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11 weeks | The art of crying | no. 0004
It has come to my attention that my precious, little munchkin is no longer primarily crying out for food, warmth, burp relief, touch, or because he needs sleep. He is exhibiting early signs of what may possibly be an award-winning career in tantrum performance. Several times over the past few weeks, I have witnessed him wailing about with a different kind of determination in his eyes: showmanship. In these moments I’ve had the audacity to think, He’s so dramatic. I wonder where he gets that from. Of course, there is no true wonder when I look at myself. If I am nothing but a walking-talking-living-breathing advocate of embodying one’s total emotional process at all times, then who am I?
At first, his tears would catapult me to his side no matter what I was doing. The slightest elevation in whimper and I was moving mountains to soothe him. I imagined that with his small, delicate understandings of the world, many things could easily scare him. A truck going by. The sound of keys in the door. That crazy ring tone that I forgot to put on vibrate. When I would reach him, pick him up, assess that he was in fact in no immediate danger, I would make eye contact for as long as it took his breath to settle and his muscles to relax. I would talk to him with soft words assuring him that everything was alright. I realized that if he was in distress, then I was in distress, no matter how small his grievance.
I politely listened to all the unsolicited mother-advice that was dished out with love. Of course, I had no intention of letting my newly-arrived-to-the-planet-Earth baby scream it out in the name of discipline. I figured, my child would spend the bulk of his life apart from me, having to navigate the inevitabilities of fear, loneliness, anxiety, and anger on his own. There was no good reason to expedite our separation, or the independence he was growing into with every passing day.
And then there was the practical part of implementing my supermother plans. It turned out I could not possibly respond to every, single cry in a timely fashion. I couldn’t get the breast out fast enough. I couldn’t get the diaper changed without sacrificing his sensitive, optimal body temperature. I couldn’t position him expertly to get the burp out for instantaneous comfort. And for the life of me, I couldn’t manage to be right there whenever his eyes opened so that he knew his world was not falling apart. In these moments, my attitude toward tending to him began to shift. I started to feel that if I knew in my heart that I was doing the best I could do as his mother, then he could survive momentarily waiting to be satiated.
This approach proved to be a rocky adjustment for mother and son. There were times when he let out what I can only describe as the blood-curdling “I’ve been abandoned/Somebody save me” wails. Not only would he be shrieking as loud as he could, but he would be shaking his body with such vigor that it interrupted the flow of the cries. The resulting effect was this almost torturous rattling bawl that absolutely made me feel like the most awful mother many a time. Often, I’d be right there, in plain view of him, hurriedly finishing up whatever thing so that I could then lift him, nurse him, burp him, hold him. I would think, Really, though? You see I’m right here. On occasion I would catch myself rolling my eyes at him. Then sometimes, maybe it was my imagination or whatever, but he was actually yelling at me. He’d have this look on his face that read something like: I’m trying to tell you, Mommy. Your life would be so much easier if you just give me what I want. Right now. Please. I love you, and I’m so cute, usually. Remember? What more do you want from me!?!?
We were definitely in transition. It was during this time that I read on some other creative parenting blog that children benefit from learning resilience, that it’s important for them to experience that they will be fine when things don’t always go their way. For some reason, the idea of fostering resilience resonated more authentically with me than the “just let him cry/he’ll learn” process. I began to listen to and respond to him differently. I became more aware of the nuances in his tears. The “I just want to nurse, please” cry was a soft, barely-fretful whimper. But the “I said, I want to nurse NOW!” cry was a more deliberate, hammering howl that would naturally come after the gentler request had been unfulfilled. Also, he developed a special “I need you over here” cry that was reserved just for me when he’d gone too long without preferred proximity to his food source. I was especially proud of myself when I could finally differentiate the pant-like, “vertical please” cry that he made when he had to sit up and burp, from the “I’m sleepy” whine that came after he’d tired of that book, or that song, or that dance.
Now, mixed into all of these specific cries were the innocent misinterpretations that were bound to happen, as his communication and language skills were steadily increasing. Sometimes when his cry sounded identical to the multi-syllabic laugh his father was teaching him, his urgency did not translate until he yelled in frustration. Or the times when his spirited attempt to just “talk” to us using his symphony of sounds, was initially met with an inappropriate, What now/I just fed you sort of resignation.
So here we are, approaching his 3-month birthday, and he has added another dimension to his crying process. I call this the beginning of the expressive wailing arts practice. What must be a precursor to the full blown tantrums for which I see all the parents of toddlers shaking their heads and throwing up their hands. At least I have some time before all of that. But still, my son has shown me that my turn is coming.
Recently during a perfectly peaceful moment, when all needs I knew about had been met, he let out a loud cry. What was so remarkable this time was the two seconds he took to prepare before making the sound. The head tilted back and to the side, the face contorted in sheer agony, fists raised in protest of some unthinkable wrong, the lips formed into the telltale pout that has felled every parent I know at some point. And then, with his scene set, he opened his mouth and roared into my face. I was stunned; I had such conflicting emotions. As a mommy I thought, Oh no! What’s wrong? What happened to my baby! And as an artist I thought, Wow, he’s really amazing! He’s such a good performer! I think I was even smiling, as if it was curtain call at the school play and he was the lead.
Since then I’ve been observing the subtle experimentation he makes with his cries. Especially when he starts screaming. Then stops if there is a sudden change in stimulation. Then seconds, sometimes minutes, later resumes the wail when he realizes his needs were not actually met. Being a performer myself, I am fascinated by his choice of expression at any given part of the day. He teaches me new things about the communication of feelings, as his movements toward independence motivate him to develop more complex language through speech and gesture.
One of my elders also gave me a new way to understand his crying that felt good to me. She said that babies sometimes are just crying because their lives are pulsed by a constant, rapid growth that is so intense. The tears can simply help them release some of the stress and anxiety of be(come)ing themselves. This made perfect sense to my hypersensitive process of life. I’m all about encouraging the healthy development of an emotionally intelligent child.
Now, I find I am even more relaxed during some of his crying times. I sing sometimes just to remind myself to be calm with him. I take deep breaths, mirroring to him how he might soothe himself. I walk to him more slowly, when I know there’s nothing seriously the matter, and watch what he does to comfort himself when he can’t see me. I talk to him in a pleasant voice, offering him other choices in his emotional range. Every now and again I even tell him to have at it. He needs time to practice his lines just in case he does want to become an actor.
The munchkin, my first born, was born on a Wednesday. Wednesday’s Bloom: Textual Portraits of a New Mommy is an ongoing multi-media documentary project about my process as a mother. Today’s story is a part of Volume 1, 73 consecutive weeks of posts, spanning about the first year and a half of the munchkin’s life. Each episode explores my weekly discoveries, challenges, questions, and hopes as a mother. I also facilitate the New Mommy Writers’ Workshop for all mothers and women active in their mothering work who are excited about cultivating their own writing practices.