Last night we went out for dinner with my in-laws to celebrate Matthew’s birthday to a fairly posh but relatively unstuffy French restaurant. When I’d phoned up to make a reservation, I’d checked if we’d be okay bringing Lydia, and their only caveat was that if she cried we took her outside, which sounded fair enough to me.
My big mistake was in mentioning to my in-laws that this was the case – every time my mother-in-law mentioned the meal, it involve her turning to Lydia and telling her that she needed to be a “good baby.” This continued throughout the meal, including on the two minor occasions where L voiced a little displeasure (immediately solved by me standing up with her), when she was immediately shushed by my in-laws despite making barely any noise, and after the meal when she was congratulated on her behaviour as a “good baby”.
Now, as a parent, this is something I constantly get asked. Standing in a supermarket queue, sat on the bus, ordering a coffee – everyone (well, largely late-middle-aged women) always asks “is she a good baby?”
Of course she’s a good baby. She’s a bloody brilliant baby. She’s my baby, so I’m pretty certain that I’d consider her a “good baby” no matter what she was like. But by what parameters are we measuring whether a baby is “good”? Whether she sleeps through the night? Smiles easily at strangers? Hits all her developmental milestones at the right time? Sits still and quietly in the company of adults?
Babies aren’t born good or bad; sure, sometimes they cry and fuss for no discernible reason (especially in those early weeks), but most of the time if they’re upset it’s for a reason, and being unable to fully communicate the only way they can usually do that is through crying, which despite being a totally normal and natural thing for a baby to do is generally seen as “bad”.
I went to the restaurant last night knowing that the odds on Lydia being happy throughout the meal – or even for most of it – weren’t stacked in our favour. We went out an hour or so before she normally goes to bed, we were going to be sitting down for a few hours, and it was going to be noisy and busy and potentially a bit overwhelming for her. If she cried or fussed, I knew it would be because she was either tired, bored, overstimulated or just plain fed up. All natural, normal reactions – us adults can just put a lid on those feelings a bit better than a seven month old can.
As it was, Lydia had a brilliant time (it probably helped that I got her down for a fairly long nap before we went out, and she was dosed up on Nurofen for teething pain); she smiled at and charmed all the waiters, she sat on my lap and tried everything I ate (scallops, rare steak, cheese…), and she was generally captivated by the experience. On the two occasions she grumbled it was because she was getting bored of sitting down, and that was easily solved by standing up with her to look at new things. But if she hadn’t been like that, would that have made her “bad”? If she’d been crying out of boredom, frustration or tiredness then surely we would have been more to blame for taking her into a new situation at a time when she should’ve been in bed, and expecting her to adapt to our grown-up expectations of how you behave in a restaurant – entirely unrealistic expectations given that she’s not even seven months old and is only beginning to discover that there is such a thing as “right” and “wrong”.
One thing that the last few months have taught me is that if she cries it’s for a reason. It’s because she’s fed up of being carried and wants to be on the floor; because her nappy needs changing, or she’s hungry, or tired, or – even worse – overtired; because she’s overstimulated, or bored, or frustrated because she wants to crawl but can’t quite get the arm/leg coordination right; because she just wants to be held by her mummy; or because we’re both concentrating on something else and she wants (understandably) a bit of attention. Yes, it’s embarrassing if it happens on the bus and I can’t calm her quickly enough because she’s too tired and complaining loudly about it; and it’s frustrating when there’s things M and I desperately need to get done and yet can’t because she’s demanding attention. But do these things really make her a bad baby? Of course not. I don’t want her to feel that she’s only a good baby when she fits into our often narrow grown-up world view; I don’t want her to think that being a good girl means not crying or expressing frustration. And I think that’s one of the things that makes me cross – “she’s such a good baby, she didn’t cry at all!” suggests that a baby who cries is bad, when it’s just a baby, being a baby.