Lights twinkled in the city, holly wreaths hung from lampposts, and holiday displays decorated the department store windows. Kari was about to celebrate her first Christmas. This year we were also anticipating my brother's wedding two days after the holiday. These events gave me permission to buy a few dresses for Kari. Together we embarked on an adventure – introducing her to the world of shopping.
Downtown Lancaster's shopping district was six blocks from our home, an invigorating walk for me. The stroller wobbled on the uneven sidewalks. Kari slept, the swaying motion reminding her of a not so long ago train trip.
As we passed other Christmas shoppers along the way, it thrilled me to watch them coo over my adorable, sleeping baby. I smiled at their funny faces peering into the baby carriage. Feeling refreshed and encouraged by these complete strangers; I greeted everyone with Christmas cheer.
Our friends were not always so amiable toward Kari. At two-and-one-half months of age, she had developed a reputation as the adorable-looking baby with very healthy lungs. Because of the latter feature, most knew to keep their distance. Kari was still having many irritable days, evenings filled with intense screaming, and sleepless nights.
I tried to keep our family schedule constant in the midst of this added stress. My reading before Kari's birth convinced me that it was important for couples to maintain their pre-baby routines. I agreed that I didn't want a focus on our child to dominate our home, nor did I want there to be deterioration in our marital relationship.
Because Ron and I had always faithfully attended Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services at church, I determined I would keep this priority, even with a newborn. After two months of this routine, I began to question my devotion. I spent most of the service confined to the nursery, pacing the floor, trying to calm my screaming daughter. The small attic nursery room with its slanted ceiling added to my feelings of isolation. Other mothers provided brief diversions when they would stop in to change their babies' diapers. Otherwise, it was a long time spent alone with Kari. Pictures of happy nursery rhyme characters did little to restrain my growing frustration as I waited until Ron was ready to go home.
Our drive home was quiet, with Ron behind the wheel and my hugging the door. Getting out from time to time would do both of us good – at least that's what my parenting books said. Besides, I loved my church family; seeing their faces weekly reminded me to pray for them. I hoped they were praying for me.
I did not want to give in to defeat so easily. It was too early in my new role of motherhood for that. The other young mothers were successfully maintaining their commitment to church attendance. Their babies, slightly older than Kari, were always so calm and happy. I envied these mothers with little girls who so easily suckled at their breast, whose smiles and cute expressions attracted the attention of those around them. My jealousy would end the day my daughter gurgled and smiled. Then others would want to cuddle her too. I just had to find the key to open the door to successful motherhood and a happy child.
The struggle to keep the normal schedule continued to take its toll. One morning before Christmas, I awoke after receiving only three hours of sleep that night. The house was quiet, giving evidence that Ron had already left for work. I had not been able to cook him breakfast. Kari started crying and I quickly retrieved her from her crib before she awoke the older gentleman living in the apartment above us. I changed her wet diaper and dressed her, but had no energy to change out of my own nightgown. Oh, the life of a stay-at-home mom, I sighed as I prepared to nurse Kari.
I sat in my disheveled living room, staring at the two large windows in the wall I was facing. A bathroom addition was on the other side of the one – the shade drawn to hide the truth that the window no longer provided a view. All I could see through the other was our concrete porch, the banister and the building across the street. I rocked Kari, desperate to feed her. Again she struggled to nurse. "What's wrong with me, God? Why can't I do this natural act of nursing?"
I started to cry and Kari joined me. "Is this what they call postpartum depression?" I questioned, recalling term from my classes in nursing school. I've never been depressed in my life! Why am I being plagued with this now? I can't give up. Maybe I'm just not trying hard enough.
In my childhood home, my parents taught us children the value of work, responsibility and perseverance. I depended on these characteristics to guide me through nursing school since I was not a natural scholar. They also helped me succeed in my career as a registered nurse. In the past, plodding along and working a little harder was my path to achievement. Today, in spite of all my efforts, I felt I was failing miserably as a mother and wife. At twenty-three, maybe I was too young to handle motherhood.
The phone rang, interrupting my thoughts. "Hey Joan, I have the afternoon off work. Could I come for a visit?" I recognized it as the voice of my older sister and felt some relief as I talked to her. Hanging up the phone, I headed for the shower. I couldn't let her see me like this.
During the past few years my perspective on Judy had changed. She had become a nurturing friend and was no longer the domineering matriarch as I had viewed her in my youth. She had a happy eleven-month-old boy, and seemed well adjusted to motherhood. As I stepped out of my steam bath, I felt new hope. Today I would receive some helpful advice from my sister.
She arrived with our lunch in hand; took one look at me and instinctively responded to my situation. "Joan, you look terrible! You are going to eat lunch and then go straight to bed. I'll take care of Kari. We'll take a walk, but you need to sleep!" I had to concede. The idea of having four hours of uninterrupted sleep sounded glorious.
As I crawled between my crumpled sheets however, I again felt defeated. Those women from my church didn't need this type of special attention. I felt like an unfit mother as I cried myself to sleep.
