I was recently at a friend’s baby blessing. She was two weeks from delivery. Her face bore the signs of fatigue and anxiety. She wanted to know if I had any advice for her. She didn’t know what she would do, she said, when the baby was born. Aside from her husband, her family was far away. In her home country, the village raises the child. Extended family is present to help out. She was feeling the distance of her loved ones, and the ache of treading in foreign lands, both literally and figuratively.
The best advice I ever received, I told her, was from the nurse who came to my home after my first child was born. She took my vitals, weighed my son, and said, “Don’t be afraid to set him down and walk away. Sometimes babies just need to cry.” She told me to put him in his crib where he was safe and take a break. She told me he would be okay if I was okay, but I had to take care of myself first.
At the time, it never occurred to me that I would feel driven to hurt my child. My thoughts on the matter were that I would NEVER do what to my child what my parents did to me. I was going to end the cycle before it began. So, in my son’s first two weeks when he didn’t stop crying, I strode confidently around our apartment and suffered no change in my normal low blood pressure. But at six weeks, he was still crying. By that point I had removed dairy from my diet and knew that any exposure to the light of the television screen would trigger hours of screaming fits from my newborn. I tried swaddling, not swaddling, burping before and after meals, feeding him upright, walking him, rocking him, wearing him, co-sleeping, separate beds, driving him around, music, no music, lights, no lights, vibration, massage, baths, singing, warmer clothes, cooler clothes and any other suggestion that came my way. Nothing helped. At his checkup, his pediatrician noted that he was exceptionally healthy. Some babies just cry, I was told.
Two months of having my child vacillate between serious and hysterical had me tearing my own hair out. I remember very clearly holding my child up and thinking how much I wanted to shake him. Why wouldn’t he just shut up?
I put him in his bassinet.
I went outside, sliding the door shut behind me.
I thought of the nurse and her embarrassed admission that she indulged a Diet Coke when her child just had to cry and she felt like a failure as a mother.
I went back in and my baby kept crying. I had no one to hand him to most of the time, so I developed a routine of stepping outside when it got to be too much, or of closing myself in a dark closet with my fingers in my ears and counting to 100.
My husband did it, too.
Now I am a mother to three. Their needs are many and varied. My husband and I are outnumbered. As a result, we have a signal we give each other when we need to switch or tap out, because we recognize that proper management of our own needs is critical to the safe management of our children’s.
Parents today are expected to do it all. We can cure our children with diet and proper attention. Of everything! All we have to do is persist beyond the point of our own humanity. Simple.
It’s not simple. Parenting is a laundry list of sacrifices, and if we don’t stop ourselves every once in a while, park our kids someplace safe (like in front of the TV for half an hour) and take a few minutes to remember that we are people separate from them with our own needs that require tending, we will burst and break and find ourselves sobbing on a closet floor in a pile of Cheetos.
While I don’t believe my friend will struggle as I did, I know that half of my parent’s struggle was being isolated from their support systems. My dad is an immigrant. My mother lived across the country from her brother.
I told my friend the baby might cry. It might make her angry. When that happens, it’s okay to walk away and breathe, to offer yourself care before you offer it again to your child. This is not neglect. This is not child endangerment. This is not a form of a abuse. It is a preventative measure.
Whether or not you a parent who feels you need this permission, here’s another rhyme for you:
Step away. It’ll be okay.
I hope, if the time comes, you remember.