I Feel You, Bebe (Finding Empathy)

I’d say my profoundest discovery about the postpartum period is this: human evolution has developed us mamas to empathize and identify with our new babies when they need it most.

I’m talking about that feeling of rawness and overwhelm, like the world is too big, too bright, too loud. I wrote in the past about this experience with my daughter. The birth leaves you open, vulnerable and sensitive. But this has a PURPOSE! It helps us to empathize with our newborn, to see the world as if through his or her eyes. To understand how vulnerable our new baby really is, even though he seems fine because he sleeps through everything. Sleeping may be just coping, and he needs more sheltering in that moment.

As a second-timer, I’ve done everything sooner and on the surface have seemed tougher than before — getting out of the house, having adult conversations, seeing friends, doing chores. But then I have a postpartum moment and have to remind myself to take it easy.

3bebeAt week two or three, taking advantage of my husband’s time away from work, we all went out for breakfast and later lunch in the same day. As I sat in the restaurant, trying to eat my rice over baby’s sleeping head, I felt a quiver. Then he awoke and started to fuss. I struggled to arrange myself to nurse him. In the sweaty flurry I started to panic. Latch, sigh, relief. But then, as I looked into his big, shiny eyes, I saw his smallness, his fear, and it reflected my own. It’s a cliche, but I really felt the world spinning around us. I felt dizzy. I felt scared! I wanted to just be home. I felt overwhelmed, facing an impossible journey back to the car, up the hill, up the stairs to safety.

So many times, in the midst of mama life, I feel this again. When the room gets to full of loud, bustling adults. When we’re away from home for too long. When the park gets a little dark in the evening with a few unknown men maybe lurking outside. When my older daughter falls off the swing, skins her knee, is scared, and I need to muster my mama energy to comfort her. I feel like a small, lost child myself. Looking into my newborn’s face pierces me, shows me the vulnerable babies we both are. Scary, but also extremely powerful, is the knowledge that I am the mama who is here to comfort and care for us both.

Yesterday was the first day back to preschool after the summer break. I wrote last spring about the separation experience when my daughter first started school. Those stormy days are back again. School is familiar, with teachers, friends, and a cozy space she knows well. But there are new experiences and new friends, too. The very first day was Hiking Day, when the older children spend the entire morning hiking in Glen Canyon Park. Wow, it really was hiking! I went along, too, and we hiked for almost two hours . . . up a mountain, sliding down the slippery slopes in a crab-walk, through tree tunnels, holding hands on balance beams over rivers, climbing up tree roots with both hands. It was intense. I was so inspired by my daughter’s strength and stamina. We said our good-byes over lunch, and I headed home with baby bro. She walked back the whole length of the canyon, with three other children and a teacher, to catch the bus back to school for the afternoon. The canyon, the hiking, the bus trip. All new on the first day. What an accomplishment.

She played it cool all afternoon at school, playing in the tranquil and green back garden. But last night, and really all this week, the smallest thing sends her into a stormy tantrum. Crying, moaning, sobbing. It had been a long time of calm stability, as our life has been simple and predictable. Change isn’t easy.

Which brings me back to empathy. My daughter needs mine, too; needs me to hold her and love her when she cries and needs me to not get frustrated by her demands. Those demands are just the smokescreen distracting me from what is at the heart. She needs to cry in my arms. Maybe she needs to feel like a baby at home with me while she’s working so hard at being a big girl out there in the world. It is so hard to remember this! So hard to be patient and sensitive when I’m overtired and swirling in the storm of sleepless baby care myself.

It drives me crazy when she talks in that baby voice, and I show it. I dwell longer than I should on how it bugged me when she and her friend jumped on my bed when I asked them not to (invaded my nest). She starts to say she doesn’t want to play with that friend. When she plays too rough (or loves too hard) with the baby I roar up, too quick to anger. Ugh, the mixed-up confusion of my baby empathy turning me against my older child! Like a lion mama I defend my baby, led by my gut; at the worst times I feel repelled by my own older child. In response, she is sometimes desperate to please me, sometimes resists me loudly. And the tantrums come.

It’s funny, though, the catharsis after a storm, after a good cry. Even if she’s the one crying, I feel a release and a relief holding her in my arms. We cut through all the surface stuff, how fake and materialistic our modern lives can be, with such unnecessary expectations that distract us (Keep clean, be on time, be organized, keep it together). We get down to the profound stuff, the real stuff. How our connection will guide us along, through the growing pains and the confusion. When she doesn’t know what she’s feeling and I’m trying to figure it out. When both babies are crying at once, and I want to scream, too. I have to dig deep to find it, the empathy. On one hand, I have this chemical, biological, automatic empathy for the tiny vulnerable baby. And on the other, the major effort it takes to remember that my yelling, fist-pounding toddler has a tiny baby inside her, too. Who just needs to cry in my arms and feel comfort.

A friend shared this article this week, on helping children feel their emotions in moments of conflict, which helped, too.

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