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Shhhhhh. It’s OK, baby. Shhh shhh shhh. (Images by Tina Tiller)
Shhhhhh. It’s OK, baby. Shhh shhh shhh. (Images by Tina Tiller)

The Sunday EssayFebruary 18, 2024

The Sunday Essay: Will I hurt my baby?

Shhhhhh. It’s OK, baby. Shhh shhh shhh. (Images by Tina Tiller)
Shhhhhh. It’s OK, baby. Shhh shhh shhh. (Images by Tina Tiller)

I am not like these monsters. I am not like my forebears. Am I?

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

This essay contains descriptions of violence against children. For information about postnatal depression and resources that can help, click here.

We arrive at the zoo bang on opening and travel clockwise against the crowd. The whole northwestern quarter is empty, dozens of enclosures ours for the taking. I push your stroller across wooden planks by a trickling river. The golden marmosets blaze orange in the morning sun, so close you could stroke them. 

I pull you out of your stroller and stand holding your fat, warm body in my arms. Tiny monkeys peer back at us with small, scrunched faces. I nuzzle your hair with my nose, soft as rabbit fur. Glancing down at the ground in the marmosets’ enclosure, I spot the sleek, brown body of a ship rat. Rattus rattus. 

When we took you home from the hospital as a newborn, the midwife on duty plied us with fliers. One contained a checklist to work through if you wouldn’t stop crying. Cuddle your baby. Try offering a feed again. Change the nappy if it is wet or dirty. “You’ve got to read this,” she told us. “Some parents can’t handle the crying. We have babies come in here with head injuries all the time.” 

When you cried at home, inconsolable, I was mugged by thoughts of those babies. Raging parents hurling little bodies at the wall. Shaking tiny shoulders. Soft skulls cracking like melons on concrete. 

This was an ego defence, my psychotherapist told me. I imagined other people hurting their babies, but somewhere deep down, the violent impulse was my own. 

The flamingos are jabbering in their enclosure, candy-floss pink. Some flap their wings and crane long necks, others perch on single, spindly legs, asleep. Gorgeous, absurd creatures. The babies, I’m surprised to see, are grey. 

A zookeeper marches po-faced from a hut and throws a bucket of kibble in a dirt trough. It looks like the same supermarket crap you leave out for your cat, and none of the flamingos move. The keeper returns to his hut, looking miffed. 

I find the whole scene hilarious, but your attention is elsewhere: a handful of hens are pecking around underfoot, and you’re captivated by them. Gorgeous, absurd creatures to you, I suppose. Behind us, three lions bask in the sun, sharp teeth in yawning jaws. 

When you were three months old, we watched the sun set over the horizon at Muriwai Beach. It was a freezing evening and you were miserable, screaming for 90 minutes straight. We ran through our usual checks: not hungry, not cold, not soiled, not tired. What else did it say on the list? We rocked you. We sang lullabies. We swaddled you in big cotton squares. Still you screamed. 

My shoulder muscles were so tense they felt close to snapping. I’d given everything I could give. Please stop crying, I begged. Please. “Should we leave her alone to cry for a bit?” I ventured. “No,” he replied. 

He held you as you wailed. We swapped when he could take no more, then we swapped back. An eternity like this, a tiny eon, until finally your cries subsided. 

How could I do it without him? How do people do it without someone like him? 

In the swamp forest dome, a freshwater crocodile lies pressed against the glass, as still as if she were dead. You play in a puddle beneath her enclosure. Orchids drape overhead and tropical fish dart in the tank. I peer close to the glass and marvel at her huge scales, sweating in the artificial heat. 

In a sudden splashing frenzy, the crocodile jerks and whips around, scuttling into the pool. I startle violently and my heart thumps. You’re still playing right by the glass. 

When you were four months old, I visited a neighbour across the hall, a Turkish woman with kind, brown eyes. Her five-year-old, Bella, had colic as a baby. We drank milky tea and chatted about how hard motherhood is. “Bella would cry and cry,” she told me, “and I’d just cry with her.”

Back home in our apartment that day, I read an old New Yorker article about colic, lingering over a pair of sentences. The only lasting negative consequence of colic is child abuse, a professor of paediatrics was quoted as saying, and almost all cases of shaken-baby syndrome are caused by crying. The article said 20% of babies might have colic. 

Later, when you were screaming in my arms, I imagined the global population of colicky babies screaming too. Millions and millions of them. Millions of tiny, soft bodies screaming hot, wet tears. Millions of mothers sobbing while their babies wail. Please don’t hurt them. Please don’t.

I push your stroller through the Aotearoa High Country. We enter a large, open aviary ringed with ferns, a thin waterfall trickling through scrubby rocks. On the concrete path is an olive-green kea, marching right at us. 

At first I’m delighted, but as he approaches, I become nervous. He’s arm’s reach from your stroller and bold, so I scuttle us back out the exit. I’ve already read the sign. Kea sometimes feed on the fat of live sheep, tearing through the skin on their backs.  

After you were born, every case of child abuse I know about surfaced from the recesses of my brain, a whole bank of tormenting visions stretching back to 1987. Some of these kids made the news, plenty didn’t. Baby Moko. Nia Glassie. My grandfather in the bath. Greg’s cellmate. Blood, piss and bruises. A pāua shell slicing soft flesh. Her mother, her mother, and hers, taking turns to break their babies. 

