Beloved Stranger


Temperament and the Elusive Concept of Normality

May/June 2005


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…

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