I awoke four hours later to a fatigued sister. "I think Kari needs you. I just can't get her to stop crying!" My sister's inability to comfort my daughter did not thrill me, but it did offer reassurance. Even my competent sister was frustrated with this precious baby.
"Thanks Lord," I smiled as my sister went out the door. "Perhaps it's not me after all. Maybe I just have an extra fussy baby."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Christmas morning dawned. I peered out the bathroom window and looked above the city's clutter. The sky was gray with clouds. It looked as if snow was about to settle on our world. A dusting of snow would be perfect for our festivities.
With Kari still asleep, I rushed to the kitchen to take advantage of a rare opportunity. Mr. Coffee and a waffle maker were waiting for me to use them. I had received them the evening before when Ron and I exchanged gifts. I sang Christmas carols as I worked. Today I had the honor of cooking a fine breakfast for my husband.
The aroma of the coffee awakened Ron, and he made his appearance in the kitchen. We sat enjoying our delicious breakfast and the stillness of the morning. Gradually the slight odor of stale cigarette smoke filtered through the kitchen vent, alerting us that our neighbors were coming to life. Glancing at Ron I smiled. "I'm glad we won't be spending the whole day in this stinky apartment!" We planned to enjoy the day at my parents’ home.
Finishing our freshly brewed coffee and blueberry waffles, we sat a moment longer, watching the Advent candle burn slowly. Taking my hand, Ron looked into my eyes and said, "Honey, I am a fortunate man! I love our family and the dreams we have for our daughter and our future. God is so gracious to us. Don't we have a great life?"
Before I had a chance to respond, Kari began to scream, ending our intimate moments. Ron offered to care for her while I cleared the dishes. Wiping the table I prayed, "Oh gracious Father, can't we have just one day without this awful crying?" Within a few minutes Kari's crying subsided. After ten more minutes of no crying, I quietly tiptoed out of the kitchen to see if everything was okay. There was Kari, lying on her daddy's lap with a sweet look on her face. She was almost smiling. Because of Kari's extreme irritability, she had never smiled at us. Until then, that fact had never crossed my mind, and now here she was, awake and happy. I couldn't believe it. Had God heard my prayers?
The remainder of the day was a true delight. Kari's contentment continued at Grandma's house. The chatter of aunts and uncles did not disturb her. She received a top-of-the-line walker and modeled it for us. She immediately slumped forward and flopped her head onto the tray. We laughed and took pictures of our new compliant tempered baby.
Despite this delightful day, a growing suspicion was threatening to take away my joy. Was something terribly wrong with my daughter? Earlier she had smiled, but according to the growth and development charts she should have been smiling weeks ago. Also, Kari wasn't holding her head like other children her age; making her noticeably different from them.
"Why am I plagued with such doubts?" I reassured myself. "She received a clean bill of health at her two-month checkup." Though questions were in my mind at the time of that appointment, the doctor confidently said that Kari was quite healthy except for her extreme colic. I tried to push the negative thoughts away. "Joan, just relax," I reprimanded myself. "Enjoy your Christmas, Kari is fine!"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It seems naive now and idealistic to think that a couple can keep the same routines after a little one joins the family as that couple had when they were on their own. It should be obvious to just about anyone that a new baby would change many dynamics of family life, especially a baby who screams constantly. And yet Joan was determined to keep things as normal as possible, while working hard to squeeze in extra time and care to comfort and pacify our very unhappy little girl.
We've seen families who become so focused on a needy child that all other priorities are pushed aside as though no one or nothing else mattered. And, by contrast, we've watched other families neglect the needs of its weakest members, viewing that member as a burden, often pushing the responsibility for their care onto others whenever possible. I'm so thankful that Joan remained determined to not fall into either trap. We loved each other. We loved our daughter. Somehow we kept holding those values tightly and closely to us, even when it became impossible for many of the old routines to stay intact.
I can't begin to adequately describe the wear and tear on the soul that results when a child cannot be consoled. God has designed a child's cry to be an irritant with good reason. It greatly motivates a parent to immediately address whatever problem or need the child is experiencing. But when the child cannot be comforted after everything is tried and the annoying screams continue, the nerves become frazzled, patience thins, the mind begins to lose its sanity.
Somehow we made it through those trying days. We did so by remembering that our daughter was precious to us. We tried to keep in mind that no matter how miserable and stressed we might be from the screaming, our daughter was even more miserable. And our hearts went out to her. We reminded ourselves that she couldn't help it – it wasn't her fault. If anything we blamed ourselves for being new parents who had not yet become competent in the role. Mostly we just plain remembered that she was our daughter, a daughter that happened to cry a lot. For all those reasons and more, we kept cranking the swing, placed her in the football hold, walked her through the night, whatever calmed her, even if only for a few minutes.
Without compromising too much the priority of meeting the needs of one another as husband and wife, we fleshed out the principle that:
A successful family bears with the struggles of its weakest members.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Ron and Joan Denlinger