Because they don’t talk. Because we support them. Because they need so much. Because we are all they have.
It is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to remember that our babies are people too. They have their own needs, wants, and struggles.
My partner experienced this recently when he kindly offered to take our four-month-old son for a while so could relax.
Our four-month-old sleep-regression-and-developmental-leap-having son.
He was not the easiest he has ever been.
My boyfriend remarked in his wisdom that he could see how people sometimes forget that babies are people.
My boyfriend, obviously, is not alone in this. We had spoken about it. I have had that feeling. We all have that feeling.
Little Baby “Thoughts”
While we’ll never know exactly what babies think—although that’s not quite the right word—I try to put myself in their shoes. I try to think of having a pain and not knowing how to resolve it. I try to think of being alone and not knowing if I’ll ever see anyone again. I try to think of needing help, and the people I care for most withholding.
Of course, my son’s thoughts are nowhere close to this coherent. Babies are people, too, but he has just come out of creature mode. He is just waking up to the world. His emotional system is just coming online, and he can begin to respond with reactions other than fight, flight, freeze or faint.
But even without the cognition, the important thing is there. The feelings are there.
And to me, they sound very difficult and very frustrating.
No Theory of Mind
I try not to go in the other direction, either. There are people who prescribe far more cognitive abilities to children than they have. I probably tend on this side, though I can usually catch myself.
Infants don’t have a theory of mind—they don’t know that you’re making choices and thinking thoughts different and independent from theirs. They don’t understand your motivations.
When my son is uncomfortable or in pain, I sometimes wonder if he is thinking, “Why won’t you just solve this? You’re so big, so strong. You can do so much. Please make this pain stop.”
But he doesn’t think that. He just feels: “I don’t want this!”
As he ages, he may start assigning blame. It will have to do with his temperament, and the sort of culture we set up in our household. Whether he blames me, himself, the world, or realizes that there is no need to sign blame, our ideas and attitudes towards are discomfort are going to have some effect on him.
But for now, my goal is just to remember that he is a person. He is not an inanimate objects that I can force my desires on, and he is not a full grown adult prescribing malintent. He’s neither a manipulative psychopath trying to pull from me every resource that I have nor plant requiring just a bit of water and a touch of sun.
All that I can do is respond consistently to his cues. This doesn’t mean perfectly, and this doesn’t mean immediately. It means recognizing that he is trying to communicate his needs and wants to me and responding to them sensitively.
Sometimes, he will cry while he is in my arms, but if he is with me, he will be fine. And if I can see him and stay with him there without demanding he feel some other way, then I will, too.