Learning to Lament, With Toddlers

crying

My #firsttimeparent moment came when two-month-old e.e. started crying more than his usual contented self. After all the kinds and lengths of cries and screams we’ve witnessed in two years of parenting, it’s utterly laughable that we were even concerned about this particular cry — much less concerned enough that we felt it best to take him to the pediatrician ASAP. He was fine. Apparently we weren’t the first new parents to worry over newborn cries, and our pediatrician assured us that the worst was yet to come.

Toddlers cry. A lot. They scream. They tantrum. They wail. They sob. They reach humanly impossible pitches and intensities. It’s just a thing that they do, even if you check off all the Basic Needs boxes: fed, changed, rested, warm, entertained, attended to. Consistent routines and nap/meal schedules help to stave of hunger- and exhaustion-related meltdowns, but I still cook many a lunch with toddlers screaming, “MAHHHHHHH!” at me, as if I’ve never given them any food in their lives.

It’s my favorite part of parenting, for sure.

Before crying underscored my existence, I resolved never to do that horribly dismissive things parents do — telling their kids to stop crying!, as if they’re miserable because they’re crying instead of crying because they’re miserable. I’m still resolved, but my success rate is far from 100%. Sometimes, I just can’t take it anymore. The crying is so incessant, so loud, so intrusive, and from my adult perspective, so irrational. Nothing triggers compassion fatigue faster than a whiny scream over no discernible thing, with all offers of kindness, solutions, and juice refused.

It’s not irrational, not when I step away from the screaming and process what the heck just happened. Life just sucks sometimes, for all of us, toddlers and adults. It’s not about wanting Mama to get the cup of water instead of Daddy, not really. It’s about the fears we have of losing connection with someone we love, and how little control we have over people, and how much we need them, anyway, and how are we supposed to function, needing someone we cannot control? It’s not about tripping over their feet and falling on their butt (again) as they’re learning to walk. It’s about the frustration of wanting to get to a solid, steady place in life, but development and obstacles constantly hold us back, no matter how much we try. Some days, we wake up on the wrong side of the bed. The world looks bleak, we feel crappy, and it’s just too overwhelming to make it downstairs to breakfast.

Once, a parent tried soothing their daughter who had burst into inconsolable tears. “It’s okay,” they soothed. “You’re okay.”

“I’m not okay!” she snapped.

Toddlers aren’t irrational. Toddlers are honest. They’re honest about the jagged edges of reality that we try to smooth over with the lies we tell ourselves about being in control and everything having a meaning and life always working out in the end.

Toddlers know how to lament. 

The impulse is to calm the child, to make things better. But the scream comes back, “Don’t even try to calm me down!” whether in words or equivalent. Why is this so unnerving? Doesn’t it evoke all the fear, resentment, frustration, which hasn’t really changed at all since our own childhood? And isn’t the impulse to get the child calmed down, by any means possible, an impulse to stifle this Pandora’s box? It’s an enormous challenge to really be with the child in its inconsolable state.

That child is ourself. We want love, which is always going to turn out to be less dependable than the infinite we hoped for. We want psychological security and it will never be enough. We want physical security. We want to continue as me forever. Our wants, and perceived needs come up bang against the wall of aloneness which wanting and hoping and grasping creates. Then, can we be with the sadness this evokes? Can we feel it, the impulse to run away from it, the absoluteness of it, the non-negotiable nature of our predicament as a vulnerable, scared human being? Perhaps if we truly perceive the fact that there is nothing I can do, then the child/adult may for the first time be free from an enormous burden of managing the unmanageable. — Anonymous, quoted in “When a Child Is Inconsolable: Stay Near”

I think that’s why we’re often deeply uncomfortable with crying children: they’re lamenting an unfixable grief. Why else are we still trying to get our children to stop crying when it’s obvious they feel a need to cry about something? Sure, we often get flat out annoyed and overstimulated and just want the crying to stop for our own sanity. But in other moments, we can’t deal with the helpless position we find ourselves in when our babies are sobbing, and we’ve tried everything, and nothing will fix it. We feel helpless, we feel guilty for feeling helpless, and we feel reminded of a deeply uncomfortable truth…that sometimes nothing can fix the hurts in this life, not in the way we want, and certainly not on our own timetable.

