It is all about the crying in the end

24Jan16

I spend 90 percent of my time talking parents off the ledge that the cry hurls us onto.

– Baby sleep specialist Eileen Henry

When Rosa was smaller we were on a train back from central London and she started to cry, really cry, a few stops from home. By the time we’d pulled into the station she’d got into a terrible state, tiny and bright red and sobbing harder than I’d ever heard her. Nothing I could do would soothe her. In the waiting room a tubby businessman hid behind his newspaper and tried to tactfully pretend that there wasn’t a hysterical baby screaming the walls down, and all the while she was getting hotter and hotter and pinker and pinker and her voice hoarser and hoarser. I genuinely began to become alarmed, and I remember thinking crazy mum thoughts like no one could cry this much without eventually passing out. 

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Later on, back at home with her soothed and fine, I cried almost as hard as she had, as if in grief at her pain, as if in solidarity with her suffering. I felt in some way that it was right that I should match her distress, as if, as her mother, her crying was a debt I had to repay. This is what it means to have children, I remember thinking, this over-giving of ourselves, this sense that we have an obligation to suffer on our children’s behalf. I thought of a sentence I had read, that having babies was akin to “having your heart permanently annexed”, and I thought of all the times in the future that she would struggle and suffer and therefore I would too. We do it to ourselves and this is the nature of love, isn’t it, feeling this secondary pain, the pain of the people we love.

I have thought so much about what it means for her to really cry, why I dread it, why we dread it, us mothers, us parents. I read things that tell me that crying can be a healthy release of emotion and that as parents we are there to empathise and attend to this emotion, to witness it and listen to it but not necessarily fix it. I read things that say suffering and struggle are different and while we must act to relieve the first we cannot, should not act to remove the second. It is true that for adults, it is a gift to be feel comfortable enough to be truly emotional in the presence of someone who cares for us and can be in that moment with us, without trying to speed up our recovery for their own comfort. But nothing makes it easy to hear our children cry and not swoop in and soothe them in the most comforting way we can.

Parents often don’t know when the comforting ends and the bad habit begins.

– Tracy Hogg in The Baby Whisperer

I read far too many parenting books, most with contradictory advice, most with the advice not to listen to parenting advice from the “experts”. The sentence above haunted me in early motherhood, made me terrified that our parenting style was creating “bad” habits or crutches or associations or props. Proving that worrying is pointless because you’ll do what you’ll do anyway, we probably did create “bad” habits with our sweet sensitive baby who cried bitterly when she wasn’t sleeping in someone arms. Should we have let her cry bitterly for a while to get used to a crib? Dunno. Maybe. Would it have changed her behaviour? Maybe. Could we have done it? Almost certainly not. Would I do it next time round? Again, almost certainly not. I have seen 6 month old babies fall asleep by themselves in their prams in cafes with music and lights blaring (whenever this happens I always think “are you a wizard?”, but that’s because my baby once woke up when a parakeet squawked in Crystal Palace Park in a faraway tree); I have seen babies “grizzle” or “protest” when put down “drowsy but awake” in a crib but soon drift off and I have seen babies cry hysterically when they are put down. Babies are all different – how baffling that so few “experts” recognise this! And we just do what we do, as new parents trying to do our best.

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But recently it became clear that would we have to change some of the things we had done for our sweet daughter to help her sleep. I wished we could do it with zero upset for anyone, but of course that wasn’t possible. It turns out that compassionate or gentle or gradual “sleep work” doesn’t mean the baby won’t cry or be unsettled, it just generally means you stay in the room to comfort your baby while she gets used to the change and that you can make changes slowly. So we find ourselves with a “solution” that is the least-worst for us, and we make various changes. The most drastic step so far approaches – removing our habits of feeding or rocking her to sleep and giving her a dummy. As the night approaches I feel sick, for me and for her. We do her normal “bedtime routine” and turn the light off and her daddy holds her in his arms. The idea is she will kind of settle herself to sleep, albeit while being held before a later stage of settling her in her cot. Immediately she starts to scream (did she know what we were doing? It felt like she did) and I sit in the kitchen bolt upright, drinking wine and trying and failing to read, listening to her cries, imagine her body arching and flailing. After 10 minutes it goes silent. I cannot believe it. Asleep already. But 40 minutes after she wakes and cries in his arms for 45 minutes – a lifetime – though it is less intense than before.

I have the most unrelaxing bath I have ever had, wondering just how her dad can bear it. And then it is over. He stumbles out of the room, hot and exhausted and emotional, like someone who has run a marathon. That night she sleeps better than she has in weeks. The day after I do the “in arms settling” myself, and she cries hard in my arms for ten minutes (a lifetime). I feel calm and infinitely saddened by her screams and the ways her head moves from side to side to search for her dummy and her mouth makes the most wretched little hmmms mmms nummms because her mouth is not used to closing around nothing. I remember the advice we got about this method: you don’t have to stop her crying and you don’t have to get her to sleep (she will do that), and strangely it doesn’t feel cruel but more like an act of difficult, difficult compassion. I watch her struggle. Relieved, I remember that I have found motherhood hard because I feel like I always need to be doing it and not being it. In that moment I just be-it. I think about my endless love for her. I think man she loved that bloody dummy and I watch her fall asleep.

It is all about the crying in the end. I don’t know what will happen next but I know the anticipation of doing something was much worse than doing something. For the first time on the second night, I sleep for long enough for me to feel like I am actually sleeping and not having a series of interrupted naps, that is staying asleep for an extended period and waking a few times to go to the loo, to plump my pillows, to feel the hours ticking by. For the first time in seven months! People kept reminding me that better sleep is life-changing. It might be premature but I think that maybe soon certain things might be back in my life, things like occasionally getting a taxi to town and having cocktails with a girlfriend or having an early dinner and going to the theatre with Adam. Or even eating our tea together and having a conversation! I think that maybe I get to have her in my life and do other things that sound superficial but that seem curiously essential to my identity not just as a mother, that is as a whole person. I think about how any renewed vigour in me will be good for her. And I think about these taxis to town and these cocktails and plays then coming back to her, always.

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