I have a confession: I’m not gushy about babies! Oh, I like babies very much, and I love my own children. But I have never been the type of person who oohs and aahs and begs to hold a baby.
Instead, I find infants and toddlers to be interesting people and, perhaps because I hold that view, babies seem fond of me.
When you respect an infant, he senses it immediately. Here’s just one experience I’ve had that convinced me…
I once entered an elevator to the sounds of a crying infant. The mother faced forward and was holding the baby up to face the rear of the elevator. She was shifting her body from side to side and patting the baby’s back in an attempt to quiet her. I stood with my back at the rear of the elevator and turned my head to look at the baby’s face. The baby looked at me. “You seem upset,” I said to her in my normal voice. The baby instantly stopped crying and stared at me in what looked like disbelief. I don’t think this baby had ever been acknowledged so honestly. The mother, no doubt enduring a stressful day, did not appear thankful and may have thought that I was a kook.
I can empathize with every tired, end-of-my-rope parent. In my own discombobulating first months of parenthood, respecting my baby was the last thing on my mind. For me, it was a daily struggle to manipulate my baby into compliance. I used pacifiers, swings and a big stuffed animal, which I waved in front of my daughter’s face to distract her and quell her cries. I made silly sounds, spoke baby talk, and used tickly fingers that walked up her leg and landed on her tummy to make her laugh.
I also tried every trick in the trade to lull her to sleep, because getting the baby to sleep was my ticket to a few minutes of the illusion of freedom. And only the illusion, because as infant expert Magda Gerber perceptively said, “When you are a parent you forever know the feeling of unfree-ness.” Did I place my daughter in her infant seat atop the washer/dryer to try to spin-cycle her eyes shut? Oh yes! The only method I did not use to try to put her to sleep –because I could never wrap my mind around that one–was driving her in the car. Why would I want to spend her sleep time, my precious break time, cruising the neighborhood when I could enjoy a rare respite from activity at home?
Eight weeks after my daughter’s birth, I reached the end of my rope. She was crying without cessation and was utterly inconsolable. (In hindsight, she was overtired and no doubt over-stimulated, given how much I had entertained her.) But so desperate was I that I resorted to a desperate and crazy measure: I strapped her to me in her infant front-pack and danced maniacally to the beat of loud music. Really loud music. So loud it stunned both of us silent, but just for a moment. I’m sure she would have loved to have fallen asleep, if only to exit that assault. Moments later, her crying began again.
Even though my daughter is now a typical teenager with a healthy relationship with loud rock music, I still feel pangs of guilt about that incident. But, as a wise Argentinean friend of mine pointed out, “You always burn the first pancake.”
Happily, my act of desperation proved to be a turning point. I was failing as a new parent – failing myself and my baby — so I sought help. I found parenting classes which offered me the guidance I needed.
For the first class, I was advised to come without my child in order to observe. When I arrived, I sat on the carpet and watched infants exploring their little worlds. One infant scooted towards me and my car keys. Knowing that the baby should not touch my keys, I quickly made them disappear into my pocket. The infant watched me do my magic and then, after a moment, turned and went on to something else.
Later, the facilitator suggested that it would have been more respectful if I had slowed down and acknowledged to the infant what was happening: “You see my keys. These aren’t safe for you. I’m going to put them away in my pocket.” It had never occurred to me that I should speak to a baby in the same manner I would speak to an adult. The idea that I had erred made me most uncomfortable, but as much as I wished to disregard the teacher’s words, the truth nagged at me.
I pondered these questions: Should babies be addressed with the same respect as adults? Are infants empty-headed dolls, blank slates, or little puppies to be tricked and manipulated? Eventually I came to the logical conclusion that infants might be just as human as adults are, and thus they should be treated in a manner that we ourselves would like to be treated. When I changed my perspective and began to treat my infant as a fellow human, I soon discovered through her responses that I was indeed dealing with a whole person, and this person deserved an honest relationship with me.
I began to speak to my baby simply and honestly about the details of life that pertained to her. I created a more predictable routine for her day, which brought more peace to both of us. I learned that she did not have to be kept busy all the time; when her needs were met, she could just ‘be.’ If she did become overtired and cried inconsolably, as she had the day I subjected her to that wacky dance, I held her or placed her in bed and said, “You’re upset. I think you’re tired. I don’t know how to help you, but I’m here.” If she was crying too loudly to hear me, I said those words anyway, for myself.
I was learning that respecting my baby meant allowing her to express her feelings, so that she wouldn’t have to bottle them up for a therapist to uncork in the future. The big challenge was to stay calm, as one would with a dear friend, and give support instead of ‘fixes.’ We all need to cry sometimes, and babies have few other modes of expression.
I began to notice the glimmer of understanding in my daughter’s eyes when I spoke to her, and this glimmer was infinitely more gratifying than her manipulated smiles. I will never forget the first time she extended her arms to me when I asked if she wanted me to pick her up. I know that I would wish to be asked before being picked up. Wouldn’t you? “
“An awareness of your child’s point of view, as well as your own, will greatly help in building a respectful relationship. Such a relationship will be reciprocal—the child’s nature will reflect back the love and respectful handling and attention he has received,” writes Cara Wilson in Magda Gerber’s book, The RIE Manual.
My daughter has reflected this love back to me in many ways over seventeen years, and (when she is not borrowing my clothes without my permission and then leaving me to consider them lost until I find them under a pile of clothes in her closet three months later) she reciprocates my respect for her. Fortunately, children are resilient, and on most days I barely notice my girl’s burnt edges.