© by Lu Erickson 2015
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Caroline walked the length of the hallway, circled the coffee table in the living room, and slowly paced back toward the kitchen, all the while jiggling the baby. Little Laney still gave a hiccup every so often, but Caroline could feel the baby's body relaxing, melting into her chest, the heat from Laney's head radiating through the thin cotton of Caroline's shirt. She figured she'd walked miles in the last three months since Laney was born. Nick teased that she could have walked from Sacramento to New York and back with all the steps she'd taken trying to soothe their infant daughter to sleep.
Now, if she could just make the successful transfer from chest to crib, she would have time to pick up the house and get dinner started before Nick got home. He'd been working so hard on the new contract, putting in twelve-hour days and even some weekend work. Caroline wanted everything to be perfect when he got home. But taking care of Laney had turned out to be much more demanding than she'd ever anticipated. How mothers took care of more than one kid at a time was one of life's mysteries she hoped one day would be revealed to her--preferably before she and Nick had another baby.
She walked to the wall mirror in the entryway to see if Laney's eyes were truly closed. She'd made the mistake before of rushing the job--and lived to regret it. Laney, even in a sleepy fog, had an uncanny way of sensing the transition from vertical to horizontal and would release an indignant wail even before her little body touched the soft flannel sheets of her bed.
Caroline thought wistfully of her friends whose babies would drop off to sleep with barely a jiggle. She'd endured tales of daytime catnaps, book reading, gardening, and even one friend who'd taken up oil painting! Why couldn't Laney be cooperative like that? But Laney had made it clear early on that she would not be so easily dismissed.
Caroline turned her side to the mirror. Laney's eyes were indeed closed. Her round, flushed cheek pushed up against Caroline's chest as she breathed a shallow rhythm through moist, parted lips.
Caroline walked down the hall to the nursery. She glanced longingly at the walnut rocking chair in the corner of the room that her parents had bought. How she would love to sit and rock Laney for a while, tucking the baby's warm fuzzy head under her chin.
But there were dishes to do and bathrooms to clean, and somehow she had to think of something to cook for dinner from a kitchen that hadn't been restocked in a week.
Taking a deep breath, she cupped the baby's head and eased her from her chest. The baby's arms jerked and she made a little grunt.
Caroline set her on the soft pink crib sheet and watched guardedly. Laney's body relaxed, her fine brows rose and fell as she settled into steady breathing. Caroline smiled with relief. Mission accomplished.
With the baby napping, Caroline kicked into gear. She wasn't going to be one of those moms that used the baby as an excuse to let the house fall apart. All she needed was a little organization, and that was something Caroline was good at. She'd been one of the top accountants at Delaney and Smith. Caroline still had a month to go before her leave was up, and she was going to savor every last moment with the baby. Just the idea of leaving Laney with a sitter broke her heart. But then there were days when the thought of stepping into her black pencil skirt, slipping her arms into a silk blouse and reentering the adult world filled her with guilty anticipation.
Caroline cleared the dishes from the counter and loaded them into the dishwasher. Outside the kitchen window the fine day beckoned. She allowed herself the fantasy of a quiet moment in the garden with an ice tea and a romance novel. No, better to get the house cleaned and the washing done. She'd take the baby out onto the patio after her nap. Laney usually loved the afternoons, excitedly waving her arms and exercising her legs, cooing and laughing at Caroline's funny faces and voices. But then there were days when she wouldn't stop crying.
Caroline yawned and checked the clock on the kitchen wall. One twenty-five. Good lord, how time flew. Maybe if she got lucky, the baby would sleep a little longer and she could still catch a power nap. She'd been up three times last night. Sometimes Laney only woke up once during the night, and Caroline could get a good block of sleep, and there was one night about a month ago that the baby had actually slept from nine at night until seven in the morning. Naturally, Caroline had awakened a one o'clock in a panic and ran into Laney's room only to find Laney deep in a restful sleep, impersonating the perfect baby. Alleluia! Caroline was certain her nights of interrupted sleep and wee-hour feedings were finally over. But the following night Laney woke a record four times. Lately, Caroline had begun having dizzy spells, but who knew if it was hormones or sleep deprivation.
Just as Caroline finished wiping down the bathroom counter, she heard Laney whimper. Her heart seemed to fall an inch. No power nap today. By the time she'd put the cleanser and sponge back in the cupboard, the baby's whimper had turned into an angry, demanding cry.
* * *
Caroline picked up the screaming baby for the third time in an hour and cuddled her to her shoulder. "That's all right, Laney. Mama's got you now." Caroline's cheek rested against the warm fuzz of her daughter's head. She breathed in the lingering fragrance of baby shampoo as she murmured soothing words.
But Laney refused be comforted. Just leave her in her crib and let her cry. That had been her mother's advice. That had been what her friends had told her. It's the only way you'll ever get her on a schedule.
Great advice for the first five minutes, Caroline conceded. But what about after twenty minutes? A half-hour? She glanced at her wristwatch. How about fifty-three freaking minutes?! Did any of them know what it was like to listen to a screaming baby for almost an hour, all the while trying to how onto sanity and figure out what was wrong?
