Tobias Hecht’s story, “Hatching Outside the Shell,” reminds us that being born is no easy task—for child and parent both—and that a family is forged in tears, love, occasional despair and the chancy luck of possible self-revelation. Now, families grappling with Covid-enforced quarantine and home schooling understand this more than ever. And the last sentence of Hecht’s story applies to us all in these difficult times.
—Philip Graham, Editor-at-Large
When our son was so little he could barely hold up his head, Maura and I would try anything to get him to fall asleep. The stakes were high because if he was awake, the odds were he was crying. He cried if you held him and gently stroked his forehead or if you left him alone when stumbling to the bathroom for a nervous pee. It didn’t matter if he was hungry or so full the milk came back up again, whether he was hot or cold or neither. At night and during the day, in the house and in the yard, he cried at the top of his walnut-sized lungs. Then, sometimes, for no apparent reason, he would fall silent: you could see his cheeks drained of tension, his lips gently separating. There was something unsettling about those moments. We never knew if this was the prelude to a long slumber—the chance for us to kick our way through a lot of dirty laundry and take a nap—or just a teasing respite, the calm before the next storm, which in any case never took long to strike. Still, the trick was to get him to sleep. If he was asleep, he wasn’t crying.
The first time Maura and I held a baby was the day we became parents. Lacking any pretense of knowing what we were doing, we had no problem asking other parents how they got their infants to sleep. One mother told Maura that rocking motions remind babies of the movement they felt in the womb (everyone seems to agree that that claustrophobic world of recycled fluids is better than what comes after birth). This advice coincided with what Maura had read in a parenting magazine she flipped through one morning at the pediatrician’s. The article was entitled “Rock Your Restless Rascal.”
“We have to get a rocker,” Maura said. So we bought one. It was made of oak and came in many pieces. I struggled to put it together. Then Maura sat in it, to test it. She swayed forward and back. She liked it. Then I handed her our son. He clung to her, which we didn’t take as a bad sign. But before long the color in his face was gone, as if he no longer thought he had the wherewithal to continue inhaling and exhaling. The rocker became a monument to our inability to soothe our son, to the victory of his indomitable temper. Once outside the womb he had no more interest in those artificial reminders of what he’d lost than he did in the history of standard accounting. The few times we put him in the stroller he would shriek and flail and drool until we became afraid of being reported for child abuse. So we had no choice but to carry him around.
Some people suggested putting him in a car seat and taking a drive around the neighborhood. We did that, and it’s a good thing we have vinyl upholstery, because it makes cleaning up a lot easier. We also tried strapping his car seat, with him in it, on top of the clothes dryer. That was an idea Maura found in another magazine. It proved no more effective than anything else we tried.
Before my son was born, a friend told me that babies cry only for specific reasons—they are hungry, tired or wet she informed me. And she said that any parent could come to identify which cry was which. “If the baby’s hungry, you’ll know it immediately. You won’t hear any shrieks, just a sort of no-nonsense, workaday cry,” she told me. “By the third or fourth time, you’ll hear, “I want milk!”
I had my doubts. It wasn’t that I thought babies wouldn’t cry because they are hungry or tired or in need of a fresh diaper. It was that I thought there had to be other reasons why they cry. Why couldn’t an infant cry because she has a kink in her neck? Babies may be limber, but couldn’t nursing get them into strange and uncomfortable positions? Babies dream like the rest of us, don’t they? Couldn’t a baby cry on account of a nightmare? There might even be different sorts of cries for different sorts of bad dreams, because dreams aren’t always frightening in the same way. It seemed to me that infants have more time for existential angst than anyone else. They have no commitments, nowhere to go, and no means of getting there on their own if they did. They’re sort of hatching outside the shell.
Infants have practically no faculty of memory, let alone any notion of the future. Once you get past all the baloney about longing for the womb, it’s clear they live stranded in the present. They might think like this: I’m hungry, I have a body I can’t move, my crotch itches. Unlike what the yoga teachers will tell you, there’s nothing reassuring about being here at this moment. The present is when the breast is an impossible two inches away from your lips, when the rash between your drumstick-sized legs is burning, when you want the light on, not off, when we know angst. Only our son could say why he was crying. That is, if he could talk. There’s a reason the Romans chose to call them infants, those ones who cannot speak.
What I can say, as a father, is that there is nothing like the crying of an infant to situate you in the moment, to slow the hands of the clock, to make you aware of where you are at that particular moment. And you know that almost any other moment would be better. Whatever the reasons for his crying, there was something unnerving about his nervousness, about his inability to sleep or to be at ease while awake. Our baby’s anxiety fed ours, making us wonder if we were ever going to feel pleasure again. With our sleep interrupted—seven, eight, ten times a night—Maura and I would snap at the slightest provocation. If we were changing his diapers in the middle of the night and I was having trouble opening the Velcro tabs, she would push me aside and take over—an accusation, as I understood it, that I was clumsy and useless and that I was foisting the full burden of parenthood onto her. So I would tell her she’d better get some rest, and she would snap,: “I’ll rest when my baby is well.” The spats were spontaneous and incendiary, as unpredictable as our son’s crying, and invariably they revolved around guilt. The object was to make the other feel insufficient at a task we both knew was far beyond the competence of either of us.
