“Is she a good baby?” “Is your baby good?” “Do you have a good or a bad baby?”
These are among the most common questions I have gotten about my baby daughter, and I find them bizarre, almost offensive. What does “a good baby” even mean? Are people intrinsically good or bad? (No, I’d argue.) Can an infant actually be bad? (Again, no.) What would that even involve? A baby who’s a racist, homophobic, sadistic serial killer?
What people tend to mean by the question “Is your baby good?” is actually “Does your baby sleep?” How does sleeping a lot of hours make someone good? Does sleeping a lot mean that the baby is docile and easy to care for?
Well, our daughter sleeps like a baby, as you’d imagine. In other words, she sleeps sometimes and is awake at other times, and often she wakes up and wants to breastfeed, or cuddle or play when we’d rather sleep. But when you have a child, you expect to get broken sleep; it’s foolish not to recognize that sleep deprivation is part of parenting. The fact that she’s awake in the middle of the night, reaching for my breasts and grinning up at me while I feel like a zombie, doesn’t mean there’s anything bad about her. She’s doing what babies need to do. And there’s actually something incredibly sweet about being up in the wee hours, holding and feeding your precious child and helping her get back to sleep. (Parenting doesn’t stop just because it’s dark outside, after all.)
Sometimes when they ask “Is your baby good?”, people seem to mean: “Does she give you any trouble?” or “Is she needy?” I’m not sure what kind of trouble a baby can give you. Babies can’t demand or manipulate; they only have needs that parents have to meet. If you bring a child into this world, you should expect to focus on meeting that child’s needs.
Naturally, there are times when our baby does seem troubled. She might cry because teething is bothering her, or because she has a cold and her runny nose is making it hard to breathe. In those cases, we wipe her nose or give her medicine or simply comfort her. Or she might be upset because we’ve taken away a piece of tissue that she was desperately trying to shove into her mouth; what we do then is try to help her learn that she can’t have (or eat) everything she wants to, and that distraction is a great way to get over the loss of that beloved tissue. But none of this gives us trouble; it’s just part of parenting.
When I’m asked “Is your baby good?”, my response is usually “Yes, of course” and/or “All babies are good”. This seems to puzzle people. I’ve received the adamant reply, “No, all babies are NOT good!” or “Some babies are better than others!” I’ve also had people tell me about their “bad boy” who only naps for thirty minutes at a time, or their “naughty girl” who likes pulling hair, or their “demanding child” who fusses and wants to be held all day long.
But why do we talk this way about babies? As adults, we should understand that humans can do bad things, but it doesn’t make them bad people. And this is especially true for babies, who behave in such an instinctive manner. They do what they feel like doing or need to do at any given moment, and it’s up to us to handle their actions and to help direct them. If, when my daughter is a bit older, she hurt another child in some way, that still wouldn’t make her a bad person. My wife and I would have to talk to her about her actions and their consequences, and she would need to learn about what it means to share this world with other people and how we should treat them. But we would never refer to her as “bad”.
Humans are imperfect beings who act in good or bad ways at various times in our lives. That doesn’t make us essentially good or bad. And being up in the middle of the night or screaming in pain or wanting to be held or hoping for a particular toy or treat certainly doesn’t make a baby good or bad.
So I wish we’d stop asking if people have “a good baby.” Let’s assume essential goodness. Even if parenting can sometimes be difficult or frustrating, let’s delight in our children and all the things they do and all the things they are.