The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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My friend Jeffrey’s baby wails in the stroller. Before she was born, Jeffrey showed off the baby’s first ultrasound portrait, black and white and X-ray-like, and even in the midnight blob of amniotic fluid, her ghostly profile had Jeffrey’s sloped chin. Now she’s out and about, exposed in all this garish daylight, and she’s howling. Tears roll down her fat cheeks. Her face is scrunching up into baby Armageddon, as if it’s the end of the world as she knows it.
Because I’m not yet familiar with babies and am still a few years away from giving birth myself, I say, “What’s she have to cry about? The world’s perfect for her.”
I’m thinking she has no boyfriend or girlfriend to break her heart. I’m thinking she never looks in the mirror to see any mortality-revealing wrinkles or to acknowledge her regrets. I’m thinking she has no wrinkles, no regrets, only organic cotton surrounding her soft baby skin, a mother’s breast to feed her 24/7, a stroller to take her around and someone else to do the pushing. She can sleep as long as she wants — usually sixteen hours a day. And I’m thinking she literally has someone to wipe her baby ass.
But Jeffrey looks at me quizzically. Sometimes the temperature is too hot, he says; sometimes it’s too cold. She’s hungry. She’s thirsty. She has to lie on her back all the time. She can’t walk or talk. She can’t tell you what’s wrong. Just think: She came from a comfortable womb where the word need didn’t exist. Now she’s learned that word and all the panic that comes with it.
The world, Jeffrey argues, is most certainly not perfect for her. She’s got plenty to cry about.
There are twelve reasons for your infant to cry, a baby book tells me:
Because she’s hungry.
Because her diaper needs changing.
Because she’s too hot.
Because she’s too cold.
Because she’s bored.
Because she’s overstimulated.
Because she needs sleep.
Because she has gas.
Because she’s teething.
Because she’s sick.
Because of “something small.” Something so small you’ll never know what it is.
Because she misses the womb.
I have just set my eight-week-old daughter down. She has been fed. She has gone to sleep. The next few minutes are mine. I pause in the hallway, believing for a moment that I might be able to brush my teeth or fix a snack or maybe even shower. But before I can choose which direction to turn — left, to the bathroom, or right, to the kitchen — she’s crying again.
“Where’s that leaflet the hospital gave us?” I ask my husband. “The one called ‘Babies Cry a Shit Ton.’ ”
It’s not called “Babies Cry a Shit Ton.” It’s something blander than that. But in the fog that followed my labor, we lost it, and now I’ll never know what gems of insight or advice it might have bestowed. It could have told me her cry is made of light. It could have told me her cry is a heaven of invisible birds. It probably wouldn’t have told me — though it could have — that a baby’s cry is the primal sound from which all art is made. Maybe it could have told me how to keep her from crying a shit ton.
The first time a baby cries, she gets points for it. The Apgar score — for categories such as color, heart rate, reflex response, and muscle tone — is her first grade, and out of ten possible points she receives two for a loud, robust cry. This means her lungs have taken in sufficient oxygen. If she doesn’t cry and her breathing is weak, irregular, or gasping, she earns one point. She gets a zero if she’s not breathing at all.
She needs that first gasp of air, but not just for oxygen. The first gasp rewires her body. It signals her entire circulatory system, which went in one direction while she was a fetus, to go the opposite way, like a flock of ducks changing course. She used to receive all nourishment — the remnants of her mother’s eggs Benedict, the oxygen from her mother’s brisk walk on a treadmill — through the umbilical cord from the placenta, the liver-like blob that temporarily sets up shop in her mom’s uterus and acts as the baby’s sole, unmoving companion for thirty-eight weeks: an inanimate, faceless friend. After birth, the umbilical cord must be cut, and the oxygen has to come through the infant’s own lungs, the food digested in her own gut.
With that first breath, she can live independent from her mother’s body. She can grow up to be a spinster with cats.
It’s no wonder that after that first inhalation comes the first cry.
If a newborn doesn’t cry, then pain is one of the best ways to make her do so. Hence the classic smack on the rear, followed by the baby’s wail, followed by the parents’ sigh of relief. It’s strange, isn’t it? A human being’s first outward signal of pain is her parents’ first joy.
Before the mideighties, there were many doctors who denied that infants could feel pain. For kids as old as eighteen months, major surgeries were performed without anesthesia.
In pain studies, scientists pricked babies on the heels, cheeks, and thighs. They dropped them two to three feet (and caught them). They restrained babies’ heads. They pushed their chins for thirty seconds or more. And babies responded with what the scientists called a “reflex.”
From one researcher: “Eyes squeeze shut: bulging of the fatty pads about the eyes is pronounced. There is a nasolabial furrow that runs down and outward from the corners of the lip. Lips purse, the mouth opens wide, the tongue is taut, and the chin quivers.”
In other words, the babies looked distraught. They were in pain. But their cries were labeled “random noises.” Scientists denied that those noises were communications of any kind.
The word infant comes from the Latin infans, which means “without a voice.”
