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The Day My Kid-holding Arm Failed: A Lesson in Cradling

It must have happened gradually, because I almost didn’t notice. I can’t pinpoint when it failed. Last August, we were on vacation, hiking from the cottage to the beach twice a day with bags and buckets and children, when I noticed something odd about the schlep. Something wasn’t right.

Only later did I realize that my left arm had shed its usual strain. My hands weren’t free, and yet I felt buoyant, light, almost free, because of what I was not lugging: a child.

For the past six years, I’ve had only one arm available – the weak, uncoordinated right one. I am left-handed and still carry left, which sounds stupid, but it’s a genius biological adaptation verified by scientific research called left-cradling bias. Carrying left theoretically helps our brains process a baby’s emotions and social cues, an efficient maternal monitoring that may facilitate bonding with our infants.

So, my left side, for about six years, has been busy holding – hearing, soothing, processing – a child. Who knows what my brain is capable of now that this lateral processing has been freed up.

My strong arm never failed in service as kid-holder. With a few bouts of strained elbow, it has managed rocking, hoisting, and car transfers and with aplomb. Being left-handed, I never learned to put my keys in my right-side pocket. So my arm did double duty every time we drove or unlocked the house, as I had to shift kid up or down, retrieve keys, then shift kid back before leaving. (Sadly, left-handedness isn’t as evolutionarily adaptable as left-cradling).

I still hoist my daughter, who is six now. As kids go, she’s always been light. But it’s instinct, at this point, when she’s crying or distressed, and just 10 pounds heavier than my youngest. Once the arm is strong and practiced, it does. It works. I never got in the habit of crouching to communicate or comfort.

My daughters are three years apart. I know I used strollers and backpacks and cars, but it never feels that way. On the whole, these children were carried. Toted. Whisked. Cradled. Raised. Held. When you have two children and one has to walk anyway, leaving the stroller in the car eliminates one thing to argue about.

And yet without a stroller, you’ve only got your arms to get an exhausted kid home. I suppose I held them because I could. Add a third or fourth child into the mix, and I’d need a lot more years to carry them all as much as I carried these two. It seems ridiculous, impractical, insane. But in so many instances, only the arm is sufficient.

When it snows all winter and neither kid can navigate the large berm of icy snow between their car seat and the sidewalk, you employ the one-armed kid hoist. When you wait for the school bus in afternoon traffic, and your toddler loves to bolt, it’s easier to hold your child away from the giant, oncoming bus. When your toddler is the same height as the local dogs and does not want to be sniffed or licked, you hold her high. (You never realize quite how many dogs pass your house until you have a toddler who does not tolerate canine investigation.)

Perhaps because of her fear of dogs at age two, my younger child preferred the safety of “up” nearly anytime we were outside. Maybe the cars were too loud for her, or the spaces too open. When we made our daily walk around the block, any time a car rolled by or a stranger approached, she ran to me. I usually toted her the final block. No amount of walking ahead or setting her down helped her walk on her own.

It was, in the end, just growth. The summer she turned three – last summer – she ran ahead. My cradling arm had been weaned, without any real fuss or warning.  

It used to frustrate me, the way my kids stuck to me, especially in social situations. Anytime we’d enter a busy room, like a birthday party, for example, one or both children would suddenly climb up my left side, clinging awkwardly, tugging down my left shoulder, like squirrels looking for a safe branch. It made it difficult to move or say hello, let alone introduce my Velcro children. It’s hard on your clothes and your equilibrium.

I used to wish them away, further away. But now it happens less and less, and I can see – given the years they have spent at my side, on my arm, held against me – how it’s the safest place they know. It’s a comfort, a closeness, and physical transition all at once. It’s a magical ability, left-cradling bias, and now that it’s being retired, I can only hope to honor the gifts it gave me as my children put more and more space between their bodies and mine.     

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