In Their Hands
by Peggy O'Mara,
When our children are young, we hold their lives in our hands. This
is a serious charge. It changes us. As our children grow older, however,
we begin to put ourselves in their hands. And when we do, we are glad
that the history we share is so deep.
I took a road trip recently with three of my kids to visit my son,
who is a whitewater river rafting guide for the summer. I knew as soon
as my son told me he was going to be a guide that I would have to go on
the river and face my fear of the rapids.
It was not the first time that parenthood has pushed me to go beyond
a limited sense of myself I've previously put myself in my children's
hands for other adventures. I believe my son if he tell me, "It's
all good, Mom." I know that I am truly accommodated, that my
weakness is tolerated, and that my fears are responded to with good
My son, on the other hand, is friends with fear. He likes to
snowboard fast down frozen water in the winter and raft down fast-moving
water in the summer. As a one year old, he would lie with his ear to the
floor and listen to the water as it rushed down the drain beneath the
toilet. As he listened, he said his first word, Chine! Chine!, short for
machine. His first love was a lawn mower. He walked at about the same
age and never minded failing. This was also the baby who spent the first
six months of his life either in arms or in the red Snugli baby carrier.
He was very dependent before he became very independent.
This was a baby who liked contact, who demanded contact, who wanted
always to be in touch, who in every way is a very physical person. We
are often impatient with babies because they are so physical. The
popular media suggests we have to train our babies to control
themselves, to be independent, to sleep, and to obey, as if these were
not things that had intrinsic value and would be learned naturally, as a
matter of course, in human society.
How dangerous for our society that we distrust the very behavior that
is the most necessary for human survival. It is those babies who demand
to be attached who are the most evolved. And it is the most securely
attached babies who will have the best chance to be the most resilient
adults. Resiliency comes from having internalized the functions of an
empathic mother and father.
There is an inherent order in the nature of things, despite tests of
those who suggest that babies must be taught basic human instincts and
made compliant for the convenience of adults. Nature never contradicts
itself, and we can look to nature when we are confused about how to
respond to our children or about making difficult decisions.
Parents are faced with a myriad of decisions, and we are often torn
between the advice of the experts and our own inner voice. We sometimes
think that there must be an answer outside of ourselves, that we can
counter the anxiety of being totally responsible for another human being
by comforting ourselves with some "dependable" solution. And
while there are tried-and-true solutions that parents have shared with
each other from time immemorial, it is really much simpler than that.
Today, or in any age, there is really only one decision that
underlies all other decisions concerning our children. This decision is
whether we will choose love or fear; whether we will accept or resist
the situations that happen with our children; whether we will choose to
cooperate or to be adversarial with our children; and whether we will,
see them as our equals or wield authority over them. These are the
qualities that form the underbelly of our parenting decisions and the
underpinnings of all actions that we take.
Sometimes we react with fear and authority inappropriately when we
are worried about our own self-image. At other times, we choose fear and
authority because of legitimate concerns over immoral, illegal, or
unsafe behavior. How we make our parenting decisions underscores what we
believe about human beings, about human nature, about the nature of the
child. Is' there inherent order and purpose in our child's development,
or must we as parents bring this order and purpose to our child's life?
It's funny, in a way, that we have so much trouble trusting our loved
ones. Every day we walk into rooms and buildings built by strangers
we'll never see and don't give a second thought to their inherent
integrity. We drive on highways with strangers, highways built by other
strangers, and daily we entrust our lives to them all. Children are an
easy excuse to indulge fear.
Our bodies have autonomic nervous systems whose functions are
automatic. They are not voluntary. This means that for the really
important things, nature has hardwired a system that cannot be disrupted
except under extraordinary circumstances. We cannot stop our breathing
no matter how hard we try without extraordinary devices. If we hold our
breath, we will simply pass out. We cannot will our heart to stop, nor
can we touch or hurt our heart without extraordinary means. Nature never
leaves the really important things to chance. What is the source of our
breathing and our heart rate? It's a mystery that we trust every moment.
The English word trust comes from the Scandinavian for
"faithful, full of faith." To trust ourselves is to be true to
ourselves. Faith is, in itself, a leap. Our faith is not based on
evidence but exists regardless of the evidence. Faith is not a
conclusion, but an affirmation. We can have faith in ourselves as
parents, in our unique challenges and decisions, because we have faith
in our children as accurate barometers of the biological imperative.
Our children are born hardwired for survival. Their needs and wants
are the same. They know what they need, and they demand it. In
hunter-gatherer societies, being in the arms of the mother meant that
the infant was safe from the tiger. In modern times, being held in
another's arms still means survival. The single most important factor
responsible for an infant's normal mental and social development is
physical holding and carrying. Infants need to be in arms. They know it,
and they let us know it.
