It may not surprise you to learn that it has now been scientifically proven that your own baby’s cry is genetically designed to pierce your very soul.*
Before you have children you hear people say “there’s nothing like your own baby’s cry”. You take it seriously, nod solemnly and think you understand. But when they are born you realise that there’s nothing like your own baby’s cry. 8 months down the line I still struggle with the unexpectedly physical sensation of anxiety and stress I have when my boy is in full screaming mode. It’s such a visceral experience.
I’ve heard people say that it’s worse for mothers than fathers but I doubt it’s a purely biological connection. I’m sure for many adoptive parents it’s the same; male or female. (would love to know, please do leave comments). I reckon that one reason the cry bothers mothers more is that they tend to be around it all day, every day. And also because there is a strong sense in which, right of the bat, you should be able to solve this. Suddenly it is your responsibility to soothe this new human and that can weigh pretty heavy on any primary care giver. Of course, some of the time there’s very little you can do except rock or bounce or sing or shove into a pram/car-seat/baby-carrier. And, even if logically you know that babies just cry sometimes, there can a be a nagging feeling of failure. Perhaps it’s not even conscious, it wasn’t for me at first. Rather, it manifested itself as a feeling of deflation.
There really is nothing like your own baby’s cry. When they are wailing time seems to slow down. You know it’s only been a few minutes but it feels like hours. So, when you’re baby actually cries for half-an-hour, or and hour, or more, sometimes it feels unending. This task or parenthood feels insurmountable. (to those of you whose babies have colic, massive solidarity and admiration!)
My son has a particularly visceral scream. He’s one of those babies who can go from naught to inconsolable in 2 seconds. My mum was a single parent and now I’m a mum I regularly tell her how amazing I think she is. On more than one occasion she has turned to me, wide-eyed, and said “but you never cried like he did!” Even when I was in the hospital with other mums worn thin by the system-shock of parenthood I got some sympathetic looks when he was in a state. One day one of the doctors said to me “Is it nice being here and other people saying he has a loud cry too?” Actually, it was, but I almost felt embarrassed, like he had a louder cry because I was a worse mother or something. Still, it seemed to explain my anxiety levels a little.
Anxiety isn’t really the word for what I felt about his crying at one stage. It would more accurate to say I was phobic of it. Even when he was calm I was on edge; ready to spring up and respond to the next onslaught of screams and tears. This tension blocked my positive feelings for him for a while. I didn’t see that until I felt completely awful, but I wish I’d caught it before. If you recognise this description then please do talk to someone about it. Being stressed when your baby cries is the most natural thing in the world but being constantly stressed at the thought of your baby crying is another thing altogether.
The thing is, however objectively loud or quiet your baby is, when they cry it becomes the only sound in the world to you. There are three thoughts that have helped me deal with it a lot better and so I’ll share them with you now:
1. They are not sad! Babies aren’t crying because they’re having an existential crisis. They are crying because it is the only way they can communicate. When we allow ourselves to believe this the guilt levels drop by about a million percent. If any adult cried like my boy does it would indicate that they were either in deep mourning or mortally wounded! But when he cries like that it’s just because he cries like that. So it’s okay, I’ll try to respond to his needs but I don’t need to worry about psychological damage. There has been research underpinning this assertion. In fact:
2. “No harm will come to him.” A midwife said this to my friend when she was in the hospital and her baby had been crying for a good while. At first this didn’t really sink in for me; your baby crying doesn’t do them any harm. If you know they are fed and warm and clean and they’ve had a cuddle then they really are fine. And if they’re sick you’ll work that out soon enough. You know your baby. Honest, you do.
3. “Sometimes they’re just shouting.” A nurse said this to me in the hospital and at first I thought no he’s not, he’s telling something! Well, yes, but sometimes what he’s telling me is that he’s having a protest for no good reason other than he can. I really do believe in responding to your baby’s communication as much as possible, especially in the early days. But eventually these words empowered me to begin to distinguish between complaint and need. It also empowered me not to jump to it every time a slight moan issued from my boy’s mouth. What a difference that makes!
Once again, it comes down to that guilt that seems unhelpfully intrinsic to parenthood. Once again I want to tell you that it is a natural but unfounded feeling. If your baby was lying in a corner in a dirty nappy, hungry and attention-starved then it would be founded. But are they? No, I thought not.
*Ok, no, it hasn’t actually been scientifically proven.