A few weeks before our baby was born, I suddenly remembered that babies cry.
How had I managed to forget?
Somehow the fact had eluded me in all the reading and dreaming I had done since becoming pregnant. Crying, if it occurred to me, simply featured in the limited repertoire of newborn actions: coo, poo, kick, spit-up, cry.
Then one evening at the close of the third trimester, I have this realization.
“Do you know what I’ve just realized?” I ask my husband. I pause for effect. “Babies cry.”
Eric looks bemused. His face says, “And?”
My earth-shattering realization did not land with the drama I’d experienced.
“I mean, I know that babies cry,” I go on. “But I’ve just realized that our baby will probably cry.”
He picked the correct key term to highlight.
“Right,” I hedge. “Probably a lot.”
I don’t really believe it, though, so I call up a few imaginary scenes, testing them: baby in crib, crying; baby in crowd, crying; baby in my arms, crying. Now the realization is beginning to have some teeth.
“I wonder if that will be hard for me?”
A cry was our first proof that our baby was alive.
It rent the silence in the operating room—that impossibly tense hum that had taken hold after the nurse’s warning, “You’re going to feel some tugging now,” and the doctor’s ominous question to the crowd on the other side of the blue curtain, “Where’s the head? Can anyone find the head?”
A feeling like digging nudges through the numbness between my hips, and a heavy pause opens up as we all wait for an answer in the form of a baby.
That’s when I start panicking, trying to quiet the nightmare scenarios arriving faster than I can visualize them: a sideshow pregnancy—baby with no head—a phantom pregnancy—no baby at all.
After a pregnancy lasting past forty-two weeks, four days of prodromal labor, eighteen hours of labor, meconium in the waters, a stalled dilation, baby’s heart rate in crisis, and the urgency of this unwanted cesarean, it seems possible to me that our baby might actually disappear, right here, in the middle of its birth. I remember thinking, “Oh God, what if they can’t find her?” (I was sure it was a girl.)
Then he cried.
They never lifted the baby up above the curtain. I never saw those squished eyes blinking against the light for the very first time. They never even announced, “It’s a boy!”
There was just this cry, rising toward the blue lights overhead, then traveling across the room, escalating louder the further they take the baby from us.
“6:35,” someone notes the time aloud.
My eyes find Eric’s—the only part of his face visible between surgical mask and cap—and we’re both crying too.
A baby’s tear ducts continue to develop after birth, so while a baby will cry, those cries might not release any actual tears for several weeks.
Roland cries his first tear when he is twenty-six days old—the same day he laughs for the first time.
But what about the mothers?
The books do not warn us sufficiently about the development of our tears.
After Roland is born, I cry every single day for several weeks.
It’s as if those tears in the operating room have opened up in me a new era of crying. I cry on the phone, leaving a voicemail, my emotions creeping up and tackling me halfway through a sentence. I cry during dinner, tears dropping into the soup turning cold on the table. I cry silently in the dark after we turn out the lights, my tears pooling in the ear pressed against the pillow.
“I’m not even sad,” I reassure Eric, yet I cry in the back seat of the car on the way to the doctor’s office—the only place I venture for that whole first month. And as I cry, I wonder, “Could I have post-partum depression?”
No. It’s not that.
These are just tears—just tears more complex than any I’ve ever wept before, in which my emotions are so mingled, they’re almost dampened, and I can no longer parse what I’m feeling. Not knowing makes me cry more.
Above all, I cry when my baby cries: I’ve got him in the carrier, cradled against my heart, hoping that nearness will help him stop crying. (I’d read that babies who are worn cry 40 – 60% less.) Instead, his tears turn contagious, and I join him.
I was utterly unready for this: how much his tears will cost me.
When I’d first wondered if the baby’s crying would be hard for me, I was chiefly concerned with how his crying would effect others, and how that might be hard for me. (It is. On an early visit, a dear friend finally had to threaten me, “If you apologize one more time for your son’s crying, I’m going to fine you.”)
But I’d never worried about how it might be hard for me, just me, especially me, to hear him cry. In fact, whenever I’d been told that familiar reassurance, “It’s different when it’s yours,” I’d heard a promise that baby’s crying—much like baby’s prospective tantrums—wouldn’t bother me so much when it was my baby.
Of course any mother knows that the opposite is true. Yes, “it’s different”; it’s so much worse. Another baby’s crying can pierce your skull. When your baby cries, it pierces your heart.
“And a sword shall pierce your own heart, too.” I think of this line a lot those early weeks, this second Annunciation Mary receives after the promise of her child. She will suffer because he will suffer. This must be the mother’s lot.
So I cried because he cried.
When I think back now on all those first tears of motherhood, I see what I couldn’t see then.
Then, each time I cried, I worried, “Do I love him enough?” I wondered if I felt the way a mother should feel. I’d been expecting sheer euphoria after birth. Instead, my emotions were as complicated as the delivery that had brought him here. I knew moments of joy and delight, definitely, but I also had tears. Each tear seemed like a strike against me.
Now, as my still-tiny boy rounds the corner from “newborn” to “infant,” I recall that rich phrase from the early Christian and mystical traditions: “the gift of tears.”
In the fifth century, the Desert Father, Abba Poemen taught his followers, “one who wishes to acquire the virtues acquires them with tears. Weeping is the way that the Scriptures and the Fathers give us, when they say: ‘Weep!’ Truly, there is no other way than this.”
In the West, these Desert teachings give way to penthos, “compunction.” The Eastern church preserves a more inviting path through charmolypi: “mourning joy,” or “joy-making sorrow.”
This is the gift of tears: when sorrow cracks the heart open enough to allow joy to come flooding in.
Perhaps all those tears of mine were teaching me how to love my baby. (And I do love him; I love him so much it makes me cry.) They were joy-making sorrow, the gift of tears.
No wonder I can’t stop thinking about that first moment in the operating room. When he cried, we learned that he was born. At last: our son.
When I cried, I was being born, too. At last: his mother.
Guest post written by Kristin LeMay. Kristin is the author of I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson (Paraclete Press). Previous writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Essay Daily, Harvard Theological Review, Brevity, The Cresset, and other venues. She lives in the Appalachian foothills with her husband, Eric, their son, Roland, and their kitten, Sailor (who preferred life before the son came along. Kristin and Eric, on the other hand could not be happier). Visit her website at www.kristinlemay.org.
Photo by Laurie Carrozzino.