Temperament and the Elusive Concept of Normality
by Alice Shannon
One morning 25 years ago, as I was out walking my newborn son, I was stopped by a woman who insisted on fussing and fawning over him. I was irritable and exhausted from yet another night of interrupted sleep, but, for a few moments, I was as proud and pleased as any new mother. Then she asked if Ryan was a "good" baby. Already I knew the definition of such a baby--an infant who's generally content, easily soothed, and sleeps a lot, especially at night. I don't remember my reply. I only remember my heartsick awareness that my son had none of the characteristics of a "good" baby.
Ryan was a welcome and much-loved infant, born after a healthy pregnancy and uncomplicated labor. We were fortunate to have my mother helping us out, and we were all thrilled and enthralled by Ryan. But we were soon too utterly worn out to maintain those positive feelings. One tiny but fierce infant managed to exhaust three healthy adults.
Child-development books claim that newborns spend most of their time sleeping. My newborn didn't. Fretfully awake much of the time, he was easily upset and hard to soothe. It wasn't unusual for him to cry as I put him into his car seat, and to continue crying throughout an entire ride, debunking the notion that car rides calm fussy babies. Anything, it seemed, could upset Ryan--dressing or undressing him, getting him in and out of the bath, changing a wet or soiled diaper, attending to him or letting him be. He cried before going to sleep, sometimes inconsolably. Holding him, nursing him, rocking him, or walking him often didn't help.
Ryan was physically healthy. He never had so much as a cold during his first year, and he was advanced in motor development. Yet when his first birthday came and went and life with him was as difficult as ever, I felt a sobering dread at the prospect of year upon year much like the one I'd just endured. I felt a growing sense of incompetence as a mother. A common assumption, then and now, is that all infants are born equally receptive and responsive to the influence of their caregivers, particularly their mothers. Implicit in this idea is another, more libelous, assumption: a baby's level of contentment, feeding habits, and sleep patterns reflect maternal skill, or lack thereof. Behind a difficult baby is, perhaps, a mother who hasn't "bonded well," or whose depression and anxiety are affecting her child.