Driving home today I passed a young mother who was walking in the cold, plastic Safeway bags dangling from each hand and her infant strapped to her chest in a front-pack. A smile of melancholy came to my lips but as we came closer, I realized the infant was wailing. A stocking cap sat low on his forehead, his arms and legs were bundled into fleecy pajamas, so that the only skin visible was on his pudgy little cheeks, red bump of a nose and his wide screaming mouth.
The corners of my mouth turned instantly down and I heard myself say, "Oh, poor baby!" Just before my car passed the pair I noticed that his mother continued steadfast in her trek, forward march.
Without judging, I wondered. Had that been my infant, I surely would have dropped my groceries to the sidewalk, pulled the baby out of the carrier and turned it to me. Cuddled the baby close and rocked it in an effort to get it to stop crying. Her calm demeanor struck me. The remembrance of the panic that struck me every time my daughters cried as babies assaulted my gut. I was so desperate to fix it, stop the sadness or fear or discomfort. Despite the knowledge in calm times, that my infant's only method of communication was to cry, I still felt a momentary sense of alertness and desperation every time one of my babies cried. I always felt as though, were I 'doing it right,' my babies wouldn't have to cry.
I think I understand the way Bubba feels when I break down. I think he must have that same feeling of helplessness and longing to remedy the situation on those occasions when I begin to cry. Eve and Lola, also, despise it when they see me sad or frustrated enough to cry. When my father died, I felt as though the nicest thing I could do for everyone would be to shut myself in my bedroom until I was done sobbing. It turns out that, while I sympathize with their desire to do something, there are times when I just need to cry. I am not necessarily crying for help. I am just crying. Sometimes it feels good to cry.
As an adult, I often feel the need to hide my tears or stifle them. If I am in public when I get a piece of bad news or I'm feeling particularly upset, my first instinct is to run to the nearest restroom until I've cleaned myself up. Not because I'm ashamed of my tears, but because I don't want strangers asking me if they can help. I want to be left alone with my tears.
I do wonder why our most immediate response to crying is one of springing into action. I am curious whether it is learned or innate and, indeed, whether crying itself starts out as an innate act and becomes learned as a way to get what we want or need.