Have you ever thought about the uniqueness of a baby’s stare? Since having our 4th child in November 2020, I have been thinking about this. Of all our children, this one is the stare-iest. She just loves to look; she’s glad to gaze and gape and gawk! Yes our little Lucy is simply obsessed with observing everyone and everything around her.
I have spent many luxurious minutes returning her stare and wondering what might be going on in that adorable little head of hers. I realized that I could not exchange a stare like this with just anyone in the street. Could you imagine silently staring into the eyes of a stranger on the street for even 15 seconds? 30 seconds? An entire minute? Try it. Folks nowadays hardly make eye contact at all, never mind a sustained stare. “Do I know you? Is there a problem?” … “I’m calling the police.” Heck, even my other kids wouldn’t stand for that: “Dad, stop being weird.” Or my wife: “What are you doing? Do I have something on my face?!”
But with baby Lucy, there is no such reaction. Why is that? For one, she can’t talk. So while she’s staring at me, I can’t engage her with a question. If I try to stare at anyone verbal, they will inevitably engage me with words quite quickly along the lines described above. But if they know I can’t speak, they will intuitively put up with a much longer gaze. In the absence of words, we find other ways to communicate.
Still, it’s more than that. A non-verbal person of normal intelligence will use hand signals and facial expressions to communicate. But a baby can’t do even that. And this gets to the heart of the vulnerability and magic of babies. They come into the world with no ideas about how the world should be. A baby simply takes in the world as it is. And to do that, a baby stares. (Babies also put every single possible thing within their reach into their mouths like some kind of overzealous Roomba, but that’s not the topic of this particular reflection.)
So we have the situation that we embrace from infants what we would never accept from anyone of an older age – long silent stares. As you may know, babies don’t really make facial expressions in reaction to visual stimulus for the first few months. It’s hard work to get that baby to smile back at you. So the stare I’m talking about is wide-eyed, mouth slightly open, and expressionless. Which goes back to my previous point: a child simply takes in the world around it without making any value judgement on what it finds. It has nothing to compare to, no way to evaluate. The mother it has becomes the idea of Mother; the father it has becomes the idea of Father; the family and home it has likewise. I often imagined Lucy saying to herself, when she was in one of her gazing moods, “so this is what life is like.” This open-hearted receptiveness contributes to the weightiness of parenting; who is equal to this task?
So the next time a baby stares at you, don’t look away, don’t feel awkward, don’t laugh it off. Something momentous is happening. This child is taking in everything it can through the windows of the mind we call eyes. The open-hearted receptiveness you see on display will not survive the next two decades of various pains, disappointments, losses; no – it will give way to some level of guardedness and maybe even cynicism. While that may be inevitable, maybe this beautiful stare can remind you of a time when you were less guarded and cynical. And if you can, use that moment to let down your guard and stow your cynicism: that would make the world just a little better for this baby and for you.