The pregnancy was lovely. John and I were more in love than ever. I wore my girlfriends’ hand-me-down maternity clothes, craved apples and apple juice and applesauce. I read Louise Erdrich’s memoir about early motherhood and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I would be lying propped up in bed reading when John came home, he would tell about his day, and the baby would start to kick at the sound of his father’s voice. Every. Single. Time.
We celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary with me in a little black maternity dress and him nursing a martini after we saw a romantic play downtown. John said he would take extra directing jobs so I could take a proper maternity leave and get to know our baby. We slept in a fancy hotel room on cold, crisp sheets, and dreamt about the future.
We bought our baby a vintage airline poster that said simply, “The Whole Wide World is Yours!” We promised we’d give it to him when he finished college or trade school, or when he married someone he loved. When he found his happiness. Whatever.
We went to a childbirth class where we watched videos of some kooky doctor, Dr. Harvey Karp, telling us how to soothe a crying baby. “Some babies need a fourth trimester,” he said. “Jiggle them and swaddle them very tightly and shush as loudly as you can in their ears to recreate the atmosphere of the womb. They miss the womb.” John and I laughed like assholes while the other parents listened attentively, and anxiously took notes. We shushed loudly in each other’s ears and jiggled our mannequin baby until his head threatened to pop off.
Fast forward. Archie was born on December 21st, the first day of Chicago’s epic Polar Vortex, the first day the city iced over. We saw it from our hospital room. The city was covered in sheets of ice. Nothing seemed to be breathing.
I was a champ in the labor and delivery room; everyone told me so. Archie arrived after four hours of pushing, a little traumatized. When they finally placed my son on my chest, I heard myself say, “Why isn’t he crying? I just want to know. Please tell me why he isn’t crying.” Famous last words.
A couple weeks after Archie arrived on this Earth, John and I decided to meet some friends at a neighborhood restaurant. Archie is portable, we thought. Our friends have all told us to take full advantage when they’re like this, when they sleep all the time. Archie started screaming halfway through the appetizer. I tried to soothe him, his father tried to soothe him, then I tried again. We took him into the next room. Then we decided to leave. We did not want to be that couple. (You’re welcome.)
I told my friend Kris, as we were leaving, “Maybe Archie has colic. But maybe not. I mean, all babies cry, right? Kris? Right?” I hurried away with a nine-pound baby in a ridiculously heavy infant car seat, feeling like my guts were about to fall out. It was the middle of winter, and I was sweating from the humiliation of not being able to soothe my own child.
There is no agreed upon medical explanation for colic. It usually dissipates between three and six months, so no one has done much research. I mean, it’s not a terminal illness. It simply means crying for more than three consecutive hours for more than three days a week.
For us, there was screaming from about six or seven in the morning until eleven or twelve every night, usually without much of a break. It was the saddest sound you have ever heard, the shrillest sound you have ever heard. Archie cried like he was in terrible pain, arched his back, and screamed until he was purple in his face. He squirmed madly out of anyone and everyone’s arms. In the old days, priests and shaman used to believe that babies with colic were possessed by the devil. And there is very good reason for that.
Wrapping him up like a burrito helped him to sleep for a few hours at night, though nothing seemed to work during the day. We could occasionally force a nap (or at least calm) by plugging in the hair dryer or the vacuum cleaner. Harvey Karp was right about the womb sounds. We were being punished for making fun of him.
I told the pediatrician Archie must be in pain, but she just looked at me sympathetically and said, “This is colic alright, but it’s really bad. I mean, really bad. Do you have a support system?” My mother had the flu – everyone had the flu – it was flu season. My mom relapsed again and again and again. “I’m sorry I can’t be there, Mag,” she said, then she fell asleep again. Very few people could get to me in the Polar Vortex – it was too hard to do anything but get to work and home. John left at six in the morning to go to his day job, went straight from his day job to rehearsal, and got home somewhere around midnight. He came home to me crying every night for the first two months. And I had a new respect for single mothers.
Babies don’t smile in those first several weeks, but Archie screamed in my face like I hate you, you are the worst mother I can imagine, why have you brought me here? I would read him this book, On the Night You Were Born, over and over again. “Heaven played every trumpet and blew every horn on the wonderful, marvelous night you were born.”
Usually by lunchtime my nerves were frayed, and John wouldn’t be home for ten more hours. That’s when I started screaming, too. They had given me literature about how not to shake your baby, but they didn’t have any advice about how to avoid the screaming when you were all alone.
I know my neighbors heard me. I would put Archie in his swing and then I would walk away and scream, “Goddamnit! What do you want, what do you need? All you do is cry. Shut up! Please please please shut up.” The guy upstairs was dating a single mom who still breast fed her two-year-old, didn’t allow him sugar, and still let him sleep in her bed. I knew they were up there, judging me.
