"You’ve got a crier, I see," a friend clucked sympathetically when Bub was about five weeks old.
I was, of course, deeply offended by this remark – it interfered with my belief that we were Incredibly Lucky to have the Easiest Baby in the Known Universe. Sure, he was crying – but that was because he was awake. Just give him an hour or so and he’d be sleeping like a baby.
In many ways, Bub was a manageable infant: his cries were rarely inconsolable, and he slept well (until he was ten weeks old, but that’s another story). Nevertheless, as I began to venture out to playgroups and mom-and-baby classes, I started to notice a disturbing phenomenon: freakish angel-babies who would lie contentedly on the floor while their mothers tickled their tummies or wiggled their toes, reciting nursery rhymes and massaging baby oil in soothing patterns. Floortime was not a part of Bub’s repertoire – indeed, he and the floor had only a nodding acquaintance until he began sitting unassisted at six months. These Freak Babies had other amazing powers: one minute they would be sleeping contentedly in their carseats, and the next minute I’d be startled to look over and see a pair of big blue eyes gazing solemnly in my direction. Had these infants somehow missed the memo? Babies are supposed to inform parents of their wakefulness with screams of rage and terror.
When he was awake, crying was Bub’s default setting. When baby books insisted that babies cry for a reason, I knew that in the case of my child the opposite was true: if he was not crying, there was a reason for it: he was being bumped along in the stroller at exactly the right rhythm, or "Baby Beluga" was playing on the tape player, or he was being given the guided tour of the house, looking out with surly, demanding eyes. Any alteration to these measures would be punished promptly.
The rule with Bub was that if the baby isn’t crying, change nothing. Don’t tug down a sleeve, or wipe goo off his face, or turn the lights on or off (a reckless act that will prompt an angry protest to this day). Keep conditions as consistent as possible until further notification.
For those first few months of babyhood, crying is the boss: it is the alarm that signals the end of each break (pee break, lunch break, nap break, shower break). The parent becomes a slave to the crying, but also a deadly opponent to it: my job, 24-hours-a-day, was to prevent, address, and eliminate crying.
I wonder to what extent that early apprenticeship in parenthood has altered my response to my children now that they’re no longer babies. All adults will respond to an infant’s cries with signs of stress – an increased heartrate, a rise in body temperature. If that baby is our own, the level of stress is multiplied. Nevertheless, I have noticed that not all parents seem to hyperventilate quite as quickly as I do when their children burst into tears. When I dropped off my kids at day-care the other day, an altercation broke out over possession of a toy. There was some pushing and shoving, some wailing and screaming, and when it subsided after a minute or two, I was on the verge of a panic attack: my heart was racing, my breaths were shallow, and I felt like I needed to lie down for about a week. My day-care provider, on the other hand, was grinning sheepishly – she didn’t enjoy the outburst, but she remained calm through it. (This helps explain, I think, why she’s capable of doing her job without checking herself into the nearest psychiatric facility.)
When my children aren’t crying, I feel like a successful parent: I have done a good job with them already (in that my children are pleasant, adaptable, well-adjusted creatures), and I am doing a good job right now (in that I’m providing them with activities they enjoy). The crying, on the other hand, floods me with a sense of failure. Toddler crying is very different from baby crying – it makes sense, at least some of the time, and it’s a necessary part of testing their limits and acquiring emotional maturity. Somehow, though, that knowledge doesn’t entirely short-circuit the cascade of guilt, shame, and panic that accompanies a real blow-out tantrum from one or both of my children.
So I’m trying to change my attitude. Various people over the years have attempted to cure me of my bee phobia using handy catch-phrases: these are fuzzy, buzzy, dozy, cozy, friendly, gentle bees. Bees make honey. Bees are my friends. Bees are living the way nature intends. So far that approach has been entirely ineffective in relieving my fear of bees, but I won’t let that stop me from hoping it will work for the crying. Crying is my friend. Crying is healthy, crying is good, crying is best when you’re in the mood. Humph. Maybe I’ll try this one: Crying Is Learning!
My local public television station airs children’s programming throughout the day, punctuated by educational interludes hosted by Polkaroo. The theme of these interludes is that playing is learning – each one focuses on a particular kind of game or activity with a childishly enthusiastic narrative voice-over describing the educational benefits. (The content, I presume, is aimed at parents, unless the purpose of these segments is to sap all the joy from ordinary playful pursuits by persuading children to look upon them as exercises in self-improvement.) At the end of each segment, children shout joyfully, "Painting! (or Dancing!, or Reading!) Is! Learning!"
Following Polkaroo’s example, then, I present to you the following educational benefits of crying. When my children cry, they learn…
- The power of the veto. A good cry won’t get you back that Bailey’s-filled-chocolate you swiped from the kitchen counter, and it won’t give you access to that shiny new knife you want to play with, but it might buy you a few extra minutes in a poopy diaper before you have to submit to the indignity of a diaper change.
- The down side of being reasonable. When it comes to choosing a video or DVD, it pays to be stubborn. If you want to watch Wallace and Gromit penguin, and your brother wants to watch Wallace and Gromit sheep, your sunny, flexible personality works against you: nine times out of ten the sheep win out and the penguin languishes in the corner.
- The up side of being reasonable. Mom holds the ultimate veto power, so if you insist on watching Wallace and Gromit rabbit, and only Wallace and Gromit rabbit (knowing full well that it’s a full-length feature film rather than a 30-minute video), you just might end up watching nothing at all.
- The down side of being a comedian. If you punctuate your crying with a sudden rush forward – stomp, stomp, stomp – and a dramatic fall to your knees (followed by a quick check to gauge the effectiveness of your manoeuver), you might find that you get rewarded with laughter rather than an extra bowl of Shreddies before supper. And that goes double if your sister responds with spot-on mimicry of your body language and facial expression. (Fortunately, neither child shows any sign of actually learning this lesson – both of them vastly overestimate the irritation- and/or guilt-producing properties of this particular spectacle.)
- That good things come to those who wait. Crying might help pass the time while the macaroni cooks on the stove, but it won’t get that mac-and-cheese on your plate any sooner.
- That crying can be a two-faced ally. When it’s time to go down for a nap, the harder you cry, the quicker you fall asleep. (Some of the time at least, you see, crying really is my friend.)