thing you shouldn’t say:
(especially if you’re a big movie star)
“MY BABY IS A BLOB!”
“What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient.”
I THINK I CAN SAFELY SAY THAT THE LAST PERSON IN THE WORLD I would ever want to even think about comparing myself to is Angelina Jolie. Without a doubt, it’s a lose, lose (lose, lose, lose) proposition. But since we were both pregnant at the same time, gave birth just weeks apart and photos of her everywhere seemed to be mocking me and my 63 pound weight gain—it was hard not to do. “At least her face got a little fuller too,” I had tried to reassure myself, obviously grasping at straws. But then I came across this headline and instantly felt better:
Angelina Jolie: Newborn Daughter Shiloh Is a ‘Blob’
Better in a kind of pathetic, self-righteous way, as in At least I don’t think my baby is a blob! Curious, I clicked on the link and found that what Angelina had actually said was, “I feel so much more for Madd and Zee [Maddox and Zahara] because they’re survivors, they came through so much. Shiloh seemed so privileged from the moment she was born. I have less inclination to feel for her…I met my other kids when they were 6 months old, they came with a personality. A newborn really is this…Yes, a blob!” 
You gotta hand it to her, I’d thought, at least she doesn’t mince words. Nonetheless, my heart went out to poor Shiloh! It seemed like her mom couldn’t conjure any empathy for her daughter because she wasn’t an orphan born into abject poverty—as if being a helpless newborn totally at the mercy of your parents (and their own screwed up ways of seeing the world) wasn’t enough. For Shiloh’s sake, I couldn’t help but wish Angelina had been at, what turned out to be, our first truly controversial RIE class a couple of weeks earlier—as if the biggest movie star in the world joining us on that little deck in Silverlake was a remote possibility. Nonetheless, I thought that the class could actually have helped transform Shiloh from a blob into an extremely vulnerable and sensitive soul in the eyes of her mother. Even for those of us who would never have dreamed to think of our newborns as anything other than precious little angels whose every whimper was our command, it was during that class that I realized how much I had actually been treating Julsie somewhat like a blob myself. (Which was certainly not the one thing I wanted to have in common with Angelina— other than being female.)
As usual, we were all sitting around the deck trying to focus on the babies when one of the moms rather innocently said to her husband Barry, “I think David’s diaper needs to be changed.”
“Should I get the diaper bag?” Barry asked, ready to jump into action.
“Alexa,” our teacher Sharon calmly said, “You’re welcome to use the changing table inside.”
“Oh thanks…” Alexa replied while leaning over David and then rolling him over and pulling his diaper back. “I was right! What a mess!” she announced to no one in particular.
“David, your mom pulled back your dia…” Sharon started to say, but David’s crying drowned her out. And besides, Alexa was already in the middle of whisking him away. So Sharon turned to the rest of the children and announced, “David and his mom are going into the other room to change his diaper. They’ll be back soon.”
It was weird that Sharon was informing a deck full of three-month-olds that David was going for a diaper change. It’s not like they could say, “Thanks for the heads up. Not to worry David! We’ll be here hanging out. See you soon!” I looked around and not surprisingly saw that most of the parents were staring at Sharon with the same quizzical look on their faces, probably wondering, like I was, if she was passive aggressively trying to tell us something by talking to the kids (who obviously couldn’t understand a word she was saying). Just then, Derreck, one of the obviously more RIE-savy parents asked, “So is that what Magda meant by ‘sportscasting?’”
“Yes!” Sharon said, at once lighting up and breathing a sigh of relief. “Exactly! Sportscasting. The idea is to give your children something like a play by play—to tell them what’s happening—but before it happens…so they can anticipate that something is going to happen to them, like they’re going to be picked up or turned over. So you enlist your child in the process…”
“I’m sorry Sharon. Seriously?” Barry said interrupting her, his ire obviously way up. “Enlist a three month old in the ‘process’ of checking his diaper? I mean don’t babies not start talking until they’re like two or something? How’s he supposed to know what we’re saying? It just seems, I don’t know, forced or something. David’s an infant for God’s sake! He’s not going to be helping Alexa with anything! Let alone help her change his diaper.”
“Do you have a dog?” Melinda, one of the more outspoken moms in the group, said abruptly, entering the fray ten decibels higher.
“Yeah?” Barry said, his face saying Yeah? So? What about it?
