Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How to Fix a Crying Baby

There are certain things men can’t resist, and just get your mind out of the gutter and stick with me for a minute. I’m talking, of course, about sinkholes. It has been my experience that any hole in the ground, especially one surrounded by sawhorses and tools and workmen, is irresistible to men. They have to walk over and look down, and then they feel compelled to make comments that indicate how much they know about what’s going on.

We had a sinkhole appear in our street a few summers ago. Moments after the thing appeared, there was suddenly a great huddle of male neighbors around it. These fellows hadn’t done much more than nod at each other for the past ten years, but they were now engaged in muttering, pointing and -- as if they'd worked out a little schedule of shifts on a notepad -- standing around to make sure the hole didn’t go anywhere.

To keep things fair, I will confess that, while women don’t seem to care much about sinkholes, the thing that most of them can’t resist is a crying baby – not necessarily in the hands-on-and-helpful sense, mind you, but with a steady stream of advice about how to handle the situation. You’re holding him too high. You’re holding her too low. That’s too much jiggling. He’s going to throw up if you keep doing that – see, what did I tell you, he threw up.

The fact is, no woman has the inside track on what will make a baby stop crying, any more than all those attorneys and actuaries and account executives gathered around the sinkhole in Tangletown had the slightest idea how to fix it. We just like to offer advice, because we figure we’re supposed to know about these things.

My experience with sinkholes may be strictly limited, but I do know that, once in a while, you can experience pure, dumb luck with a crying baby. My best example of this happened a few years ago, when Emma and Mary Katherine had agreed to babysit for three little boys who were ridiculously close in age – something like three, three minus eight-and-a-half-months-and-fifteen-minutes and He Just Got Here. The girls had been at their gig about an hour when I got a telephone call. I could tell by the ring it was Emma – her rings, I swear, always have a “Pick Up or Else” quality about them.

Her response to my hello was a barked plea-demand: “How do I fix this baby so he stops crying?” Emma holds the deep belief that there is an Operating Manual somewhere, one which contains all the secret instructions, and that I am refusing to share it with her.

I sighed. “I’ll be over in five minutes,” I said, pulling on my coat. And five minutes later, I was opening the front door and bracing myself against the wailing. There was Emma, jostling a shrieking baby, and there was Mary Katherine, standing nearby and wringing her hands. I crossed the room in a couple strides. “Hand him over,” I commanded, and Emma did, shaking her fingers after I’d taken him, like she wanted to get rid of the excess baby juice.

Now, here’s the great part:  he stopped crying immediately. I had just delivered enough of a shock to his little system to make him stop and think before he recommenced his caterwaul. It probably helped that my coat was still bracingly cold, I smelled different than the girls (if “less gullible” is an actual odor) and I was putting off some serious Joan-Crawford-at-the-Pepsi-board-meeting vibes.

Three females stood still in a suddenly quiet living room. My girls gasped, and I saw them look at me with something I’d never seen before – respect. “How did you do that?”

I tried to maintain the illusion. “Just hand me the bottle,” I barked. “This baby is going to fall asleep right now.”

And he did, before I even had a chance to take off my coat. And yes, I did a little victory dance in his bedroom before I closed the door, walked down the stairs, and left without a word, like Shane.

It doesn’t always go so easily, of course. I am a longtime volunteer at the crisis nursery, so I have lots of experience with crying-baby-failure. Sometimes I just can’t help a kid stop crying. And sometimes I bump myself up against that conviction from other women that they will always know what I really should be doing, instead.

Even after all these years, each time I stand at the nursery’s front door and press the buzzer to be let in, I  say a Hail Mary with the hope that I’ll do my best, help a child, and keep my mouth shut. This past week, I should have said a couple extra prayers, but I didn’t have time, because as I was still signing in and stowing my snow boots, I could already hear the sorrow rolling down from upstairs, and I walked up toward it, like a brave fire fighter.

Early mornings at the nursery can be hard. I often wonder what the kids are thinking and feeling – I want to stay unconscious a little longer, I just opened my eyes and realized that I’m still here, It smells wrong, This person dressing me has cold fingers. I always walk up the stairs with my hands tucked into my sleeves, trying to make it easier for their warm little bodies to bear my chill.

