Disclaimer + trigger warning: The following does contain a graphic reference to child abuse. The following is a personal essay by a contributor mom and opinions expressed are not necessarily reflective of the Truly Mama brand.
Last night, somewhere around 1 AM, I walked away from my baby.
I put my baby—still screaming—down in her crib and walked away. I had yet to go to sleep for the night, I’d already been up with her for over an hour, my husband was out in the barn working his second job, and I had to wake up in less than four hours. I had reached that desolate, hopeless part of the night where it felt like I just couldn’t catch a break. I was exhausted, frustrated, and to be completely honest with you, a little angry.
Why couldn’t my baby just sleep? How is it that for over a year straight, I haven’t been able to sleep through the night? Do other parents deal with this, or is it just me? Why can’t I console her? Am I terrible mother? How the h-e-double-hockey sticks is any person supposed to function like this? And now I’m heading into the fall, when my workload will quadruple by a million when I have to add homeschooling my four other kids into my already impossible day?
At 1 in the morning, these types of questions are a lot more crushing, let me tell you what.
So I did what several years of parenting has taught me is the only thing you can do when the world seems like it’s closing in on you and you just need a minute: I walked away.
It’s an extreme example, but over the years, I have learned to give myself permission to walk away from a crying, screaming baby when I feel myself getting frustrated because I am well aware of what can happen when moms don’t give themselves permission to take a break. I once interviewed a mom—a good, loving, mom—who had been in the throes of unrecognized post-partum depression, pregnant again, and caring for another baby, when she snapped. She became so frustrated at the baby crying when she was trying to rest that she shook that baby. It was only for a brief second, but that’s all it took. The baby suffered permanent damage and the woman went to prison.
I talked to that mother myself and what scared me in talking to her is not just the horrible act of violence that she committed, but also that I recognized exactly what had led to that moment. She described an exhaustion so bone-deep it hurt, a relentless march of caring for babies and toddlers and just desperately, desperately, wishing she could get one small break. She told me how that day, she had just finally sat down for the day, relishing that one tiny moment of silence—when the baby’s cries pierced the air. In that moment, the years of sleep deprivation, the endless hours of sacrifice, the relentless march of pretending she was fine and didn’t need help, the frustration of not getting a single second to herself, overtook her—and she snapped.
I remember being scared because I know exactly what that moment is like: when your head finally hit the pillow; when you’re just drifting off to sleep, when you finally get a quiet moment to just breathe, only to have that sharp cry pierce the air and your heart plummet. It’s a hopeless feeling.
And of course, while shaking a baby is never OK, by no means a normal reaction, and this woman had a very real undiagnosed mental health condition, the point is, what I took away that day—and what I have practiced ever since—is that knowing when to take a break is so important as a mom. It’s always, always better to take a minute to compose myself whenever I feel frustrated by a crying baby. It’s always, always best to put that baby in the crib for a minute and walk away if I feel like I need just a second to gather my strength. It’s always best to be proactive rather than reach any sort of breaking point in parenting. It’s always best to realize that sometimes, being a good mom means walking away, no matter how old your child is.
Last night, my daughter was fine and I was not in danger of doing anything dangerous, but that’s not the point. The point is, as moms, it’s important that we recognize that it’s OK to acknowledge when we need a minute. I was frustrated and tired and I needed just a minute to catch my breath, recompose myself, and gather the strength I needed to care for her. I needed a moment to remind myself that she is a baby who needs reassurance that when she cries out for help, that someone will be there for her—it’s not just about her immediate needs; it’s also about laying down those brain pathways that reinforce to her that she can trust others.
Now, I’d like to tell you that it only took me a few seconds and I was recharged and ready to go, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I went out to the living room for what was probably only a few minutes, but definitely felt like hours. (Time passes differently in two scenarios: 1) during quarantine and 2) when a baby is screaming in the middle of the night, it’s a proven fact.)
I let myself host my own little pity party. I forgave myself for being frustrated, because you know what? I haven’t slept in the past 12 years and sometimes, it gets to you, OK? I thanked God I hadn’t actually gone to medical school like I had planned in high school because I could never handle getting awakened in the middle of the night to save someone’s life if I couldn’t even handle my own kids waking me up, ugh. I fantasized a little bit about the day that I could actually just go to bed when I wanted and wake up when I wanted, and burned with envy for my pre-kid self who had always loved to sleep. I listened to her cry for a minute, thinking how terrible it must be to be so little and wake up in a dark room alone, and be scared and just want some comfort, with no one there for you.
And then I took a deep breath, steeled my shoulders, and went back in to my baby.
Because while being a good mom sometimes means walking away, it also means going back when our babies need us.