Don't Wait for a Knock


by John Tyler Connoley

July 6, 2004


My friend Kelly once had a single mother living next door to her. The woman wasn't a close friend, more like an acquaintance. But occasionally, this neighbor would knock on Kelly's door with her infant in arms and plead, "Will you please watch my baby for ten minutes? If I don't take a break from her, I'm gonna do her bodily harm." Kelly figured anyone desperate enough to ask a near-stranger for help was really at the end of her rope, so she always took the baby, no matter what else she was doing. Kelly told me this story when I called her in tears the other day, afraid I was going to kill my new puppy.


In the past week, I've seen into the abyss of puppycide. I haven't jumped in, but I've teetered on the edge. How odd it feels to find oneself on the verge of violently shaking a creature that, only hours ago, you thought was the cutest and sweetest thing on the face of the planet. And strange that such a small, nearly helpless puppy could make a grown man (and a believer in nonviolence, no less) nearly helpless against a consuming rage.


Later, I watch the puppy sleep and think, "Did I really want to throw her across the room?" But, I know I did. Somewhere in my muddled memory, I can still feel the smoldering ashes of that anger mixed with guilt.


Having a puppy has given me new respect for single and stay-at-home parents. After all, a puppy is only a puppy for a few months, but human childhood lasts years. I've been sleep-deprived for about ten weeks; my sister has been sleep-deprived for close to four years. I spend my days with an energetic puppy in a three-bedroom house, while somewhere a single mother lives with two toddlers in a one-bedroom apartment.


It only takes three swift shakes by an adult to kill an infant. Three shakes, and the child falls into a coma and doesn't wake up. What's surprising is how rarely this happens, particularly when so many modern American parents are already stressed out before they ever have children. In a society that offers little in the way of support to working parents, it's amazing we aren't in the midst of a shaken-baby epidemic.


There was a time when children were born into a network of grandparents, and other family members, who lived with the parents and helped them cope with the difficulties a new child provided. When a mother needed to hand her baby off to someone so she could take a breather, she didn't have to turn to a stranger across the street, because she had relatives living with her who could pick up the slack. Now, even if a family has the resources to let one of the parents stay home full-time, that parent is left alone with the children, with little outside support. And, in single-parent or double-income households, the adults spend their evenings exhausted from work, trying to get the kids bathed and put to bed, so they can have a few precious minutes to unwind before going to bed themselves and getting up the next day to do it all over again.


In my exhaustion, when I was yelling at my puppy the other day -- so loudly that my neighbors could hear -- I worried what the woman next door must think. I remembered a neighbor I had in an apartment in Indianapolis who was always yelling at her children. I looked down my nose at that woman for not having more self-control, and for being such a bad parent. Now, I wonder what I could have done to help. Most people love their children dearly, and want to be the best parents possible; it's just the exhaustion and loneliness that drives them to be what some of my friends condescendingly call "Wal-Mart moms" -- those people who shout at their children in public places.


In her book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Anne Lamott, a single mother, describes her reaction to her newborn son's severe bout with colic. Her son had been crying for what seemed like years when Anne suddenly decided one night that she should leave him on the front porch overnight. If he survived the elements, then she would assume it was survival of the fittest and she would keep him. Of course, Anne didn't do this. But for a few minutes -- in her exhausted and sleep-deprived state -- it seemed like the most sensible thing in the world. Anne Lamott says she wrote her book so other new parents wouldn't feel like failures and freaks when they had similar thoughts and experiences.


Anne Lamott's book makes a great baby shower gift. But an even greater gift to new parents is the gift of temporary sanity. Don't wait for your friends to knock on your door with a baby in their arms, because many of them won't. Instead, when a friend has a new baby, call her. See if you can't come over and watch the baby for a while. A few minutes alone is sometimes the thing parents most desire and the one thing they aren't sure how to ask for.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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