“Well does your dog understand when you say, ‘sit’ and ‘stay’? Don’t you tell your dog when it’s dinner time?” Melinda continued.
“Melinda, I think I may understand your point,” Sharon said trying to civilize the increasingly amped up discussion. “Certainly our dogs don’t speak English, but it’s the way we say things and the repetition that helps them learn what we mean. And really scientists have yet to pinpoint when babies do start to understand language, but it is long before they start speaking. And actually, Magda recommends we begin talking to our children from the moment they’re born because it is the very act of talking to them, more than anything, that helps us become more aware of the way they may be experiencing life. Babies are people. Newborns are people. Just like you and me, they have feelings and nerve endings. They’re taking in everything.” And then getting uncharacteristically worked up, Sharon said, “No one wants to just be picked up like a bag of groceries.”
A bag of groceries! Nice analogy, I thought, happy to finally see a flicker of fire behind Sharon’s soft-spoken demureness.
“I’d hardly say Alexa was picking David up like a bag of groceries!” Barry fumed, defending his wife, obviously incensed by where this conversation was going and annoyed by all the holier-than-thouness over nothing more than picking up a baby—something they’d been doing just fine for the last several months, thank you very much.
“Barry, I’m sorry if I came off as a critical,” Sharon said. “What we’re trying to do here with this observation time is to train ourselves, if you will, to be aware of our babies and how we interact with them on a whole other level. Of course I know that Alexa is a loving, attentive mom who wanted nothing more for David than to feel fresh and comfortable. But I’m just asking that before we pick our children up, to pause for a moment to see what they are doing. I had noticed, for instance…” I could feel Sharon hesitate, probably afraid of driving Barry even further away, “…that David had been playing with that blue ball for a while but had just dropped a couple of moments before Alexa came over to check his diaper. When she turned him over, his little fingers were inching their way to it and so it may have been helpful for David,” she continued ever so gingerly, “if she’d said something like, ‘David, I see you are reaching for that ball. You’ll have a chance to play with it in a few minutes. But now I’m going to turn you over and peek at your diaper.’”
I felt terrible for Barry. Not only hadn’t he done a thing wrong, he felt he had to defend the way his wife checked David’s diaper—of all absurd things—as if being a new parent wasn’t hard enough. The exhaustion. The responsibility. The crying. The non-stopness of it all. And now he was getting a “lesson” on how to pick up his baby—in front of a bunch of people he barely knew. I could see how nothing Sharon was going to say, no matter how she tried to cushion it, was going to penetrate.
Barry had had it. I bet he thought this was over-zealous, hyper-precious parenting at its worst. But while I sat there feeling badly for poor Barry, I managed to get the message. Essentially Sharon was asking us how we would like it if someone just came over to us while we were in the middle of doing something important (important to us, anyway) and all of the sudden, for some unknown reason, just turned us over, pulled our waistbands back, looked down our pants and then carried us away from our friends. Wouldn’t we appreciate some fair warning? A bag of groceries (or a blob) you can pick up whenever and however you want; a person with interests and feelings, not so much.
On the way home, John and I decided that we should really try this talking to Jules thing. I mean if we were going to take the class we might as well try to do what Sharon recommended—no matter how out-there it sounded. What did we have to lose? And so we started the moment we pulled into our driveway.
“Julesie, we’re home now!” John said.
“I’m going to come around to your side to open your door,” I said to Jules, sitting next to her in the back seat.
“Hi sweetheart,” I then said after opening the door. “I’m going to unbuckle you now. Okay, first,” I continued, gently touching the top of her right hand, “I’m going to take this arm out from the strap.” Then I lifted the strap up and took her arm out. And now this one,” I said, gently tapping the top of her other hand. “Okay, I’m going to pick you up.” Then I paused with my palms open and ready to lift—just like Sharon had advised, so that a baby would have a moment to ready herself. And only then did I finally reach in and pick Jules up.
