She cries out in the night, the long mournful wail of the weary. Her tears stain my pajamas as I comfort her in the rocker with an urgency not usually associated with lounge furniture. My tired eyes prick with non-existent tears, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a drink of water. I hold her tighter to my chest willing her body to reveal to me the source of her sorrow.
Is it pain?
Is she over-tired?
Unhappy, lonely, scared, or all at once?
I feel my heart beating violently in my chest, but I can only hear her whimpers. Desperately, my mind reviews the usual suspects for why babies cry out in the middle of the night. I changed her diaper while she bawled. I nursed her through her tears, but her gasping sobs made it impossible for her to latch. I patted her, rocked her, sung to her, and danced with her. My legs ache, begging me to take them to bed, but I can’t leave her. Her face tightens with a fresh wave of agony.
Is it her teeth?
Does she have diaper rash?
She grips my finger as she cries harder, confused as to why I’m not taking away the pain when I’ve always been able to comfort her before. Feeling completely obsolete, I would give everything I have to absorb her discomfort, draining her of all that is wrong in her world, leaving her pristine, pure and tranquil. Her eyes, wild and unfocused, seek mine in the quiet moments between wails. I grasp deep in my soul for answers to her questions, but find only guilt that I can’t stop her tears.
Finally, my thoughts slow and I am flooded with a sense of calm, resigning myself to her fate. She is crying because right now she needs to cry, and she needs me to hold her and suffer along with her. Every instinct in my body tells me to fix her, but I can’t. So I rock harder and sing longer, letting her know I’m there: that I’ll always be there.
It occurs to me that this is parenting in microcosm.
Her whole life she will face fear, danger, and heartache. She will face them alone, and there will be times when I can merely watch and hold her as she succumbs to those hazards. She will cry, and writhe, and hurt, and flail. I won’t be able to take away her pain then any more than I can now as she lays helpless in my arms. There are some tears that can’t be stifled, only dried, and some pain that must be endured.
My calling as her parent isn’t to rescue her from the agony of life, but rather to experience it along with her. To hold her, and rock her, the way I did during her infancy, until it passes. Because it always passes, like storms battering their way to blue skies.
Slowly and inevitably she relaxes in my arms, her swollen face resting peacefully, her eyelids dancing as she sleeps. Apart from the gentle sobs still shuddering through her body like aftershocks, it’s as if the last hour never happened. My arms are weak from clutching her to me, but I don’t put her to bed. I continue rocking, long after she’s gone still and quiet, because I need the comfort too.
The hardest thing about parenting is accepting that there are nights when you will fail. No matter how valiantly you struggle, some questions have no answers, some problems have no solutions. All you can do is tell them you love them, wrap your arms around them, and cry along with them until it’s over and you can both sleep again.
Hopefully these nights will become fewer and farther between as she grows, both of us deriving strength from each endeavor, but these are the times I feel most like a parent: hopelessly and helplessly giving everything I have to my child, even when I have nothing left to give.
This is parenting.