The other night when I arrived from a nice productive day at work, I came home to my lovely wife and Baby Ellison who were relaxing peacefully on the couch. Ellison was somewhere between one eye open and a dreamscape. My lovely wife was in good spirits. Always nice to come home with the baby. It was a serene and picturesque moment. All’s good in the hood. Now, what happened over the course of the next hour was completely unexpected and almost pushed a man to the brink. You wouldn’t had seen it coming. It was like a scud missile or fleaflicker. My lovely wife had to run to the store. I had to do some reading. Given Ellison’s dreamy state, we thought it best that my lovely wife goes to the store and I remain back at the homestead with the Ell.
I take her in her boppy and we relocate to the bedroom where I lay next to her with my legs crossed, book balanced on my belly with the top of the book just yielding an inch of the television so that I could watch the news intermittently. Man, I had such plans. I’m such a moron. Before my lovely wife even made it out the door to her car, it started.
This was a chance to witness a 3-going on-4-month old go from a Level 0 to a Level 10 meltdown in a matter of mere minutes. When you’re in the middle of it while it’s happening, you panic level quickly escalates. You go from the Fonzie to Michael Douglas toting guns into fast food restaurants faster than you can say “Tom Brokaw.” So let’s talk about the Anatomy of the Meltdown. In knowing where you are in the meltdown, you might be able to avoid Nagasaki. I can’t tell you how to care for your baby because all babies are different, but I’ll give you some tips that we use around our house.
THE SPARK (LEVEL ONE)
Your baby is sleeping soundly. You’re a happy father or mother in absolute awe of your beaming child laying there taking those cute little baby breaths. The paci’s in place, but she’s in such a deep sleep that it’s kinda sitting on the edge of her lip. She makes a quick head movement and the paci is tossed from her mouth. Sometimes that’s all it takes. We call this “the spark.” It’s some outside influence that, even if just slightly, raises the little one from her deep sleep. The spark can sometimes come and go without incident. Ellison tends to sleep without a paci. Especially when she starts sawing logs. That paci can fall out and she’ll still be a good hour or two from awakening. But often, “the paci drop” is similar to a pin being pulled from a grenade. It’s only a matter of time. You can’t undo it. The spark has been flung and it’s heading directly toward a nice heaping pile of dry kindling. Sometimes, it might be one of those freakish muscle jumps that awaken her. Or a dog (Jax) shaking his collar after awaking from a nap. Whatever it is that awakens that baby represents “the spark.” Be aware of it. White noise helps distract a baby away from response to such stimuli. Get a noise maker. Something that makes a low rhythmic rumbling. You’re still Fonzie at this point.
THE POUT (LEVEL TWO)
The pout is just as you guessed it. It’s the physical manifestation of the earliest stage of classic meltdown. It’s when the bottom lip actually goes into a irreversible pout. It sticks out and the baby’s eyes switch from relaxed and happy to stressed and panicky. Something happened and her spirits are beginning to dissolve from the happiest and most content baby on the block into demon baby. Quick action is required here. Sometimes it might be an idle pout or an inadvertent muscular reaction. Sometimes Ellison does it in her sleep. Stand by and make sure it doesn’t take off from there. If it looks like she’s going from Level Two upward, move into action quickly. Rock her. Give her that paci back. Make funny faces. Sing a song. Sometimes I find myself singing the song, “Please Don’t Go There” where I sing the words “please don’t go there” over and over and over to some random and completely arbitrary melody that comes into my mind. That song still hasn’t worked. I’m not very good at improv in the middle of the meltdown. Try to divert her away from going further. The pout is much like watching a hurricane develop offshore. Al Roker standing there saying, “Now, this baby’s in a pout and is likely to become a bigger storm and make landfall sometime in the next few minutes. Take cover. If you’re planning on traveling, cancel those plans now.”
