Mama, I’m Scared

With a newborn, I can so peacefully drift in and out of the baby’s needs and routines that there’s never any room to be irritated or upset with the baby. Dylan is 8 months old, which means he’s still such a tiny little person. But every day he gets a little more independent, and every day I see him a little more as a separate person from me. As Dylan grows and starts to develop interests and desires that diverge further from my own, my ability to be upset with him creeps in.

As he gets bigger and heavier, his desire to be connected to my body strains on me differently than when he only weighed 10 pounds.

As he gets more vocal, his voice frequently takes on that high-pitched lilt that I want to call “whining”.

As he gets more mobile, he bonks and bangs into things, and then he cries.

As he gets more dexterous, he also gets himself stuck and frustrated more often, and then he cries.

It would be so easy to resent him. It would be so easy to be bothered by how much attention he wants. It would be so easy to get frustrated when he won’t let me set him down without him whining. It would be so easy to get irritated at how often he needs to be helped getting around or getting into things.

But I know that it must be hard to be a baby. It must be hard to have all these new skills falling into place so rapidly, so that each day is bigger than the last. It must be hard to need so much and to need someone else to provide it with such limited tools to help make that happen.

When Dylan whines or cries, I can interpret those sounds in all sorts of ways. I can assign them negative meanings like demanding, manipulative, clingy, needy, pushy. Those meanings arise in my own mind, where I have thoughts, feelings, and baggage that get in the way of real communication with my child. If I stop for a moment and try to imagine the meaning that originates from Dylan’s own mind, I arrive at something different.

As the tiny person that he is, Dylan has a very limited range of emotion. His emotions are new, young, sharp. His whining or crying usually expresses one of two simple feelings. One is the angry confusion of not being able to physically do something. Dylan has been enjoying opening cabinets and drawers, and when he encounters one that’s stuck he gets upset at his inability to do a physical action that he expected to be able to do. When I try to view the huge world from his perspective, I find myself having great compassion for Dylan’s experience and a great capacity to want to help him navigate it.

The second main emotion arises when I set Dylan down or walk away from him when he doesn’t want me to. There are lots of times where he plays for long periods completely separate from me. But there are other times when he wants to be very close. If I set him down or move too far away, he starts to protest. When I get out of my own mind, where unhelpful words like “clingy” originate, I see that what Dylan is expressing is fear. He needs me. Literally and completely needs me for his survival. I am his food and his warmth and his protector. It’s true that he’s getting bigger and smarter, and he moves away from me more often than he used to. It’s also true that he still needs me, and there are some times, maybe when he’s tired or hungry or hurt or overstimulated or confused, when that need is sharper than other times. When he tries to express that need, it comes out in a sound that’s not always pleasant to my ears. So instead, I translate it. I imagine that he’s saying, “Mama, I’m scared. Please stay closer.” Instead of responding to a child who’s “whining”, I respond to a child who is afraid. I find that it’s more pleasant on my heart and more pleasant on our relationship.

There will be a time in the future when Dylan doesn’t really need me much at all. There will be times in the future where he doesn’t have much to say to me at all. Right now, when he needs me so much and when what he has to say is so important, it’s really important that I listen. And when I listen, it’s important that I hear what he’s really saying.

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