Mother's tearful whisper, bent over the little head covered in fuzzy black hair:
Come on, baby girl. You have to eat. You HAVE to eat.
The rhythmic suck-swallow, suck-swallow, lasting for all of perhaps three or four minutes - then the small head flung back, letting out an impossibly shrill scream, filled with pain and panic.
Again the whisper, again the screams.
What's wrong? What am I doing wrong? I wish you could tell me...
The baby, of course, had not the words to tell her. But everyone else did. The trouble was that no two people ever told her the same thing. The words raced through the young mother's head, again and again, a cacophony of condemnation.
She's fine! You're just worrying too much. Don't listen to the doctors, they're all in the pay of the formula companies!
You know, some women just can't make enough milk...you're not going to let your baby starve to prove a point, are you?
Maybe you need to drop out of college and focus on your baby. Isn't she what's really important?
Put her on a schedule! Don't let her manipulate you!
Just take her to bed, and let her nurse as much as she wants, and she'll be fine.
The best thing to do would be to give her double-strength formula until she's caught up on the growth chart.
And so it went.
The one thing every voice agreed on was this:
If you screw this up, your child will be ruined forever, and it will be All Your Fault.
You don't want that, do you?
The louder the other voices became, the louder her child's screams rang in her ears, the quieter the mother was. She did not know the answer - she knew only that she was wrong. Proof? The weeks that went by with a small helpless infant who seemed to only scream and not-grow. The mutterings about hospitals and feeding tubes and Child Protective Services and "they've found ground glass in formula, you know, don't ever feed your kid that poison!"
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," she would whisper to the baby who had cried herself to sleep. "I'm so sorry."
It was her fault. It had to be her fault. Failure to Thrive. "Failure to parent." "Failure to love."
In a daze, she drove from doctor to doctor, from expert to expert, letting them weigh and measure this failure of hers.
Until one day, one wonderful day, there were answers. And medicines. And relief. And rest. And smiles.
The screams were few and far between now. And tiny giggles - that most wonderful of baby sounds - began at last to take their place.