A few weeks ago, my sister (one of my son Owen’s awesome aunts) returned from a weekend visit with her friend and her friend’s four-month-old and wrote me an email that made my day. Here is an excerpt:
“It’s amazing how some babies are so much easier than Owen. We literally just passed the baby around and she smiled/laughed as long as someone paid the littlest bit of attention to her. We took her out to dinner and she was awake but didn’t make a peep. She goes to bed at 9 PM and wakes up around 10 AM with only one or two feedings at night! And when she woke up, she just happily rolled around in her crib until someone went to get her. You seriously deserve a medal.”
Now, being the incredible aunt that she is, my sister has spent a considerable amount of time around my son, despite living a plane ride away. Because her visits involve extended overnight stays at our house, she’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Her email might seem like no big deal, but it meant so much for her to acknowledge what I’ve been thinking (and yes, sometimes complaining about) since Owen was born: he was a really difficult baby.
It seems wrong to complain about a healthy child because I know families are out there dealing with much bigger challenges every day, but man, he was tough. For one thing, he didn’t sleep through the night until he was 18 months old. I don’t mean he didn’t do it consistently. I mean not at all. During his waking hours, he was grumpy. You know when you see a baby just calmly lying on a blanket or sitting in a bouncy seat, looking around, smiling and cooing? That almost never happened at our house.
As a baby, he was hard to even hold. I remember my 91-year-old grandmother, who prides herself on her kid prowess, saying “you just can’t hold this kid!” And she was right. Unlike the typical image of a soft, cuddly baby lying or sitting in your arms, holding Owen was like tussling with a twisting, flailing and surprisingly strong ball of muscle. Even at only a few months old, there were times he would practically launch himself out of your arms by sheer force. He seemed perpetually frustrated, alert to the point that he was unable to relax. Intense.
From the time he was around six months and could sit and crawl, he never wanted to stay in a stroller, even if it was moving. From about eight months through 20 months, he flipped and writhed around so intensely during diaper changes that we lived in constant fear of poop being smeared somewhere it shouldn’t be. And it was. From the time he could stand, baths were a two-person job. He refused to sit down, so one person would shampoo and wash while the other would desperately try to keep him from slamming his head into the wall as he seemed likely to do at any moment. When we took him out, strangers would make comments usually reserved for parents of multiples or large broods. Things like “wow, you’ve really got your hands full.” Random old ladies would remark on how “busy” he was.
Then there were the wake ups. Oh the wake ups. There was no “open eyes and stare at mobile or babble until mom comes in.” Well into toddler-hood, he would wake up in a fussy, agitated, almost angry state and stay that way for a long time. And he was always up before the sun.
I’m not saying all of this to complain or to make anyone feel sorry for me (okay, maybe a little) but to point out that when you’re going through a difficult time with a baby or child, sometimes the nicest thing someone can do is just acknowledge that yes, what you’re going through is difficult. Hearing that “it’s no big deal” just feels like an insult – another sign that maybe it’s you, maybe you just can’t handle it.
When I read my sister’s “you deserve a medal” email, I told her it was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me. And I meant it. The best part is, I feel like I do have a medal, because I have a funny, loving, fascinating two and a half-year-old whose energy and interests are now more appropriate to his age and abilities. It’s almost as if he was a preschooler trapped in the body of an infant and toddler all along. He now channels his intensity into building elaborate structures for his cars and animals, voraciously consuming information about his many interests. He tells me “Mommy, know what? I love you” on a regular basis. He says thank you, bless you, and you’re welcome. He amazes us daily. And the best part is, he’s turned into a really happy kid. Sure, he has his moments like any two-year-old, but you’ll never hear me saying “my kid really has a mind of his own now that he’s two” because we’ve been saying that since he was born. Now that he can tell us what’s going on in that mind, it’s only gotten easier.
So the next time you hear another mom complaining about a tough day or week or year of parenting, even if it seems like no big deal to you, tell her that what she just described sounds horrible. Tell her she has the patience of a saint just for getting through the day. Tell her she deserves a medal. Then tell her the babysitter is on her way, and you’re taking her out for drinks.