crocodiles cry too
7 September 1999
In the car, pulling into the Beverly Connection. Labor Day, it’s a zoo: a perfect 75 degrees sunny and a light dusting of clouds but everyone wants to go to the indoor malls. Go figure. We sneak into a spot, get out of the car. Stroller or sling? Stroller first, he won’t last but it’ll give my back a rest. Stroller it is.

We get almost to the Beverly Center -- another mall, across the street -- two behemoths of commerce facing each other -- and Damian wants out. Whines, not quite a cry but it will be in another instant. "Just a moment, kiddo, I have to get this thing on" as I wrestle the sling over my head and settle it on my shoulder. Dan hands over the now happy, wriggling child and I slide him against me. He nestles in, happy to be snuggled and on the move.

Waiting at the elevator. A gay guy with light hair and an expressive face smiles at Damian. "That looks comfortable."

"Better than holding him without it," I agree.

"But how nice for him."

Oh yes. I wish I were stronger, I wish I could carry him this way forever, kangaroo mama carrying my roo in my pouch.

A young black man, slender as a whippet, herds three children into the little vestibule. The two boys have big solemn eyes, they stand silent. The girl’s eyes brim with unshed tears, she whimpers in a steady monotone.

The man glares at her. "Stop that, stop those crocodile tears."

No such thing as crocodile tears. If she’s crying, the pain is real for her. It may be over something you can’t change or that you in your infinite adult wisdom think is absurd, but she really is hurting. Just look at her face.

"It won’t work."

And that’s the problem. That your only response is this non-response, this denial.

"I’m so sick of this. It’s been going on since 7:15 am and your uncle doesn’t want to deal with you anymore."

First thought: Like you're dealing now?

Second thought: if it’s been going on that long, this little girl has something big bothering her. It’s not going to go away, would it hurt you to ask what’s troubling her instead of bitching about how it makes you feel, thus confusing and alienating the poor child even further?

Third thought: Uncle? You’re not even a parent, you only have custody for a day and you can’t deal? Try a whole lifetime of parenting. On second thought, get a vasectomy.

I feel so sad for that little girl. I hope her parents are a little more compassionate when she sniffles. Yep, it sure seems childish. Duh. It’s a child.

And I admit, I get impatient sometimes. Damian whines now when he wants something because he doesn’t have enough language yet to say "up on the couch now please" or "that ceramic pig whistle looks yummy." Or rather, he has language but doesn’t know to use it to request, not just to identify (identify: this is a toy "car!", request: I want my "car!"). And I say "What? What?" as if that’ll make him clarify himself. So no, I’m not perfect. But then I take a deep breath, hold up an apple and say "this? Is this what you want?" More whines. I hold up the ceramic pig whistle. "Is this?" Arms reach out, eyes light up. I hand him the whistle and peace is restored. Until the next time, the next urgent burning absolutely imperative need.

We get off the elevator before they do, the uncle and three unhappy kids. I squeeze my boy tight against me, reassuring myself that I’m not like that, that my patience extends a little further or at least my empathy does.

We head to Williams Sonoma for an ice cream maker. What fun, homemade ice cream. We were shopping for wedding presents and thought about this but it’s just too... well... wedding-presenty a gift, so we decided to get it for ourselves instead, seeing as how nobody got us one when we got married. No fondue pots either. Guess they all felt the same desire for originality.

So Dan buys our self-pampering non-wedding present while I show Damian the wonderful world of kitchen implements, a/k/a all the things you can use to stab and mutilate yourself or poke out the cat’s eye. And no, I won’t let you down to go try it out now. He whimpers a little, frustrated that I won’t let him impale himself on a lobster fork. He’s tired and hungry, he’s more hair trigger, more apt to cry. I can appreciate this. I sit on a stool and nurse discreetly. He quiets, comforted.

