Photo credit: Juliane Riedl
In prenatal courses, the teacher is required to spend some time talking to the group of parents-to-be about Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). Our nurse-teacher went one further and demonstrated how easy it was to perform. She grabbed a baby-sized doll and shook it four times with stringent arms. “Why won’t you stop crying?” she said, punctuated on every shake. We waited in the silence after, a group of about thirty of us. No one said anything. There was horror to be felt with even this mild demonstration. “And that’s how easy it is,” she finished. Her voice didn’t have to raise itself above a whisper. She had all of our attention, and if she were reading this, she’d be happy to know how well that stuck in my mind.
I remember thinking that there was no way I would ever be tempted to shake my own baby. I will be a good father, I thought. Good fathers do not shake their babies.
Before you start to worry unnecessarily, I will let it be known that I did not shake my daughter, nor will I ever. This I swear on a most solemn oath. I’m only painting this picture for you so you can enter into my mind. As Stephen King said in his book On Writing, the written word is the only known form of telepathy—all I want is for you to understand where I’m coming from. I’m coming from the point of a bewildered child, grown to the point where he is no longer called a child, but boastful and unwise all the same. Here I believed that the thought of shaking my child would never cross my mind, yet all it took was fifteen minutes alone with her in the parking lot of a Toys R’ Us. My wife ran inside to grab a few sleepers since our daughter grew out of most of the ones we had.
I was left with the baby.
And babies, which if you did not already know, have a keen sixth-sense that detects when they are left alone without the breasts to feed them. That’s a scientific fact. Upon my wife leaving the truck for the quick errand, the baby woke up and began to fuss. I joined her in the back seat and spoke to her calmly. Then she started to fuss more intensely, and I took her out of the car seat and began to bounce her. I shushed her tenderly as any father might. Gomer Krinsky would be proud.
It wasn’t long before I learnt of the wrath of what a baby girl is capable. The screams, dear reader… the screams that stretched my ear were like no other.
As an aside, I’ve often wondered at times whether I, as her father, had a fundamentally stronger biological response to her cries than anyone else. I’ve wondered if in the creation of things it was decided that the father of the child should have a more intense stress response to his offspring than others, perhaps to enable him better as protector. In evolutionary terms: a saber-toothed cat bites my baby, it causes her to scream, and the resulting chemicals that pound through my neural synapses are enough to make me a superhuman saber-toothed cat-killer. This seems to me a very plausible thing. I ain’t no scientist, but it seems plausible.
The point is, I was stressed. And unlike the threat of a saber-toothed cat being there for me to direct my energy, there was nothing. I shortened my breath and tried anything I could think of. Of course the wife left her phone at home and in my aggravated state, taking the baby inside of Toys R’ Us to find her (and her boobs of nourishment—of which they are now referred) didn’t even cross my mind. It was baby against Spencer. Mano a babo.
Sometime passed and my aggravation turned into anxiety, and though I wasn’t actively visualizing shaking my baby, I could feel every tendon in my body begging me to give in and do so. Perhaps it’s true what they say about men; if they can’t fix it, they find a way to break it some more. I had the urge to harm my child as a sort of muscle-memory to stress. Years of tantrums as a kid, all the times feeling my ears turn hot and my face numb, experiencing the rush of beating the living crap out of any pillow that looked at me wrong, all of this flashed before my eyes. The desire to punch and kick flooded my very self.
It was then that I thought of the nurse-teacher shaking that doll. I thought of the quiet that it left in the pit of my soul. I found myself remembering what she had suggested to do if one was faced with the dark temptation.
“Put the baby down and walk away,” she said. “Take a few minutes and breath. The baby won’t die in a few minutes.”
I’m proud to say that that is exactly what I did. I put her back into her car seat, screaming as she was, and I made three or four laps of the truck with my hands balled into fists, my chest rising and falling like spikes of chemicals my brain—chemicals my brain had prepared for me to kill the saber-toothed cat.
When my wife returned, and once the baby was okay, I left in a fit and bought us some coffees from a nearby coffee shop. I remember looking at the Barista and thinking how easy it would be to say something harsh. To unleash my anger on a complete stranger would have felt wonderful, I admit. I hadn’t yet hit anything and the stress was still being processed. But then, dear reader, what harsh things I said could never be taken back. And if I shook my daughter…
It could never be taken back.
There are times when even those of us who wish kindness on our neighbours, who try sincerely to be gentle with others and with themselves, struggle against the temptation of violence. Sometimes we are taken to the edge before we realize how far the drop really is. I can say, perhaps more so than other times in my life, I have been to that edge.
God bless the virtue of self-control.
May it find us at those times when we need it most.