Being around a crying baby is stressful. As a parent, being around your own crying baby is, at least to me, extra stressful. The noise is designed to be attention-grabbing—simultaneously grating and pity-inducing. It’s just annoying enough for us to be motivated to act, yet sad enough that we’re inspired to be gentle and loving as we take care of whatever the crying baby needs. Crying is a well-designed behavior for babies to be able to express themselves to their caregivers, so that we know when to feed them, change them, play with them, hold them, and help them go to sleep.
Crying may have been designed primarily to allow babies to express their needs, but sometimes, especially as a baby grows older, crying can be about expressing other things as well. Older babies and pre-verbal toddlers often cry to express emotions such as frustration, anger, and of course sadness. Even young babies cry for no obvious reason at times. Sometimes babies cry even when their physical and emotional needs have all been met, and no attempts to comfort them will help. Sometimes toddlers just seem to feel cranky, and there is nothing that can be done to change their mood. In times like these, the crying can feel like an unanswerable problem that you are being demanded to solve.
Cody is an excellent example of this. He cries and whines a lot, and often there is nothing I can do to make it stop. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea why he’s even crying (and I suspect neither does he), and all I can do is sit with him in my lap while he works through it.
I’ve realized lately that I have a subconscious “fear” of Cody crying. Or, more accurately, I feel that I always have to “fix it” when he cries. Being his mom is extra-stressful because he’s not an easy, content baby. I am constantly on alert as to what might upset him next. I try to keep him happy but I often fail, simply because of his personality. The resulting stress, frustration, and exhaustion is what I imagine it would feel like to work at a job where your boss is constantly criticizing you, day in and day out.
Of course, Cody is not my boss, even though it can feel like it sometimes. As the parent, I am the boss, and I’m confident in that role. Yet part of being a parent means putting your child’s needs above your own. Attachment parenting in particular values nurturing, understanding, and compassionate treatment of one’s children. As an attachment parent, I strive to build a relationship with my son of mutual respect, trust, and love. Because Cory and I don’t simply do whatever we want with no regard to what our child wants, it does demand more from us as parents. I see Cody’s feelings as valid, and I won’t deny him comfort or closeness, which are emotional needs. I don’t expect him to act like an adult, or to be convenient for me—his only job right now is to learn and grow. These are important principles to me, as a parent.
The problem is when I assume that because of these values, it is my job to fix it any time Cody cries. Yes, his feelings are valid and yes, it is my job to meet his needs, including emotional ones. But that doesn’t mean that my goal should be to keep him from crying. In fact, allowing him to express himself, sometimes through crying, is one way that I can support his emotional needs.
When Cody becomes frustrated with something, I can try to help him figure out the problem or suggest a different activity. When he’s angry or sad because of a limit that we enforce, I can offer empathy and perhaps a distraction. When he’s whining, I can ignore it so that he learns to express himself in a more effective, respectful, and less annoying way. And when he’s crying simply because he feels sad (and he’s not hungry, thirsty, tired, bored, in need of a diaper change, or having pain or discomfort) then I can hold him and give him comfort until he feels better. It’s okay for him to cry. It’s my job to be there for him in those times, not to fix it, but just to love him.
One last thing I want to emphasize is that crying is not a misbehavior. It makes me so sad and frustrated when I see parents or caregivers chastising a child for crying. (It’s even worse when children are scolded or told to “be good and stop crying” when they are crying as a result of separation anxiety. Separation from parents can be very frightening and upsetting for young children. They aren’t being bad for feeling sad!) Often children have no other way to express their feelings because they haven’t developed the ability to use their words effectively yet. And even when they have, crying is still a normal way of expressing emotion. Children are people, too, and they have every right to feel whatever they feel, whether that’s sadness or anger or frustration or confusion or anything else. It’s not our place to judge whether their feelings are justified—that helps nobody. Instead, the focus should be on accepting and responding appropriately to feelings at any age. Emotion is not something to fear, be ashamed of, fix, or avoid. It’s a part of who we are, as humans, and we can all do better in learning to express and respond to feelings.
I’m getting better every day at not fearing the cry. But I don’t want to get to the point where I habitually ignore it either. Instead, I try to respond by taking action when appropriate, and realize that sometimes there’s nothing to do but just be there to listen, and that’s okay too.