I heard the screaming in the dark. I rose to change my newborn son’s diaper just before dawn. The inside was stained orange at the crotch. In the blush of the nightlight, it looked like blood. I knew that it was common in the weeks following birth, I knew it was dehydration, but panic panged inside me. Is he passing blood? I had lost patience with his crying a few hours earlier and been startled at how roughly I had handled him. Had I been that angry?
Had I hurt him?
His skin and arteries were like paper; the contents of his tiny body could just slip out of place. His mind, a palm-full of mud and lightning — it could have just stopped firing and fallen dark, breath slipping out of his mouth like a ghost.
In that moment, I saw it all. I saw my son come apart in my hands.
The breath caught in his throat. The eyes, grey as my own, locked still. Blood appeared at his dough-like seams. It ran. He fell limp. I heard the sound of snapping. He slid apart and the pieces fell into a pile: eyes, lungs, ribs, folds of flesh, an ankle alongside. Genitals like small, unripe fruit lay on the floor.
I closed the fresh nappy and lifted my son into my arms. No, I hadn’t hurt him. He remained whole, alive, tired.
I was 21 when my grandfather died. I helped my father clean out his father’s workers cottage after the funeral. In that old house, my father told me stories of the fury and abuse that working-class families lived out in bygone times. There was the returned serviceman up the street who’d beat his boys with whatever was at hand. There was the rageaholic neighbour who would be found sleeping it off in the gutters. There was one tale of a mother who chased her sons around the dinner table with a kitchen knife. Most of the stories were of men, however; broken men who fumed and snapped. Fathers ruled then. Bitterness and battery went hand-in-hand with poverty. Mine and my father’s relationship was of a staid and suburban father and son, but this act of storytelling taught me that like every family, our one bears enough of its own tragedies in its working-class history, and the history of the family can be a history of male violence.
It isn’t just history. As a father, I am aware of the legacies that I inherit with that title — the stereotypes, that fathers discipline and mothers nurture — but we can still measure the worst of this legacy by counting the deaths of women; one, on average, murdered by their partner each week in Australia. Men still hurt, still kill, their partners and children. And many of those who do, do so as fathers.
The truth is that fathers hurt their families.
Fathers can kill their families.
Our son had woken in the early hours of the night before, as he did most nights. He had been home with us for a few weeks and each night he would wake and act as if he needed to feed, but when he was put to his mother’s breast, he would fall back asleep. The moment we quietly laid him into the cot, he stirred, and the crying began again.
That night I hoped to settle him, by holding him to me in the hallway, so my partner could sleep. He squirmed against my chest and the crying broke into a scream. He wouldn’t feed. He wouldn’t sleep. He screamed. He screamed, when we barely slept, when we hadn’t slept through the night in almost a month, and he screamed for things he couldn’t have and didn’t actually want. He screamed again, and my best intentions gave way to sheer bitterness.
I held him in the air above me, hoping the movement might distract him. At least that’s what I told myself. In reality, I held him in the air because weary rage put him there. My arms grew tense, thinking around the swaddling and a thousand horror stories came to mind of exhausted fathers who crippled limbs and shook their babies blind in their grip. I held the fragile bundle to my chest again and groaned, not just for my tiredness, not just for my son who was crying in the night, but for the horror of this moment, where a father’s love gives way to anger and a sudden realization: I could hurt him.
My partner and I discovered that our firstborn struggled with sleep difficulties in the first month home from the hospital. Babies often fight sleep, but ours persisted beyond the first few weeks. His condition worsened. I returned to work. During our nights, we rose every hour or so, as our son’s wailing rang out from the cot at the end of our bed.
When babies don’t sleep, they scream.
Make it stop.
I could kill him.
The first stage of intervention for infants struggling with sleep difficulties is a consultation at a child health service. We booked the appointment. Our son fought sleep and wailed. The nurses recommended a teddy bear. We gave him an elephant named Ziggy Stardust. It did nothing.
Make it stop.
I’ve never hurt my partner. I’ve never hurt our child. I have no history of committing violence, but I feel this legacy of punishment all the same. Patriarchy, the rule of the father, started, and continues, in the social system of the family. A father’s authority over the family was historically implemented through use of force, which was a lawful right in early modern England. Historian and author Philippa Maddern termed this the ‘moral hierarchy of violence’, where fathers had an ethical and legal right to physically punish their wives and children. The legislation may have been dismantled, but the rule of the father is something that our society remembers, a function of cultural and collective memory. It is passed on, inherited, from father to son.
