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July 14, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Babying the baby

With Mie … circa 1979

June 24, 1993

“Linda,” I said, “did you see the article in the paper about the mother who was terrorized by her crying baby?”

“Karen, can I call you back?”

“Sure,” I said and hung up.

I didn’t need to ask why she was not at liberty to chat at that moment. I could hear the reason — 4-month old Isamu — in the background.

Half and hour later when I got her call I said, “Everything under control? Is he asleep?”

“Well, yeah. For the time being,” she said — her voice hardly sounding like it was built on the Rock of Confidence. But I know how it is. One never knows how long these sleeping baby truces will last.

“So. Tell me what was in the paper. What did I miss?”

“Oh, I was sure you would have seen the article about the the woman who said that in almost four years of child raising, she never felt joy in it. Not even once.”

“Karen, I haven’t read the paper in a week. I can hardly manage to comb my hair.”

Ah, yes. Although my four children can now speak n complete sentences, state their needs clearly and attend to the rudiments of personal hygiene, I can remember not combing my hair, not for a week, but for weeks on end.

Anyway, when Linda called back I was glad to recap the news for her. The article titled “Crybaby tortures frantic young mother” (“… there’s no way I would have missed that article,” Linda said) started out saying how some “highly educated” mothers felt that though they had been capable students, they were at a loss when it came to raising their babies. One mother said she wished her baby had been “born with a manual on how to treat him.”

Strange, but nowhere in the article did it say that these are common feelings. Most first-time mothers (and I put myself at the top of that list) are simply overwhelmed the first few months. Once it hits home that babies don’t talk, and cannot state their needs, likes and dislikes, it becomes a matter of getting to know the baby — and each one is indeed a particular person. A manual (and there is no shortage of these), while it may be a guide, will not do the mothering.

Babies are something else. They are masters at non-verbal communication. They have to be. Their lives depend on it.

Between the laundry, the buckets of diapers, the feedings, the trying to get limp (or stiff) tiny limbs into miniature clothes, sleep deprivation, and regularly interrupted meals, I always tell my first-time mother friends: Learn to feel good about accomplishing small things, like today I took a shower.

Better yet, give up on the shower. As soon as you experience the unparalleled joy of taking an early evening ofuro with the baby, you’ll never go back. Happy mother, happy baby.

Well, I went on to tell Linda about this long-suffering woman who said that her baby “cried whenever he was awake no matter how I tried to pacify him except when I breastfeed him” (italics mine). Obviously, no one told this woman that’s the magic trick. Works every time. Doesn’t cost you anything.

“Oh my goodness,” Linda said, “so what did she end up doing?”

“Well, poor thing, she didn’t exactly get a lot of support. The neighbors would say things like “Your baby is always crying, isn’t he?” What is one supposed to say to that? “Oh, thank you, and yourself?” And even the harassed woman’s father said, “Isn’t he a nuisance?”

No, he’s a baby.

“Well, what did she do?”

“Apparently the baby cried so hard sometimes that he had convulsions which scared her enough to read a book about babies and then take him to the hospital to make sure he hadn’t suffered any mental damage.”

The whole time I read the article, I could hardly believe this woman had had her baby in the same country where I had three of mine. Because it’s here that I learned from other mothers, that just holding the baby works miracles. Babies like nothing more than the five-sense satisfaction of being close to their mothers. In a country where many people sleep on futon, this is easily accomplished, day or night (no mother is likely to try and crawl into her baby’s crib).

This is also the land of the onbu, the baby carriers that allow you to carry the baby while your hands are left free. Depending on your energy and ambition, you could whip up a souffle, rearrange your stamp collection, write a shopping list or an entry in your journal.

One imagines that while that poor baby cried himself into convulsions and his mother frantically leafed through a book seeking professional help, that all their troubles would have been at an end if she had just picked up the baby. Of course, a helpful (not busybody) neighbor, friend or relative would have been worth her or his weight in gold to an exasperated new mother.

Just after Isamu’s birth, Linda called asking me if I thought he might be getting “spoiled” by too much holding. I told her what a grandmother here once told me: that it’s instinctual for a mother to try and comfort her baby, no matter how — and “Don’t be afraid to baby the baby.”

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POSTSCRIPT

There are now such a variety of baby carriers, I almost get envious when I see them! Years ago the choice wasn’t limited — there was no choice. There was one type, and it was not particularly comfortable. 

Unfortunately, and tragically, too often these days we read about exasperated mothers who have neglected, abused, and in some cases, killed their children. 

I really think that new mothers should get real instruction about the realities of 24-hour-7-days-a-week baby care, while they are still in the maternity clinic. And then there needs to be follow up once they return home. As most women now no longer live in multi-generational families, they can be completely isolated. Whenever I read about these tragedies, I can only think … where was her husband, mother, friend, neighbor — support.  

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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