Sitting with a screaming toddler, it’s the exact process of sympathy, discomfort, and then avoidance I feel with people who’ve experienced adult pain. They’re single and they don’t want to be. Their family’s a wreck. They hate their job. They want something more out of life. The first few times, I knit my brow and listen intently. Yes, this is a valid pain. I get it. I’ve felt it myself. The next few times, when it gets clearer and clearer how badly this pain is affecting them, I get nervous. I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be in this support position anymore. Why are they telling me all this? I’m not a counselor.

The few times after that, I want to throw up my hands and tell them to get a grip — as if there’s a timeline on grief.

I find myself thinking of the story of Job a lot, how he drew the short stick in life just for being a righteous man, and how all his friends came, lamented, and sat with him for seven days and seven nights, holding space for his unspeakable grief. They must have got compassion fatigue from seven days of lamenting, because after Job starts verbalizing his grief in long, melodramatic monologues, the friends lose their empathy. They start trying to fix things: Here’s what you did wrong, Job; here’s what you can do; here’s how you can move on.

Just like me. I do that. I’m the obnoxious fix-it personality who’s quicker to Google possible remedies and analyze everything to make sure this never happens again. I do it to everyone, including myself. I haven’t learned to lament. I haven’t learned to hold space. I don’t think many of us have, even those of us who aren’t obnoxious fix-it personalities. We don’t know how it feels to have someone sit with us and let us scream or cry or rant for as long as we need, without judgment, without fidgeting, without Googling nearest counselors who price services on a sliding income scale.

There are, of course, things we can do to help. Sometimes someone needs a nap or a hug or a cup of juice to get blood sugar back up. Sometimes advice, a game plan, and counseling is absolutely critical to resolving or avoiding the issue in the future. But sometimes, at the core of the grief is an unfixable thing that just needs space to be.

One of my toddlers woke up from a nap screaming. They didn’t want to be touched. They didn’t want to be spoken to. They flung themselves away from me at great risk to their physical safety whenever I moved toward them or opened my mouth. Finally I just sat there. They screamed full volume, full heart for thirty minutes. I timed it. My husband had to take over lamenting, because the other toddler needed me (which might have prolonged the screaming). After thirty minutes, the tears abated, I picked them up, gave them a kiss, nuzzled them, fed them a snack, and we went about our day relatively tear-free.

They just needed to lament, and they needed me to sit with them and let their feelings be unfixable.

If I’m honest, I need that. We all need that. We aren’t as free or in touch with our grief as toddlers are. We’re less egotistical; we’re more conscious of how perspective and time work; we’re more considerate of how our sorrow and pain affect others. But we still need to lament more than we’d like to admit. And we still need friends who will sit with our lament in silent acceptance for as many days and nights as it takes to feel okay again.

13 thoughts on “Learning to Lament, With Toddlers

  1. Sharon

    I shared a short tube journey with a lamenting toddler. She got on with her mum and quickly noted that there weren’t any seats available. She made to leave the carriage but her mum was ready for that “we’re only going one stop” With that the lamenting began “I want a seat”..I WANT A SEAT…Her mum was mortified and the more she tried to shush and calm, the louder the lamenting became. I confess I was one of the firmly seated passengers torn between feeling sorry for her mum, feeling empathy with the toddler and admiring her complete openness in saying what she wanted and contemplating trying the same during the evening rush-hour! However, this is London and no one rewarded her ‘bad’ behaviour.

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      • Sharon

        You shouldn’t believe everything you hear about Londoners! I’d have more sympathetic if it had been the end of the long toddler but it was morning; everyone still full(ish) of energy

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      • Bailey Steger

        Haha! I shall extend more charitable thoughts toward Londoners in the future.

