I had a conversation about crying a couple days ago. The conversation revolved around parents trying to prevent their babies and toddlers from crying because they lived in shared-wall dwellings and didn’t want to disturb the neighbors.
Crying! It is, after all, a distress call. It’s supposed to attract parental attention. It’s one of the baby’s main survival skills. It helps a baby tell parents that she has an unmet need. Sometimes crying is a pain coping practice. Other times it is a form of release. I always felt that there was nothing more disturbing than the sound of my own baby crying. The sound of someone else’s baby crying, not so disturbing. If I’m not the one caring for the baby I really can tune it out. And frankly, now that I have achieved grandmother status I care less and less about what other people think. It’s a great place to be, but I didn’t get here all at once.
I grew up in a small, but loud family. We lived close to our neighbors. The climate was warm so we had open windows much of the time. We heard our neighbors. Our neighbors heard us. My little sister was ultra colicky. She cried constantly until sometime after her first birthday. I was eleven at the time. My parents and I took turns holding and walking with her while she cried. Although, my mom did most of the hard-core soothing. I never thought much about whether my sister disturbed the neighbors. After all, she disturbed us a lot more. We had to live with Miss Cranky: an eleven-year-old perspective.
My oldest son, Jason, was colicky. I remember fleeing restaurants and other public places because he started to cry and I was afraid of disturbing people. Over the years I mellowed out.
My third son, Paul, sustained a brain injury when he was a toddler. His frontal lobes were injured causing him to have poor impulse control, a volatile temper and difficulty modulating his emotions. He was that nine-year-old who threw himself on the floor, screaming at Fred Meyer because I told him we weren’t going to buy whatever it was he wanted in the moment. Perhaps you saw us. He did it a number of times. I think the Paul experience is what pushed me over the edge of caring less about what a bunch of strangers thought about me or my child and more about what was right for us in the moment. Paul really needed to grieve the loss of the Doritos. I needed to be consistent about who made most of the decisions about the groceries we bought.
A couple years ago my husband and I traveled to Italy with my son, daughter-in-law and five month old granddaughter. On a long train ride, Anna, my granddaughter cried and cried. Her mother was really worried about the crying disturbing other passengers. I, on the other hand, was way less concerned about whether Anna cried on the train. I carried Anna to the vestibule between cars and held her while she cried until she fell asleep. A bonus for me: Since I was holding the sleeping child, I didn’t have to carry any bags when we changed trains.
This past year I have spend a lot of time on airplanes. Flights are usually packed these days and they wouldn’t be complete without a crying baby or two – or more. What I’ve noticed is that the mothers of the crying babies seem to be distressed about the crying. The other passengers seem way less distressed about it. In fact, the other passengers usually appear to have great compassion for the struggling mother and child.
So, we live in a world where all human babies cry. It really is a universal experience. Most parents would agree that it’s good for babies and children to express their emotions. So why do we stuff pacifiers into the mouths of screaming children? What kind of message does that send about our interest in what the baby is trying to express? If we do our best to meet our children’s needs and they are still crying, it makes sense to be present with them without attachment to stopping the crying, right? So how did we get to the place where we turn ourselves inside-out worrying about whether our babies are disturbing other people – even when those other people really don’t seem to mind? Why do we do all kinds of crazy things to get children to stop crying when we know it’s really OK?
As parents of a crying baby our first inclination is to get the crying to stop. If we have done all we can do to make sure that the baby is fed/warm/dry it’s OK to simply hold and be with a crying baby. Crying is a signal that something is wrong, but also a beneficial expression of emotion. We don’t need to fix the crying. When babies are in pain the crying is a pain-coping practice.
To the mother: Did you make noise /vocalize during your labor? If you did, how would it have been for you if the other people in the room did everything they could to get you to stop making that noise?
If we have done what we know how to do to care for our babies and they are crying it’s OK to simply be with them without an attachment to them being quiet.
To the baby: “I am doing what I know to help you feel better. It’s OK with me if you cry. I am here for you. I won’t leave. When you are through crying I will still be here for you.”