Babies cry. Quite a lot as it turns out. Sometimes it almost seems that they do nothing but cry. This isn’t true of course but time distorts when you are pacing around your living quarters with an infant emitting ear-splitting wails directly into your auditory brain channel!
Babies can’t really help the crying, they don’t have a lot of options when it comes to communicating so screaming is often all they’ve got. This has to suffice to communicate a whole lot of things which as a parent is your job to try to interpret, it could almost be considered a fun game, a sort of twenty guesses of the baby’s needs type affair, except that you hardwired to do two things when your baby cries, one is to respond and the other is to feel like a terrible specimen of humanity.
Sometimes babies just cry and once we’ve gone through the standard list (is she hungry, gassy, does she need a change, is she tired, running a temperature, bored?) we use the paediatrician recommended method of assessing if there is anything specifically wrong, which is to roll her over our arm and carry her face down. Usually this will temporarily stop the grizzling, which apparently is a sign there’s nothing actually wrong, so if the wailing commences again after that we can be reassured that we aren’t missing anything serious.
However, knowing that sometimes babies just cry (fab book a friend lent me ‘Your baby week by week’ gives an indication of how often and for what reasons or lack of reasons) doesn’t stop you from feeling like a failure every time they do. Especially when you are that joyous combination of over hormonal and sleep-deprived.
During my pregnancy, I received a lot of helpful advice (and some not so helpful advice) from a lot of parents. One piece of guidance in particular has been really helpful, when our daughter is screaming her lungs out and we are trying to assess how bad on a scale of dismal-to-barbaric this makes us as parents, which came from a friend at work we’ll call The Italian (and italicise because of the obvious link between Italy and italics – I assume Italians invented the slanting style and don’t want to hear any evidence to the contrary).
The Italian told me and the beard, on more than one occasion, that it’s alright to cry. I’ll admit that failed to really register at the pre-baby hypothetical time but I can’t repeat enough now that we are in the solid-albeit-squidgy-reality of parenthood. The Italian’s advice was meant for us more than our daughter although it applies to her too. This counsel has come in pretty handy as I think I’ve been more tearful in the several weeks of our daughter’s existence than in the previous several years.
I burst into tears when my daughter was first laid on my chest straight after birth. That definitely counts as good crying.
The next tearful incident was one particularly fractious night around the two or three-week mark when she seemed to be constantly demanding food but then would take a mouthful before screaming on my breast, nipple still in mouth, milk going everywhere. Unsure where I was going wrong (as already mentioned blaming yourself is instinctive), frustrated and tired, the beard sensibly whipped her away for a pace around the flat before I started to join her in the wailing!
On another disturbed night with unexplained crying dragging out minutes into years the girl’s tantrum must have been contagious as I neared breaking point and could only save myself from full on nuclear meltdown by hurling a pack of nappies across the room. Which, in my defence, seems a fairly reasonable response as I could have hurled the baby or thrown nappies (perhaps with a baby inside) at the beard instead and that probably would have been a bit harder to fix than a measured tidy up the following day.
When the little one got a bit better at sleeping, going for three or four-hour stints at a time, we started to recover from the prolonged period of sleep-deprivation we’d been subject to. I mistakenly started to think maybe I’d got the hang of this parenting thing and wasn’t as bad at as I’d initially thought.
This brings me to the next time I properly cried: the day I hurt my child. Before anyone starts calling the French equivalent of social services on me, I hasten to add that it was accidental and not at all serious but that didn’t stop me from feeling like the worst human being in existence, having just injured the best human being in existence (it’s possible I may be biased but the beard and both sets of grandparents would definitely agree with me, so that seems fairly conclusive to me).
I was putting her down on the playmat, she slipped slightly (from a height of probably no more than five centimetres), and bopped her head, she landed on the edge of the playmat but it’s a very hard tile floor underneath and it did cause two quick sharp wails before she was swept up and the tears stopped. We checked her for damage but pretty sure the only result was the initial shock of a slight bump to the head. The beard was relaxed enough about the incident later to try and joke about it over the changing table, I was not quite so sanguine about what had happened and promptly burst into tears.