As a child at Sunday School, I learned that the patriarchs of the Bible would transfer inheritance and bestow their own patriarchal authority to their sons through the laying on of hands. My generation grew up with the semblance of a blunt, but publicly acceptable, paternal discipline: suburban sons have been smacked by suburban fathers, but those fathers and their fathers were beaten in the slums. This mode of discipline descended from a far darker age, imbued with a working-class history of anger and abuse. When it wasn’t fathers, it was teachers. The use of corporal punishment in government schools was legal in most states until the 1990s.
I wonder what inheritance is bestowed through an act of punishment? What is passed on through the excessive force of a father’s hands? The Australian Institute of Family Studies has shown that corporal punishment is typically directed towards males and is affiliated with anti-social outcomes of aggression and mental illness. Children subject to corporal punishment are also more likely to practice it as adults. This legacy of punishment results in generations of fathers and sons, trained in aggression, and doomed to repeat it.
When the anger wakes, the first place I feel it stir is in my hands.
Make it stop.
The second stage of intervention for infants with sleep difficulties is for a nurse to come to the house for a day’s training. My partner and I were instructed to bend over the cot and to continually coach our son to remain in place. He struggled and screamed at us and after 45 minutes, he fell asleep. This is how we were to stop his squalling, grimacing in the face of it before each nap, at every bedtime, in the middle of the night. When it worked, it was exhausting.
When it did not work, it was worse.
I lay awake for hours one night as I finished reading The Shining and cried in traffic the next day. Stephen King wrote the book as a confession, an admission of the anger he held within him and an expression of his deepest fears as a father. That line from the novel — Come on and take your medicine! Take it like a man! — becomes a mantra for an aspiring writer who loses his grip on sanity and is overcome by impulses to hurt, and kill, his own son.
Take it like a man. I went for a walk and turned the words over in my mind. This particular desire to punish is uniquely gendered; practiced by men, suffered by boys. It also implies that suffering violence is formative for masculinity. Behaviours that don’t conform to the masculine type are met with punishment. Fear is met with anger. Fragility is met with force.
This isn’t a reflection on my father specifically, but on all of the fathers, the teachers, the strangers, the male authority figures, that this legacy produced. It is passed on through the social systems we engage with as children.
There is a mosaic of patriarchal figures acting out this ritual; the snap of anger, a pointed finger in the face, but it’s not just a finger. It’s the father’s hand, the physical language of threat. Nine years old. I visited a friend’s house. He had made a mess in his kitchen, laughing. His father entered and became enraged. The boy was smacked, hard, and reacted. The father was offended by his son’s expression of pain and threatened a harsher punishment.
11 years old. I knelt beneath a school desk to pick up a pencil. A man took a handful of my hair and pulled upwards until I was on my feet. A teacher had seen me away from my chair and acted in anger. Eye-contact, too much cologne. We could smell it on him from across the classroom, the temper. I was afraid. He sat me down with something like disgust. “You ok”. It wasn’t a question.
The scream is silenced. The scream is held in. The scream becomes internalised.
Our son still struggled at night, still squealed. I began to take walks, obsessively, hoping to escape the headaches each morning. I lost weight. A stale cough crept into my throat, my mouth already turned stiff with ulcers. Sleep deprivation changes you. Fatigue cripples the immune system. It alters brain chemistry, precipitates anxiety and depression. It affects judgment.
My partner asked me about the broken things she was finding in our home: the remnants of a smashed bowl after breakfast; a toy tambourine bashed on the nursery floor. I was surprised at the anger. The outbursts came without warning, delicious and unsettling, but my stomach turned as I considered the tell-tale bits and pieces: my son is more fragile than any of the things I broke.
I thought back to that first night I held my son, the terror I felt. He was new, barely made. He was confused, ignorant of everything, uncertain of where he ended and where we began. He was consumed by needs, already haunted by physical tensions and unforgiving phantom cravings. He could feel hunger and wonder and horror but was barely able to lift his own head without help. His eyes, his skin, his ribs, like origami. He didn’t even know his own name.
He knew emptiness, the hunger for milk, the nirvana of the breast. He knew the cold that comes, the weight of gravity. He knew our voices. He knew how to scream. With something like grim awe, I considered our newborn’s state of being; looking for the light, fearful of the dark, as fragile as ash, with no language but a cry.
Make it stop?
I can’t stop this.
How could he not scream?
The third and final stage of intervention for infants with sleep difficulties is to check into a residential unit for three days of round-the-clock training. We had just thrown out the last of our son’s leftover birthday cake when the regression began and his tenuous windows of sleep suddenly slammed shut. The full-time training service was provided for children up to the age of one, but our son got sick and didn’t recover for weeks. The window for accessing the service closed.
One night in the middle of this winter, he woke up and started shrieking for the fourth time since sunset. My partner was too exhausted to get up to him again. My back rang with pain as I leant over the cot and dipped my pounding head into the noise. I tried to coach him into place, he bucked and wriggled.
