I think babies get a bad reputation sometimes. It’s a good thing they have mini-everything and cuteness going for them ’cause if they didn’t it’d be pretty miserable being around them when they get all needy, which is most of the time for them.
I’m speaking from a totally unexperienced point of view, of course. I’ve never had any babies and the limited exposure to them has been via my cousins’ kids, who I consider to be nieces and nephews. They are super cute and they call me Cate Emo. “Emo” is “aunt” in Korean. How appropriate for me.
Today I got to babysit my niece, Natalie, while my cousin took her son (Natalie’s older brother), Noah, to his doctor’s appointment. Natalie is just about 11 months old. She recently learned how to stand on her own and will probably be walking very soon. I found out today that she’s learned to smile for the camera. What a girly girl. And she does this bubble thing with her mouth where she keeps saying “mah mah” as she blows a spit bubble in repetitive fashion. It’s a pretty cool talent for an 11 month old.
When I arrived at their home today, Natalie gave me a stare-down, as she usually does. I wish I saw her more often, but with our varying schedules, I only really get to see them once every few weeks even though they only live 5 blocks away. So she did her checking me out thing… Who is this woman… I’ve seen her before but it’s been awhile… Is she going to stay around… What does she want… It’s pretty hilarious and makes me laugh every time. Sometimes it makes me feel self-conscious. She has this way of looking into your eyes that can pierce your soul. But after a bit, she relaxes and goes about her business. Today, business was finishing up mangoes and she seemed pretty content. As soon as her mom started to put on her jacket though, she sensed that mom was leaving and she started to cry a bit. Separation anxiety. Most babies go through it. I was in for a long couple of hours ahead, or so I thought.
Natalie can be a feisty little girl. She’s generally pretty happy but when she’s upset, she’ll give it to you. I mean, really give it to you, in such a way that makes you regret your existence. Not hers. Yours. So I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen today in our alone time together. I was hoping for the best and did my best to be cheery and interesting.
Babies have a way of making you absolutely put your guards down. Before I knew it, I was squealing with my voice, saying all kinds of things to engage with Natalie… Do you like mangoes, Natalie? Look! You’re eating with a fork all by yourself! Do you want more? Are you all done? Let’s go play! What’s that? A book? Do you wanna read? Where are you going? As the minutes passed, I realized, Natalie is totally capable of playing by herself. She was completely amused with a couple of toys she found in her brother’s room and was occupying herself with these little gadgets, some of which played music (scary electronic music, if you ask me, and playing out-of-tune classical music that will totally drive you crazy if more than one of those toys are playing at the same time) and interacted with her as she pushed some buttons.
What I noticed during our time together, however, is that though she was content playing by herself, whenever she was amused by something or found something delightful, she always looked up and made eye contact with me. It’s like she wanted me to know that she was enjoying the toy and it was important to her that I know it and share in her delight. I’d look at her, smile and say some gibberish, affirming her, and then she’d go right back to playing. She did this numerous times during our time together. Natalie never hesitated to connect with me when she saw something or did something that brought her pleasure. She looked me straight in the eyes and smiled.
A couple of times, I had to go to the living room to grab something so I’d say to Natalie, “I’ll be right back okay?” (And before all you moms freak out that I left her in the room by herself, this was literally 10 seconds as I grabbed her water bottle and my phone to answer her mom calling me.) Interestingly, as soon as I started to walk towards the door, Natalie saw that I was walking away from her and she started to yell… almost cry. I’d turn around to reassure her that I was right there and she’d be looking straight into my eyes and her entire body language was saying, Don’t leave me. She wasn’t afraid to tell me exactly how she felt at that moment at the prospect of me leaving her side for even 10 seconds. I talked through the entire 10 seconds just to let her know that I was nearby and coming back soon. She was totally fine as soon as I came back.
I get pretty reflective when I’m around kids. I get pretty reflective when I’m around adults, too. (I’m just reflective in general.) I have to admit, I got a little overwhelmed today while spending some quality time with Natalie. But overwhelmed in a good way. I was overwhelmed by Natalie’s lack of inhibition as she marveled at simple things and expressed her acceptance and love towards me. I was also amazed at her very basic and effective way of connecting with me, by looking into my eyes and also embracing me. I loved the way she honestly let me know when she was happy and when she was upset. And the girl can’t even talk yet.
Then I started to think about when I lost that part of my self.
…When I stopped being comfortable looking into a person’s eyes.
…When I stopped embracing a person to show them affection.
…When I stopped expressing the desires of my heart.
It seems that pretty early on, we learn to cover our true selves with all sorts of defenses and walls until we just think that’s the way we really are. And that’s all we know, so we stop looking inside and stifle that child who hasn’t been burned by life and isn’t thinking very much at all about what other people think.
I used to think when people mentioned the innocence of a child, they were saying that children don’t do anything wrong. But one babysitting session and you realize quickly that even 11 month olds (and even younger!) do plenty of wrong things and can be intentionally rebellious because they realize they can be. Now I’m starting to think, the innocence of children has more to do with how true they are to themselves before life clothes them in insecurities, fears, approval and the like.
It’s a beautiful thing.
So, the next time I have an urge to say, “Stop being a baby” to someone, I’m gonna think twice about saying it.