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.