Published on August 29th, 2018 | by Jamie Wagman1
“This one has a lot of intensity,” the pediatric nurse said under her breath just hours after I gave birth to my first born, Rebecca.
Intensity: a polite word for anger.
After birth, baby Rebecca had two modes: at rest or screaming. I knew this from day one – this was the kind of baby she would always be. Perhaps this would also be the kind of girl, teenager, and woman she would always be. She didn’t have intensity; she had rage. I escaped my third floor apartment for an hour one afternoon shortly after giving birth to Rebecca. Upon walking back home with a coffee in hand and a fleeting feeling of lightness, I heard her screams from three blocks away.
I often wondered why. Was she attuned to the injustices of the world as she left my birth canal? Was my breast milk lacking in nutrients or quantity? I assumed that perhaps lack of nutrition was the case, and I stocked up on fenugreek capsules that made my skin smell like maple syrup for many months. I miss that smell, but I don’t miss the feverish way I walked around those days. Anxiety drove me to reach for parenting books so frequently that I had parts memorized. “Let your baby be your guide,” What to Expect When You’re Expecting advised. “Your just born newborn is wise beyond his or her days in many ways.”
In the movies, girls scream when they are abducted. They scream when they see ghosts and monsters. And women who scream are portrayed as unstable or victims. Susan Backlinie in Jaws, Drew Barrymore in Scream, Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz. To scream is to alert the audience that you won’t last until the credits. You will be eaten or lost, stabbed or traumatized, assaulted or even melted. Screaming girls and women never stick around on the screen.
Once, another new mom and I powerwalked with our children in slings, and Rebecca screamed for 40 minutes and then slept for 11 minutes. (I used to time everything; now I don’t find it productive.) This mother friend, Jackie, said, “I know this is hard for you, but honestly it is okay. She just seems to want to scream.” We walked on, sweat rolling off my forehead. I pretended as though I was okay with the screams. Eventually, I found that the only way of soothing her was to insert my nipple into her mouth until she ate and passed out. So this became our routine, and I became a human pacifier. I wish I had welcomed this more, rocking back and forth in a 10×10 room with a painted bear on the wall, gazing down at my newborn’s profile, noticing two pale birthmarks slowly coming into being near her hairline. I tried to mall walk with Rebecca just to get out of our home and move as the months grew colder, but the other mall walkers looked at me aghast, as though the only reason for a baby to scream like that was torture. Some of them shouted helpful suggestions at me, like, “Feed that baby!”
Dr. Melissa J. Johnson, psychologist and founder of the Institute for Girls’ Development, suggested that parents validate their daughters’ expressions of anger. In his 1970 book, The Primal Scream, Arthur Janov wrote that a scream is a form of expression of primal pain and can even heal a patient from past trauma. Janov also believes that for babies, screaming is the only language.
When Rebecca could sit up without support, I looked up a parenting resources group, and an educator came by mid-day to meet us. At this woman’s request, I placed Rebecca on a blanket with a kaleidoscope toy. She started to scream, and I scooped her up and began to undo my nursing bra. “You can’t do that,” the woman scolded, lecturing me to not pick up my baby. “You need to teach her to self sooth. Let her cry. Let her scream.” I nodded earnestly, and then walked her calmly to the door afterward, knowing we would never meet again. I could physically let Rebecca scream, and I knew she would survive it, as would I. But it never ended—never led to the long awaited aha! moment for Rebecca. The screams were endless, infinite, ubiquitous. If crying was a rainfall, Rebecca’s tantrums were hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones.
After this appointment, I bought a new round of books about high needs, spirited, intense, difficult children. Authors used a range of adjectives, and prescribed a range of ideologies, from creating new conversations to adopting a childlike mentality oneself, getting down on all fours and crawling and kneeling often to gain insight on what it is like to be so small. Did I do this? You bet. It did not reveal the secrets of my baby’s universe.
Years passed, and I never grew immune to the screams. They always stopped my in my tracks, my heart racing, a panic sweat breaking out across my forehead. I realized I could not sleep with her in our room. I also had to start sleeping with ear plugs, white noise, and a fan to finally drift off and not think I heard screaming from the other bedroom. I need to take myself off the grid to gain any rest. But eventually, time did alter our world.
More than time, it was words; words changed everything. Once Rebecca could speak, she stopped screaming and began articulating desires (mini bagels, with only a teaspoon of cream cheese please) and asked questions, many of them. When she hears of a new topic, she asks questions until she is satisfied. I admire this quality, but I also admit that I fear this line of questioning when we are at the Field Museum in Chicago exhibit and she sees a sign for a new shark sex exhibit.
She’s 7 now, and the questions and preferences keep coming. She wants soft clothing and dance over soccer, painting over gymnastics. She still bursts into flames when hungry, so I always keep snacks handy. She hates dull car trips and she lights up in conversation. She once stayed up all night on a long flight and she became a fussing infant again. Most of the time, however, when not deprived of food or rest, she is an animated, emotive child and I look forward to talking with her every single day of my life. She prefers Rowling and L’Engle over Lewis and Tolkien. Watching her run, dance, swim, and bike with passion fills my heart until I want to burst like a balloon. Upon watching her dance upon the beach once in Santa Monica, I realized that my children will give me the best moments of my entire life and that they will come out of nowhere, so I better be watching.
When she was still in her infancy, I did everything I could think of, from group therapy to inviting educators into my home to studying authors and joining La Leche and talking with other new moms. I received shoulders to cry on and empathy, along with some good and bad advice. I also made mother friends, a specific kind of friendship that led to absurd middle of the night texting about plugged ducts, New York Times headlines, and infant milestones. It was helpful to know that I wasn’t, in fact, the only person awake most nights.
But it turned out that all along, my child was teaching me about healthy expressions of anger and being assertive. I know now that her expressions have taught me to perform my own. When my father dragged her on the sidewalk when she was about two years old, one of the last times I ever saw him, I ran to catch up with him and screamed for him to stop. I screamed that he was abusive; I screamed and screamed and screamed, and people began to stop and stare. When a man picked up my child in a hotel lobby, I screamed again for him to put her down. I screamed when two small boys tried dunking my daughter at a pool. I screamed until their grandmother physically stopped them. My scream is more piercing and shrill than I thought it would be. My scream surprises me, and once I start I feel that I, too, may never stop. But the screaming doesn’t rattle me anymore. I know now that Rebecca and I are not going to wash up on the shore or wind up in an alley with a werewolf at the end of the film; we are going to be werewolves, full of bark and bite, telling the world when it’s right and telling it off when it’s not.
We have intensity.