‘So do you pick him up when he cries?’ she asked us, as we stood around discussing raising chickens. She wasn’t talking about chickens, she was asking about Ziggy – we mentioned we needed to get back on the road before he woke up, or the return trip would be horrible as he’d cry to be let out of his carseat jail. ‘That’d probably do it’ she continues before we get a chance to respond. ‘If you pick him up all the time he’s going to be a baby that cries. So do you pick him up when he cries?’ she asked.
As I begin to stutter out a reply, she starts talking about a couple she knows, telling us they pick up their baby every time he cries. ‘Oh they’re having such a hard time with him you know’ she says to us, shaking her head. ‘He wakes up all the time, he doesn’t like being put down, he expects to be picked up when he cries . . and she does you know . . she picks him up’.
She tells us this gleefully, waiting for us to agree with her, to join in shaking our heads in disapproval over a mother we don’t know, a mother that is obviously doing everything wrong. I mean sheesh – has she not read the ‘never pick up a crying baby’ book? It’s right there on the shelf next to the ’10 signs you have a bad baby’ book.
I should say nothing but I can’t help myself. I tell her we pick Ziggy up all the time. Not for every single grizzle, but of course if he is crying we pick him up. She replies that’s probably why he cries – he wouldn’t cry on the way home if I didn’t do that you know. He would have ‘learnt better’.
AJ speaks up. I know he’s been wanting to. If you know him well you’d see the horns growing, but she’s oblivious. ‘Actually’ says AJ, in the tone I know means – I really want to give you a serve, but I’m trying to be polite, – ‘actually he’s a real happy baby, he’s just not too fond of the car, it’s normal’.
But she’s tuned out to our reply, and continues telling us about parents we’ve never met, and how rough a time they are having.
‘How old is the baby?” I ask. Not that it matters, but I’m hoping not too young.
‘Three months old’ she replies. ‘And they’re having such a terrible time with him’ she tells me again.
Now in the past I probably would have said nothing further. I would have nodded, extricated myself awkwardly from the conversation, and left. Leaving her thinking I agreed with her, what terrible parents, picking up a crying child, when will they learn? But I can’t do that anymore. I’ve made a promise to myself to speak up and try to normalise a different train of thought. As politely and respectfully as I can without yelling at anyone.
‘Oh’ I reply, ‘Oh three months is just so young – Ziggys just turned one and he wakes up all the time’. She looks at me, it’s not the response she was expecting. ‘But it’s okay’ I tell her ‘when he wakes up I just roll over, boob him ( I thrust out my chest to mimic pushing it towards a sleeping baby) and he goes back to sleep . . works a treat’. She’s silent. I don’t think this is what she was expecting and she’s unsure how to react.
‘And yeah, of course I pick him up if he’s crying’ I continue. ‘I’m not going to pick him up for every squawk and grizzle, but if he’s crying he needs me, so I pick him up.’ I’m on a roll. ‘It must be so hard for that poor mum’. I say to her, ‘can you imagine how tired she is, oh hell I remember that tiredness, I’m not sure it ever goes away’.
She’s looking at me now like I’m a bit mad. I think. It’s a different look anyway to the one she had earlier. She tells me she’s a mum too and she knows all about this motherhood business. I smile and nod. I want to tell her that if she knows so much about it she should be offering this tired stressed out mum some help, maybe rock over with a pie and coke, take the baby for a walk while the mum gets some rest, not publicly berate her to people she doesn’t even know. But I’m not that brave yet. And I’m not sure it’s worth the argument.
Luckily Ziggy wakes up and starts crying. For once I’m glad he’s crying, it gives us an excuse to leave. I take him out of the car and we walk to the end of the driveway to give him a break, give me a break and get some fresh air. Then, after a quick feed I put him back in the carseat. Sorry kid, we’ve still got to drive home.
‘Why would you even ask someone that?’ AJ says to me as we drive away. ‘It’s not her business if we pick him up or not’. He’s shaking his head, the usual smile he wears nowhere to be seen. ‘That question is only for fishing, waiting to see what our opinion is so you can either be ‘tsk tsk tsk’ed’ at or you can sit there and bitch about what a bad mum this other mum is’ he continues. I can see he’s rattled. We’ve never had a conversation like that before, not with a stranger, someone who doesn’t know us from Mary. In the right context, I don’t think we would have been as taken aback, in a parent group, or at some sort of baby related outing or event. Possibly. But we went to pick up eggs, not get a parenting lesson.
Ziggys still crying. Punctuating his dads point with angry wails. I’ve given him a boob and cuddles, but he wants out of his carseat. He wants to play, to crawl around. Except we’re still 40 minutes away from home. So we pull over and I jump in the backseat, hold his hand and talk to him. He alternates between looking at me sadly, and crying. It breaks my heart, but the cries are quieter than when I was in the front seat. This is an example of when it’s okay not to pick up a crying baby. Picking him up right now is illegal. But it doesn’t make it any easier to listen to.
By the time we get home I’m feeling queasy (I get carsick, so talking to him and reading to him and looking at him while we are driving is not easy) and he’s fast asleep again. I make the most of the quiet time and head out to the backyard to do backyard things. It’s our happy place, free therapy if you like. And as I hunt slugs and snails to feed to the chooks, the conversation we had earlier plays round and round in my head.
I hate this concept that seems so normal to some people. The idea that by comforting a child when they are upset you are somehow doing something wrong. That you are being too soft, that you are letting them get away with it. Get away with what exactly? I hate being told that babies need to ‘toughen up’ or that they need to ‘learn’. Learn what? Learn that no one cares? Learn that no one is listening to the only form of communication they have? They’re fucking babies for christ sake. Babies!
I don’t know the mother this lady told us about. I’ve never met her, I don’t know her name. But I wish I did. I wish I knew who she was so I could tell her that she is doing a bloody great job. That her little baby not sleeping all night is normal. That her little baby wanting to be in her arms all the time is normal. That by picking him up when he cries, she is not creating bad habits and she is not making a rod for her back.
She is teaching her child that his mama is there for him. That when he is hurt, or sad, or scared or upset, it is okay because she will be there. She is teaching him love, she is teaching him to feel safe and secure. He is communicating and she is responding. I want to tell her that I know she is tired, and I know it is hard, and it it okay to ask for help. I want to talk to her about babywearing. To show her a way she can hold him all the time, but still have the freedom to eat and pee. I’ve got the perfect carrier she can borrow. And then I’d give her a huge hug, and make her a cup of tea.
But I can’t do this because I don’t know her. Sadly however, I know many women just like her. Mums struggling between following what their gut is telling them, and what those around them are telling them. Mums who question the decisions they make because they themselves are being questioned. It can be so hard, when the way you parent is different to what is considered by many to be ‘right’. When it’s easier to lie, to smile and nod than to say ‘that’s not the way I want to do it’.
At the end of the day, if it feels wrong, if it doesn’t sit right with you, just do what does feel right and fuck what anyone else has to say about it. Pick up your baby, cuddle your baby. You’re never going to look back on their childhood and think ‘oh shit I really hugged you too much’. Because one day you won’t be able to cuddle them as much as you can now, it won’t be ‘cool’ to get a mum hug in front of their friends. So make the most of it.
“Our job is not to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. Our job is to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.
– L. R. Knost