Barry was absolutely right. It did feel weird. And over the next couple of days, I found that when someone other than John was in earshot, it felt more than weird. It was actually embarrassing. Sure people are used to hearing moms coo and baby talk to their babies. But when you talk to them like normal human beings who understand what you’re saying? Then eyebrows go way up. But after a week or so of Howard Coselling with Jules, I had to admit that it began to feel weird to pick Jules up or change her without telling her first. If I caught myself doing something to her, like lifting her legs up to wipe her clean, without having given her some warning, I noticed that it felt similar to the feeling I get when I’m in line at the grocery store and realize I’ve forgotten my reusable shopping bags at home. It’s not the worst thing, but did the world need more plastic bags in landfills and floating around in the ocean that could potentially get caught in a pelican’s throat? Next time, I’ll remember my bags! Next time, I’ll remember to tell Jules! I also found that the more detailed I became in my play-by-play, the more I sensitive I became to things I’d never thought about: like how in the middle of the night a wet wipe and Desitin might feel particularly cold. “Jules honey, the wipe is going to feel cold…Here comes the Desitin…”
It dawned on me that in a way, it was “RIE” to try to think of a baby as if she were a quadriplegic or an impaired elderly person. Certainly most people understand that neither quadriplegics nor senior citizens want to be treated like ragdolls (or blobs!) who are just touched and moved and changed without any fair warning. I mean, just because someone has been paralyzed by a car accident doesn’t mean that they’d all of the sudden be cool with someone just coming over, picking them up, pulling their pants down and wiping their private parts. Even if the caregiver had seen them exposed a hundred times before. To just manipulate a person without first telling them what you were going to do started to seem almost cruel. The thing I was learning was that babies, like many disabled people, are capable of being involved on some level, and with babies, their ability increases every day. Particularly if you give them a chance to participate.
I have to admit, it was really amazing to see that by the time Jules was six months old, when I laid her down and asked her to lift her legs so I could put the diaper under her butt, she actually did it. Or at ten months, when I’d ask her if she wanted to be picked up, if she was in fact ready she’d lift her arms to say “Yes, Mom! Let’s go.” If not, she’d shake her head. “Okay honey, I’ll give you a few more minutes.” And perhaps most remarkably, when a few minutes later I would ask her again if she was ready, that she would often in fact show me she was! It would seem as if she’d appreciated the time I’d given her to make peace with leaving—perhaps something only a mother would marvel at, but it was transformative. I also found that the more I did remember to talk to Jules, the more I’d become aware of when I was thinking about the bills I had to pay or the calls I had to return or the weight I wanted to lose. Basically, it was talking to Jules that helped me stay present with her. I actually found that it made being a new mom less isolating. I wasn’t home alone taking care of my baby; Jules and I were home together.
This play-by-play stuff, I soon realized, could be used in ways both micro and macro. It wasn’t only for dressing and bathing but also helped me prepare Jules for where we were going and what we were going to do out in the world. “Jules, we’re going to Grandma’s house. First we’re going to go in the elevator where the doors can close quickly…” Without a doubt when what I’d told her was going to happen, actually did, it gave her more confidence. And it continually reinforced how much she could trust me. Win, win.
I remember coming across a passage in which Magda told a story about a mom who had a hot temper but who had also managed to ingrain sportscasting into her parenting. The mother came to class one day to thank Magda for saving her child from a terrible fate. She had explained that she’d become insanely angry with her toddler and without realizing it, she had started her the play-by-play: “You’ve made me furious. I’m coming to get you and I’m going to give you a big smack across your head…” And she caught herself. It was the horror of hearing herself tell her kid what she intended to do that stopped her in her tracks.
Can you imagine if Sarah Palin had been able to give her five-month-old, down syndrome son Tripp a play by play of his campaign appearances? “Tripp honey, in a few minutes Mama’s gonna pick you up. We’re gonna to walk out onto that there stage. There will be about fifty-thousand people applaudin’ and hollerin’ and just generally whoopin’ it up because that’s how much they love your Mama! Music will be blarin’ too! Oh and there will be lots of cameras continuously flashing lights in our faces because they want to see how cute my little baby is! It’s gonna be fun! Okay honey, let’s go!”
And what about those mothers who put their toddlers—even babies!—in beauty pageants? “Mom’s going to tease your hair now. Hold your breath for the hairspray!….” Really it is all just too awful to even placy out. I don’t know how it’s even legal.
What Does Magda Say?
It’s a parent’s job to learn to switch to their child’s point of view….A parent must be able to see and understand both their child’s point of view as well as their own…that is critical to being able to treat [a] child respectfully…
The parent is not performing a chore on an object or manipulating the child like a doll, but involving her in a process.
Your child’s feelings of security can be increased by continuing to tell her what is going to happen next. Knowing what will happen next gives her a feeling of control over her universe. In this way, she isn’t continually surprised by events that occur. Rather, she has time to prepare for them.