A recent postnatal group posed the question: 'If motherhood came with a job description, what would be on it?'. Among the skills and roles that you might expect (multitasking, cleaner, entertainer, chauffeur, copes well with stress, etc. etc.), I was surprised that the one I offered - interpreter - was new to the speaker.
'What do you want?' and 'Why are you crying?' are the traditional, exasperated refrains of many a new mum and dad, as they try and extract meaning from a tiny person with their own set of limited, highly individual gestures and emotional cues. If you exclude the obvious (change, feed, sleep), it's still possible that a baby might be reacting to an endless range of complex and conflicting emotional impulses in the only way they know how.
In our daughter's case, reading her mind has been one of the hardest parental skills to master in her first few months. This is one feisty, mercurial and loud little being whose moods can swing from a sweet smile to screaming blue murder in one barely discernible movement. Who used to eat her fist to signal hunger, but now seems to do the same for comfort, fun or out of sheer curiosity. Who will look anywhere but the DIY sensory bottles painstakingly crafted by her mummy but finds a patch of ceiling endlessly fascinating. Who can be preoccupied by a poo several hours before its explosive arrival.
As parents, finally working out what your baby wants after a ritual of temperature and nappy checks, play, quiet time and running the gamut of different positions and places to put them in brings relief on a par with the moments when they finally fall asleep after a long battle or when it's your partner's turn to change a particularly offensive dirty nappy. For me, the only time that I can be sure of what my daughter is trying to communicate to me is when she snuggles up to me sleepily for a post-feed singsong, or her contented little smile of recognition when her mummy comes home from a much-needed walk round the block on my own. It's then that I know that, at least in her eyes, I've got the job.