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Jewish Journal

Hoo-wah!

"My father never met my needs."

by Michael Levin

February 15, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Memo to first-time fathers: If your baby is crying, she's probably wet.

Or tired. Or hungry. Or angry. Or confused about what's happening in the big, new, strange world she lives in.

Unless it's something else.

My daughter is seven months old now, and she has the poise of a prom queen compared to the way she was a few short months ago. The hardest time was when she was about five weeks, which is when she developed the ability to smile (not gas but the real thing), and the ability to cry inconsolably.

We'd been waiting for both because all the baby books, and we've read all of them, promised both smiles and what they refer to as "fussiness" around this time. We just never expected both at once.

I'd rather have someone stick a knife into my intestines and yank it up and down than watch my daughter's face cloud over at some indefinable insult and hear those uncontrollable, racking cries. She had her own language of misery: not just "Waaaah," the standard expression for unhappy babies, but "Hoo-wah." As in, "Hoo-wah, hoo-wah, hoo-wah, hoo-wah, hoo-wah!" on and on, into the night.

That's when I became convinced that I was destined to be a failure as a parent. My mind leaped to the future, envisioning my daughter, fully grown and pouring out her heart to a nodding and empathetic therapist, saying, "My father never met my needs."

What needs? I didn't know what you wanted, and I didn't know what to do for you, aside from carry you around, murmur loving things, sing off-key and try not to make your misery worse.

I started questioning God at those moments of unstinting pain and fury. There must be a better way to accomplish desirable ends than through screaming. Does the shrieking expand their lungs? Do tears help regulate brain function? Hey, God -- why couldn't you make those things happen without making her, or us, so miserable?

And then she'd cry herself out, or whatever triggered the unhappiness passed. My wife would breast-feed her, or she'd fall asleep, or she'd just turn back into Cute Baby. I was totally mystified. Where'd the upset come from? Where did it go?

The baby literature wasn't helpful. There's a tendency to refer to crying as "fussiness," which strikes me as a horrible word. "Fussy" implies oversensitivity, an inability to think rationally. Excuse me, but if I'd spent nine months in an environment where my needs were met before I knew I had needs and suddenly I was thrust out into a world of varying temperatures where nutrition and comfort were more than a millisecond away, where natural forces like sunset and heat waves bewildered and pained me, where I sometimes found myself swaddled in pee and poop, even for five minutes -- hey, baby authors, I'd fuss, too.

My baby wasn't fussy. No baby is fussy. Babies are tiny people trying to grasp an alien situation with very limited comprehension and communication tools. So my wife and I made a decision: we supported our baby's right to cry. We didn't understand it, we didn't like it, but we knew that's just the way it was. We wanted her to feel all of her feelings so that she would grow up emotionally stable and strong and not need a therapist to trace through her childhood and figure out exactly where her narcissistic and dysfunctional parents went off the rails.

But our resolve collapsed in the face of our baby's next crying jag. Gone was all that brave talk about letting her feel all her feelings. All we wanted was to find a way to get her to stop crying. Sigh. It's so hard to be a modern, self-actualized father.

At five weeks, my true role was that of mother's helper. My wife was staying at home to take care of the baby, and my most important job was to do whatever she wanted me to do next. I'm not trying to sound like a hero -- I just don't flatter myself that I was someone with much influence over my daughter's future at that moment. I was just one more regular visitor in her life who couldn't offer breast milk. I was the No Milkman.

It's okay. Whether or not there's a long-term payoff for my daughter, it sure is fun now to hold her, to sing to her, to bathe with her, to watch her eyelashes grow. And best of all, at seven months she cries rarely and briefly. There is a God after all.

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