I’m on a flight to Montreal for this weekend’s Bodysex Retreat, and across the aisle from me is a mama with her 4 month old baby girl. After laying contently on mama’s lap, the baby is starting to fuss and cry and, being a mama myself, I can tell from the tone of her cry that she’s used to mama meeting her needs. Her cry isn’t really upset, angry or scared, it just sounds like she’s saying “come on mama I want some of your milk now.” The mama, possibly feeling uncomfortable about breast feeding on a busy plane, is trying to soothe her daughter in other ways — rhythmically rocking her and making soft “shushing” sounds in her ear. The baby calms for a bit from this, but after a couple minutes starts to fuss again. Soon I hear the crying stop, followed by a big gulp and contented swallowing sounds. Smiling I’m not surprised at all that mama listened to her baby’s needs and she’s now nursing.
Babies cries are uniquely designed to elicit what they need from their caregivers. If this baby wasn’t used to her mama responding to her needs, she would have skipped fussing and started right away with a full blown angry cry — knowing from experience that gentler cues don’t get her attention. What’s really interesting about this though, is that full blown cries don’t often promote an empathetic response from the caregiver. This is because the tone of the cry is harsh and angry as opposed to slightly distressed and in need of something. It is normal in fact, upon hearing an angry cry, to want to get away from it.
Thinking of this now it occurs to me how much this relates to adults in relationships and that we have similar ways of behaving when we have a need that is not being met. This need might be something that’s lacking in our relationship or it may stem from something that happened elsewhere in our life. Regardless it’s a need and in loving relationships we can manage many potential conflicts by simply responding in the way the mama did with her baby. Noticing a change in the body language of our partner — maybe they seem frazzled, guarded, sad or tense — and putting our arms around them to express our support, smiling in reassurance, or making them a warm drink — can have the same soothing affect as this mama does with her baby on the plane. These little gestures can make the difference between a full blown fight and a moment of shared understanding, empathy and connection.
I see in my work how difficult it is for many of us to reach out and meet the needs of our partners before their unmet needs come out as a full blown crisis. Many of us didn’t have mamas, like this lady, who paid attention to the subtle signs of distress in us and responded before they turned into misbehaviour or fighting from us. On the surface it may seem like she’s just stopping her baby from crying, but the reciprocity of their relationship actually provides the baby with framework for all her future relationships. She’s learning that it’s okay to have needs in relationships, to ask for them in gentle ways, and that when people love us we can trust these needs will be met. The mother on the other hand, is learning the beauty in connection that extends beyond words, relying on non verbal cues and body language to meet the needs of another human being. What excites me the most about witnessing this interaction, is the reminder that it’s never too late to treat the important people in our lives the way this mama is treating her baby. <3