I am a hospital chaplain who has spent plenty of time in emergency rooms with people in traumatic, desperate situations. I have seen shaken babies, most of who did not survive. I have seen the guilt and pain and anger and despair of parents who have lost their children in such situations, some of them having done the shaking themselves, others having entrusted their children to the wrong person. It is a heartbreaking scene to witness, but it is also frightening because it uncovers the deeply disturbing realization that all of us are capable of this. Like studying the complicity of citizens in Nazi Germany, I would look at these devastated parents and realize that I, too, could lose my temper and patience with a screaming baby and feel driven to shake them out of desperation. I vowed to myself that I would do everything within my power to never let myself get out of hand with my own child, that I would always remember those tragic tableaux in the ED with grieving parents who found themselves facing inconceivable loss after a single moment of losing self-control. The last three minutes of this video just reaffirmed my personal commitment.
My daughter is a great baby. She isn’t colicky at all, although she isn’t quite at the age that the video suggested was the most common age for “purple” crying. She isn’t very fussy, and when she is, it’s usually over something easily addressed: hunger, a wet diaper, gas, or just wanting to be cuddled. She eats well and she sleeps through the night. For new parents, we are (so far) immensely blessed.
But there are still moments when I just don’t want to be a parent. Not forever, just in that moment. When she was ten days old, I had that first moment. It was a weeknight, I had worked all day, and I had to work again the next day. My wife had taken care of her all day long and was eager for a break. I just wanted to watch a little TV. My little girl had just finished eating, and we had burped her and changed her diaper, but she was still crying. I imagined that I would rock her a little and she would fall right to sleep and then I could watch a little TV before going to bed.
But that’s not what happened. She kept crying. I made several laps around the house, rocking her and singing lullabies. She was having none of it. Little babies don’t produce many tears, but her eyes were wet in the corners as they squeezed shut tight as vices. Her face was red, her toothless mouth wide and pleading. She kicked her legs against my arms like a tiny mule, and I could feel her torso filling with air like a bellows to be steadily and loudly expelled.
It didn’t take long for my patience to wear out. My muscles tensed. I started walking faster around the house. My rocking arms grew rigid and my sweet singing voice soon dissolved into a growl. Fifteen minutes of this and my wife intercepted my path through the den. “Let me take her,” she insisted.
Gruffly, I rebuffed her: “No, I’m fine.”
“She can feel you tense up. You’re not soothing her.”
At this point, I’m not just angry at my daughter for crying, I’m angry at my wife for impugning the quality of my parenting. “Fine. Take her.” I handed her over and went to get ready for bed. I no longer had time to watch TV; I had to get to sleep so I could get up and go to work. I washed my face, undressed, and marched upstairs to our guest bedroom, where I sleep on work nights while my wfie stays at home so that I’m not disturbed. She cried for another ten minutes in my wife’s arms before settling down and falling asleep.
Now, let me be clear: this did not qualify as “purple” crying. She cried for thirty minutes, tops, which is really not that much. Although it wasn’t immediate, she was able to be soothed. This episode doesn’t come close to colic, so for any parents of colicky babies reading this and thinking to yourselves that I should shut the hell up because I don’t know anything and maybe I should come to your house some night and see what it’s like – believe me, I know that’s nothing. She’s a great baby, and episodes like this one have been rare. Let me also be clear that, despite my ominous build-up of emergency room traumas and grieving parents, I was not anywhere close to feeling like shaking her. I was frustrated and mad, but I wasn’t even beginning to near the level of desperation I would need to treat a delicate baby with such dangerous disregard. This isn’t a story about how I almost shook my baby, or even a story about how I felt like shaking my baby.
The next morning I woke up, showered and dressed, and left for work. All the while, both my wife and my daughter slept. On the drive to work I began to replay the episode in my mind. Guilt began to grip my gut with a cold and impenetrable certainty that spread into my chest and turned to horror. I felt suddenly as if I needed to confess, that I needed to beg for forgiveness. Not from my wife, but from my beautiful daughter. Of course, she was only ten days old and couldn’t offer me forgiveness, but I couldn’t hold her, not until the end of the day when I got home from work and how could I work an entire day needing to be absolved of this sin? For the whole day, she would be at home, away from her father, her angry, impatient, selfish father who had simply handed her over to her mother and gone straight to bed. I nearly turned around and drove home. I fought back tears of shame.
I was sure I had damaged my beautiful daughter. My wife would wake up and something would be different: a sound or a gesture, but something would be slightly wrong and we would have to take her to the doctor and they would look at me and know it was my fault, I had let my selfishness destroy my daughter’s life forever.
But wait, some rational part of my brain protested. You didn’t shake her.
Yes I did! screamed the frantic shame in my heart. I shook her emotionally. She is helpless, completely dependent on her parents for every need, and after only fifteen minutes I let my desire to watch TV – to watch TV, for God’s sake! – turn her into an inconvenience. Emotionally, I dropped her. I made it clear that I’d rather be doing something else.
I called home at lunch, still overwhelmed and ashamed. I had to know how my little girl was doing. Of course, she was fine. “Everything’s good,” my wife insisted. I told her I felt guilty. I told her I had emotionally shaken our daughter. “Daniel, she’s fine,” she said with a hint of annoyance. “Don’t worry, it’s okay, she doesn’t know any different.”
I don’t guess I’ll know until my girl is grown and seeing her own therapist, but it’s probably safe to say that my fit of impatience on her tenth day of life in this world didn’t scar my daughter forever. Yes, I imagine she did sense the tension in my body, but I doubt she remembers this episode with any more clarity than she remembers each dirty diaper or moment of hunger. It was a discomfort, and it passed, and it was but a fleeting disruption to her otherwise very safe and nurturing environment. She could have no way of conceiving the meaning of my impatience, and she lacks the capacity to imply a lack of concern for her on my part. Honestly, she probably didn’t even recognize who it was holding her.
Of course, she’s growing every day, and it won’t be long. She’s six weeks old now, and developmental guides suggest that she knows both of her parents by our voices and our eyes. She smiles at us and she tries to talk to us and she’s discovered she has a little control of those tiny fingers that keep rubbing her face. So of course every parent has the capacity to emotionally shake or drop or hit their children. And I’m sure I will at some point fail my little girl, and it will happen at a time when she has developed enough ego sense to recognize who it is failing her and that it hurts.
But before that inevitably happens, I’ve had to face the real lesson of this event. It isn’t that I emotionally shook my child, or that I will one day. What’s been so stunning about this is that she shook me. That, emotionally, she shakes me every day. She’s gradually beginning to grow developmentally and it won’t be long before she can differentiate between herself and the rest of the world, comprehending a sense of ego strength and selfhood. But before that any of that happens, her mere existence shakes me to the core. And I can’t even say why. What is it about this tiny creature that makes me feel like I’m in emotional free fall? What does she say to me that shakes my world so thoroughly and completely?
Heavy existential questions, no doubt. I suppose they’re questions familiar to any reflective parent, whether articulated in a similar fashion or not. I could waste a lot of page space pontificating in philosophical prose, unpacking the ontological meanings of parental responsibility or moral development or nurturing care. But before any of that, before I attempt to steady myself with artificial verbiage, I have to admit I am emotionally shaken. This beautiful creature has opened me up to a vulnerability I didn’t have before, and now the very essence of who I am as a person is being shaken loose. There is much developmental growth in the near future in my household.