FORT POLK, La. — In the midst of a well-deserved slumber, following hours of exhaustive pain and work, a penetrating howl jolted me onto my feet. I felt my chest constrict and a freezing anticipation spread through my body — I was gripped and ready for peril.
Being frightened awake is an awful thing to experience. For me, waking up should be a slow process; although I can spring into action, it is my least favorite way to start the day.
My perfect morning involves a fresh coffee while I’m still under my warm covers. I am more of a roll-out-of-bed kind of girl, and I reserve my spring for emergencies.
Now, back to that piercing howl. I jumped to my feet and scanned the room to gain some perspective. After a meager two hours of sleep, I was disoriented and unsure why my surroundings were unfamiliar.
I found myself in a labor and delivery suite at the Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital. I was safe; and that scream came from my baby girl, Lucine, who was only a few hours old.
Although my brain and body told me that an emergency was imminent, everything was perfectly fine. The little baby's tummy was merely ready for a refill. I swallowed hard, as it felt like my heart and stomach had jumped into my throat through the alarm. I picked up my pink bundle of joy and relieved her perceived agonizing hunger.
Lucine ate every 90 minutes, on the dot, for three months. Each time began with a similar hunger cry from her powerful lungs. This was my first baby, though. Her screams continually sent my body into that jarring response: My heart rate increased, my chest would tighten and I'd feel a warm and cold rush through my body.
After a little mental conditioning, I was able to convince my body of the logical reality — Lucine wasn't in any danger and she wasn't starving, so I could stay calm. I learned that loudness wasn't always relative to the level of danger in any given circumstance.
I gave birth to my son, Levi, two years later. This time, I convinced myself I wouldn't let a baby scare me. I'd spring into action when he needed me, but I wasn't going to fall into unnecessary panics at every scream.
This is the parenting juncture at which I realized kids don't have a repertoire of screams for different issues. Blood-curdling shrieks are most kids' go-to siren when they need anything.
One such example was in our last home. It was a stacked condominium, meaning it had stairs — a lot of stairs. Between the bottom and top floors there were 5 flights. They were a daunting feature of the house, but we enjoyed the daily leg workouts. During one naptime, however, they proved to be a literal hurdle for my husband, Buddy.
As Levi was tucked into his first big-boy bed, the rest of us quietly relaxed two floors below in the living room. Suddenly, we all heard Levi's caterwaul. He sounded like a wounded alley cat after a dispute over dumpster food. Again, my heart relocated into my throat, but my husband jumped into action before I could gulp the mass back into place.
Buddy bounded up the two flights in what seemed like three massive leaps; he might as well have flown up the steps. We were convinced that Levi had fallen out of bed or, worse, down some of the hardwood stairs in an attempt to find us after his nap. But, this time, it was neither a hunger pang nor a horrifying tumble down some stairs; the reality was that Levi woke up and heard the goblins under his bed. Through his toddler mumbles, I was pretty sure he was convinced the imps were planning to take him into their horrible, underground liar and chain him to a stone wall.
By my third child, Leia, I grew a stronger mental defense against the overwhelming yet unavoidable anxieties of parenting. There are daily worries, but I started to feel like an expert at discerning between the loud-just-to-be-loud moments and the truly serious incidents.
Perpetually bound to make mistakes as I am, I've occasionally swooped in to find her hollering because Buddy wouldn't let her get inside the dishwasher — as if she were a dish — or over our strict, no-standing-on-the-table rule.
As I write, I’m pending my fourth child (another boy), and I’ve learned that it’s usually the lack of sound that indicates danger. If anything, shrill yells are comforting proof that my children are breathing and their internal alarm systems are functioning.
In my experience, quiet, kid-free moments tend to bring more danger than any of the loud moments combined. Busy in the kitchen, I can easily find myself distracted by dinner preparations; once I notice my internal thoughts are audible again, my alarm system kicks into gear. If Buddy is home, his eyes will usually meet mine and we silently communicate, "it's too quiet to be good," then we split to search for and count the kids.
Recently, on one such scouting mission, Buddy discovered Leia elbow-deep in an unflushed toilet. To her credit, Leia was clearing out the wads of toilet paper that Lucine had left behind, which probably would have clogged the pipes — again — but it was still unsettling.
First, because Leia obviously needed to be disinfected from head to foot and toilets, water and toddlers are never a safe combination. We've installed toilet locks, thus thwarting any future deep-toilet diving missions Leia may have had scheduled.
Another quiet occasion, filled with thrilling activities like putting my feet up, I felt the unsettling peace of daytime stillness fill my soul. Buddy was at work, so I examined each room myself: Lucine was playing with her dolls, Leia was trying to get one of Lucine's dolls, but I couldn't find Levi.
Could the goblins have taken him? No, that was my anxious-ridden brain basking in impossibilities.
Levi was somewhere, and I hoped he wasn't hurt. I picked up a faster pace as I moved through the rooms, and my calls grew louder. Where was he?
That old adage came to mind, the one about finding something in the last place you'd look. In this case it was the diaper-changing area. The last place I'd think to look, because Levi was potty trained and incredibly proud of his accomplishment. To be near that infantile device would have tarnished his well-earned, potty-trained reputation.
Unhurt in his quiet deviousness, Levi smirked when his eyes met mine. He knew that climbing on top of the changing table was a "no-no," because it was dangerous. I'm also sure he knew that sprinkling (or pouring) baby power over him and the surrounding vicinity was likely not on mom's calendar either.
I plopped him into the tub and began multitasking; I was thoroughly washing the powder off his scalp while I daydreamed about that one second I got to put my feet up — silver linings are everything.
This wasn’t my last silent alarm; in fact, I’m far from hitting a point where relaxing in silence will be a reality. My heart still has occasion to relocate just like it did that first night, because kids are scary. They are learning right from wrong and danger from safety; bonks and messes are bound to happen and parents are tasked with circumventing most of these inevitable occasions.
I can rest in knowing that I’ve gained some vital parenting skills, however. It isn’t a perfect science, but I know that not every sob or scream means a trip to the emergency room.
Perhaps my spring is a little less bouncy for terrifying, midnight dreams, but it can still get me where I need to be when necessary. Sometimes, this can be a point of dismay for my children, as I don't run monsters off quickly enough, let them use my laptop as a surfboard or open a banana at just the right angle.