“Once, maybe twice a day, I get an image of terrible violence against the baby. Like a flicker in the corner of my eye, it lasts for a quarter of a second, maybe less. Sometimes it is me who inflicts this violence, sometimes it is someone else. Martin says it is all right—it is just her astonishing vulnerability that works strange things in my head. But I know it is also because I am trapped, not just by her endless needs, but also by the endless, mindless love I have for her. For once, I am glad I am an older mother. I don’t panic. I put a limit on the images that flash across my mind’s eye. I am allowed two per day, maybe three. If I get more than that, then it’s off to the doctor for the happy pills. Shoes or no shoes.” —Anne Enright, from her memoir Making Babies
One night, when our first baby was six weeks old, she wouldn’t stop crying. I swaddled and rocked and nursed. I sang and patted and danced. I changed her diaper, even though it was dry. I changed her clothes, thinking maybe a tag was sticking her or something. No matter what I did, she cried.
And I was so tired. I mean, SO. FREAKING. TIRED. Once or twice every hour, she’d seem like she was finally settling down. I’d lie down with her, just start to drift off to sleep, only to be woken up again by her tiny, high-pitched cry.
Finally, I felt something fracture in my psyche, instantaneously, like a crack in glass. And for the briefest of moments, every one of my maternal instincts flew out the window.
And so did the baby.
At least that’s what happened in my head. I could visualize it perfectly, tossing her through the open window. I could feel my arms swinging back, the momentum of flinging her forward, the weight of my sweet angel leaving my hands. I could hear her wails growing quieter as she fell down, down, down.
It was just a momentary vision — barely even a second — and I snapped back quickly. But it scared me to my core. What was wrong with me? Was this postpartum psychosis? Was I fatally flawed as a mother? Was I simply not cut out for this? Was it all an enormous, eternal mistake?
I started bawling. Then I called my mom. I didn’t tell her about my Terrible Mothering Thought. I was too ashamed. I told her the baby wouldn’t stop crying. I tried to describe my tiredness, thinking that would cover my clear inadequacy as a mother. She listened, then she said, “Oh, Annie. I remember when your brother was a baby and wouldn’t stop crying one night. My only instinct was to toss him out the window.”
I gasped and laughed and cried at the same time, as only someone in a sleepless hysteria can do. My God. My mother? My rock of a mother who didn’t have a violent bone in her body had had a Terrible Mothering Thought? The same Terrible Mothering Thought I had had? This was normal? I was normal?
Then she told me it was OK to set the baby down and leave the room. Take a deep breath. Get ahold of your sanity. Go outside on the porch so you can’t hear her crying if you need to.
Her admission and permission saved me. I’d read everything about nurturing and attachment, about the importance of picking babies up when they cry, about how good mothers are supposed to be able to “read” their babies’ cries, and how basically only a serial killer would abandon a baby who was wailing. It never dawned on me that sometimes there’s nothing you can do.
Sometimes babies cry and cry and you have no idea why. And unless you’re superhuman, the sound of a baby crying incessantly will get to you. You have to take a break from it sometimes. Getting permission to do so from my incredibly nurturing and attached mother was probably the most valuable baby gift I could have gotten.
And I’ve learned through the years that Terrible Mothering Thoughts actually come and go with somewhat alarming frequency. I was never spanked as a child, nor physically punished in any way, and yet I have been tempted to smack a child on occasion. I assumed, since it wasn’t part of my upbringing, that I’d never have to fight those kinds of feelings. But kids can push you. Crying, whining, arguing, complaining about things no one on God’s green earth should complain about — just with their voices alone, kids can drive you to the edge of your sanity.
Just remember: A Terrible Mothering Thought is different from a Terrible Mothering Act. Thinking something is not the same as acting on it. I knew I’d never ACTUALLY throw my baby out the window. I know I’d never ACTUALLY slap my cheeky child across her cheeky cheeks. But that urge pops up sometimes. I’ve learned not to judge myself for it and to just let those thoughts come and go.
If you have wondered if you’re alone in those kinds of thoughts, you’re not. Most moms don’t talk about it, but anecdotal evidence tells me it’s very common. Obviously, there are extreme feelings that need more than just a brush-off, and if you find yourself having thoughts that truly scare you or feel like you really might harm your child, definitely talk to a doctor. But an occasional Terrible Mothering Thought is to be expected.
And though you might not want to tell everyone about those thoughts, they should also be shared on occasion. We all need to hear we’re not the only one.