Published on July 3rd, 2018 | by Nina Packebush3
Chocolate Syrup Binkies: A Teenager’s Guide to Parenting
I was not supposed to become a mother, at least not at the time that I did. Everyone said so, and by everyone I mean my family, my friends, society, the government, conservatives, liberals, feminists, the religious right, news anchors, and politicians, as well as People and Time Magazine. They all let me know that I was not mother material. There have even been ad campaigns making sure that I knew I wasn’t mother material.
I was told that if I chose to continue my pregnancy I would end up living in poverty and nobody would ever love me. I was told that my child would end up mentally ill or addicted to drugs. He would probably end up in foster care or prison, and he would certainly never graduate high school. I was not a convicted child abuser, addicted to fetus-harming drugs or alcohol, or in any way unfit in the ways that society defines unfit. I was simply too young.
When I announced that I was pregnant, I was met not with congratulations and hugs but with worst case scenarios, offers to help pay for an abortion, and the names of adoption agencies. I was told that girls like me were creating a “social time bomb” by having and raising our children. Ronald Reagan, who was president at the time, called girls like me welfare queens. We had children just to secure government checks so we could go out and buy fancy cars and designer jeans.
I remember my first ultrasound appointment. My mom went with me. The technician spoke only to her. She looked me over and explained my baby’s measurement and development to my mom. When I asked to know the gender of my baby she refused to tell me, explaining to my mom that she thought it was better not to tell young mothers the gender of their fetus. By young mothers she did not mean new mothers, she meant teenage mothers.
Once my son was born, I was assigned a social worker and a nurse to visit my home. I didn’t want either of these, but I was led to believe this was standard. I was living with my mom and when the nurse arrived she inspected every room of the house. She smiled at me and said, “He’s not a doll you can just play with. He’s going to grow up and develop his own personality and this is going to get a lot harder.” No shit, nurse lady. Thanks for that.
Almost from the first day I brought my son home he would make this weird wheezing noise when I would lie him down flat, if he cried too hard, or if he became too active. I took him to the doctor and the emergency room. The wheezing was always much better during the day, when he was not moving around as much, and in a sterile environment, so of course he was always better in a medical setting. Over and over again I was told that there was nothing wrong with him. My pediatrician even suggested that I was hyper focusing on him and should get out more. He went so far as to say, “You do know how this happened, right? You don’t want to be having another one, now do you?”
I tried to explain that my baby would gag and choke and wheeze and scream like he was being murdered any time I lay him down. My pediatrician suggested that I just let him cry it out a few times and he would learn to self soothe. I tried it and my baby cried so hard he vomited and lay gasping for breath. I called the doctor the next morning. He said, “Clean up the vomit, but don’t interact with him while you’re doing it. Then go back out and he’ll learn.” I mentioned the gasping and rasping sounds in his lungs, but the pediatrician dismissed it. I learned that my judgement was not to be trusted. I learned that in just a few short weeks I had created a spoiled brat of a baby and I needed to fix it now before he grew up to be a mentally ill high school drop-out criminal like all the other children of teenage mothers. I tried again and again he screamed so hard he vomited and was left gasping for air.
I gave up. If he ended up being an unbalanced, uneducated car thief, well, at least he would be alive…and maybe I would get that fancy car, since I had no welfare check to use for such things. He was only able to sleep if he was upright and in motion, so I picked him up and settled into the fold-up rickety rocking chair I kept in the corner of my room and rocked the night away.
It would take two years before I was able to finally get my son diagnosed with asthma and get proper treatment, but in the meantime I was told over and over again that my son’s problems were all in my head. Somehow being a teen mom caused me to imagine my son’s breathing problems. Maybe I was feeling emotionally suffocated by the responsibilities of young parenthood and so projected those feelings into my infant son’s lungs?
When it seems like the whole world is telling you all the reasons you will fail as a mother and all the reasons your child is doomed because he was unlucky enough to have you as a mother you have two choices: You believe everything they say and give up and accept the fact that you and your child are doomed, or you resist. You dig in your heels, put your head down, and dedicate your entire self to being the best mother on the planet. You make your entire identity about being a good mom. You become an overachiever. It’s often an either or choice, with little in between. I chose the second option and it nearly killed me.
I was going to prove everyone wrong. I was going to show everyone that I was a mommy and a damn good one. I would not ask for help. I would do everything right. I would study the parenting books and magazines and learn every single thing there was to know about being an A-List Mommy. I would buy the right toys and read to him every night to build up his brain. I would breastfeed him, wrap his little butt in cloth diapers, make sure he never went out in public unless he was clean and well dressed, and I would never ever become frustrated, overwhelmed, or admit that my experience of motherhood was anything but pure sparkling joy.
I read in one of my many parenting books, or maybe it was in one of the magazines, that giving your baby a warm bath and then a massage each night would not only deepen the mother-child bond, but also help the baby sleep. I went out and bought myself a giant bottle of baby lotion and set about making a nice little bedtime routine for my son. I would give him a warm bath followed by a ten-minute infant massage. Next I would dress him in a loose gown and then sing our lullaby song before laying him down for the night. The first night it actually seemed to work, but half an hour later he was gasping for air and then screaming in terror.
