Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a blessingway for a friend who is expecting her first baby. We women sat in a circle, sharing stories from our experiences as children and caregivers. The topic of colic came up. I was a terribly colicky baby and joked that, as cosmic retribution, I’d probably have a colicky baby if I were to have children. One of the women present, whom I’ve worked closely with in the past said, “I can’t imagine you as a colicky baby.” Then I mentioned a study that found some babies in homes with smoking parents had terrible, recurrent earaches that were commonly misdiagnosed as colic. I’ve often wondered if that was my problem. The woman looked me in the eye and said with a voice full of empathy, “Oh, you weren’t being difficult, you were in pain. You cried because you were hurting. That’s a baby’s job, to cry when they hurt.”
Even years later, when she’d tell me about my uncontrollable screaming, my mother’s frustration over my colic was palpable. She was a new mother, she didn’t know what to do, she’d try to console me but couldn’t, so she’d leave me to cry. Sometimes I’d cry fiercely all night long, alone in my crib. She didn’t get any sleep, my dad would get angry because he didn’t get any sleep, and it was all my fault.
The stories I have of my babyhood and early childhood are all sung to the same tune. I was difficult, I was distant, I was stubborn, I was uncooperative, I messed things up, I broke things, I was negligent, I was mean to my brother. To my recollection my mother never told me stories of sweetness, of cuteness, of chubby-checked babyness. My brother was the cuddle bug, the sweet baby. I was the hellion.
Did that tiny baby start to learn the hard lessons that her feelings, her needs, her body, and her pain didn’t matter? Did my self-loathing start when I heard those stories as a young child? Is that when I began believing that I was responsible for other people’s happiness and well-being (or lack thereof)? Is that when I began to internalize negativity, soak up ambient stress, and lose all ability to relax? Is that when I became certain that everything I did caused others to be tired, angry, depressed, anxious, and unhappy? Is that when I started to pull into myself, began holding people away so I wouldn’t hurt them? Is that why, as a child and young adult, I refused to tell anyone I loved them or missed them? I had to keep to myself because I was toxic.
I have been carrying around a baby picture of myself for several months. I’m sleeping, my cheeks are fat and rosy, my fingers deliciously chubby. I ache to pick up that baby, feel the warm of that tiny body, and tell her she’s okay, she’s beautiful, she’s loved mightily, completely and wholly. I want her to know she’s good, strong, and able. I was her to know her pain, her feelings, her body, her needs do matter. She needs to believe that she is not responsible for anyone but herself. Her mother’s depression is not her fault, neither is her father’s rage. Their poverty is not her fault. Nor is their eventual mean and messy divorce. Her mother’s emotional abandonment is not the result of anything she could possibly do or be.
It aches so much to know that that tiny baby will have to wait three decades before she can believe these things, before she can really believe almost any good thing about herself. She’ll first spend childhood in a confused haze, wondering why bad things keep happening to her and internalizing her own worthlessness and penchant for carrying bad luck wherever she goes. Then she’ll spend adolescence trying so hard, so very hard, to be good enough, to make up for all her deficients and awfulness. And then early adulthood will be spent trying to pay back the endless sea of perceived personal debts she incurred while her own parents were unable to care for her. She’ll run herself nearly to the ground just trying to be good enough.
And then she’ll find a kind and patience husband who repeats her value to her over and over. And then she’ll find a therapist who helps her see why she can’t believe him. And then she’ll work hard to find her own self-worth. Worth that should have been instilled in her when she was that tiny baby in that picture sitting on her dining room table. How much agony could have been saved if those messages had been sung quietly to her, held in the warmth of someone’s patient arms, in the dark of those long, colicky nights?