Within the first week of Bea’s life, I started thinking about children in orphanages. Every time I nursed her at night, so every two hours, I thought, “Who is picking up those children? Who is answering their cries every two hours?”
Of course I’d thought about children in orphanages before. My mother worked for an international adoption agency at one point, and I became the babysitter for a lot of the clients, once their children were assimilated and settled. One little girl, Anja, was from Russia. I remember she was obsessed with food and I assumed it was because she’d had a lack when she was little. Now that I have a three-year-old, I understand that toddlers just constantly eat.
But having a newborn in my arms, understanding the specifics of what she needed, the constant comforts she required—shushes, bouncing, swaddles, pacifiers and of course, my boob—brought to mind all those children out there who need those same things and don’t get them.
My son wakes up at three in the morning (oh, yes, by the way, my 19-month-old still doesn’t sleep through the night god help my undereye circles) and sometimes he only wants me—mama. Sometimes even when my husband goes in, he calls for “Mama.” Sometimes he screams until I stumble out of bed and pick him up and he accepts that it is indeed me, Mama, holding him.
I go in now, with gratitude, with humility, amazed at the privilege of being able to comfort my child. I keep the room dark, give him some milk, put my lips to his forehead, rock him for a few moments, lay him gently back in his warm, soft, safe crib. We have sleep trained in the past, but I think I’ve come to accept that he is a child that needs solace in the middle of the night. Maybe he has dreams. Maybe he just wants reassurance that there is still a grownup out there in that dark world.
Do those children have cribs?
Do they fall out of their cots in the middle of the night as my daughter sometimes does? She is such a fitful sleeper that we keep her mattress on the ground.
Do they wake up and start to run to the next room, to the “big bed” where they can sleep between mom and dad for the rest of the night?
My son says “Da” and sometimes it means “daddy” and sometimes it means “dog” and sometimes it means “that” and sometimes it means “sister”. And only my husband and I really know each time what he’s referring to.
It is a parent’s job to know the language your child speaks, and of course I’m not referring to a native tongue, though also that, so much as the method of communication your child uses. My daughter has always been articulate above her age, but my son still relies on a lot of nonverbal and understood cues. Like when he reaches that point in the night where he won’t admit he’s tired but everything is indicating he is tired. My husband and I know what that point is, and that the only way to calm him is with milk and a book, specifically “Where’s My Teddy?” or “Goodnight Gorilla”. That every night he expects to take a walk with my husband and the dog and that when he says “Wah” he means, it’s time.
Remember Danielle, the neglected child featured on Oprah? Her case was so extreme that when they found her, she was 7 years old, but behaved and acted like a 6-month-old. She’d had almost no human interaction from birth. I think about her all the time. The synapses formed in the brain in the first three years of a child’s life are so important that they determine a child’s cognitive ability for the rest of their life.
And the lack of interaction, that amounts to trauma.
My daughter’s hair is fine and straight. My son’s hair is courser and curlier. I can close my eyes and picture how it feels when I press their heads against my cheek.
If you have a child, you are doing the same right now.
I take nothing for granted these days– having my children with me, knowing where they are any given moment of the day, holding them close, comforting their pain, hearing their laughter. These all feel like privileges now and not givens. These feel like markers of where I was lucky enough to be born and raised, and not like the most natural act of being the one who answers my children’s calls.
My children are of a tender age, but then again, aren’t all children? Tender hearts and tender minds always looking for their cries to be answered, however those cries manifest, always wanting reassurance that someone is listening, even in the dark.