Friday, March 09, 2007

Crying ... Is ... Learning!

"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.)


Mad Hatter said...

Now what are the chances that Bub and Pie will read this and learn from it? I plan to print it out and have a copy waiting on Miss M's booster seat while the macaroni cooks tonight.

Jenifer G. said...

Learning...maybe for me not the baby. Papoosie Girl developed colic or whatever that non-stop evening crying is and the only way to stop it some nights was a ride in the car.

We quickly learned we could take the car ride right away OR pace around the house (1200 sq. feet) THEN take the car ride. We sure were quick learners!

I am getting better at dealing with crying, but in the those early days of infant crying it was overwhelming. I remember feeling such a tightness in my chest.

I love this post, the content, flow, everything. Really it was a great tribute to something completely ordinary yet still so mystifying.

Crying. Not for the faint of heart.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My daughter was exactly the opposite. If she cried, the only course was to leave her alone. If you picked her up, spoke soothingly, tried to redirect her attention, it only made her cry harder until -- this is true -- once she screamed so hysterically at my MIL's attempts to soothe her that my MIL almost called an ambulance. And my MIL raised 4 kids.

The upside is that when one of my children cries I pretty much ignore it (no heart palpitations here), but the downside is that for about 2 years I thought my daughter actively disliked me. So, there's that. At least you know you can fix your child!

nomotherearth said...

I still haven't gotten over the sinking feeling that happens when I hear crying. For a long time, the Boy cried for no reason. Add to that, every time he cried, his hernia popped out and we had to go to the hospital. I'm a little gun-shy about crying now, but I'm working on it.

Veronica Mitchell said...

My husband and I were just discussing that we can tell how successful an outing with the girls has been by the volume of crying when we say it's time to leave. Right now they are napping, having cried home all the way. Blessed naps.

Sober Briquette said...

Is this another Chapter in the Book?

I had a mantra, "Crying is communication for the non-verbal." Otherwise, I would've driven spikes in my ears.

Even now (5, oh and 39), there's still plenty of crying. Now, definitely, it's a learning experience. What emotions are you feeling, how can you express them, is it appropriate to cry over this?

Em said...

When A was a baby, a wise old woman (who'd had many children of her own) said two simple words to me: "babies cry". That was it... but it was a wonderful little phrase to remember. I learnt not to fear his cries or worry about it. It was his way of communicating (and still is sometimes!)

slouching mom said...

Crying is my younger son's default, as it was mine as a younger sibling. I think the second child can be very intentional about crying, and that crying is one way to mark his or her place in the family. After all, he/she has fewer means available to get back at an older sibling, who is likely savvier with words and physically more powerful.

But crying gets mom or dad caught up in the middle of the siblings' fight, and even more so gets mom or dad immediately on the side of the younger, defenseless kid, whether or not mom or dad is making a correct assumption of fault in the particular case.

At least that's how crying goes in our house.

Beck said...

Well, I must tell you that my 7 and 5 year olds are now into screaming and fighting, which honestly? I hate waaaaaay more than crying.
The Baby cries a lot. She throws big wailing tantrums and I'm pretty immune to them by now. Actual CRYING gets comforted, of course, but the tantrum gets nothing.

kgirl said...

oh my goodness, i could not have handled it if my baby had been a crier. increased heart rate? panic? try, i-will-knock-you-down-and-run-so-fast-that-ben-johnson's-head-spins kind of a reaction.

honestly, bee cried so little as an infant that any whimper convinced me that she was seconds away from something truly horrible happening and that i had better get there, pronto.

but the way that you describe not changing a thing if bub was not crying - that pretty much sums up the conditions of bee's sleep for the first year of her life.

Mimi said...

Oh. My. God. I had Bub, too! I was all about crying avoidance. Maybe Miss Baby had colic. I don't know. If she wasn't crying, we just held our breaths until she started again. When I think of what we did to prevent the crying, we must've looked insane. I'm laughing at your description of changing absolutely nothing when the crying stops--eveyone's all like, 'she's fine now, you can stop pacing / put her down / change her diaper.' Ha.

But, wow, could she bellow. For hours. I am TERRIFIED of her crying, even thought she doesn't cry like that anymore. I'm trying to learn not to panic with the crying. We also did a lot of tours of the house for hours and hours and hours.

Ok. I'm going to try to stop hyperventilating now.

Oh, The Joys said...

Can you write one about the pouting and the flinging of the dinner utensils?

Julie Pippert said...

Yeah I saw those freakish angel babies too.

