Liam, our four-week-old baby, was having a very difficult day. By 10 a.m., he was on his fifth outfit, having spit up more milk than I would have believed my breasts could produce in one morning. He was crying off and on, and I wasn't sure why. Jacob, three, watched as his brother screamed. Jacob had been asking me what was wrong every five minutes for the last hour, and I had been answering him with guesses as to what the problem might be. Liam was hungry. Liam spit up. Liam needed changing. Liam needed to be burped.
Finally, annoyed with Jacob because of all the questions, and Liam because of all the crying, I blurted,
"Liam is just having trouble being a baby."
"Oh," Jacob replied, as if this made perfect sense. He went back to his trucks, and despite the fact that Liam didn't calm down for another half hour, Jacob did not question me again.
At the time, I didn't even know what I meant when I said that Liam was having trouble being a baby. Later, though, I realized that in my frustration, I had stumbled upon a truth.
He was having trouble being a baby.
Just a month ago, Liam was not a baby— not really. He was a fetus. His food and oxygen were delivered through an umbilical cord and there was no need to eat or breathe. He lived in a warm, wet, quiet place, where he had been held tightly and rocked for the past nine months. There were no clothes there; no diapers; no changes. There was no need to burp, and nothing to spit up. While relatives joked about what a tough life a newborn had, all eating and sleeping, it was in fact, a tough life compared to his blissful floating in the womb.
And now, one month into his first experience with gravity, air, temperature changes and hunger, my tiny son was having trouble being a baby.
Jacob, by virtue of being three, had understood what I meant even before I did. Things weren't so simple for Jacob, either, I realized. Within the last year, just as he had become comfortable with leaving the last vestiges of babyhood behind, new responsibilities emerged; going on the toilet, saying please and thank you, getting dressed. Jacob probably understood Liam's difficulty being a baby because sometimes he had trouble being a three-year-old.
Talking to my husband about it later, we discussed how easy it was to look at a stage long left behind and think of it as problem-free. As a couple, we often caught ourselves reminiscing about how simple our life was before kids. In our blurred memories, it was a carefree time, filled with late nights and romantic dinners. Struggling to deal with the demands of two small children, we conveniently forgot the difficulties of our early marriage; the frustrations that came with trying to blend two lives together, the questions about careers, and the multitude of other issues that time somehow ironed out for us. If we were able to forget the obstacles which faced us only five years ago, weren't we also likely to look at the lives of our children without recognizing their struggles?
"He's having trouble being a baby," became our operative phrase. We understood it to mean that right now, Liam was trying to learn something about his world and it was difficult for him, just as difficult as it had been for us to land jobs or balance our checkbook just a few years ago.
Hearing us use the phrase, Jacob picked it up, and often would ask it as a question.
"Are you having trouble being a baby today, Liam?" he would say to his brother, stroking his newborn cheek or grasping Liam's hand in his own.
The phrase diffused bouts of crying, helping us to remember that for Liam, being wet or hungry was a problem that seemed to have no solution in sight. "He's having trouble being a baby" gave me the insight to realize that sometimes Liam just needed to be held; not because anything was wrong, but rather because his life experience prior to babyhood was one of constant touch. Somehow, the phrase seemed to carry more compassion than saying Liam was fussy or cranky — negative words which implied that if he wanted to, he could change his condition.
As the weeks went by, Liam turned two months, then three, and I found myself using the phrase less and less frequently. Day by day, he seemed to be finding it easier to be a baby. He started smiling at anyone who made eye contact with him, as if to show just how much he was learning. I rarely had to change his outfit because of a spit-up, and he let me know he needed a feeding or a fresh diaper with small whimpers rather than frantic screams.
I looked into his eyes one morning when he was being especially delightful, and was amazed at the new baby confidence I saw there.
"You're not having much trouble being a baby anymore," I said to him. He stuck his fist in his mouth and cooed back at me. And I wondered if he was proud of me, as well. I wasn't having as much trouble being a mom.