I was assigned a staff person and given a crying boy and a bundle of clothes. He was sad, so sad, and he kept crying, “mommmmm.” I know, I thought, me too. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and I’d love to be sharing a Jameson with my mom, although you’re a little young for that sort of thing, pal. I leaned in close as I helped him into his shirt and pants, almost whispering the words to “Harrigan,” one of my mom’s March 17th standbys. He calmed down, a little bit. Warm fingers and a whispered song, sometimes they do the trick, I thought. 

As I was helping him off the table and toward the next thing he was going to hate (tooth brushing and face washing), the staff person turned to me, speaking very slowly, like a nurse in a senility ward. “That was very good, the way you sang to him. It calmed him dooown,” she said. She made a “down” gesture with her hands, in case she had used too many syllables for me.

I could feel my eyes narrow. She has taken one entire child psychology class, I thought, possibly even two. And she was practicing her skills with the elderly, which was, I realized, me. I kept my eyes down (it goes along well with keeping my mouth shut, I’ve found) and continued with the sad, sad boy.

He had a hard time in the elevator. He had a hard time at breakfast. By the time we got back up the elevator and into the playroom, he looked as if he might shatter. I scooped him up and laid him against me, leaning back in the window seat and trying the song again. He started to feel a little limp, and, just as we were both letting our guard down, I heard scolding being directed my way: “If you hold him like that, then when you leave, he’ll just cry. You have to put him down right now so he can play.”

I looked up at the clock. I was leaving in two hours. He didn’t seem as if playing was on the top of his “to-do” list for today. Couldn’t he have ten minutes, just to be? No. Someone knew better than me, I told myself, and I needed to muster up some humility and do what she was telling me.

The little boy did fine when I let him down, of course. I’m not offering magic, just arms, and the kids always manage, somehow -- I suppose because they have no other option than to just pick up a stuffed animal, or a Spiderman truck, or a storybook, and try to make it through the next five minutes, and then the five minutes after that.

When the wise staffer decided that she would give the crying boy a plastic butterfly to hold when he was sad, accompanied by much opaque explanation on her part, I thought, what about having him hold onto me, I’m right here and ready to go, but I kept quiet.

But I do have an opinion about what usually works, in case anyone ever might ask. What works, I think, is to be broken, and to know it, and to put myself in front of these broken children, as open as I can manage to be, and for us to abide with one another. All around us can be a sea of rules and schedules and the infinite wisdom of petty bureaucrats. But those kids can see my jagged places, and I can see theirs, and sometimes, we get left alone for a little while, just to be together.

That’s how I’ve been managing, for so many years, to keep coming back and presenting myself to the world of crying babies, no matter why they’re crying, and no matter what happens next. 


  1. Had to comment (beautiful expression and description, as always, btw). What you describe at Crisis Nursery is something I've experienced and had a hard time with there. I believe babies and kids need to be held--especially those in less than secure situations. I understand the rational thought that the child will be upset when the caregiver leaves, and that these kids already may have insecure attachments. But the need for security and comfort doesn't go away, and what if every bit of holding they get in response to their need for being held goes into their "bank of security and comfort"? What if this gives them something to draw from when their needs aren't met in other situations? And what if every time they're turned away, avoided, or dismissed it creates a deficit? Enough of those--without some deposits in their security bank-- can have lifelong consequences. These little ones are saying they need holding and contact (and I'm sorry, but handing over a toy is like giving a hungry person a video game to distract them). Doesn't it send a message that they can't get these needs met by anyone? Lot's of unmet needs may teach them to not need or want what they do (and learn to not receive or give it themselves). Or the opposite--to constantly be in search of this in all the wrong places. It's not hard to see how cycles continue. (And I know Crisis Nursery is a helpful and needed place. I just empathize strongly with those unmet needs.)

  2. Two things:
    1.) I love that your daughters witnessed your affect on a crying baby (regardless of whether you think you deserve credit).I hope they remember it. If they don't, I'll come over and re-plant the memory (because I don't think you will). It'll go like this, "Remember that time you were babysitting and your mom performed a miracle?"
    2.) I love that you spend time at the Crisis Nursery. That YOU do. Emphasis on YOU. Those kids get the gift of YOU, which brings me joy...and a small feeling of "all's right with the world", even though places like crisis nurseries exist.

  3. And I agree with you too, Petra--with extra emphasis on thing #2. :-)