I think most of us would agree that water-boarding is torture, but what about colic? Given that colic subjects parents to severe levels of sensory input which do not stop despite all attempts at soothing, rocking, singing, distracting pleading and begging, I think that colic needs to be recognized as a form of torture.
Now, I’m not saying that babies do this on purpose, and I think that they should receive full immunity against prosecution (as well as against persecution and retaliation), but it’s only fair that we acknowledge how relentless and unstoppable howling, if done deliberately, could be considered a torture technique. If prisoners were deprived of sleep, howled at for hours and then forced to deal with human feces, I think most of us would say that things had gone too far.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that not only was I the victim of torture by colic as a parent, but I was also, when just a few weeks old, a first-rate torturer who tormented my mother with relentless colic.
In an interesting twist, after my kid would finally finish with a colic torture session and go off to rejuvenate with some nursing, I would be swept by feelings of anger. Not wanting to take them out on the kid, I took to venting my feelings of rage by punching the couch. In the context of developing empathy for what my mom must have been through, I told her that I was getting a better understanding about how hard the whole parenting thing was. Validated in this way, my mom confessed guilt about once, during a colic session, “losing it” with me and throwing me against the couch.
Rather than being angry, I felt greatly relieved. I realized that the whole situation with my own child bore an echo of my unconsciously held, unremembered past. My psychologist brain put it together like a puzzle: I had been thrown at the couch in the context of colic-torture, and now I was re-experiencing the trauma and punching the couch as a way of reliving what I could not remember. It bore a resemblance to classic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but by having the historical couch toss made conscious, all my wishes to punch my own couch evaporated.
It took a while longer for the string of torture wrought by my son to end, but end it did. Thus for parents out there who are currently being subjected to colic torture, my empathy goes out to you, but also keep in mind that it does not last forever, and that we can get through this sort of ordeal so long as we know that it will have an endpoint. My hope is that it might ever so slightly help to feel, however virtually, a little bit less alone—to sense that there are imagined yellow ribbons tied to trees, waiting for your return from parenting’s Medieval Dungeon.
Parenting is an art, and of art they say, “keine angst, keine kunst” (no anguished pain, no art). Perhaps colic (as well as tantrums and power-struggles) are character building for us parents; perhaps they transform us in parenting’s crucible; perhaps these nefarious techniques are a way that children give away their terrified and tortured feelings (making us feel what they feel but cannot understand or express: helpless, overwhelmed, sad, angry and exhausted).
I recognize that real torture goes on in the world and that I probably shouldn’t joke about colic, yet parents truly do get pushed over the edge sometimes, so my hope is that playfully placing colic up on the shelf with the Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials and Gitmo might help us keep our humor when our newborns metaphorically put black bags over our heads and dump us in the trunks of mini-vans.
So let’s dedicate today to détente between traumatized parents and colic-wielding infants, sending doctors without borders sort of love to bleary-eyed parents everywhere and to all of our collective colicky children who torture them.