I tried chamomile tea in Archie’s bottle. I bought him Free and Clear bottles, then Dr. Brown’s. I rocked in a rocking chair, slow and fast. I held him this way and that way. John and I yelled at each other about the way we were holding him. There were broken blood vessels in his face from crying. I didn’t know what he looked like not crying. I changed detergents to see if it would ease his comfort. I turned the heat up and down. I fed him more and less, massaged him. I took him to a wellness doctor for a professional massage, and he screamed the entire time. She didn’t invite us back. She looked like she felt guilty for taking my $75. I would’ve paid $75,000 to know my child was okay.
Even Archie’s grandparents and aunts had trouble loving him at first. I saw it. I hated them for that, then looked at the vintage poster: “The Whole Wide World Is Yours!”
A couple months in, I realized that if I squatted and lunged and bounced him while he cried, Archie would settle to a certain degree. I realized if there was enough lively conversation, he could be temporarily distracted from his misery. So, I invited my friend Kris to my apartment. I poured a big Waterford glass of Zinfandel and as soon as I tasted it, I knew I wanted a bottle. Two glasses in, my head felt smudgy like it hadn’t since before I found out I was pregnant. Then, even though I knew I’d come to regret it, I heard myself saying to Kris, because I have to be honest with him, he’s an old friend, he’s a true blue friend, and wasn’t it written all over my face: “I’m sorry I’ve judged you for not wanting to get married and have children. John and I could’ve had a happy life without children, I think.”
Kris went home and I turned up the music and rocked my baby and sang to him for hours until he slept. He only loved the ones I loved, the ones I sang with all my heart: I have faith in you, darlin, even when I question our chances. You I thought I knew you, you I cannot judge. Try not to get worried, try not to turn onto problems that upset you. I wrapped him up in my arms and danced with him to Billy Joel: Goodnight, my angel, now it’s time to sleep and dream how wonderful your life will be. We danced all night to Nat King Cole. Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking…
Maybe that one was for me.
How did it go away? Gradually, I guess. Starting at about five months. I mean, he still cries when he needs a nap, when it’s time to eat, when he wants to be held. But now when I hold him, he lays his head on my shoulder. He doesn’t stiffen like before. He really snuggles in. He hugs me, which means he grabs at my shoulders and neck with his tiny fists. When I go to his crib in the morning, I say, “Is Archie Gawlik here?” He smiles a big gummy smile – no teeth – like a little clam. He starts to wiggle and squeal with delight and I think, “Did I do that? Did I do that?” Waking up to him, his big, alert blue eyes in the morning, his legendary cheeks, is so much better than any other way I have ever woken up.
Sometimes we just gaze at each other for 30-minute stretches. I say, “You are a really cool guy, Archie Gawlik. You’re my favorite person on Earth. You and Daddy.” He cocks his head to the side, tucks his chin, and then a smile splits his face. I pretend to eat his feet and he laughs a belly laugh, like only a fat baby can. When we put him to bed, I still read to him and sing to him, and then he looks up at me from his crib and smiles like I’m okay now, Mom, and starts to suck his hands and babble and coo to soothe himself to sleep. There is usually no crying in our house at bedtime. If there is, I know how to make it better.
But the fact is, I said it. I said out loud. We could’ve been happy without him.
Tomorrow, Archie turns six months old. Tomorrow we will go for a walk and watch the flowers grow. Tomorrow, Archie is one and while his noise once threatened my mind, it’s now the very thing that restores my sanity, believe it or not. It’s the way he identifies everything, I think. And not just doggies and milk. But skeletons. Roses. Magnets. Mama. Tomorrow, he turns eighteen months and those pajama feet skid up and down our hallway all day and every night, much to the dismay of our neighbors. He squeals with delight when his father rubs his beard against his cheek or when his mother reads in silly voices. He squeals with delight and starts to march around the apartment when his mother plays “Duke of Earl”. He is indeed the duke and our home, I reluctantly admit, his dukedom. Some nights, I go to bed with a headache from all the noise, because when he cannot find the language, when he cannot be understood, he screams. Who wouldn’t?
The fact is, I said it out loud. I said we could’ve been happy without him. And while I remember that woman who said that, sitting slouched with her wine glass and the rings around her eyes, it’s the way I remember myself at twenty-two with a perfect body. Or the way I remember being fifteen, letting my dirtbag boyfriend call all the shots. The way I remember being sixteen, on a big stage, belting it out like a Broadway starlet, not giving a shit what anyone thought. They’re all gone now, is what I mean to say. They’ve all gone away somehow.
Dear Archie: Thank you for being patient with me, for giving me a second chance – can you imagine if you’d never uttered a sound? Thank you for teaching me to be a mother and a better human. I know some nights I’m too tired to get down on the floor and play, and some mornings I don’t get out of bed as soon as I hear you call for me. But Archie Gawlik, you listen to me, honey. I mean it so, so seriously: “Heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn on the wonderful, marvelous night you were born.”
Maggie Andersen has published in the South Loop Review, Grain, CutBank, the New Delta Review, the Southern California Review, and Knee-Jerk, among others. She has won the Gordon Prize for Fiction, the Goodnow Prize for Fiction and has been a finalist for the Montana Prize for Non-Fiction. Additionally, she serves as Literary Manager at The Gift Theatre where she is a proud company member. She lives in Chicago with her husband, John, and their baby boy, Archie.