        Mornings can be rough with my littles. So can afternoons. And evenings. I think I might have offered my seat, but maybe not, because we Americans are pretty awkward about interfering with other people’s children, and it might frustrate the parent if I was appearing to spoil her child. At least it was just one stop. :)

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  2. A

    This resonates so deeply with my childhood experience. I was one of those high-strung, emotional, sensitive children who had a lot of intensely passionate meltdowns (much to my mother’s alarm). Yes, sometimes I was crying because I was hungry or thirsty or tired, but sometimes I was sobbing at the sheer miserable brokenness of things–my inability to control the people and things I cared most about, my deep fear of pain and loss, and my extreme need for stability and security in a world where those things could simply never be guaranteed. Well, I’m an adult now, and I guess I still melt down about those things! It doesn’t look like flinging myself on the floor and throwing public tantrums anymore, but I have a lot of sympathy for small humans for whom that is the only way of expressing those universal fears and frustrations.

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  3. Fran Johns

    This is just a heads-up. After my #1 son was born, and did absolutely nothing but smile and offer compassionate cooperation from the day we brought him home (he is now almost 60, an airline pilot and you would want him to fly your airplane) I was delivered of a daughter with a mind of her own. As a freelance writer who often did phone interviews, she took the lifting of the phone as an invitation to lament (or at least to interject.) Then she took took to (occasionally) lying on the floor and screaming. Finally I went to my pediatrician and said this latest tactic was driving me nuts. She offered these two wise comments: “I wonder why she does that?” and “I wonder what would happen if you stepped over her and walked out of the room and closed the door?” Only took one time. She is now 57 and my best traveling-companion friend. She also has a charming, accomplished, VERY headstrong grown daughter of her own, about whom I am often inclined to remark, “I wonder whose kid she is?” Just thought I would put in these thoughts from grandmotherland.

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  4. Mari

    Tangential, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on sleep training sometime :) My little guy is only six weeks but I’ve been thinking ahead and wondering what we will do when he gets to be six months or so. Torn!

    Great to see the flood of posts! Missed them.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I am a huge fan of sleep training, if that’s what parents want to do! I had PPD exacerbated by sleep deprivation, and co-sleeping and breastfeeding didn’t work for our family. I think well-rested parents and well-rested children are one of the fundamental building blocks of a happy family, and far too many people don’t take their lack of sleep seriously or notice the signs of sleep-deprivation in their kids.

      I think we started nap training him around 3 months and helping him to learn to fall asleep at night without breastfeeding a little after that, but I still breastfed him on demand at night. “Cribsheet” by Emily Oster and https://scienceofmom.com/ are excellent resources if you’re worried that sleep training is damaging to babies (it’s not), and the Facebook group “Respectful Infant Sleep Learning” (or something like that) is still helpful to me. It was a very difficult experience because I had a lot of guilt and fear about it, but the results are so worth it: a well-rested baby who naps 2+ hours a day and regularly sleeps through the night on a set schedule I developed in tune with his needs. All of that nonsense about sleep trained babies not crying at night when they truly need something is totally not true — he still cries if he’s thirsty or needs a little extra attention, and on particularly rough nights, we bring him into our bed. You can still be a responsive, flexible parent while sleep training, and I’ve found it’s easier to distinguish his cries now that I know he’s not just screaming from being overtired and unable to fall asleep. I liken sleep training to dropping off a kid at daycare: Is it necessary for everybody? No, there are other methods for getting children to sleep or providing childcare. Is it the best option for many people? Absolutely. Is it difficult for both parent and child at first? Yes, it often is. Will it cause childhood trauma? Of course not. Are you still able to be sensitive and responsive to a child’s needs during this big transition? Of course! There are SO many different methods of sleep training out there that might be a good fit for parents and children.

      Those are my thoughts in a nutshell!

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