My baby cried. A lot.
Soon after her birth, I discovered the biggest parenting in-joke: it’s the one (often accompanied with a roll of the eyes) about the wealth of advice we receive – lists, books, comments – which is usually contradictory and often unhelpful. In fact, one of my child health nurses would share the joke with me – I think in an attempt to help me relax and remember that wonderful platitude that “all babies are different” and I was just doomed to have a baby who cried.
When my baby was nine weeks old I went along to the First Touch baby massage class, and the facilitator running the group refused to give me any advice. I was so desperate, and so angry with her for not offering something to me on my quest for a solution. “Why are we even here?” I said to her “aren’t you people supposed to be some sort of baby whisperers?”
She didn’t skip a beat, and didn’t give in to my pressure for a second. She looked me fair in the eye and said “I’m not any sort of baby whisperer. I simply listen to parents, so that parents have the space to listen to their baby”.
I have been thinking about this recently, and reflecting on how transformative this moment was for me as a mother. It suddenly occurred to me that what looked like contradictory parenting advice on the surface was in fact largely the same. I remember realising that all the advice about sleeping (put them down, pick them up, don’t make eye-contact, feed to sleep, co-sleep, don’t co-sleep) served one purpose: to try and hide the reality of what had just happened. To uncomplicate things again. To bring life back under control. To stop us from talking about how our lives and identities were transforming, complicating and reconfiguring themselves. Beyond their contradictory content, all this advice was designed to stop others from having to listen to us.
As we went through the sessions, she was true to her word. She did listen to me. Fully. Completely. Non-judgmentally. She just let me be where I was. She didn’t once try to fix me. And as she did, I found myself able to slowly open to the discovery that my baby was also a person who also needed and craved to be listened to. And so, I learned the foundations of Baby Listening. Watching the minute details of her body language, noticing the tone of her voice and the pitch of her cries, seeing how she responded to me.
I began to understand why so many people are so quick to give us parenting advice. It is because the alternative – listening – is hard. Really. Damn. Hard. Learning to listen to my baby was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Harder than birth. Harder than caring for a constantly crying baby. It made me feel vulnerable and naked to “allow” her to express her emotion. To not feel that I needed to stop her. To give her my full attention meant I needed to let go of My Very Important List. It meant I was not in control. That I couldn’t even hang on to the illusion of control. To acknowledge I may not have all the answers. I had to let go of my story about who I wanted to be…and who I wanted her to be…and to allow her to contribute her own piece of the story. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
Her crying eventually subsided. I can’t prove why. Perhaps she just grew out of it, but in my heart I truly believe that it was because someone took the time to help me know how to listen to her. And once she was listened to, she didn’t need to cry so loudly to be heard.
Because listening is not really about hearing. It is about connecting.
And, in the end, that’s the most important thing any of us need.