I continued our bath and massage routine, but I ditched the part where I lay him down in his bed. I finally came to terms with the fact that he could only sleep if he was upright and in motion, so I was going to have to either spend my nights holding him upright while I tried to sleep in a cheap fold-up rocking chair or driving him around the empty suburban streets. I would not ask for help. I mean, I made my bed and now I would lie in it…or stare longingly at it from my crappy aluminum rocking chair.
By the time he was three months old, I was starting to crack. I began to have visions of screaming “SHUT UP” into his face or driving my car into one of the large suburban trees as I drove around at 3 AM, mentally calculating how much sleep I might get before I had to be up for work in the morning. When these visions would surface I’d shove them down hard, tell myself to just try harder. I would tell myself how lucky I was to see the phases of the moon unfold each night as I drove around. I would try to marvel at the suburban wildlife I’d see scampering through the quiet neighborhoods at 4 a.m. I told myself that one day I would miss this time of quietly singing our weird little lullaby, “Rickety rockety rock a bye, Jason pie in the sky,” as I tried to focus on the road through my tears. But secretly I was beginning to believe I really was an incapable loser teen mom and I had ruined my baby’s life.
One night as I silently sobbed, completely drunk on lack of sleep, I began to feel an uncontrollable rage well up in me. I began to imagine myself lifting him up and just shaking some sense into him. I just wanted to sleep lying down. I just needed a few hours. That was all. What was wrong with him? Would I have to spend the next few years sleeping sitting up in a chair or driving him around all night? I felt like a monster, but I just couldn’t take another night of aimless driving or incessant rocking.
And then I had an idea: a desperate but thrilling idea. I got myself a small bowl, grabbed a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup from the refrigerator, and his pacifier. I propped him up in his car seat on the floor, dipped the pacifier in the syrup, and placed it in his mouth. At first he spit it out, but I tried again and this time his eyes lit up and he began to frantically suck. Yes! I lay down on my mattress on the floor, sank my head into the pillow, and fell into a deep sleep. Half an hour later he began to fuss, but his lungs sounded clear. I dipped the pacifier and fell into another blissful half hour of sleep.
Even as a monstrous loser teen mom I knew that this chocolate binky plan was not healthy or sustainable. I also knew it was not something to tell other people about, so I used this remedy sparingly and in secret. Most nights I kept up our late night mother/son suburban road trips or settled into my aluminum rocking chair, trying desperately to remind myself that it could be worse and that I just needed to try harder.
Eventually I moved us into a better, drier house, his little lungs toughed up a bit, and he was able to sleep for a few hours at a time like a normal baby. It would take almost two more years before a doctor finally believed me, diagnosed him with asthma, and prescribed a nebulizer. Although I only used the binky backup plan a few times, the guilt sat heavy in my heart. It was a dark secret that filled me with shame.
I had two more kids, one at twenty-two and another at thirty. Although my third child didn’t have asthma, she slept even less than her big brother, but at the age of thirty I was at a socially acceptable age for motherhood and so I was allowed to complain about my high maintenance kid. People believed me and commiserated with me. I was allowed to tell people I was at a breaking point with my exhaustion, and I could ask for help without people clicking their tongues and seeing my need for help as proof that I was too young.
When, in a state of sleep deprived wild desperation, I would strap her into her bouncy seat in front of the Teletubbies for an hour while I slept on the couch, I felt zero guilt. When holding her for one more second caused me to fantasize about dropping her off at the nearest fire station, I would instead sit her on the floor with a cob of corn to gnaw on or sprinkle Cheerios across the living room floor for her to scoot after. I knew that ingesting a handful of dog hair coated Cheerios was not going to kill her, but a few glorious minutes without her in my arms might just save me. I had learned that sometimes the best way to parent is by the whatever works theory and that there is no such thing as an A-List Mommy. Of course, being thirty meant I could do this and then sit around with the other mothers of a respectable age and laugh and nod and commiserate as we sipped our wine. (Or in my case, beer – I’ve never really been fancy.) When you’re of the right age, it’s amazing how those things that might get you labeled as unfit as a teen parent suddenly are the fodder for funny mommy blogger posts.
These days, I’m a young granny, and I help co-raise one of my grandkids. My daughter was sixteen when she had him, and even though she tried to follow in my footsteps of being an A-List Mommy to counter the loser teen mama narrative, I encouraged her to set the bar as low as the older mommies. Any time she was about to lose her shit because she was so caked in spit up it flaked off her shirt like dandruff, I told her she should imagine herself as a married thirty-year-old mom living in the country and turn on the Teletubbies, stick the kid in the swing, and go take a shower. With the door open, of course.
I let her know that if the kid had been screaming for three hours straight because he couldn’t tolerate dairy and she had the nerve to indulge in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in an effort to stave off some serious postpartum depression and had forgotten to pump and dump, it was okay for her to march in, thrust the baby at me, and declare she was going for a walk and most likely never coming back, just like a middle class thirty-two-year-old mommy would do if her mom was nearby. If she needed to toss Cheerios on the floor, go for it. A little dog hair never hurt anyone. And if late one night she had the urge to dip his binky in some chocolate syrup just so she could sleep for half an hour, well, I would be happy to buy her a bottle of organic maple syrup instead. I mean, every generation should try to do a little better than the last, right?