Holidays are exciting enough on their own—the food, the giving and receiving of gifts, seeing family you perhaps haven’t seen in as long as half a year or more. Add a new baby to the mix, though, and the excitement builds. Especially if it’s the parents’ first child, or the grandparents’ first grandchild, or only the first or second of that child’s generation. And, in my case—because I’m “out”—even more so if your family knows you’re a parent after loss and infertility. Now, piled on top of the regular holiday cheer everyone is used to, is the thrill of seeing the new baby. Everyone wants to see the baby, touch the baby, hold the baby, squeal with delight in the poor baby’s face.
I’m not saying any of this is necessarily wrong. In fact, I’ve even been one of those “everyone.” Several times. But as a new mama, I’ve got a different perspective on it—and I’m setting some ground rules.
Last month, after a solid two-hour nap, I packed my son into the car along with two diaper bags full of I-couldn’t-even-tell-you-what and drove to my brother’s place for Thanksgiving dinner. Beyond the front door was a small space, already warm with the heat of so many people in too-small a space. It was loud. There was a chorus of exclamations about the baby from nearly everyone in the room (save for some of my brother’s girlfriend’s family whom I didn’t know). I navigated through the living room to the kitchen, saying my hellos as I went, hyper-aware of how stiff my son’s back had become and of the little ball of shirt fabric he was clutching at the nape of my neck.
My uncle reached out for him, and I—reluctantly and against my better judgement—let go. My uncle bounced him on his hip, talking to him, but my son’s gaze was unfocused and his eyes darted from person to person. At about the thirty-second mark, he hit his max and started crying. Full-on sobbing—this, coming from the child who rarely cries even when he’s held by people he’s never met. I reached out for my baby, internally berating myself for not heeding his body language, and my uncle handed him back to me after a few moments. As I quickly darted through the kitchen to the back porch (the only place I could think of in a pinch that would help him calm down), I overheard my uncle saying:
“If you only let him cry once in a while, he’d be fine…”
Babies cry because they have no other way of communicating. They can’t speak in full, coherent sentences—or even at all, sometimes—to tell you they’re hungry, or tired, or scared, or feeling unwell. Yes, babies eventually realize that crying can get your attention and they may learn it as a cause-and-effect type of situation. Yes, my son obviously needs to feel comfortable around people other than myself or my husband. But if he’s crying or pushing away from someone or even saying a basic “no,” I don’t think he should be forced to feel comfortable with them—instead, I want him to feel as much when he’s ready.
It’s not about him manipulating me. It’s about consent.
Unless contact is warranted in an emergency situation (he’s about to eat a phone charger or climb off the edge of a sofa) or caretaking situation (I’ll be facing this soon enough in the new year as my son enters daycare), I won’t force it nor will I allow anyone else to force it if my ten-month-old baby doesn’t want someone else to hug or hold him. Especially at his age, when he’s crawling well but still being carried, pulling up and standing but not yet walking—he is not entirely able to come and go as quickly as he pleases. When I walk into a room with him on my hip, I am the stand-in for his lack of complete mobility. If someone reaches for him and he leans back in disagreement, I can and will refuse to pass him off to someone when he might otherwise simply turn or run away. Right now, his comfort level is still somewhat my responsibility. When he’s a toddler, he’ll eventually be old enough to walk and get himself around, but I’ll still reinforce his personal space if someone asks for a hug and he hesitates. If he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have to.
Allowing my child to choose whether or not he is held by someone else is just a small piece, the very beginning, of what I perceive to be a much larger concept. I don’t want him to think he has to show love or affection to someone if he doesn’t want to—holiday or no holiday. And by the same token, I don’t want him to think others should have to show him love and affection if they don’t want to, either. I want him to go through childhood respecting others’ space, and knowing that it’s okay to say no himself—even if it’s a family member. I want him to understand, as he matures into an older child, a teenager, a young adult, that touching someone who says “no” is not appropriate. I want him to understand at all those ages that it’s wrong for someone to touch him when he says no, and that he should tell me. To respect and be respected—I don’t think that’s too much to ask. And I don’t think there’s such a thing as starting too early.
So this Christmas, or next year at his birthday party, or at any of the holiday gatherings to come…if you ask me if you can hold my son, or if you ask him for a hug, and the answer is “no,” don’t be offended. Just let him do what he’s comfortable with—chances are next time that he’ll trust you more, and maybe the answer will be “yes” instead.