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The Goal is Not Less Crying

February 27, 2009

It’s a bit hard to figure out what to feel when walking forward for Lenten ashes, carrying a little baby.

“Ashes to ashes” the pastor says, as he smudges a cross–an instrument of death–on my forhead.  And I look down at a precious, new life, sound asleep.  What does Lent mean with a new baby?  Lent is a time of reflecting on our shadow sides and endings, and yet much of my days are filled now with joyful exploration of something new–him exploring the world and me exploring him.

Lately parenting books have been my guilty pleasure.  Guilty, because I seem to like laughing at and criticizing them more than taking their advice.  As if proving the experts wrong makes me feel more secure as a parent.  My issues aside, one commonality I’ve noticed across the board–whether they’re promoting attachment parenting (what a ridiculously broad term) or setting kids to a strict schedule (good luck with that), all of the books, in one way or another, promise less crying.  Maybe less crying now, maybe less crying later, certainly less crying in public.  Even the titles–The No Cry Sleep Solution, The Happiest Baby on the Block–seem to advocate that it is possible to parent (and to be a baby) without as many tears.  And it all makes me wonder if maybe the goal shouldn’t be less crying.

No, I don’t advocate crying it out or ignoring the cries when they come.  Crying is a baby’s primary form of language, and when they speak, adults should listen.  Sometimes their cries ask me to fulfill my responsibilities–feed, diaper, hold, play, entertain–and then I can respond with an action, answering baby’s request.  But sometimes the cries are baffling.

Our Turtle cries out as he falls asleep.  At night we put him down and he stretches and groans, and then lets out a few loud sobs.  After a few minutes he collapses into sleep.  Attempts to rock him to sleep first and then put him down only result in delaying the crying–he’ll wake in 15 minutes, cry for a bit, and then rest.  The game is hitting the sweet spot, where he cries enough to get out what was bothering him, but not so much that he works himself into a fit.  Then we have to pick him up, help him settle, and start the process over.  It’s a bit disturbing (and honestly, a bit embarrassing when others have watched us put him down) to hear those lonely cries at night–but it seems to be what works for him.  And, as I was pondering with Christer the other night–if I had no inhibitions, I might want to let out a few sobs before I fall asleep, too.  All the thoughts of the day and worries of tomorrow.  Generally now I just give a sigh, burry my face in my pillow and reach for Christer–but in another world with different understandings of crying, I could imagine a tear or two as a part of that ritual.

And then there’s the wailing.  We don’t have a colicy baby, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some nasty crying jags.  Bouncing, rocking, nursing, singing, changing–and when none of it works sometimes we find ourselves just sitting with the Turtle, looking quietly into his eyes as he screams.  Wanting to make the pain stop but clueless as to how.  And trying, trying to remember that being there matters more than ending the tears.

It’s so tempting to coo at a crying baby, “You’re okay, you’re okay.”  But they aren’t okay, something is wrong, that is why they are crying.  And I imagine, especially raising a boy, that it will continue to be tempting to tell him to hush, to calm down, to pull himself together.  But whether it’s the unknown frustrations of babyhood, the teasing at the playground, or the first teenage broken heart, he’s going to hurt a lot as he grows up.  Sometimes we’re even going to cause that hurt.

Christer practices Buddhist meditation, and his practice starts with the assumption that life is suffering.  Progressive Christians aren’t big on talking about sin–but watching a crying baby during Lent you have to wonder how the hurt enters a God-created world.  In our book group at church the author introduces the term brokenheartedness as a synonym for sin, instead of the more common definitions of sin as a violation or mistake.  Babies can’t make mistakes, but I do feel like our Turtle is connected to the world’s brokenheartedness when he cries.  And as much as I want to shelter him from that, it’s a useless parenting goal.  To keep him from crying would be to keep him from being human.

The idea of brokenheartedness as sin, however, also holds in it the reverse.  Love, connectedness, relationship–these things can break through the hurt, are maybe even made more powerful because there is hurting.  During Lent there is a time for crying.  And there is a time for holding, waiting, staying awake, being present through the pain.  Resisting the urge to whisper “you’re okay,” and instead to softly say, “I’m here, I’m here.”

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