My wife and I have close friends who have an infant. I try to be someone who has lots of space for lots of ways to parent. That said, I have a low tolerance for people who think it is OK to just leave a tiny baby to cry unattended and then ask other, available folks NOT to comfort the baby. This happens all the time when we’re around them. Once when this happened, my very compassionate toddler walked over and started singing to her. When the parents saw, they told my kiddo not to do that and to leave her alone.
At this point, I’m just sad. I really enjoyed hanging out with these folks before they had such compassion fatigue from parenting, and now I’m hesitant to hang out with them at all. Is there a way to salvage this relationship, especially when they don’t even realize there’s an issue?
In the presence of bad parenting
When my son was an infant, I remember distinctly rushing to his side when he started crying in his crib one night, only to have him scream infinitely louder as I approached. I learned that when he was in a certain mood, even if he was crying, leaving him alone was a better strategy than trying to comfort him, which actually seemed to consistently make things worse. I know how that could have looked to an outsider, but I also trusted that I knew my child.
You say that you have space for lots of ways to parent, but have you ever asked your friends about their choices? It’s possible that what you’re identifying as “compassion fatigue” is actually a thought-out set of decisions about how to promote self-comforting in an infant. It may be a set of parenting strategies that you find abhorrent and inhumane, but I doubt it’s random. If they were constantly saying, “Can someone, anyone hold the baby?” that would sound like fatigue, but this actually sounds like a parenting philosophy you just don’t like.
For what it’s worth, I can imagine a letter from someone else that says something like, “We are so sick of hanging out with our friends who are constantly coddling and comforting their baby. They can’t finish a single grown-up thought without rushing to the baby and launching into an elaborate shushing routine, so that it’s 10 minutes before we can get back to hanging out.” I’m not suggesting this accurately describes you at all, only that there are multiple perspectives in every scenario.
I suggest that next time you hang out, say something like, “I’ve noticed that you seem to want Abby to be left alone when she cries. I’m curious about that.” See how they respond. There’s the chance they will be shocked or embarrassed or not know what you’re talking about, or they could be defensive and start citing people like Ferber who philosophically do advocate for self-soothing from a young age.
In any case, you could follow with telling about the time with your toddler and explaining that she had a hard time understanding why the baby was crying and she wasn’t allowed to help. You’ll be working to understand them while also working to salvage the relationship. And maybe you’ll get some language that could actually be helpful in talking to your toddler about other people’s parenting styles.
If they say something about not knowing other strategies or other things not working or being too tired to respond, then you have an opening to share some of your ideas. You could gently tell them about approaches that you’ve tried or books that don’t advocate lots of crying, or local and virtual parent support groups. You could also offer to take the baby for an hour sometime so they could have a break. No matter their situation, and even if they say no, I think every parent appreciates that offer and the sentiment behind it.
If you find it just impossible to be around them and their baby without intervening or thinking ill of them, then you either need to wait until the child is older to start hanging out again, or you need to find adults-only opportunities to socialize. Both of those are difficult for two families in the thick of parenting young children, but you have to decide where your priorities lie and how much of a barrier this particular issue is posing to your friendship.
I am a really huge advocate of the need for more support for new parents, and that support is often most effective when it comes from other parents who are already trusted friends. I hope you find ways to talk about these challenging issues with your friends and to offer alternative strategies by way of conversation and curiosity rather than judgment.
Miriam gives a brilliant response, as always. And, here is an excellent parenting resource that this reader might find useful: https://www.handinhandparenting.org/