The waiting room is crowded just before lunchtime, so I am sitting thigh to thigh with other mothers and their babies in the “well” section. To my left is a thirtyish mother and, asleep in the car seat next to her, her four-week-old baby girl swaddled in pink fleece. We talk briefly about labor amnesia and sleep deprivation and the magic of breast milk.
“I just want to see the doctor and ask him if it’s alright to let her cry,” she explains. “I really don’t want to, but I just want to know if I should.”
She didn’t want to ask the doctor whether there was thimerosol in the vaccines or what to do about persistent cradle cap. She wanted his advice on how to respond to her own child. She wanted the doctor to define the terms of her relationship: how much love and attention should I give my baby?
As I look at this lovely woman and her beautiful newborn daughter, I wonder why so many of us parents have lost trust in ourselves and our own intuition. We tune out our baby’s voice to better hear our own; then we muffle our own voices to better hear those of others. We need doctors, to be sure. But why do we need to outsource our parenting to them?
Even the most responsible, educated, unbiased doctors still have their opinions about parenting, and parents always have choices. So to the new mother sitting in the waiting room with her four-week-old waiting to ask someone if it’s alright to let her baby cry, I ask this: what do you think?
I’m trying so hard to think small, to stop seeing my baby as the tidal wave that threatens to drown me. But it’s so hard to act contrary to our fears. And we are so fearful of losing control of ourselves, our sense of order and balance. As much as I want to see the situation from my baby’s vantage point, when I feel compromised, jeopardized, utterly whipped with fatigue, all I hear is the sound of steel doors bolting shut within me. Do you have to need me so much?
Well, actually, yes.
Think small. I whisper it under my breath when my sciatic nerve is throbbing down my leg. I repeat it like a yoga mantra.
Think small. Think small. Think small.
What is my son trying to tell me through his variety of cries, each one a different timbre, tone, pitch and rhythm? Can I translate what he is saying, or do I only imagine his laundry list of baby grievances? Depends on how tired I am.
“He sure knows how to get what he wa-a-ants!” my girlfriend chimes.
We think that if we teach the baby not to want, then the toddler won’t want and the adult won’t want because wanting is a terrible, terrible thing. Wanting is selfish. Greedy. Wanting invites disappointment because we don’t always get what we want in life. We balk at the idea that a baby knows what he needs, because we assume that his needs will become his demands. We’re afraid that might make him powerful. And we don’t want powerful babies.
But, after just six months of motherhood, I can already see that a baby’s wants and needs are pretty much one and the same. Twenty-four weeks out of the womb, my baby needs more than food, sleep and a clean diaper. He wants — and needs — to be held, to bond for his healthy growth. By this time next year, I imagine he will want to eat an ice cream sandwich for breakfast. Play in the snow without shoes. As his wants and needs begin to diverge, I will have to discern which ones are which, and respond to him accordingly, depending on the circumstances.
Do we think that curbing a baby’s wants and needs early on will prepare him for later? Or prepare us to set limits in toddlerhood when a growing child won’t easily take no for an answer?
I can see now why these first few years are so important, how they might set the stage for a person’s whole approach to parenting. I realize how much is at stake, how invisible and crucial the stakes are.
And so, I do the only thing I can do under the circumstances: I let the baby drive. I let his cues guide me. I try to see his needs as worthy of my response. To imagine those needs as pressing and fleeting at the same time.
In letting the baby drive, I am not handing over the keys and the wheel. I let him navigate while I steer. In so doing, I discover what drives him. I am getting to know him, which offers me more than just personal information about my child — it gives me ideas about how to parent him.
It occurs to me that my perceptions of myself and of my child will determine my attitude toward him, my role as his mother, my behavior and his. What if some of those perception are negative? Or mistaken? Limited? False?
I love my baby, but can I also accept him when he is fussy, cranky and unreceptive to my consolation? I have a sense that my difficulty in embracing these less desirable behaviors — even perceiving them as less desirable in the first place — would be a kind of rejection of him on some level. I notice that when I stop sniffing for his dissatisfaction, I can respond to him without fear. This clears the path for me to appreciate his unique needs, and parent him accordingly.