The giant baby book tells me that my newborn is considered “easy.” She’s easy because she’s consolable. If she cries, I can make her stop by nursing her, shushing her, snuggling her, or swaddling her. When all else fails, I sit on a large exercise ball and bounce her, and her onyx eyes turn serene and gaze at the bookshelves. Other mothers warn me that she’ll spit up, but she never does.
I know others aren’t so lucky. Their babies cry and cry, and nobody can soothe them. The infants’ cries are expressions of need in a foreign tongue. The world is a terrible interpreter, so the babies go on crying, desperate — for what? They cannot say. They howl their distress into the great earless void, and the world echoes back all its space, all its tumultuous weather.
A neighbor in her eighties tells me that decades ago, when she had her first baby, her husband was away for a military tour, leaving her to look after their newborn with the help of her parents. The baby was colicky, she tells me, fussy all the time. Just awful. One night, her father and she overheard her mother threaten to flush the baby down the toilet. They both leapt from their chairs in the living room and darted to the bathroom, arms stretched out, ready to rescue the child. “I’m just kidding,” the mother said.
But at that point, nobody could be sure.
The baby’s mouth opens into a wide smile, the inside cherry red like gummy candy. Her father is bouncing her. She’s delighted.
Then her brow furrows. Her sounds switch from puffs of breath to throaty vowels, yet her mouth is still smiling. She’s crying and smiling all at once.
“I can’t tell: is she happy or sad?” I ask.
Her father says, “I think she’s trying to sort it out.”
The month we made her — that is, the month we flipped the calendar pages nine months forward and agreed it was good timing — I felt as if I were doing something illegal. Wasn’t there some tall marble building I had to enter, a bureaucratic line I had to stand in, a form I had to fill out in order to make a new human being? For a car, for a marriage, for a loan, for a degree, for all these and many more I’d had to apply. Why not for a child? For a new being with lungs and wants and wishes, with needs for caloric intake and physical affection and mental stimulation? Where was the rubber stamp marked APPROVED? Where was the bureaucrat to say, “Yes, you can make a human. Yes, you can add another soul to this planet who will scramble over the earth’s rocks and shout into its canyons her quest for love, her search for the balms against loneliness; another person who will hurt and be hurt, and who will never ask anyone for the right to do either. Yes, you can make one of those.”
No one said this, and there she was, twenty weeks in and fluttering below my navel, believing the world was nothing more than a warm red sack of salty fluid that tasted like tears, if only she knew what tears tasted like.
Asking, “When was the last time you cried?” is even more personal than asking someone’s salary or weight. Still, I asked twelve people, and they answered:
While reading a novel on the train.
While praying about the spots on a friend’s lungs.
While watching Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
While talking to an endodontist about my teeth.
While pet-sitting for a dog who was filthy, malnourished, and starved for attention.
In my sleep.
While watching two brothers on TV free-fall off a cliff.
While feeling gratitude for having enough diapers for my son.
While packing up my office.
While thinking about the fact that eventually my mother’s Alzheimer’s will make me unrecognizable to her.
At a wedding.
While eating a banana split.
I didn’t cry when her wet little head crowned. I touched it between my legs as the nurse encouraged me to do. I felt its surprisingly soft, spongy texture (shouldn’t a head be hard?). But I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry an hour before, when my cervix was breaking open, when I shuddered and moaned and terrified the mildly pregnant woman nearby who was texting and obviously not in labor. I didn’t cry when my newborn’s whole body slid out, or when they plopped her slippery torso onto my chest, and her vernix-covered face, all white and smushed, looked up at me with bafflement. What in the hell? her expression seemed to say.
In fact, my first reaction was to shake. I trembled uncontrollably. I was suddenly freezing. That’s normal, the nurse told me. Hormonal, she said, and threw a warm blanket around my body as if I were a victim of hypothermia. I didn’t cry afterward, when the midwife shot three needles of Novocain into my vaginal lips so she could sew up a tear. Nor did I cry when, while my daughter was gaping up at me from my chest, I caught sight of the needle’s size. That is, although I held this person I’d waited forty weeks to meet, I still noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the size of the needle I was about to be stuck with, the thing about to cause me pain. But I didn’t cry.
Here’s when I cried: four hours later, in the shower. The huge tub in which I’d just given birth was now closed off from the world by a vinyl curtain, and I was free to bawl in privacy. My hours-old baby was sleeping, and I had time to take a shower, to wash the dried blood and amniotic fluid from my shins, to wash the grease from my hair. But what I sensed around me wasn’t hospital-white porcelain, wasn’t the enclosure of private space. Intead it was vast and unfathomable, like a great canyon. And I cried, not just from happiness, for the new life sprung forth from me, and not just from sadness — that old, independent life of mine gone — but for deep, aching reasons I can’t explain, reasons that have nothing to do with happiness or sadness, reasons that have more to do with the way it must feel to be standing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. How insurmountable, jagged, deathly, gorgeous, and ancient it is. And how small I am inside it.
Heather Kirn Lanier
I’ve never been very fond of infants, nor have I ever aspired to motherhood, but Heather Kirn Lanier’s essay about both, “Twelve Reasons to Cry” [January 2013], made me cry.