Last weekend I attended a conference. While I was allowed to bring a babysitter on-site to care for my nursing newborn, I wasn’t supposed to bring my baby into the conference itself. Or that was the rule until I cited New York’s Civil Rights Law that said I could breastfeed a baby in any public or private location. Period. I cited the law for a variety of reasons from the fact that I believe in my right to breastfeed and feed my baby without having to hide in some back room to that I want to have my cake and eat it too: attend my conference and nurse my newborn who needs to nurse roughly every 30-45 minutes (neither one of my children seem to be the kind of babies who nurse every two hours.).
But I also cited the law because I knew it could work - that I could have my baby nestled in her Ergo carrier as she nursed and napped while I learned all kinds of new things and talked to all kinds of people. I didn’t say that I carry her all over town not disturbing fellow subway passengers or New York Public Library patrons. I didn’t mention that I did the same with my son, even taking him to midnight Christmas Eve Mass where he slept the entire time and most people didn’t even realize he was there. I didn’t mention that in our society, we seem to have an idea about babies and it’s that mainly they cry a lot in movie theaters and on airplanes and in general, disturb the peace. I have taken my babies to movie theaters and on airplanes – a lot of them actually – and generally, my babies nurse and nap.
So I attended my conference with my daughter in her Ergo carrier where she nursed and napped and was her content little self. Sure enough, many people didn’t even realize she was there. And many people did. Many of these people came up and told me what a good baby I had. I know they meant it as a compliment, but it bothered me. I said thank you, because I knew they meant it as a compliment, but I said it with a sinking sick feeling in my stomach. They meant well, but they had labeled my daughter nonetheless.
When you attend a conference about anything, the people are there to discuss whatever the conference is about. It isn’t the time to launch a discussion about the labels we give children. Or maybe I should have. Maybe I should have pointed out, that my newborn daughter was just doing what babies do: nursing, napping, and dirtying her diaper. When she wakes up, she coos, smiles and laughs. When she’s had too much stimulation or noise or elderly ladies with too much perfume who stick their face next to hers, she cries and fusses. She’s a baby. She does the things that babies do and she communicates in the ways that babies communicate. It doesn’t make her good.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t think she’s extraordinary. But I’m her mother. If she fit the description of a “bad” baby – which seems to be the baby who is not quiet or asleep – I’d still think she was extraordinary. I couldn’t help but feel for the babies who have reason to cry, who suffer from colic, allergies, or eczema or are just uncomfortable babies who express their discomfort. Would that make those babies bad or difficult? It seems ludicrous to label a baby bad, but I’ve met the people who have done it – who have called their three month old naughty because he wouldn’t go to sleep in his crib by himself and wanted to be nursed to sleep. But he wasn’t naughty. He was a baby. And his parents had expectations that he didn’t meet.
Which is often the case when we label children. It isn’t about the child; it’s about the parent’s unmet expectations. Children just express themselves in the only way they know to express themselves: they cry, yell, throw things, hit, kick, get silly, make faces, smile, laugh, and often do all of it in a matter of minutes. If we don’t like the way they are expressing themselves, then it’s our job to teach them age appropriate ways to do so, meet their needs and often times, get to the source of the behavior. But labeling – even positive labels like being a “good” baby – only creates a vicious cycle where no one wins.
Not that we haven’t been guilty of it in my house. My husband one night when he wasn’t feeling well told my son, that he was making too much noise. Except my son wasn’t, I pointed out to my husband. My husband just wasn’t feeling well. I’ve caught myself too – battling my own hunger and fatigue at the end of the day, but telling my son he’s challenging and then having to apologize. Because he’s not. He’s three and doing what three year olds do. And as his tired and hungry parent, I’m the one who’s challenged. I’m the one who in that moment feels unprepared and unable to handle a variety of moods and sudden shifts in behavior.
I realized then that labels are projections, not descriptions, whether it’s calling a baby good, a preschooler challenging or a teenager difficult. It’s irresponsible. It makes parents the victims of their child’s behavior, and it doesn’t teach the child to be responsible, just to blame the difficulty of the situation on the behavior of another human being. If we as parents can remember to take a step back and say, “Okay, I’m hungry, tired, low on patience (or whatever the case may be) and you clearly need something. Maybe we can have a do over or brainstorm other ways to handle this situation” then we’re honest and can avoid falling into the trap of playground name calling behavior, which is all labeling is after all.