A month before my son AP was born, I took a three hour workshop offered through the county’s fatherhood initiative called Boot Camp for New Dads.” The class consisted of a facilitator and several veteran dads, available to field questions.
Toward the end of the session, the well-caffeinated group of anxious participants became silent as the instructor moved on to the last topic of the session, shaken baby syndrome. He began by describing a scenario in which a new father became more desperate and frustrated as he continued unsuccessfully to put his baby to sleep. As the hours passed, the amount of sleep the dad could get before waking for work continued to diminish. At the climax of the story, the protagonist finally snapped. The instructor shook the plastic bottle he had been carrying, violently breaking an egg inside, exemplifying what happens to an infant’s brain when shaken.
The veteran dads then each told a personal story about feeling a loss of control with a screaming baby. “Just walk away if you feel yourself losing control,” was the common message. “A baby has never been harmed from crying too much.” One of the vets recommended setting the baby down in the crib and cracking a beer in another room. One self righteous participant interrupted, “I don’t think advising us to drink a beer is good parenting advice.” At this, the other veteran dads jumped in to defend their colleague, admitting they had also used the strategy effectively.
I remember thinking that the entire conversation was irrelevant to me. I would never dream of hurting someone I love. As a school teacher, I pride myself on not raising my voice, even in a classroom full of oversexed, texting adolescents. In fact, whether it’s during a marital argument or training a difficult client, I rarely visibly lose my cool.
After months of restless nights, my son finally started sleeping through the night. My wife and I felt vindicated. “We deserve this,” I’d think to myself.
Each morning when we woke up, it was like a mini Christmas miracle. We’d open our eyes and begin calculating. “He went all the way from 7:30 pm to 6:30 am. That’s eleven hours,” my wife would say.
“I know,” I’d respond emphatically.
We had passed through the gauntlet of sleep deprivation, and made it to the other side. Or so we thought. Last night, six months after becoming a father, I finally lost control.
This bout of beauty rest made AP’s systematic unraveling, beginning on his six month birthday, all the more unnerving. On the fifth night of his insomniatic bender, after countless hours of bouncing and rocking, I finally snapped. The moment came at 2:30 am, four hours before I had to wake up for work. AP was lying on his changing table while I attempted to fasten a diaper around his flailing legs, when the fastener tore off and with it went my dignity. I silently stepped away from the changing table, raised the diaper above my head, and made a pathetic attempt to tear the feather light poop receptacle in half before throwing it onto the floor with all my might. But my tantrum wasn't finished. I picked the diaper back up and this time ripped it from a different angle, successfully sending confetti all over the carpet.
Moments later, as I drove through the empty streets of our Cleveland suburb waiting for AP to stop grunting behind me, I finally understood what the veteran dads in my class had been talking about. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. It was terrifying.
After twenty minutes, the car fell silent and the saga was over. I tiptoed inside, set the car seat down on the floor in AP’s room, and drifted off for a solid three hours of sleep.
The next time I wake up after a full eight hours of sleep, I’ll do it with a bit more humility.
This blog post was contributed by new dad Emmett Keller, creator of the blog Baby Daddy Fitness