Anger management: Losing your temper with a baby can be okay

My hands are shaking. It’s three a.m., and I have been bouncing on the balls of my feet since 1:30. The sweaty, twenty-pound bulk of my nine-month-old son slumps against my shoulder. Suddenly, he pushes away from my chest, his body clenched, a prolonged scream escaping. My bouncing turns jerky and my arms squeeze too tight, forcing another scream out of him, this time one of protest. My mantra for the past half hour will not leave my head: I hate this. I can’t do this anymore. I hate this. 

I have to put him down. When I lean him over the side of his crib, his body tenses and a wail rises in his throat.

“I’m sorry, Will,” I say. I clumsily lay him down and he screams. As I crumble into bed, every nerve in my body is on edge. The wails next door pulsate, and I imagine I’m never going to sleep again.

Before I had my son, my images of motherhood always included a rocking chair – a mother with an infant cradled in her arms. Of course babies cried and got upset, but mothers soothed. I knew parenting would drive me to frustration, but I would never be like those bad mothers at the mall who yelled at and spanked their screaming children. So it was a shock to me the first time I felt the passion rising, the desire to squeeze him just a little too hard, wanting to cause him some of the agony he was causing me.

When Will was just twelve hours old, my husband and I couldn’t stop staring at him. When a nurse remarked that he looked like Harold from the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon, I flushed with new motherly pride. When he wasn’t sleeping, his eyes opened wide with what seemed a happy, almost cartoonish curiosity, his tiny nose sloped up in perfection, pale wisps of fuzz on his head. His head nuzzled against Dave’s chest, his tiny fist clenched, we watched him in silence.

“I don’t understand how anyone could ever hurt a child,” Dave said, his voice suddenly heated. I murmured in agreement, my body tense at the thought. During those first few days at the hospital, I had vivid images of my wrinkled and cooing newborn hurt in some way – I would close my eyes and see his arm broken, his face turning purple, or his body falling out of a high-rise window. Perhaps it was the powerful postpartum hormones surging through my body, the primordial nature of motherhood. I would shake my head to clear the horrible images away, chastising myself for such awful thoughts.

He was so vulnerable. A living being, body and soul, who without the assistance of another, could not eat or even move. Without me, awful things just might happen to him.

The first weeks on the job quickly changed my idyllic image of myself. When a night with five straight hours of sleep seemed an impossible miracle, when his screaming caused my blood pressure to rise and my nervous system to go haywire, the discovery scared me: I could be the one to harm him.