Tov is nine months old.
In the last several months, he’s found his hands and his feet. Instead of laying helpless and limp on the bed, he has learned to grab things, hit things, thump his foot on the floor. He’s also found his voice, and instead of simply crying when hungry, he has learned to yell, exclaim, babble, growl.
What all this means is that Tov has become very very loud. There was a time when we could wheel him in a stroller into church or a restaurant, and he’ll sit quietly in the stroller next to us, either drifting asleep or sucking on his pacifier. There really wasn’t much else he could do. Now he’s wiggling and flailing to get out of his stroller so he can explore the world. He wants to commando-crawl from corner to corner, and touch shiny and dangerous things. He wants to put everything in his mouth, including dirt and soiled diapers. He wants to smack his open palms on the floor, clang objects on tables, and exclaim “Aaaaah! AaaaaAAH!” at the bangs and booms he’s making. He wants to screech– not because he’s hungry or poopy or tired, but just for the sake of screeching, because listen to me, mama, did you know I have a voice?
Our little son is a 16-pound creature who makes as much noise as a boom box– doesn’t matter if we’re at a prayer meeting, or a Bible study, or a dinner party. There is no shushing him. (Those amazing baby shushers? They only worked for the first two months, if that.) Pacifiers are no longer self-soothers to suck quietly, but projectiles to fling across the room, or hit the nearest person with it.
We cannot take him anywhere without apologizing for the constant disruption. Those self-care mommy IG accounts often preach that mamas don’t need to apologize for our baby’s noises. But I do apologize, because there is no other honest way to say it: My son, my adorable son whom I love so much I could stare at his little head for hours, is a tiny-sized massive disrupter.
Back in my childless days, these disruptions would annoy the heck out of me. They disturbed my peace, my space, my concentration and comfort. One time when I was an intern at a church, a parent brought their infant into the church office. The parent put the infant down for a nap in a room and must have been busy at a meeting, because the moment the child woke up, he wailed and wailed.
“Waaaaaah! WAAAAAAAHHHH!” went the little disrupter, and the high-pitched screeches raked like a witch’s fingernails on my eardrums and gave me a splitting headache. I would have rather listened to Blink-182 blasting full volume on a boom box, because at least I could turn that off. There is no “off” button for a human baby.
Finally, a friend who has a grown-up son hurried over to pick the baby up and calm him down.
“Poor baby,” she sighed. “He was in distress.”
“I don’t understand why babies cry so much,” I complained. “I don’t think they’re in distress. They just want attention.”
My friend raised her eyebrows and looked at another friend who was with us. “Oh dear,” she said. “When Sophia has her own baby, we’ve got to run over, because she’s gonna need a lot of help.”
Well, I’m never going to have a baby, so that solves the problem, I thought to myself.
Joke’s on me. Now I’m the parent dragging her kid around and causing disruptions. Now it’s my kid wailing in distress in the middle of a Sunday service, or breaking dishes in restaurants. Now I’m the harried-faced, apologetic parent, while others stare or glare at us. It isn’t just my life that’s been disrupted– everywhere I go, my family was disrupting other people’s lives, and for the sake of everyone’s convenience, it was just so much easier to stay home and be antisocial.
Except we need community. Parents of babies especially need community, at a time when our world constricts and squishes into a vortex of baby talk, diapers, and feedings, when all our energy and love is poured out out out out out and we just need someone outside of us to pour an ounce back into us. That’s been our prayer topic as a family for this year: We need community. Not a “see you on Sunday after church for 20 minutes” kind of community, but fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in the neighborhood with whom we can regularly and intentionally practice our faith together, people with whom we meet up so often that they know what’s happened in our lives yesterday, instead of two months ago. Because our church is a little further out, we haven’t been able to find that kind of neighborhood community yet.
So recently we decided to join another church’s community group, which meets every Wednesday night at a coffee shop owned by a church couple. Even on a weeknight during traffic hours, the group is only about a 15-minutes drive away. The one pitfall is, the group meets between 6 and 8 pm. Tov’s bedtime is between 7 and 8 pm.
This Wednesday, we wheeled Tov in his carseat-stroller into the coffee shop, and almost immediately he was wiggling to get out of the stroller. We took turns carrying and bouncing him around. We gave him things to distract him. I took him to the corner so he can crawl on a rug.
There was no silencing him. He took a plastic communion cup and repeatedly smacked it loudly on the tabletop. Smack. Smack, smack, smack! He punctuated the smacks with a happy yelp: “Aaah! Grrrrr! Aaaaah!” When I took him aside so he can crawl in the corner, he bolted out of the rug, slid under people’s chairs, and tried to lick their shoes. I gave him toys, but they were wooden and the floor was concrete. He banged them on the hard floor– bang, bang, bang! And when I took those toys away, he squealed, then smacked the floor with his hands instead. Smack, smack, smack! I let him crawl for a while again, and he thumped his foot on the floor– thump, thump, thump! All the while exclaiming, “Aaaah! Aaaaah!”
By 7:30, those “aaah”s were no longer happy exclamations, but angry screams. He was overtired and hyperactive– refusing the bottle, refusing to be held, twisting his body and flailing all limbs and scrunching his face into exhausted, enraged howls. Time to go home.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Sorry, sorry,” David said.
We quickly strapped the yowling Tov into his stroller and hurried out.
The coffee shop co-founder, one of the leaders of the community group, rushed out with us. “I just want you guys to know, it’s totally OK. You all are always welcome here,” he said. “I have three boys. We understand. We all understand. Don’t ever feel like you can’t be here.”
“Thank you,” I said, incredibly moved, but I couldn’t help adding, “I’m so sorry.”
Two things can be true at once: My son is disruptive; he will distract and inconvenience people. And! There is also space for him, for us.
We’ve been craving community because we needed someone to pour into us during times when we feel like we’ve been poured out empty. And one of the biggest way people pour into us is to scoot an inch aside and make room for our noisy family, and to reassure us, “It’s OK. You are welcome here. We understand.”
It’s a grace that I never once extended to others when I was childless and single, and perhaps that’s why I have trouble allowing that grace to myself. I feel like I don’t deserve this grace, because I couldn’t give it to others when they needed it. And you know what? I don’t deserve it. Yet people give it to me anyway. So I’ll receive it, a little shamefacedly, that undeserved grace that is the glue that holds together a community made up of people who need and give it.