Maura found a book that said many infants need what’s called a transition object—a blanket or pacifier or a favorite stuffed animal that takes them from a state of alertness to sleep. In the case of my son, there was only one object that gave him what he needed to go from here to there, from a state of wide-eyed panic at what might be the knowledge that he’d come screaming out of the nothingness of two cells and into the tranquility of surrender that is (or should be) sleep. His object was the breast. And not any breast. It was my wife’s that he was after. Nothing but her breast would calm him and eventually put him to sleep.
Maura’s left breast became so swollen and sore that we were referred to a lactation consultant. I had never heard of that profession. A case of clogged ducts, we were informed. In passing she used the term “latching on” to describe a baby who’d just gotten his or her lips around the nipple and was sucking successfully. That’s what our son would do, latch on. He opened wide and bobbed his head toward the only thing he felt passionate about, one or the other of my wife’s breasts.
He clearly had a good latch. He opened his mouth, taking in not only the nipple but almost the entire areola. He used his tongue to stimulate the underside of the nipple (I learned about that from an instructional video lent to us by the lactation consultant). Then the sucking would begin. His lips around my wife’s orb, his cheeks puckering slightly, the eager wet sound of his feeding was punctuated only by an occasional miniscule gulp. Sometimes he would pull away, almost against his will, and cry in frustration for a moment but he would always return. Only suckling showed he was more than the object of our attentions, that he was a true participant in the world, that he had desire.
Other than sleeping, nursing was our son’s only activity that didn’t involve crying. Not only is sucking and crying at the same time a physical impossibility, nursing was his sole means of escape from an existence so miserable it made him cry. And there was a close relationship between nursing and sleeping. Toward the end of a long session at the breast but before he had finished altogether, his eyelids would grow heavy. His breathing would slow before his eyes closed completely. To my surprise, the nursing would not only lull him to sleep but continue while he was asleep. Maura would cradle him in her arms, in love with the baby she at last had soothed. For a time, he would sleep, and so would we, but within an hour, sometimes less, he would startle, crying again at full force, with shrill urgency. He shivered with rage, turned red in the cheeks, shed tears, and flailed his tiny limbs.
The lactation consultant recommended breastfeeding on demand. The idea is that newborns have a stomach the size of their own tiny fist and that they metabolize breast milk rapidly, so they need to feed often, just to satisfy their need for nutrition. They need the breast for a lot of other reasons, principally for comfort. At one of our many medical visits to find out what was making our son cry, a nurse explained to us that humans have needs and wants. There are some things we want but that we don’t need. Babies, on the other hand, only have needs. What we understand as a desire on their part is a need. Whatever soothes them is what they need. If they cry without the breast, they need the breast.
At first we had tried to put our baby on some kind of a regimen where he fed about every three hours and cried in between. But after receiving this advice, we decided to let him nurse on demand. He seemed to demand the breast nearly every waking moment. The silence was eerie at first but we came to relish it. Without the crying, Maura and I stopped fighting. It was as if all the bickering had been nothing more than a chemical reaction. Expose a couple to a baby’s crying for long enough and they will fight. There were times we felt something we had never experienced before, a certain harmony among the three of us, the idea that together Maura and I had created a life.
When he was hungry, it would take only a short time for him to fill his stomach, maybe twenty minutes. When he was done, for a time he would continue suckling, weakly, without urgency. Then there came a moment when he was just attached, and he would be there at the breast, like a protrusion on Maura’s anatomy. If Maura parted his lips and pulled him away, he would start to cry. Often he would fall asleep while nursing. There were the odd lucky times when Maura would manage to gently lift him from her breast and place him in his bassinet. But more often than not, he would startle and then shriek till he got what he wanted. Maura’s breasts, her nipples to be precise, were raw and stinging. Sometimes we could insert a pacifier as he slept and that would do the trick, at least for a few minutes.
Rather than feeding every few hours at night, he would demand the breast every time he woke up. And oddly, his wakings became more frequent rather than less. It was as if the proximity to Maura, the smell of her milk, wakened him, made him demand. While the unsettling cries of our son were far less frequent, the nights became a patchwork of sleep and feeding woven together in an innervating pattern. There wasn’t much I could contribute. But once when I went to sleep on the couch, Maura accused me of copping out. She said either we were together as a family or we weren’t. She said I had to be there to change him and that the only way to do that without his crying was while he was at the breast. She had a point. He wouldn’t complain if I changed him while he was nursing. Passively, he would let me open his diapers and clean up the damage. But put him on the changing table without mama’s nipple in his mouth and he would protest like a pint-sized tyrant.
On about the second week of this new regimen of nursing on demand I said the wrong thing. “Maura,” I observed, “you’re like a human pacifier.” She picked up a box of baby wipes and threw it at me. The box was made of hard plastic and it hit me in the face. She’s not a violent woman, not by nature. But everything was so natural: her hand reaching out for the box, the box rising into the air, the dull thud of the plastic, the wipes falling onto my shoulders and the floor. They were scented, and the smell lingered. Maura looked at me like a wounded animal, as if she had been the one struck.
