I was in agony the other day at Labor and Delivery. No, I was not in childbirth. And nothing was actually going wrong. The baby was born. The birth had been a success. A nice, healthy delivery. The father was at the mother’s side. The whole family was doing fine. Their three-year-old was with Grandma and they were calling her to have a video chat and show the new baby. The nurse had stepped out for a break. A relaxing moment. So what was so hard?
The three-year-old on the phone burst out crying at soon as they showed her the baby. She kept on crying. But they didn’t soothe her. They didn’t comfort her. They kept her on the phone and they let her cry on and on. They didn’t explain anything to her, beyond telling her that this was her baby sibling. They didn’t tell her they still loved her. They didn’t say when they would be home. They didn’t even tell her she was going to live with them again. They just let her cry for an agonizing extension of time.
She cried and wailed. I swear I could hear her gnashing her little baby teeth. The most basic fear of any vulnerable person – being rejected and replaced – was alive on her pudgy little tear-stained cheeks. Her fists were clenched. Her face was a grimace of pain. She cried until she coughed and choked on her tears. After her coughing fit, Grandma helped her blow her little nose. One fluttering heartfelt sigh, and this unwilling big sister again took up her loud, wailing lament. Good God!! Where was the comfort? Grandma was standing at the sink in her apron, laughing softly in the background, not in a mean way, but more like, so it is. The wheel of fortune has once again turned the only child into an older sibling.
I felt my stomach knotting up. I wanted to comfort this unknown child. I longed to give her some context for what she was feeling. I wanted her to feel safe. I wanted her to know she was still loved. I wanted to tell her there was room in these hearts for her and for the new baby. That there was no need for jealousy. That she was still welcome and beloved. My stomach felt knotted and I had to force myself to stay relaxed and neutral as the crying spell drew out from a seconds into minutes and more minutes. More than five minutes. More than ten.
More than fifteen minutes. For God’s sake, why wouldn’t anyone calm her down? And yet, why did I feel so strongly that someone should? How we show and share feelings is encoded in our cultural, personal, and moral decisions based on our values and beliefs. Each culture and each family has its deeply rooted unspoken rules around how we display anger, sadness, and even joy in commonly accepted and appropriate ways. And each individual varies these displays based on what we were taught, and how our loved ones and others react. We tend to hide what is unwanted.
So, taking a step back from my urge to help. What if the thing this big baby most wanted was a good cry? What if she felt called to express her deep pain and agony? Her fear of abandonment? Her cry for acceptance? What if she needed to fully express her instinctive jealousy of sharing the nest with this interloper who had already taken Mommy and Daddy away from her? After all, there the three of them were, and she was banished to Grandma’s! Why shouldn’t she cry if she felt like it, and exhibit her absolute rage, and why shouldn’t we simply listen, instead of explaining away her feelings and telling her to calm down?
The parents were listening. Mom had the baby on her chest and the phone in her hand. Dad leaned in, and clucked and made little sounds at his big, crying baby. Mom turned the phone to display the newborn a few times, then went back to gazing intently at her crying daughter. She didn’t tell her to shush. She didn’t tell her to quit crying. She didn’t tell her what to do at all. And she gave no explanations about how this would all work out. She just said things like, the baby has come. Well, well. There now. Okay sweetie. Look at the baby. Yes, my dear. Okay, now. Yes, so it is. There, there. Here is the baby.
The little girl cried for eighteen minutes. I kept measuring it on the clock, because I wanted it to be finite. I wanted it to end. She was still crying when the nurse got back, and the nurse immediately said, “Oh, no!” and suggested they hang up, but they didn’t hang up. They kept their daughter on the phone. They kept listening to her cry. The girl cried until her shrieks subsided to sobs and hiccups. Until she had fully expressed herself and put her arms out for Grandma to come pick her up and hold her. There was something in it that was complete. Something that went deeper than rushing in to soothe the girl and explain away her feelings and hush her up. There was something in it that was quite uncomfortable and quite grand.