The next time I cried was a week or two ago (my ability to remember things like days of the week and accurately marking the passage of the earth around the sun has severely decreased since living with a newborn). I thought we had got into a reasonably settled pattern of just waking once between midnight and 8 am but my daughter had other plans and went through a couple of nights of only sleeping for 60-90 minutes to a time. The shock of the return of this nightmarish sleep schedule just pushed me over the edge. In the witching hours of one such evening, I took her out of the bedroom to nurse her but was faced with one of those confidence-shattering moments when the daughter’s demands for boobs only resulted in shrill screams at my breast.
I just thought I have no idea what to do and I’m too tired to figure this out. I started to sniffle a little bit and then I started to full-on sob. I then started to feel worse about my failure to satisfy the infant thinking that my sobbing was going to upset her, but then I remembered The Italian’s advice ‘it’s alright to cry’. And that finally fully sunk in. It was alright to cry, it was alright to give into my emotions and it’s alright for my child to see me do this. In fact it’s probably more than alright to expose our daughter to this from an early age.
At this point the beard blundered in having been woken by the chorus of our howls to find himself confronted with a bawling child and weeping wife, incoherently thrusting the baby in his face whilst snuffling out something or other about maybe needing to change her.
I have been thinking about this moment quite a lot recently and why it is that I, along with so many other people, are indoctrinated to think of crying as a negative physical reaction, a sign of weakness that is something to be ashamed of.
From an early age crying gets pushed into a gendered dimension, which is why I think it particularly important to note that the advice came from The Italian, who happens to be male. Crying is often portrayed as a feminine trait symptomatic of girls and women’s inherent weakness, it’s okay for girls and women to cry, they can’t help it; but not for boys or men to do so.
As someone who is often fighting to overcome negative gender stereotypes I’m not exempt from this and have inadvertently accepted the narrative that crying is a sign of weakness and have consequently trapped myself into thinking that if I cry I’m giving into feebleness and in doing so undermining the notion that women can be just as strong as men.
The problem is that crying is almost unilaterally portrayed as a bad thing, unless we expressly clarify that someone is crying tears of joy. Crying is often symptomatic of sadness, pain or discomfort but these feelings aren’t a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. I think the problem lies in that tears make other people uncomfortable and are something that people feel need to be justified, excused or otherwise explained away as an anomaly, as though it isn’t okay to just admit sometimes we are sad and crying is an expression of that.
As the parent of an often-screaming child, I already feel like I’m failing when our daughter cries when it is just the three of us, but as soon as she cries around other people, whether friends or family or out in public, my feelings that I’m a failure are hitched up into a whole new level of uncomfortableness caused by the assumption that everyone else will also think I am a failure.
This sense that crying is bad is something that is unavoidable from the earliest age. We noticed this with some visitors who kept on asking whether our daughter had been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’.
Given our child is unable to support the weight of her own head, let alone plot for the downfall of humanity, we were given to understand that a good baby was one that was quiet and a bad baby was one that cried. At first we didn’t really notice it but the frequency at which this concept of good or bad was being liberally applied to our child really started to grate on me and although I’d let the comments slide at first, I then found the need to keep correcting our visitors. Yes, she woke up in the night; no, it wasn’t her being naughty or bad in doing so.
Frustrating to have to constantly contradict others, amongst ourselves it has become a source of amusement, so that currently whenever the potato cries the beard and I look at each other and laughingly say ‘bad baby, bad baby’. It’s a habit we’ll have to break before our daughter becomes conscious of the meaning of our words but figure we can get away with for a little longer so long as it is always said in a happy tone.
When she is old enough to understand the concepts of those asking if she has been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we’ll have to make conscious efforts to explain and to demonstrate to her that it’s alright to cry. In the meantime, I’ll work on accepting this more in myself as I expect this family will be dealing with quite a few more tears before bedtime in future.