The months after you were born were tough ones.
You cried a lot and slept little.
Your assessment of this bright, new world was decidedly unsatisfactory. In between fussing though, you offered just enough syrupy, middle-of-the-night smiles to melt away the challenges and make me want to buy you a pony, or anything else your tiny heart desired.
But for much of your first months, I felt frantic. I scoured the internet, trying to understand what was causing your dissatisfaction. Were you allergic to my breast-milk? Gassy? Overtired?
I stumbled upon an article by Dr. Sears describing “The High Needs Baby.” These babies, Sears said, tend to nurse often, cry louder and longer than other babies, want to be held all the time, and sleep poorly. Check, check, check, and checkity-McCheck. There’s no cure for the high needs baby, Dr. Sears wrote—just a lot of love and patience from the baby’s parents.
So I carried you in the Ergo, nursed you often, and slept next to you for the first months of your life, my arms wrapped around you, our breath synchronizing, dreams tangling together.
As you learned to scoot, and walk, and speak, you were less unhappy, but life still seemed harder for you than for other toddlers.
One afternoon, I realized that another definition fit you, besides “high needs.”
Because it’s one that fits me too: highly sensitive.
“You’re too sensitive.”
I’d heard this phrase all through my childhood and teenage years. After hearing it again and again, I began to believe that my sensitivity was a flaw, something that perhaps, with devotion, I could scrub out of myself.
In my early 20s, a friend lent me an article she’d found. The article, by Elaine Aron, described a type of person called the Highly Sensitive Person. According to Aron, around 20 percent of people—and even animals—are born with a more sensitive nervous system. These people tend to be more attuned to their environment, and can be easily overstimulated and overwhelmed.
Reading Aron’s words felt like yanking up a dusty shade after a long, dark winter.
Yes, I was sensitive. I physically and emotionally experienced life differently than most people. My sensitivity was simply part of my unique wiring, no more wrong than being double-jointed or able to roll my tongue. I wasn’t too sensitive.
You, my dear son, are not too sensitive.
Sometimes it feels like too much. Being highly sensitive is like walking around with super antennae, tuned in to all the pain of the world—or like moving through the world without skin, our nerve endings exposed.
Sometimes even happiness is overwhelming, as if my heart is being squeezed, and everything is just so goddamned beautiful and bright, and I can’t quite bear the luminosity.
Other times, my sensitivity manifests as a physical reaction—like when I walk into a mall, and within moments, my brain goes thick and gooey, because the lights and the people and the sounds and the stuff is all too stimulating, and I shut right down, as if I’d been struck with a bad cold.
But that thing that I was trying to solve in myself—and later on, in you—is not something that’s solvable.
It’s not something that needs to be solved.
Instead, it’s connective. Incandescent. It’s the super power of poets and priestesses, the ability to feel an energy that hums just beneath the skin of the earth, or to tell what’s in a stranger’s heart by standing near them.
Our sensitivity is a current that runs between us, one that stretches deep into the earth and out into the air between the stars. It’s in the way we experience the world, how we hyper-focus on things that interest us, how we react intensely when things don’t go our way, how we get lost in a particular song, wanting to play it over and over again, loud and long enough that we can crawl into the space between the words and music.
Sometimes, it makes life challenging. Other times, it feels like the greatest gift. And I want to shout to everyone else—do you get how rare this is, to be here, now? To be together under this wide blue sky? To be blessed with a sun to warm us, air to breathe, water to drink, an egg and sperm that met at just the right moment in space and time and then multiplied over and over again, wrapping us in bone and muscle and skin? To be creatures who sleep at night, dreams lighting up our minds as our bodies restore and refresh, our cells replacing themselves? To be animals who sometimes fall in love and who will, every one of us, someday die, making this all the more gorgeous and gutting?
Do you get what a miracle this all is?
At its heart, our sensitivity—the same sensitivity that made your entry into this world so challenging—allows us to feel the depth of our own aliveness. It’s what makes me need to write it all down, to try and lasso these moments of impossible beauty and ache.
I’m so glad we share it, and I promise to never again try to fix you.
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Image: Ander Burdain/Unsplash
Editor: Catherine Monkman