Thank You, Dr Spock

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A night in the autumn of 2002. I am woken by a scream which threatens to blow the chimneys off the house. I rush into the next room, pick up my 3-month-old son and do my best to comfort him. His tiny face is purple and he’s thrashing and writhing in pain. My husband is away on a business trip. What can I do? I have no idea.

It’s four in the morning and I’m tearful and exhausted. We’re living in Brussels so we have no family to help us. Our tiny son, born prematurely, has colic, so over the past three months we’ve taken it in turns to spend half the night holding him in our arms as we pace up and down the bedroom. This scream, however, is not a colic scream. It is the worst scream I have ever heard. I can feel it in my jaw, my kidneys, the soles of my feet. Clearly my son is about to die and it will be my fault. I had never thought that being a mother would be easy but why had nobody told me that it might push me to the brink of insanity?

I was furious with myself for being so useless. I had won a scholarship to Oxford and written books. Other women seemed to manage perfectly well. Of course I could look after a baby – except I couldn’t. Weeping, I took my son downstairs to make a hot-water bottle. Putting him in the pram, parked next to the bookcase, my eyes settled on a cheap yellow paperback with scuffed corners and brown pages. It was a book my mother had given me: Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock.

The sight of it made me angry. Why had she given me a book she’d used thirty years ago? But I pulled it down and it fell open at a well-thumbed page. In the case of an ear infection, I read, ‘a baby may . . . cry piercingly for several hours’. Immediately the situation seemed manageable. I was only two miles from a hospital. I just had to get through t

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About the contributor

Alice Jolly’s most recent novel Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was runner-up for the Rathbones Folio Prize and was on the longlist for the Ondaatje Prize. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oxford.

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