She'd read in the latest issue of New Parents Magazine that an infant's cry topped the list of the most unsettling sounds to a human adult. Researchers speculated that nature designed the baby's cry so that its parents would take quick action to quiet the baby, and in the process the baby's needs would be met.
But what if you tried everything and nothing worked?
Caroline moved the baby from her shoulder and cradled her in her arms. She inspected her tiny daughter, searching for some clue as to what could be the matter. Laney's fists jerked and spasmed with every cry. Her face turned the color of a ripe raspberry. Tiny tears moistened the slits where her bright blue-brown eyes had been, and her white-edged lips stretched back to show ruddy, toothless gums.
What if she had a stomachache? Or what if it was something worse? A blue vein snaked from the top of Laney's forehead to her right brow. Could crying like this create enough pressure to burst a blood vessel?
Caroline pressed her daughter to her chest. "Please, Laney," she begged, "please stop crying." She'd tried rocking her. She'd tried nursing her. She'd checked her diaper four times. And everything she did only seemed to further enrage the baby.
Nonna said crying was good for babies. It strengthened the lungs, and the kicking and arm flailing helped exercise their little bodies. But this crying didn't look beneficial. And it sure as heck wasn't doing Caroline's nerves any favors.
She'd call Nick. She hated to disturb him at work, but it would be good just to hear his voice. Ever since he'd gotten the new contract, he'd been running in all directions. She could hear the distraction in his voice whenever she phoned him. His words were sweet enough, but she could tell by the lapses in the conversation and the need to repeat herself that she didn't have his full attention. Even in the evenings, he'd sometimes get a distant look, and she'd know that mentally he'd returned to the office.
On second thought, she wouldn't bother him with this. It would just make him feel bad. And there wasn't anything he could do to help from the office anyway. She would put Laney back in her crib and let her cry like everyone kept telling her to do.
She laid the baby in the crib, tucking the fuzzy pink Pooh blanket close around the kicking legs. Caroline looked at her daughter's distressed face. There's got to be a better way for a baby to get exercise, Nonna.
The pitch of Laney's screaming rose even higher as she angrily protested her abandonment. Caroline turned away, feeling panic swell in her chest as she walked down the hallway.
Buck up, she ordered herself. What was wrong with her, anyway? She was a capable woman. She'd worked for six years in a prestigious accounting firm. She'd handled some of the most demanding and aggravating clients without ever losing her cool.
So why did one little baby make her feel so incompetent and helpless?
Maybe if she could just talk with Nick for a minute. Just to hear his voice. She dialed his number. One ring. Two. On the third, the voice-mail picked up. This is Nick Bennet. I'm unable to take . . .
Dammit! Why couldn't he ever be there when she needed him? She left a quick message without saying what the trouble was.
Laney's cry reached out to her in waves from the back of the house. Caroline slammed down the receiver, and walked toward the kitchen, taking slow, deep breaths, her heart pounding in her chest. She flicked the faucet on full blast, but the cries reached out to her through the whirr of the water. Caroline filled a juice glass and took big, slow swallows. Something had to be wrong with the baby to make her cry like this. Other mothers didn't seem to have this problem. When Caroline had quit work, she'd dreamed about the time she'd have to herself. She'd pictured her perfectly kept house. She had visions of herself in a big straw hat, planting flowers with the baby snuggled in a carrier peacefully beside her. After all, what did stay-at-home moms do with all that time from eight to five? But Laney never slept more than thirty minutes at a time during the day and woke up at least every three hours at night. When Caroline spoke with the doctor, he would ask the same litany of questions. Is she eating well? Is she dry? Have you checked her clothing to see if there's any constriction? And the verdict? Always the same--immature digestion, fussy temperament. Put her in her crib and let her cry. These things pass with time. Everyone she spoke to gave her understanding nods and knowing smiles, like it was the simplest of tasks to ignore a baby's cries.
Caroline turned off the water. Laney's screams reverberated through the room. For God's sake, the neighbors would soon have Child Protective Services pounding at her door.
Caroline walked back down the hall, the cries growing louder with every step. She stood in the doorway watching the fitful movements of her darling girl--the baby she'd waited so patiently to conceive. The baby she'd longed for whenever she saw young mothers pushing strollers down her street. She'd thought it would be good to wait until she'd established herself with the company. To gain the things that come with maturity--patience, understanding, financial security. She and Nick had done their best to be responsible parents.
But right now, she didn't feel so mature. She felt vulnerable and inadequate. How was it that just a few hours ago Laney smiled and cooed, totally fascinated by Caroline? Caroline had held the baby before her and little Laney had reached out her pudgy fingers with the perfect miniature nails and hooked them in Caroline's mouth, laughing gleefully. Where was that angel child?
Now, watching the struggling infant, Caroline knew she couldn't leave the baby to cry alone. Weren't mothers supposed to comfort their children? Wasn't it in her DNA to be able to figure out what was causing the problem? Where was her mother's intuition?