A few years ago, I spent a weekend with a relative with a six month old. As a mom wannabe, I watched and learned. The baby cried, she dismissed him with a casual, annoyed, wave. "Those are fake cries," she told me. She knew and responded to the real ones, she said, but the fake ones, they were just to get attention, and she ignored them.

When Damian was six months old, I waited for the fake tears to manifest. They never did. Yes, the quality of his wails changed depending on his level of need. A cry of pain sent the adrenalin zinging through my veins as my heart jumped into my throat. A cry of hunger or discomfort or boredom or just plain "I want snuggles!", those were different, softer. Easier to ignore, I guess. For some. For me, I was just glad he was learning to communicate in whatever rudimentary way he had, and I’d nurse him or make him comfortable or tickle him or cuddle him close.

After Dan pays for our new toy and Damian’s done with his own milky snack (human milk tastes like warm liquid ice cream -- maybe that’s why we crave ice cream?), we head out to the car. In the parking lot, we hear cries. No, wails. No, screams. Going on and on like a fire engine with lungs. We look around, spot the stroller, small in the distance. It’s at least five car lengths away. The tiny mouth barely visible but definitely open in a round "o" of pain. The woman pushing the stroller -- older, hennaed, obviously not mom, maybe grandma? -- not only completely ignores the child but actually dawdles, taking in the window display at Old Navy. Window shopping!

Dan: "no wonder so many people are so fucked up."

Yup. If your first life lesson is that nobody’s there for you, that your pain doesn’t count, it’s gonna permanently screw with your world view.

I’m not saying I never let Damian cry. That would be impossible. And even today, there was a moment -- Damian on the changing table, most emphatically not wanting to be changed. Oh, the indignity. No choice there, kid. I usually sing to calm the fussing, distract him with "Old MacDonald had a cow... a moo moo here, a moo moo there" etc. ("oink oink" is always good for a giggle) but this time I was too tired, so I just let it go, knowing the faster I did the deed the faster the torture would be over. And I did talk to him, explaining just this. I think it helped, a bit. So I don’t think crying has to be met with acquiescence. Just acknowledgement.

I know I’m in a minority here. I know the usual reaction is, "but you’ll spoil him!" If I let him get to the tantrum stage and then give in, yes, he will learn that throwing a fit gets results. But if we don’t let it get to that stage, if we respond in some way to the early attempt at communication, then what’s he learning? That you speak and you are listened to. This is a bad thing? To teach a child to have a voice? Manipulation only starts when there’s a need for it, when that’s the only way to get attention.

My mom tells me when she was small she used to have horrific temper tantrums -- the throw-yourself-on-the-floor, wail, bang-fists, scream-some-more kind. And that I never did. With one single exception. I was around two or three. She’d left me with her parents for a week. When she came to pick me up, she witnessed my first -- and only -- tantrum. I assume I’d picked the habit up sometime that week when my grandmother took some not-a-toy away from me or forbade me any cookies or who knows what. But I’d somehow learned it in the time I was there, in the same environment that fostered her own tantrums.

A caveat: I do know some children are naturally more volatile -- I know at least one little boy of a May Mom who has been, shall we say, outspoken, from day one. But mostly I think the child gets louder the more you ignore him. And that’s the shame of it.

I feel strangely vulnerable writing this down. I know many of you reading this are parents yourselves and may scoff or feel judged. And yes, I judge. I can’t help it. I won’t hate you if you let your kid cry or yell at her for it, but it will make me sad. I had to stop spending time with a friend not too long after her child was born. Our childrearing philosophies are just too different. A small example: one afternoon we were out for a walk, our strollers side by side on the street (sidewalk was too narrow). Damian started to fuss. I strapped on the Baby Bjorn and popped him in. He perked up. Her son started to fuss. She kept pushing the stroller, doggedly. Hoping he’d go to sleep. His cries got louder and more distraught. I finally said "I think he wants to be held." She grudgingly stopped the stroller, obviously annoyed at having to pick him up. But when she did, he quieted instantly. All he wanted was to be held close in his mama’s arms. Why is that too much to ask?
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