I know, ‘crying’: what an uplifting topic. This isn’t the piece that I was planning on writing to welcome you all into the new year, but as I spend most of my time navigating the very different emotional worlds of a 10-month-old and a 3.5-year-old, crying – and how we feel about crying – has been playing on my mind (and my eardrums).
I am currently on maternity leave, while my husband works around the clock to make sure we can survive for another couple of months as a single income family. Neither of us has a particularly 9 to 5 job, and he isn’t able to work from home. This means that, the majority of the time, I am on my own with one or both children. I usually have them both in bed asleep – or almost – by the time he gets through the door each evening. This then also means that I am spending a couple of hours each day (as a conservative estimate) being cried at.
Before having children, I didn’t really notice the sound of a baby or toddler crying, unless it was absolutely apocalyptic. And since becoming a mother, I have noticed that – provided I know it isn’t my child – the sound of a child crying is surprisingly untroubling. I have sat on holiday with friends at a beach bar, margarita in hand, and barely noticed the distraught baby a few yards away, a sound somewhere between wallpaper and not-there-at-all.
I wasn’t prepared for how bone-tinglingly heart-breaking the sound of your own baby crying is, nor was I prepared for how intensely that sound, day in day out, would affect my nervous system. I often find myself wondering, in the middle of a particularly dazzling tantrum from my eldest, at what point will our family have moved past the regular crying stage? It is a lot to be screamed at, or in the vicinity of, for hours every single day.
A while ago I was on the train in London, and a new mum was trying to soothe her newborn while simultaneously collecting her scattered belongings and attempting to get the baby into its buggy before we pulled into a station. Everyone in the carriage was resolutely ignoring her struggle (gotta love London) and so I went over to help, since I was uncharacteristically childless and fancy-free. As I packed up her nappy bag and gathered up a dummy and blanket, she started crying. ‘Nobody realises that your heart is breaking when they’re upset, do they?’ I asked her. I hadn’t really meant to say it, but as we shared a look of deep and total understanding, I realised that I was relieved; clearly I was not a lone oversensitive alien.
I find it hard if I am socialising with a friend who doesn’t have children, and my youngest Frank is really upset about something. If you are with another mother, you know that they understand and feel how difficult that moment is for you, to split your brain and heart between a conversation and the primal urge to leap weeping into a cave with your baby, smothering them with kisses. If you are with somebody who hasn’t experienced that stomach-clenching sadness, you kind of have to tough it out through the distraction and the double guilt of not being able to focus on either party.
Since having my son though, I have noticed that how I feel about each of my children’s distress, is as unique as the rest of my relationship with them. I think it stems partly from their very different entries into the world. I had a difficult labour with Ella. As we began our mother-daughter life together, I was aware that – to my mind at least – we had only just survived. The sensation of sitting precariously close to the line between life and death bled into the first few months of her life, and coloured my relationship to her cries.
I always knew exactly why Ella was crying. In some ways this made it easier to deal with – I knew if a sound was bothering her (she was, and remains, extremely sensitive to noise of any kind); I knew if she was hungry or uncomfortable; I knew if she was bored or felt unsafe with a certain person or in a certain place; I also knew if she was tired and struggling to find sleep. I can’t explain quite how I knew; I just did.
Sometimes though, knowing exactly what was wrong was overwhelming. Her cries were a varied and precise language that only I understood. If I couldn’t give her what she was asking for, because we were in the car for example, or if I was trying to give my husband the space to work out what was wrong, I found it unbearable.
For the first six months or so, she rarely cried, unless something specific was wrong. All I did was spend time with her; we were never apart. She was my world, my heart, and my life, but also my job, and I like doing my job well. It became an accidental and subconscious challenge, that I never let her cry. My whole day was focussed on making sure that she never got upset, that I never ‘got anything wrong’. If Christian then stepped in to help, and Ella cried for any reason, my whole world would collapse. The thing that I had been holding at bay all day long, had dodged drills and motorbikes for, had kept my entire body still for, had walked an extra mile around a freezing park for, had carried and rocked and Sssssh’d all day long for, had just been blown apart. It was like somebody logging on to your computer at the end of a tough and delicate working day and firing off an offensive email to the client you had just spent eight long hours trying to placate.
