood. The regular two hour shrieks returned as soon as we arrived at their house. Mom had never breast fed and did not have a high opinion of the option. She had little to offer except maybe he wasn’t getting enough to eat. I was convinced he was, based on the release of pressure as he nursed and the seepage in between. A healthy burp as I patted his back also seemed to point in that direction. This was just the first topic where our opinions diverged. I was exhausted waking for feedings every two hours throughout the nights. I had not yet learned to use a breast pump to allow someone else to ease the load. The night rang with his incessant screams, no matter what I did – feed, hold, burp, jiggle, walk, rock, cry, curse… – until I finally had to give in to my own weariness and lay down with him next to me, and let him cry. Next morning my mother met me with a stern face and angrily grumbled “I don’t care what anyone says, I don’t think you should just let him cry all night!” Words drenched in sleep deprivation and ragged nerves ripped past my tongue: “LET him cry?!! You think I LET him cry?! I have been up all night trying everything I could think of and he wouldn’t stop, no matter what I did!” Then I broke down sobbing, at a loss for what to do next. So I called my new pediatrician. He thought it might be colic and sent me to the drug store for a mixture the pharmacist had to make up. We drove there as fast as we could. The concoction seemed to take the edge off the severity, but did not stop the apparent discomfort completely. It would take two more months before I discovered that the cries were related to sensitivity to the cow’s milk I was drinking. Upon stopping my consumption of all dairy products a happier baby emerged.
After staying at my parent’s house for a couple of weeks, I returned home to await Ron’s return. He did not return for over a month. His mother’s final days had lingered on, and then he and his sister needed to empty her very full apartment before he could return. It felt endless. I could hear the despair in his voice when we talked. He ached to hold the son he had waited so long for. He was helpless to do anything but listen to my frustrations about caring for the baby alone. He was confronted with the grief of his mother’s death. He struggled with the major task of taking care of all her business and belongings. And there was an entire ocean between us, eliminating the opportunity to come home for a day or two for a break. There was little doubt in my mind as to how he eased his pain and heartache.
Upon his return, my exhaustion and irritability met his exhaustion and sorrow. It was not a happy reunion. Despite understanding that he had needed to leave, my resentment at being left alone with our newborn for such an extended period could not be tamed. I was angry. I was worn out. I expected him to step into his full role as a father, along with all the responsibilities it entailed – immediately. He was ready to embrace his son, but not ready to embrace the multitude of daily tasks that came along with him: the diapers, the middle of the night feedings (with bottles of pumped breast milk), the crying, the bathing, the constant need to be available and tuned in to the ever-changing moment. He was also not ready to grasp the loss of freedom to do as you please, when you please. We fought, a lot. The baby cried, a lot. So did I. Ron’s late nights out gradually returned. Then one day I unexpectedly found his drug stash on a high shelf in the bathroom. Defeat beat anger to the starting line. When anger caught up it was sobered with worry and sorrow. How could I handle motherhood alone? How could Ron handle not being with his son?