The thing is, I was right. Maura had pacified the baby. If he cried, it was for a matter of seconds. Then Maura had the breast in his mouth. She was fast. She had a special nursing bra that made it easier. Her breasts had grown accustomed to this and she no longer complained of them hurting. But if she was now nursing on demand, following the advice of the lactation consultant and a lot of infant-care books, our son’s demands had only increased.
During this administration of milk 24/7, our son could explode at any moment, just as soon as he was made to “latch off.” Then, thumbing through one of Maura’s books, I read about something called “partial extinction.” The guy who came up with the term must have had a tin ear for English. It wasn’t as cruel as it sounds. It means when your baby cries, you let him cry for a measured amount of time, say for five minutes. The method is for babies who won’t go to sleep on their own, but you can use it when they’re crying for any reason, unless they’re in real pain. It works like this: if the baby is crying, let him cry for five minutes. Then go and sooth the baby. Talk to him, fix the blankets, put the pacifier back in his mouth. But don’t stay for more than half a minute. For as long as he cries, repeat the procedure. What was initially unclear was what to do if this goes on forever. The first time we tried this he fell asleep after about an hour and a half. But the second time, he kept it up for three hours. After that much exertion, any baby will need a meal. What else could Maura do? So I read further. The book explained that in the very unusual case that partial extinction didn’t work, the only option was to move on to “total extinction.” Total extinction means putting the baby down and letting him cry until he falls asleep from utter exhaustion. At first Maura didn’t want to try this. For a while she abandoned the partial extinction method altogether and went back to feeding him whenever he demanded it. But when the soreness returned and she couldn’t take it any more, she reverted to partial extinction. She tried that method again once. It was as unnerving as before.
“All right,” she sighed one day, her eyes bloodshot, “total extinction…”
My silence signaled that I had come to the same conclusion.
Maura fed our son to his heart’s content, until he started sucking in a really unconvincing way, like he was just looking for an excuse to be there. Then we placed him in his cradle where he promptly burst out crying. Maura left the room. She left the house altogether. She’d said she wouldn’t be able to stand it. She was going to her mother’s. To get to her mother’s she’d have to drive an hour and a half. She had expressed some milk, enough for the next three feedings. I was going to have to implement the total extinction all by myself.
With Maura gone, the baby seemed to cry even louder. Sometimes I would come near the threshold of our bedroom, where his cradle was, and peek in. I had the feeling he might get tangled in his blankets and smother, or choke on something. He went on crying, for five minutes, ten, twenty-five, then a full hour. Nothing suggested he was going to stop. I would go downstairs every so often, sit on the couch, observe the fish tank.
Most of the fish had died from neglect. I’d stopped cleaning the filter or feeding them according to a strict schedule. Babies are a bad thing for tropical fish. But the ones that had somehow survived were doing what you’d expect them to do, flitting their tails and fins, swimming this way and that, taking it all in with their indifferent, primitive eyes. But I couldn’t concentrate, not on the fish, not on the newspaper, not on cleaning up the piles of dishes in the sink and on the counters. It didn’t matter that I was downstairs and he was up. I could still hear him. I visited him one last time. I broke the rules, I let him see me. I kissed him on the forehead.
Then I went downstairs and put on a CD: Jethro Tull, something from the days when acne was my biggest problem. I put on the big padded headphones and turned up the volume as high as I could stand it. Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I listened to the whole CD and just as it was about to end I hit the play button again: Feeling like a dead duck/ Spitting out pieces of his broken luck./Sun streaking cold/An old man wandering lonely. A sense of panic struck. I pulled off the headphones. My ears were pulsating in the void. There was no sound from upstairs. I waited a moment. Nothing. My heart racing, I rushed up the stairs. I reached the bassinet and peered inside: he was still there and at first there was nothing to suggest he was dead or alive. His eyes were closed. But then I noticed he wasn’t completely still or completely quiet. He was heaving. I wondered if he could be having trouble breathing. He was sobbing slightly in his sleep. He had never done that before. Before it had been one or the other, crying or sleeping. Now he was doing both things at the same time. He slept like that for long time, a couple of hours. He’d never slept so long during the day, and he’d never gone so long without milk.
When he woke up I was sitting on the bed, watching him. He came to slowly, reluctantly almost. The sobbing had stopped by then. I thought all hell would break loose. But when he saw me he didn’t cry. Nothing happened. I picked him up and carried him downstairs.
In the kitchen I sat him on my lap and gave him three ounces of Maura’s milk. He sipped at the bottle without conviction. When the bottle was empty, he didn’t cry either. His was a tiny vanquished face. It was the first of many experiences he would no doubt have in the future, of getting used to living without the things or people he longed for.
Tobias Hecht’s first book, At Home in the Street, an ethnography of homeless children in Brazil, won the Margaret Mead Prize. His other publications include the novel After Life, short stories, works of literary translation, academic books and children’s literature. His research and writing has been supported by awards from the H. F. Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for Humanities, and the National Science Foundation. He works for a nonprofit dedicated to making renewable energy accessible for economically disadvantaged communities.