About a Baby's Crying

I had the opportunity recently to be with the baby of some friends. He's a delightful child, it's a thrill to have him smile now when he sees me, and I love having a precious little bundle in my arms again. We were doing great together for a while, talking, reaching, feeling, looking around. Then it happened--the moment that all adults dread. He started to fuss, and got fussier. I would have loved to find something wrong that I could fix. But there was nothing. He'd just been fed and burped, his diaper was dry. He knew and liked me and was safe in my arms. Yet he cried louder and louder, and was soon working at a full wail. I remembered all the times from when my children were babies, helplessly wondering what to do. Why doesn't he stop crying? What is wrong?

I don't know if we'll ever be able to answer that question. But I have an image--slowly and painfully acquired over the years--that helps me think of how to respond. I have an image of a baby entering this world, serenely expectant that life will be good. Without words, without thoughts, they are just ready for the right thing. They areready for adults unblemished by fear, unhappiness, or distress of any kind, for endless physical contact and undiluted attention, for a world which is fashioned with their flourishing in mind. (After all, isn't this what we would want for ourselves, under all the layers of grief and disappointment, all the giving up we've had to do over the years?) Instead, though, they come into this world, inhabited by us--full of love and trying our hardest, but far from perfect.

With that image in mind, I can think differently about a baby's crying. It's more than hunger or wet diapers or other physical discomforts that cause pain. It's also grief, anger, outrage, disappointment that things in their world are not completely right (and probably the residue from all the things that weren't right in the birthing process). Though we each may be able to do a better job as parents, we simply can't give them everything. But, given this imperfect situation, there is one thing I know we can do, and that is to listen. We can listen to them respectfully as they rage and grieve, and let them know that they have a right to those feelings. Even though we don't know exactly what it's all about, we know it's real, and we want the very best for them, and we'll stay with them through it all.

Of course, as with most advice to parents, this is much easier said than done. But just having this perspective helps me remember that I'm not totally powerless, that he's not totally crazy, that the situation is not totally out of control, and that neither of us is bad. I wish I'd had this image clearly in mind with my firstborn. And I'm grateful for all the opportunities I've had since then to be around babies (particularly other people's babies, where my own worries about being a less-than-adequate parent have no place). Now it come to my aid.

I sit down with my knees up and prop him against them, so there's lots of physical and visual contact, and I listen to him cry. I try to look and sound relaxed as I talk about how wonderful he is, and how sorry I am that something in his world is not exactly right, and how much his parents love him and how much they want it to be right. And he cries--and cries--and cries. Then, after about twenty minutes, he starts to fall asleep. When he wakes up, he's bright and alert and ready for anything. It actually wasn't that hard to listen. Probably trying to divert him and jolly him out of his fussiness would have taken even more time and energy.

In a way, those twenty minutes are a luxury. I've set it up so that there's nothing else I have to do--a rare situation for overstretched and overburdened parents. But somehow I know that it's time well spent. I've gotten to see a wonderful human being going all out, and he's been fully heard.