Maybe Laney had finally wet her diaper. Caroline walked into the room and stood over the crib. "What's the matter, baby girl?" But Laney would not meet her eyes. Caroline picked her up. The crying racked her tiny chest, and the noise pressed in on Caroline, reaching a pitch that stabbed her ears.
Caroline tried to hold the baby close, but Laney reared back, screeching uncontrollably. Caroline took her to the changing table and set her down. Roughly. Laney's head bumped on the changing pad.
The baby's wailing ceased momentarily, and Laney's eyes grew wide.
Caroline's heart seemed to stop. "Oh God," she cried. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." She picked up the baby, whose cries had started anew, and cradled the warm, fragile head in the palm of her hand. Laney's sounds were no longer angry, but held some other emotion. Fear? Confusion? Over and over, Caroline kept muttering her apology. To Laney, to God, to Nick. How could she have done such a thing? What mother would allow her emotions to put her baby in danger? And what kind of person could be made angry by a helpless baby anyway? She knew the answer to that. She'd read the accounts of child abuse in the paper, arrogantly dismissing that kind of low-end person who could hurt a child. But could there be some of this darkness deep within her, too?
She laid Laney back down in the crib. The baby would be better alone. Without a mother who was so incompetent that she couldn't comfort her own child and then, if that wasn't enough, blamed the baby for her own failures.
Tears streamed down Caroline's face. She felt sick to her stomach. Sobs caught in her throat. She clamped her hand over her mouth as she crossed the hall into her room and lay down on the bed.
And that was how Nick found them--Caroline curled up crying in one room and Laney snuffling in the other.
"What's going on here?" he asked, in the voice of a person genuinely perplexed. He walked to the bed, and Caroline felt the mattress give slightly under his weight, the warmth of his hip against her back.
"Hey," he said softly, stroking her arm, "what is it? What's happened?"
Caroline swiped at the tears in her eyes and dragged the back of her hand under her nose. She turned toward Nick.
"She won't stop crying. I can't do anything to make her stop."
Nick smiled. "Listen."
Caroline heard the quiet. Laney had finally fallen asleep. But what if there was something wrong with her? Maybe all that crying had hurt her in some way. Or maybe . . .
She shifted to get up from the bed, to check on the baby, but Nick held her back.
"She's fine," he said, reassuring her. "I checked when I came in. Her eyes were just closing. She even cooed at me."
"What are you doing home in the middle of the day?"
"I got your message. You sounded upset. And when I called back, you didn't answer."
"I've been letting it ring. You've been so tied up with work, I didn't dream it would be you. And I didn't feel much like talking to anyone else. Sorry you had to come all the way home."
"I'm not," he said, pushing her hair back from her eyes. "What's got you so upset?"
Caroline thought about what had happened with Laney, and she began to cry again.
Nick wrapped his arms around her and held her close as the sobs shook her body.
"Tell me why you're crying."
Caroline pressed her face against his shoulder. It felt so solid, so reassuring.
"I got angry with her," Caroline choked out. "She just kept screaming at me. I put her down to change her, but I did it harder than I should have."
"The baby's fine. You didn't hurt her."
Caroline thought about the moment her anger had surged. She knew she hadn't really hurt the baby, not physically. Laney had probably been bumped harder being passed around at family gatherings. It wasn't the action, but the uncontrolled emotion that frightened Caroline so badly. "But what if I had?"
"I know you wouldn't. It isn't in you."
"But what if it is? How do we really know what we're capable of?"
"You're just tired. You insist on doing everything yourself. You won't allow me or anyone else to help you. You won't let me get up with her in the night. You try to keep this house in model-home condition. When family comes to see the baby, you knock yourself out trying to make everything Martha Stewart perfect. Nobody expects it of you. Nobody but you. You're running on empty."
"But I'm here all day long--I should be able to do this. You're working ten-hour days with the new contract. You're tired when you come home. I want everything to be good for you. I want everything to be perfect."
Nick kissed her cheek to stop the progression of a tear. "Everything is perfect. I have you and I have Laney."
Nick stood and pulled her to him. Wrapped in his arms, she could almost believe the things he'd said, believe that he still had faith in her. She so wanted to believe it.
She'd learned something about herself. She'd discovered that pushed hard enough, she was capable of things she'd never thought possible, things that even now were hard to admit. But she'd also learned her limitations.
She took Nick's hand in hers and, as she looked into his eyes, she felt a lightness she hadn't felt for months. Help was here; she'd just been too proud and too stubborn to accept it.
She led Nick quietly into their daughter's room. Laney slept peacefully in her crib. Caroline reached over to pull up the blanket and retuck it under the baby's marshmallow arms. The little fingers nestled into the softness of the woven yarn. Her natural color had returned, her features transformed once more into the face of the angel child.
Nick held her close as they gazed in wonder at their daughter, watching the rise and fall of her chest, awed by the continuous beating of the tiny heart that resided there.