THE VOCALIZATION (LEVEL THREE or LEVEL FOUR)
Vocalization is the audible manifestation of the meltdown. It’s the whine, the fuss, the cry. We’ve described the many different cries here on Raising Elle before and here’s where you got valid reason to worry. Once it hits the crying point, it’s a crapshoot and the odds aren’t in your favor. Damage control at this point. You’ve got your many techniques depending on what the cry sounds like. Your stress level begins to take hold of you. I sometimes pace nervously, put my hands up to my face. I’m no longer Fonzie. I’m turning at this point as well. Still not very cool under pressure. I’ve lost the ability to sing to calm the baby down. I normally pick her up and begin walking her around the house. Rock her. Paci’s in and I’m praying for a miracle. Music doesn’t work very well at this point because she normally can’t hear it over her crying. It takes the ultimate performance under pressure to successfully come out of this stage. My lovely wife can do it pretty well. I think one’s ability to quickly and effectively navigate a baby out of this stage is the same coolness by which a surgeon works. It’s admirable. And it’s awesome to witness. Nothing I do at this stage would be worthy of the term “awesome.” More like embarrassing.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN (LEVEL FIVE or LEVEL SIX)
Simply put, if you’ve passed this point, you’re in for the long haul. Everything you do up to this point is to appease that baby from coming to this point. Once it gets here, for Ellison, it’s gone from facial expression (the pout) to crying (the vocalization) to now physical reaction. The point of no return in our house is characterized flailing arms and kicking feet. Once her limbs get into it and she goes into the “Safety Dance” in your arms, you’ve lost your chance to get her back to the sleeping stage. The storm has made landfall. The coffee’s gone cold. The cat’s outta the proverbial bag. I always hear my own voice in my head saying, “That’s just great.” Like I step out of myself and am coaching myself from across the room. Like I have a body double that looks like Rick Pitino and he’s standing on the other side of the room saying, “Look at you, you moron. You’re so incompetent. That’s just great. You gotta screaming baby that just punched you in the chin and you have no idea what to do. You’re such a putz.” Point of no return is also characterized by the spiritual manifestation of great sports figures who are there to either demean you or encourage you. Mine demean me. They heckle and ridicule.
THE BREAKING POINT (LEVEL SEVEN or LEVEL EIGHT)
The darkness that is the “breaking point” is when you’re taken to the absolute edge of sanity. When you arrive here, you’re one stage away from the end and this is probably the most intense that it’ll get. It’s characterized by hopelessness and freakish moments of self-loathing and self-doubt. You question your abilities as a parent. You question your abilities as a human. This is Ninth Circle of Hell that Robert Deniro’s character Max Cady muses about in Cape Fear where you “learn about loss. Loss of freedom. Loss of humanity.” This is where the meltdown is in full recognition. Enter Michael Douglas.
Do everything to keep your sanity. Put the baby down in the crib and walk away to the other side of the house for a second. Collect your thoughts. You’re close to the end of the meltdown. Go out on the front porch and call a lifeline. It’s okay to be broken and frightened. This is crazy stressful stuff here. Even though the baby’s not taking a timeout, it might be time for you to sit out a round. Regroup and go back at it. I’ve found that two minutes of peace and quiet is enough for me to collect my thoughts and go back with a new attitude. It’s at this point that, sometimes, you’ll go one more level up.
THE ABYSS (LEVEL NINE)
This is where you meet creatures rarely seen by earth walkers. This is where you’ll run into the most absurd and almost laughable moments of the meltdown. At the risk of sounding cruel, here’s where Ellison’s ability to take a meltdown to comedic levels makes me think we have a performer on our hands. My personal favorite creature of the deep sea meltdown is the rare cough-fart. Or the hiccup-burp. Once you hit here, she’s almost outta ammo and you have not a shred of sanity left so you’re just left laughing like a man who just lost all of his marbles. I usually exclaim with laughter, “Good Lord!” I’m left with nothing else to say. I’m otherwise speechless. My lovely wife would agree that this is a rare moment. You’re mere moments away from a deescalation. Sometimes this full cycle is thirty minutes. Or it could be multiple hours. Depends on how you handle the first three stages. If you can avoid surpassing the “point of no return” then you’ll never have to meet the “dumbo octopus” of a meltdown (as seen above).
THE SLEEP (LEVEL TEN)
You’ve arrived. The girl knocked herself out. It’s the law of exertion. Eventually that girl is going to wear herself down to nothing and fall fast asleep. Granted, it’s a lot healthier to rock a baby to sleep with a nice lullaby, but in a typical meltdown, you don’t get that chance. This is your reward for being a champ at endurance sports. Navigating a meltdown is possibly the most challenging endurance sport. And like most endurance sports, it’s much more psychological than it is physical performance. Maintaining your mindfulness is key. Don’t lose your cool. Realize you’re not witnessing the first and only meltdown ever. And it won’t be your first and only meltdown. Get those techniques down to an executable level. Be able to execute in the most extreme of circumstances. And learn how to laugh.
It’s Wednesday, kid. Getting that 2011 Checklist ready. 2010 was a hard year for getting things done. We just had a kid. Gimme a freaking break.