By: Julie Gamberg
A colicky baby is a gift. Not the kind you put on your list and beam thank you! with a Julia Roberts smile when you open it. And not the kind that only the very religious or new age-y (those who bake raisin cakes and call all adversity a gift) could appreciate either. A colicky baby is a different kind of gift. A colicky baby wakes you up quickly and thoroughly to one of the more nebulous and hard to accept aspects of parenting: that this little creature, your child, is paradoxically completely a part of you and completely unto itself. A colicky baby makes you peer hard into your baby, to see his or her needs as real, and huge, and as unmanageable as all of our mortal needs. In a colicky baby you understand both how impossible it is to make another human totally okay, and yet how necessary it is to continue to be present anyway.
Some folks who have easy babies may not get to see or understand this until the “terrible twos”. Some folks have easier toddlers, or discipline in such a way that they’re not really forced to “get it” until the teenage years. Some folks don’t understand until after their children are grown, and some parents never get it. Yet parents of colicky babies get their child’s personhood, and all that that implies, from the start. If they had any illusions that their baby would be a little doll to dress in cute outfits with ribbons in her hair, or a fireman’s cap on his head, or that their baby would be a prize to show off, or a playmate, they are disabused of those quickly. You put a colicky baby down when she’s tired. You feed her when she’s hungry. You burp her and change her and bounce her and sing to her, and when there is nothing else you can do, you hold her in your arms when she screams and thrashes, and cries, cries, cries. For a colicky baby, you show up.
I have no doubt that colicky babies are the most abused infants. It is very hard to take all of that crying. I’m sure too that there are parents who, once they get through the colicky times, are forever resentful or feel “owed” for all of the work they put in during the early months. Who feel their child better be “good” from now on. However, for those who are willing to get just a little bit grasshopper-here-is-your-lesson with it, a colicky baby can bring out the best parent in you right from the start – the parent who is compassionate, who is able to understand her child’s needs and work to meet those needs whenever possible, and who can be with her child empathetically in his disappointment when those needs cannot be met. These are hard-to-come-by skills for any of us and, depending on how we were raised and what we bring to parenting, a lot of us need to learn these skills and slowly build the muscles of good and compassionate parenting. We need to try, to fumble and fail, and to practice. A lot. And a colicky baby gives you hours and hours, and hours and hours, to practice.
For the first few months of my baby’s life, she cried inconsolably every night and periodically throughout the day. And she did not just cry. She screamed, she shrieked, she thrashed. She would only sleep when bounced vigorously on a yoga ball and only stayed asleep in arms, bounced anew at each toss, turn, or fuss. And when my baby really took to wailing, she could not be comforted. She seemed to me deeply and fundamentally unhappy. To look at your own baby in so much misery and to be unable to help, to not even know what is causing the misery, is a helplessness that calls for some sort of large-scale surrender.
My introduction to parenting had me believing that it was, and always would be, a Sisyphean nightmare. This is why parents are always complaining I thought. And I also thought, I made a terrible mistake. I simply cannot do this. Now I see the difference between complaining because there is a true and unmanageable problem, and the kind of complaining we Jews call kvetching. The day-to-day complaining about a normal state of affairs. My baby is nearly one now and is a bright, spirited handful who gives me plenty to kvetch about, but absolutely nothing to complain about. I know now what makes her unhappy and I know how to help. And when I cannot help, like when she would like to swallow a rock, or put her fingers in an electrical socket, or, more recently, walk her little 29-inch-tall self into the street, I am able to be with her in her disappointment and frustration. I am able to hold her, and empathize, and be very present for her in all of her anger and sadness. I’m pretty good at this because I had an incredible amount of practice. It was a strange gift, this bounty of practice – and not the kind I would have ever put on a parenting wish list. And I do know that my friends who did not have colicky babies are coming into their own as parents quite nicely without all of that crying. Yet, when I see my baby totally lose it over something, and I feel myself breathe slowly and deeply, when I feel how far I’ve come in how well I’m able to tolerate her very difficult feelings, and my own, I cannot help but be grateful for that gift.