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The Most Stressful Sound in the World

His Hand and Mine

I thought there was nothing more stressful than the incessant sound of a baby crying.

But I found out there is: the sound of your baby crying.

The first time I heard Mark cry, he was barely out of the womb, still attached to me by the umbilical cord. His screams were a relief for both of us at the time: I no longer had to push, the pain was mostly over and the baby had made a successful entry into the world. And judging by the way he sounded, he was as shocked as me that he was done baking—mission accomplished, landing successful on that sunny fall morning of October 12.

Mark didn’t cry long—or maybe I don’t remember, I was high on adrenaline and busy getting stitched up and taking pictures of my placenta (too much information…?).

A few minutes after birth, baby boy was placed against my skin and I was breastfeeding. He remained quietly focused on his first baby task—latching and drinking—and it seemed to sooth him. “Things are going well,” I naively thought. “What a quiet baby!”

I heard plenty of babies crying the night we spent at the hospital, since all the new parents had their newborns with them in the room. One would start and the others would follow. It didn’t bother me much: I was too tired to care, too busy with Mark to notice the ballet of mothers pacing the hallway with wailing babies in their arms.

At the time, my only worry was that I would fall asleep and not hear Mark cry.

Yeah, right, as if. Mark was only a few hours old but boy, he was loud! He screamed for food a few times that day. “Whenever a baby cries, it’s because he needs something and you have to attend to his needs immediately,” the nurse advised, judging that I wasn’t pulling my breast out for Mark fast enough.

But I didn’t know his specific needs. See, babies don’t come with instruction manuals, or if they do, my copy was lost in the mail.

I knew the basics: babies cry because they are hungry, because they are wet, because they are cold, because they want to be picked up and comforted… These are a few options among many, and figuring out the right one and fixing the problem may take precious minutes during which the baby is crying at full volume.

And minutes with a baby crying feels like hours.

Baby cries are simply impossible to ignore. First, for such tiny creatures, they are incredibly loud. I can hear Mark crying from anywhere in the house—okay, we don’t live in a castle, but still! But most importantly, a crying baby triggers some kind of primal emotional instinct: “something is broken; must fix it.”

But babies cry, that’s the way it is. You can’t prevent them from crying, even if you always had food ready, even if you changed him before he even realized his diaper was uncomfortably soaked, even if you maintained the room at optimum temperature, even if you were always there.

At first, Mark mostly cried because he was hungry. He had no feeding schedule so he had to tell me when he wanted milk. It was simple enough though: he would cry, I would come, he would latch and drink and we would be the picture of joy, happiness and parenthood. He would even fall asleep at my breast—how convenient, I just had to put him back in his crib after feeding!

You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?

For a week or so, yeah, I kind of did.

Then, Mark starting crying because he was still hungry after breastfeeding. We didn’t know it at the time, but some babies do “cluster feeds”, periods where they constantly breastfeed for about three hours or so. I had no idea Mark could still be hungry after a long breastfeeding session, so feeding him again wasn’t the main “fixing option” in my mind.

Eventually, we figured out that the poor kid was still hungry and we started to top up breastfeeding with formula. It saved our sanity because trust me, an unhappy baby makes for two unhappy and stressed out parents.

Little by little we also learned to decode Mark’s cries. There is the unmistakable “I’m hungry” cry that actually sounds like “I’m hungry” (我饿) in Mandarin. There is the “man, I just woke up and whoever put me to sleep had left and I freaked out” cry. There is the “I’m overtired” cry. There is the “I don’t like that” cry, for instance when I change him and my hands are cold.

Mostly, I learned not to freak out when I hear Mar cry. Sure, I want him to be a happy baby and I don’t want him to have to cry to communicate but hey, that’s what babies do. I cannot anticipate all his needs, we are both learning. Sure, sometimes he cries for two minutes while I get the bottle ready, while I take a bathroom break, when he is in the car or when neither of us can pick him up right away for many reasons.

We make sure he is safe and that there is nothing serious bothering him.

And life goes on.

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