Let Feelings Be

A baby is placed into your arms, and nothing afterwards is the same.

I thought I knew what responsibility felt like. I’ve taken care of other people’s children for much of my life. I began babysitting when I was still a child myself. As a teacher, the biggest compliment a student could give would be to call me their school mom, or second mother. But an infant is something different. And your own infant is yours and yours alone. There is no higher rank to appeal to if things get tough, no more experienced real parent to defer to or partner with when you honestly aren’t sure what might be the right thing to do.

My baby was like most babies – tiny, delicate, so precious that it honestly hurt sometimes to watch her sleep. In the first weeks, my waking hours were spent simply watching her breathe – each exhale a testimony that she was here and she was real.

Then the crying started in earnest. It’s probably more accurate to call it screaming. My daughter’s lung power has been marveled at by pediatricians and daycare workers. Her screams are loud, urgent, and absolutely soul crushing.

Any parent will tell you that there is a precise kind of calibration that makes their own child’s screams that much more heart-wrenching than the next kid. But my visceral reaction to my daughter’s screaming was compounded by the fact that it was both loud and relentless.

I hate the term colic because so many people hear it and think it means digestive woes. My daughter had no issues with feeding. In fact, it often seemed like the breast was the only place she was content. Doctors visits and incessant googling provided concepts like “the period of PURPLE crying” or “the fourth trimester” which seemed to align with what we were facing a bit better. I started to find friends of friends who had been there, who understood how quickly your sweet, docile bundle of joy transforms into a raging, inconsolable ball of fury, and how hard it is to remain sane when the child who is entirely your responsibility seems so darn unhappy for so many of her waking hours.

It crushed me. Here was this baby that I had battled to bring into this world and it felt like she didn’t even want to be here. Of course, that was a ridiculous thing for me to feel, but what I have since discovered about feelings is that ridiculous or not, it’s important to give yourself permission to feel them.

My daughter has taught me this. When she has a feeling there is no sense in cajoling or distracting. It may delay the inevitable, but the eruption simply must occur and the most important thing I can do is sit beside her and let her feelings be.

It took me a long time to get here, mainly because I was raised to view emotions as a weakness, a liability. My notoriously thin-skin meant that I felt a lot, and then I was made to feel shame for feeling so darn much in the first place. This is one inheritance I am desperate not to pass along to my daughter.

By six months, when she started crawling, things began to get better. Some of the tension that seemed to reside inside her dissipated. When she began walking three months later, there was another marked improvement. With each word she learns, we become better able to navigate the outbursts and the lowest of lows. She’s still intense – she probably always will be – but I now consider this to be a strength.

Why is that being stoic is seen as more acceptable, more professional, than earnest expression of raw emotion? There very well may be some genetic component to my daughter’s intense reactions to the world around her, and the odds are it came straight from me. I may not be able to change the world, but I can instill in her a sense that this tendency doesn’t make her defective or weak.

I wish I had made my peace with her emotions early. I regret those early days where I let myself drown in the sense that her screams meant that somehow I was failing her. The advice I’d give myself now would be simple. Get earplugs and hold her close.

Many new moms marvel over how quickly time goes. This was not my experience. Days filled with screams, especially screams you are still taking personally, are long and exhausting. But a year later I’m at a place where I can see what those others moms meant. You blink and your newborn can crawl. Stare down at your phone too long and she’s talking in phrases, wielding the word “no” like a weapon that can demolish any and all obstacles in her path.

The beautiful thing is that now, when I need to meet her no with a “well, actually yes,” I am ready to sit with the eruption that follows. I don’t feel bullied by her outbursts; I try my hardest not to let the intensity of her emotions change the things that must get done. I listen. I hold her close. I cherish the stage we are now at, knowing fully how temporary each and every single moment is.