My children definitely learned that persistence paid off.

Also, neither was a fan of babyhood at all. Nodding aquaintance with the floor indeed. And to this day, both come awake and ensure the entire house, nay, neighborhood, knows about it.

Lisa b said...

Oh I feared the crying. Still do really. Most of the time now I know what it is about and the language development helped.
It took me a while to figure out why the angel babies mothers seemed so calm. They were calm because they didn't have to do anything to make their babies stop crying. I hate the ones who actually think it was parenting rather than luck that got them that.

Lawyer Mama said...

B&P, your posts are always so darn entertaining. You're my idol. Can I sit next to you at lunch?

With my first the crying struck fear in my heart. But he cried unless I was holding him for, oh, pretty much the first 9 months. I think I was immune to it by the time Little H was born. Now the whining. THAT I will never get used to!

NotSoSage said...

I remember that when Mme L was first born, she didn't really cry for the first two days and my MIL was remarking on it (not around me) and apparently worried about it. Well, she (Mme L) certainly made up for it after that!

flutter said...

oh that picture. THAT PICTURE!

bubandpie said...

LM - I would LOVE to have lunch with you. :)

Flutter - Hehe. We used to call that picture "The Bishop."

Pieces said...

I often think that I am a cold-hearted b*tch because the crying just doesn't get me that worked up. Just yesterday Girlkiddo was in her room crying like the world was ending and all I did was walk over and close her door. And she opened it and I quietly closed it again. She was mad at me and trying to punish me.

But Bub's infanthood trained you differently. It is fascinating how an infant's behavior can mold us into the parents we are now.

Crying is learning is a funny and clever way to retrain your thinking. And bees ARE fuzzy wuzzy. :)

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Of my twins, one was an angel baby, and the other little guy had colic. I look back on it, though, and even though it was HELL having even one with colic, I had an easier time bonding with him than I did with his mellow, sunny brother. I guess all tat extra rocking ans hsushing and holding did something. I feel very bonded with both boys now, but I think I "got" N before I really understood O. I still sometimes make the mistaken assumption that my "easy baby" can take care of himself emotionally. I think it's possible that I would have blamed myself for the colic if I had only one, or taken the credit for having an angel baby if I only had him. It's an odd but consistant benefit of having twins - I am constantly reminded that I don't control everything about my childen.

Catherine said...

I met a lot of those freak babies when Asher was first born, and quite a few freak mom's too, who managed to do things like shower and leave the house and cook and shop and do crafts within three months of giving birth. My baby cried for the first six weeks, and only Louis Armstrong would convince him to do otherwise.

I recently read that in Bali, babies are believed to be dieties until the are six months old, so they are not allowed to touch the floor until then. Perhaps Bub is somewhat divine?

anna said...

When I am stuck in a pattern of responding that is no longer working, the only way I can unstick myself is by realizing that my child no longer needs what I am in the habit of giving him.

Jill said...

I find I'm much better at tolerating crying in baby #2 than baby # 1.

Those quiet, non-crying babies you described - are they the same children that sit quietly and patiently at the table next to us while my children are dumping water glasses and tearing off to the video games?

Jennifer said...

Crying doesn't really bother me. The best baby advice I'd received with #1 was "If they are crying, they are breathing and that means they're okay". It stuck with me through three babies and I can tolerate crying without much stress on my part. Whining, however? I cannot tolerate for even 20 seconds -- it GETS TO ME. Sadly for me, the crying *stage* is much shorter than the whining *years*. ;)

nonlineargirl said...

As a crier and mother of a crier, your post held a lot of "oh do I know that" moments.

edj said...

I noticed that somewhere in between having 3 kids in 20 months and them learning to interact with each other, I changed my reaction to crying (I'm talking about when they're older than yours are now.) Once we were over at a friend's house. She has one child, a quiet, bookish boy. We heard bloodcurdling screams coming from the yard. She freaked; I didn't turn a hair. "If they're hurt, they come to you," I told her. Sure enough--it was only bugs in hair.
I'm with Beck--the fighting and whining will wear you out quick. Of course, now they're old enough to send to their rooms.

gingajoy said...

I wish I'd read this earlier! You speak my truth--especially that part about the palpitations over a child's cry. My son was exactly the same as yours. Exactly. Crying was his default setting. Even once he became a good sleeper, he was still a grinch for most of his baby months. Toddlerhood and some language seemed to change it a little.

Mimi's comment about holding your breath when they are *not* crying--waiting for the crying. I grow queasy with recognition...