It is not an easy or a pleasant experience to co-parent with a mother like this (sorry Christian). I was locked in a desperate attempt to get everything right after Ella’s birth had ‘gone wrong’; it was only by processing and recovering from the birth that I was able to soften and hold space for all of Ella’s quite natural feelings, and for my husband’s parenting. By being comfortable with my own sadness, and allowing it to pass, I could become comfortable with Ella’s inevitable daily frustrations and upsets. As Ella has grown up, I have found the way that I feel about and respond to her crying has got easier and calmer, as we have naturally become more separate. That newborn dyad of mother-baby has gradually divided, the borders between us solidifying in a way that is happy and sad in equal measure. I find three-year-old tantrums exhausting and intense, but not heart-breaking. It is a fine line to tread between holding respectful space for her genuine desolation at the fact I accidentally ‘did not let her win’ on the walk from the kitchen to the living room, whilst also detaching enough to recognise that the oscillations of her mood are constant and ever-shifting like the weather.
My relationship with Frank’s tears could not have been more different. After a calm and beautiful elective caesarean, it was quickly clear that poor Frank was not a happy baby. A heady combination of a cow’s milk sensitivity, an undiagnosed tongue tie, and silent reflux, meant that he was usually crying in pain or discomfort. I spent hours on end holding him while he wailed, often with no idea what was upsetting him. Sometimes I would ask him in desperation what was wrong, as though I expected miraculously for him to answer me. At the time it felt like his world was ending every day. In reality, if he could have spoken, he might have said ‘well I’m just a bit bloated mum’.
The feeling of having no idea what is making your baby cry, is a horrible one. It felt so different from how I remembered those early months with Ella, when I knew instantly what she needed, what was upsetting her. As we gradually diagnosed and solved Frank’s various digestive complaints, I emerged over-responsive and on edge. Frank’s sleep was, and remained, atrocious, in part I think because for those first few months of pain, he wasn’t comfortable enough to have any space to find sleep for himself.
When we sleep-trained Frank, I was very aware that I was also re-training a part of my mother brain in the process. It never felt cruel or unresponsive; instead it felt as though we were gradually learning how to exist in this happier and calmer place in which we found ourselves, one where a bit of crying was okay. I was giving Frank the tools, time, and respect to learn how to be comfortable by himself for a little bit. I was letting him know that being a bit sad is allowed, that he is still safe, and that his crying isn’t something that needs to be muted immediately. This felt like a much healthier lesson to me than ‘I never want you to cry’. Yes, we gave him (and us all) the gift of sleep, but we also gave him the ability to lie happily alone for a few minutes, and I saw the impact of this positively affect him as he played and explored the house.
Frank is only ten months old, so of course he needs to be soothed and regulated by us, by cuddles and kisses and contact, by love and proximity and safety. But rewiring my hair-trigger approach to his crying, just a little, has solidified the sensation that we are all in a sunnier place.
As with anything though, it’s a delicate balance. Nine months of holding them just beside your heart in pregnancy, followed by those liminal early months where you are no longer one thing but not quite two, has fostered an intuitive attunement to my children’s moods and wellbeing that I hope lasts forever. I know when they are unwell before the first symptom appears; I know when my daughter is feeling sad or overwhelmed before the fireworks light up; I know when Frank is hungry before he has even signalled for a feed. I have tried, gently, to disentangle myself from the porous absorption of their sudden devastation, while hoping to maintain the deep emotional connection that sits beside it.
It is interesting I think, to consider how we feel when our baby cries. How much of it is a natural maternal responsiveness, and how much of it is a deep and shadowy fear of sadness? Can we cultivate and nurture the former, and respectfully disregard the latter? It is certainly a practice, and one that my children give me the opportunity to work on every few minutes (!)