Sunday, June 23, 2013
During my first few months of parenting, one of the odder compliments I received from various doctors and friends was how well I was able to tolerate hearing my baby cry. I've never quite been sure how to take that. I think calmness in general is one of my strengths as a parent, but I don't really want to be seen as someone who is callous or tough. And I feel like there's a lot of guilt circling around the world of parenting when it comes to baby crying. I think it's often assumed that a really good mom, with really good mom instincts, is so very in touch with her child, and so very connected, that she cannot tolerate any of her little one's distress. It's subtle, I think, but I see it everywhere.
Empathy is terribly important, of course. And any mother hates to see her baby in pain. But while complete apathy toward a baby's cries is certainly a problem, I think it's equally unhealthy to feel extreme panic or anxiety when a baby cries, and feel like you must respond immediately right now lest you lose your baby's trust or hesitate in meeting an important need. The truth is, babies cry, and they cry a lot, and they cry for a lot of different reasons. A lot of parents say they are more relaxed about baby cries the second time around. Not because they care less, but because they've learned how to gauge each cry's importance.
There is a lot of parenting-book space (including on the internet!) devoted to crying babies, and plenty of people promise that if you use their technique, your baby will cry less. I've read everything from African babies never cry because they're carried and nursed all the time to strictly scheduled babies never cry because their needs are met before they have to cry for them. And sure, no one wants a constantly-crying baby, and any technique you can use to help your baby be calmer and more content is probably worth it, for everyone's peace of mind. But I think it's easy to tie crying (or lack thereof) to parenting ability (or lack thereof), and that's simply not true. Some babies cry more than others, for any number of reasons. But all babies cry. Including the babies of very, very good parents.
There are a couple of things that are very helpful for me to keep in mind when dealing with a crying baby. (And it's important to note that I am talking here about pre-verbal infants; toddler crying is a whole 'nother ballgame that I may or may not take on sometime). And in questioning why (other than experience as an older sister and as a teacher) I tend to tolerate baby crying without (too much) panicking, I think these two things play a huge part in my ability to keep things in perspective.
The first is that crying indicates communication, but not necessarily distress. If you think about it, crying is the only vocabulary babies have. They have plenty of non-verbal signals, but when they want to say something to you, they cry. And sure, you should respond, because they're talking to you, and you should listen when your children talk. But it doesn't necessarily mean they're terribly upset. If your preschooler told you she was hungry, you would feed her (or assure her dinner was coming up soon). You wouldn't panic, or feel terrible that you hadn't fed her yet. You'd just listen to what she was saying and respond. A baby who cries from hunger might be very hungry, sure. But he's not necessarily so hungry he had to cry, in the older-child sense. He's just so hungry that he had to tell you.
A lot of resources will tell you that every cry (especially in a younger baby) indicates a need. And while this is certainly true, I think it's easy to take this and assume that every cry indicates an urgent need that must be met right away. And that isn't true. Sometimes babies cry from raw, primal need (hunger, clean diaper, tiredness, etc). But sometimes crying simply expresses a feeling (fear, for instance, or boredom). And sometimes it's a reaction to a new experience (wind, or cold, or a big dog). There is a need there, of course, a need for your presence and reassurance. But it's not necessarily an emergency of distress. Sometimes it's just a touch-base to make sure you're there.
And I think it's okay to say no, or later, or wait, even to a very young baby. Obviously, primal needs should be met, and the younger a baby is, the more immediately they should be met. But it's okay to finish feeding an older child before starting to feed a younger. Sometimes, it's okay to assure a bored, frustrated baby that you will help him out as soon as you get off the toilet or off the phone.
My beautiful grandmother is one of the gentlest people I know when it comes to handling babies. Nothing, absolutely nothing, ruffles her, and I have never seen a baby who doesn't love her immediately. And nothing makes her hurry. She never rushes to anything, she never panics, and when a baby fusses, she will call across the room, quietly and calmly, in her Southern accent, "I hear ya, I hear ya." Then she will carefully finish hanging her dishrag, or whatever she was doing, and when she is done, she will attend to the fussing baby. This isn't breaking a baby's trust, and it isn't ignoring his needs. Sometimes, it's important just to let your baby know you hear him, and will be available soon.
And sometimes, you will fail at meeting your baby's needs, simply because his cries didn't make sense and you mis-read them. That's okay. In any relationship, miscommunication occurs. Sometimes you'll guess and guess and guess, and you'll be wrong, and your baby will keep on crying, and you just won't know what's wrong. This doesn't mean you're not in tune with your baby. It doesn't mean your baby will stop trusting you. It simply means you and your baby are trying to work out a relationship, and you don't speak the same language. It's tough, sometimes. Spouses miscommunicate. Friends miscommunicate. Co-workers miscommunicate. Parents and children miscommunicate, too.
This is not to say that real distress doesn't occur. It does. And almost every baby has a cry that means I need you right away!!! You'll hear that cry, and you'll know it. And when your baby is in pain, or terrified, you probably will panic a bit, or be a bit heartbroken. That's okay. No one wants to see their tiny one suffer.
But it's also important to remember that it is not your job as a parent to keep your child's life free of discomfort and pain; it's only your job to help them through the discomfort and pain they will experience.
It's a terrible part of living in the world we live in. Your child will suffer. There will be pain, and sadness, and frustration, and disappointment. There will be sickness, and fever, and colic, and teething. There will be shots and exams and medicine. There will be toys that don't work and baby latches on all the fun cabinets. There will be older siblings who need attention, too. There will be times you, as a parent, make a decision the baby protests: seat belts, medicine, sleep training. And there will be tears, lots of them even, because of the pain and frustration these things cause.
But it's not your job to keep these things from happening, or even to make them go away. Often you couldn't, even if you tried. Often you shouldn't, because sometimes, hurt has to happen in order for something better to happen, too.
There's a lot of material out there exhorting parents to avoid giving their baby trauma. It's a scary word, trauma. It conjures up images of irreversible injury, brain patterns being created by bad things happening. But trauma is a spectrum, and no matter how carefully you try to avoid it, your child will experience it, to some degree. And it's easy to get wrapped up in guilt for the trauma we could have maybe prevented. The maybe-necessary medical test. The slightly-too-long car ride. The sleep training that may not have been the only option.
Friends, it's not our job to prevent bad things from happening. It's not our job to stress about the bad things we might have been able to prevent. Because bad things will happen. Our children will have to experience them. It's not an excuse for selfishness, to be sure. But it is a fact of life. And isn't it better to show our children that we love them through the bad things and help them learn how to weather them, than that we try too hard to keep the bad things away?
And finally, it is worth noting that sometimes crying does indicate a bigger problem. Sometimes babies cry too much. And in cases like that, there are pediatricians and specialists and older, experienced mothers and grandmas who can help us figure out what the problem is, or if there is a problem at all. Sometimes it's worth getting some perspective. Not from Doctor Google, or from strangers on the internet, but from someone who's seen a lot of babies.
But the crying days usually don't last too long. And then you get a toddler, and, as mentioned before, toddler crying is a whole 'nother ballgame.