Current fashions and customs conspire against these natural and
necessary needs of human infants. Devices such as the plastic infant
carrying tray, pacifiers, cribs, and bottles are ways to distance
ourselves from our babies, to gain a respite from the intimacy they
require for full human development. Trends in perceiving the life of the
home as servitude and drudgery, as well as lack of economic support for
the family, also conspire to separate us from our loved ones, as these
trends quite literally put physical distance between us.
Human infants don't like physical distance. They like constant
physical contact. They expect it. They need it. And they're totally
content when they have it. But how do we learn to surrender to this
fierce need when others warn us that we must teach our infants to sleep,
to be independent-and certainly not spoil them?
It's ridiculous to think that nature would leave a function as
important as sleep to foolish parents, some of whom would look at each
other on their child's eighth birthday and exclaim, "Oh, honey, we
forgot to teach Little Cindy to sleep!" Sleep is a need, not a
habit. It an instinct. It takes care of itself because in nature, all
essential functions take care of themselves.
Holding and carrying infants also take care of themselves because
nature gives babies such endearing qualities that they are
irresistible.,, Responding to their inherent needs develops qualities
necessary for our survival as adults, qualities like consciousness,
patience, generosity, kindness, and bravery. In Darwin's original
writings, "survival of the fittest" refers to those
individuals and societies who are the most sympathetic. A sympathetic
culture has the attributes necessary for survival. Nature itself is
Infants don't only like to be held during the day, they like to be
close at night, too. That's human nature. Yet, we treat our infants
worse than we treat any other humans, or even animals. Under no
circumstances would we leave a crying adult, friend or stranger, alone
in a room without extending our condolences and offers of help. We pride
ourselves on this kind of civility. We sleep with our pets. New puppies
or kitties get to come into the bedroom if they cry.
Just as it is perfectly natural for animals to sleep together in
groups, it is perfectly natural for human infants to want to sleep with
their parents. All animal babies sleep with their mothers. Over time,
human infants teach their parents to enjoy touch again.
Our infants are hardwired to bring their discomfort to their parent.
Crying is their language. The parent is their interpreter. The infant's
sense of discomfort is nonspecific and undefined. As they mature, they
learn to differentiate sensations and associate them with certain
experiences, so that in time they can specify and name their discomfort.
This takes months, even years. Nowhere in the animal kingdom do we see
intolerance of the dependency of infancy. In all of nature, dependency
is protected and indulged.
It is obvious that dependency is feared by many adults. Many are
hungry for intimacy but afraid to surrender. Yet, life with infants is a
surrender. When we just give up and give them what they need, it becomes
so easy. It reminds me of the true meaning of the Sabbath-a day of
leaving things just as they are, not trying to change them, and not
doing anything. With infants, we are but humble servants to what is.
This kind of surrender has three enemies. They are fear, denial, and
control. Whenever we have trouble trusting our infants, we are usually
in the grip of one of these visitors. They always accompany actions of
deep consequence. They are the guardians who hone our self-esteem. For
it is the difficulties of being a parent that forge us into fuller human
beings, with the track records and courage to face new difficulties.
These difficulties are better faced when we tell ourselves the truth
and see things unclouded by fear, denial, or control.
What we fear, approach it. What we deny, say it. What we control,
release it. With fear, denial, and control aside, we can see things in
our own unique and authentic way.
It is our very innocence as parents, our freshness and inexperience,
that redeem us. With each new family, nature has another chance. Another
chance for happy accidents that change the course of history. Another
chance for amateurs to do something no one else has ever done before.
Another chance for genius.
Don't listen to the experts. Forget about them unless they come over
and help you put your baby to sleep. Forget about them unless they'll
remember your baby's name in 20 years. Don't give up your authority as a
parent to people who don't know your baby as well as you do or who don't
know your baby at all.
Don't stand unmoving outside the door of a crying baby whose only
desire is to touch you. Go to your baby. Go to your baby a million
times. Demonstrate to your baby that people can be trusted, that the
environment can be trusted, that we live in a benign universe. The
crisis of the first year of life is trust or mistrust. Which will your
Someday you'll need your grown-up baby to go to you. Someday you'll
be in the hands of your baby. Will your baby protect you in the rapids,
or will he be intolerant of your fears and weaknesses, of your
The way you give to your baby now is the beginning of all that.
Editorial, Mothering, No. 85, Winter 1997,
Reprinted with permission.