I am not like these monsters. I am not like my forebears. Am I?

I decided it was time to really get into meditation. An app I listened to while you napped said thoughts aren’t to be taken seriously. They strut into view like models on a catwalk, twirl briefly, then recede. You should no sooner identify with your thoughts than with a pain in your knee, and they will surely pass. Watch them cross the sky of your mind like clouds. 

So I did. I watched babies hitting walls. Babies hitting floors. Babies breaking soft little limbs. Baby Nia tumbling in the clothes dryer. Round and round. 

The Sumatran tiger snoozes in the grass, pregnant. The zookeeper tells a semicircle of delighted visitors there are two spines visible on the ultrasound. She’s slower than usual, he says, much sleepier. A mother pushing a pram makes a knowing joke, and we all laugh. 

None of us know it yet, but the first cub will be stillborn. The second will be killed by its mother. 

When you were five months old, my friend visited us in our apartment, a radiant doctor pregnant with her third child. You slept in your bouncer, eyelashes pressed against fat cheeks. We ate fresh spring rolls and chatted about how hard motherhood is. 

When we got to the subject of all the crying, my friend told me that when her babies wouldn’t stop screaming, she sometimes felt the urge to throw them across the room. This admission shocked and touched me. I felt a flash of fury, then guilt, then gratitude. The worst I’d heard from any other parent was vague, hushed murmurings about the baby blues. I admitted to her the same.  

I relayed all this to my psychotherapist. If you can picture yourself throwing your screaming baby across the room, I asked her, what separates you morally from the people who do? The fact that you don’t actually do it, she replied. It was a bright line and I accepted it. My thoughts can’t hurt my baby, I reassured myself. My brutal visions are, apparently, common. The difference between people who hurt little kids and me is they snap and lose control. So don’t snap.

Shhhhhh. It’s OK, baby. Shhh shhh shhh. Shhhhhhh. Come on. It’s all right. Shhh shhh shhh. Shhhhhh. Come on, baby. It’s OK. Shhhhhhhh. Shhhhhhhhhh. Shhh shhh shhh. Please, baby. Shhhhhhhh. Come on. Shhhhhh. Shhh shhh shhh. You’re OK. Come on. Shhhhhh. Shhhhhhhh. That’s enough. Shhh. Please. That’s enough. 

The Tasmanian devil is splayed out on a slab of concrete, sunbathing like a house cat. Diamond doves and crimson rosella chirp in the aviary next door. Next to us is a sign about devil facial tumour disease, a rare contagious cancer. Monstrous growths transform the infected animal’s face, and victims starve or die of organ failure. 

I look back at the present specimen sprawled serenely in dappled sunlight, her coat glossy black. You’re in your stroller watching a flitting sparrow, small and sweet.

My psychotherapist loves Freud and I would follow her through hell, so I checked out an old, tan volume of his works from the library. She had relayed some of his ideas about ego defences and repression, but I needed to get it from the horse’s mouth.

This is what Freud said. When a patient represses an instinctual impulse, “it ramifies like a fungus in the dark, and takes on extreme forms of expression”. Translated and revealed to the conscious mind of the patient, these impulses “are bound not merely to seem alien to him, but to terrify him”. 

I understood, then, that I have my own monstrous growth; a fungus ramifying in the dark of my psyche. One more question for my therapist: How do I kill it off? 

Your mind is like an ecosystem, she told me. Look at the whole thing. The tall, rooted tree of conviction that children should be safe. The primal drive for life; the birthright of all creatures. The deep, clear pools of love. The fungus in its place, threading and symbiotic. And the sunlight, beaming in. 

The fur seal tank is like a movie screen; vast, moody and blue. Bubbles rise in thick bands and forest-green moss coats the floor. Usually the seals swim in graceful loops, slick bellies swooping by the glass. Today, they’re nowhere to be seen.

One night, I dream you’re the size of a Coke can and I’m holding you across my palms. You turn to sand and start slipping through my fingers. I wake with a start and find you sound asleep next to me, fresh baby breath escaping your rosebud lips. 

For months and months, I don’t sleep. Some weeks you wake hourly in the night. I move through the world in a molasses-thick fog of fatigue, irritable and desolate. My nerves are frayed like an old lightning cable. I’m brittle.

You’re screaming, really screaming. Uvula vibrating and cheeks burning red. You writhe in my arms, inconsolable. The visions start rushing. Babies screaming, parents snapping. Babies screaming, parents snapping. Limbs snapping. Don’t snap, don’t snap, don’t snap.

But I’m so brittle. 

In the end, this is what fortifies me. Two sisters, always there, and then two more. Citalopram and sapa sui. A psychotherapist who saw my fungus and didn’t flinch; who saw the trees and pools, too. Mothers who were honest with me, truly honest, and a few fathers. The meals that showed up at the door. Everyone who helped.

Hearing him sing lullabies in his mother tongue and watching your eyelids grow heavier. Feeling the warm, soft heft of you in my arms, heavier than yesterday. 

I march through the Aotearoa Wetlands, retracing our steps in search of a dropped shoe. You’re wailing in your stroller and tugging at your gums. I perch on a slab of dry rock, pull you to me and nurse. You stop crying and suckle happily. You’re one now. I gaze into your dark eyes, encircled by wet lashes, and you gaze back. O oe o la’u pele moni. You are my true love.

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