Illustration by Druscilla Santiago
I’m going to go ahead and say the thing you’re not supposed to say: Sometimes, in the wee night hours, I feel like flinging my baby across the bed. It’s when she won’t settle that the thought flashes across my mind. “Whatsa matter with you?” I hiss at her in exasperation after minutes upon minutes of fruitless rocking. “Why won’t you stop crying?”
The moment she was born, Jaymes Jean—who arrived on her due date after 18 hours of labor—had already found her voice, her cry hoarse, as if she had been wailing in the womb all along. In the first few months of her life, Jaymes developed her voice even more. If she wasn’t rocked exactly so, she would mount a protest. If we laid her down after she had fallen asleep, her eyes would spring open like those of a child possessed and she would inform us of her woeful state. Eventually, I took to sleeping with her in a rocking chair, violating the American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe-sleep practices.
I could sate Jaymes’ cries by popping her on the boob, and so for a while, Jaymes was feeding nearly every hour between midnight and 6 a.m. My nipples bled, protruding like swollen udders from a milking cow.
One night, after getting Jaymes to sleep after a 45-minute nursing session, I handed her to my husband for a brief moment of respite and a much-needed shower. How quickly things spiraled. It started with the way he picked her up off my chest. Then he decided skin-to-skin contact would be best and so he needed to take off his shirt. He handed her back to me, and I could see her starting to wake. A hand broke through her swaddle, and she started coming undone. “You have to hold her like this,” I told him. “Can you just let me do it?” he remarked. He told me to enjoy my tea, but I just wanted her to sleep. My nipples needed a break. Too late. She was awake. And crying.
As I winced through the sear of cracked nipples, tears began forming deep in my heart and then barreling up behind my eyes. I tried to swallow them down, but I couldn’t. I felt alone, despite my husband’s best intentions. I felt broken, at the mercy of this tiny lifeforce draining my body and soul of its sustenance. For this ingratitude, I felt ashamed, and I did my best to hide my tears from the pale illumination of a nightlight.
Four months later, Jaymes doesn’t sleep any better. She continues to wake every hour or two. There’s rarely a moment when she isn’t carried. I still violate all the sleep-safe rules, cuddling her to sleep, lying her on her side, and surrounding her with pillows. At night, I drift in and out a state of fear that she’ll wake up, and a fear that she won’t.
But every night, after her grandparents have gone home and my husband lays snoring soundly, I hold Jaymes with my face snuggled in the creases of her neck. She smells like old bread, slightly milky and yeasty. Her skin is pillowy soft. I can feel her arm draped over my shoulder, her hand curled ever so slightly, like a chameleon delicately drawing its fingers around a tree branch. I can hear her soft breathing. Her eyelids flutter, and I wonder what she is dreaming about. Then, one night out of the blue, she flashes this big toothless, gummy grin. I cry again. Only now, I let the tears flow freely.