Screaming… make it stop… I couldn’t.
After 10 minutes, I lifted him from the cot. My hands were shaking.
I heard myself speak four words aloud.
I’ll make you stop.
Do I remember what happened next? The recall is both vivid and fragmented. I remember the shadows in the room, impenetrable. I remember the walls as red, though I don’t know why. I remember the screaming, but also the sounds of things, noise. Everything felt loud, alive, like the darkness and the cold were livid and crawling. My partner then came and took our son from my hands. Like a dog slipping a leash, I searched for something to attack and lashed out at the room. I kicked the furniture over and over until the tip of my toe was red and cracked. I limped to the bedroom, fell onto the floor.
I can hear him, ringing in my ears, screaming.
No. It wasn’t him. It was me. I had been screaming.
I heard the crying in the night, the screaming, as always, but it vanished as I opened my eyes. I had been dreaming, often, and when I slept I had been hearing infants beaten, seeing them operated on or dashed against rocks. Sometimes the baby being hurt was my own, other times it was a child I didn’t recognise. If my son cried in the light of day, the nightmares suddenly came to mind, and the foulest dread I’d ever tasted filled me from the gut to the tongue.
Make it stop.
I sat in a therapist’s office. My toe was stiff from the expulsion of fury from that night. During that session, I learned that much of the anger I had been experiencing was a normal reaction to a year of sleep deprivation. Post-natal depression arises in women directly following birth, but paternal post-natal depression can take months, even years, to manifest in men and it can often go undiagnosed when it does.
Some of the anger, however, did relate to what I had experienced as a boy: the mosaic of angry patriarchal figures. Research shows that children absorb the gender roles and parenting patterns that they witness early in life. They will often see those roles instinctually reoccur in adulthood. I wondered if these patterns could be forgotten (an inheritance handed back?). While some of my anger would naturally decline with proper sleep, they said, some will remain for as long as I am a father.
I am consequently faced with a dilemma: the legacy of patriarchal punishment cannot be lived out, and it hurts, and kills, in families each week. But this pattern of anger and abuse has been inherited, whether welcome or not.
I visited my father’s house. He gave me a cup of tea, black, calming, tannic. I tell him about the frustration and anger of being a father. My father and I talked and, again, I heard the stories. I realised there is more to these than anger and abuse.
I am leaving this punitive legacy behind, walking from it, as are the men of many families, generation after generation. I see a baby photo. I mistake it for my son before I realise it’s a photo of me at the same age.
I walked that night. My toe still throbbed with pain and I enjoyed the way it warmed my foot. I thought back to the therapist’s office and the baby photo. Standard psychological practice suggests that when you dream of a child, you are often dreaming of yourself. The therapist had explained that the image of the child in my nightmares can mirror my own past feelings returned.
The buzzing heat in my foot became overwhelming as I limped to a stop on a street corner. I thought back to the sounds I heard in the night, the images of an infant I did not recognise. When I screamed, the infant was met with anger and force. I was fragile. I was afraid. I was punished for it. The scream was then internalised. I became a man, but the child that screams in my dreams was me.
Father was my son’s first word. He curled around my arm after I returned home from a week of travel and uttered the word in broken syllables. It is my name now. I won’t just imagine what it may be like for my son to be fearful and fragile, but remember that I was, as well. I am the father, but I was the son once too, and when I sleep, I am crying still. Screaming, on the inside. I must practice recall and compassion. The legacy of patriarchy can be punishment, but parenting must be empathy.
I hear the crying in the dark. My son is awake. I stand at the side of his cot, the cry breaking into a scream. I feel the exhaustion, the frustration, the anger stirs in my hands, but just as I saw him fall apart in my mind’s eye, I can also piece him back together.
I see myself reach down, gather the scattered parts against me, organs like smooth stones, and slip the limbs into place. I set the head straight, touch the softness of his cheeks with the back of my fingers. My arms begin to interlock and as I draw him closer I hear bone come to bone and flesh thread with flesh inside the hull of his pink belly.
He is whole in my arms, in my imagination, again.
Sleep difficulties in infants are typically resolved within two years and one of the dull discoveries of parenting is that, after the initial trauma of birth, all the clichés are true. My partner and I are content. My son and my father wander the garden together, smelling the passionfruit. The bloodstain beneath my toenail has almost grown out.
Our child sleeps through the night now, but if he wakes and the screaming returns, I take him in my arms and practice the recall. I practice the empathy. I look down at my son in the dark and remember: I am screaming too.
Anthony N. Castle is an Adelaide-based author and journalist. He has written about social justice and religion for The Guardian and other national publications. His twitter is @A_N_Castle