In Their HandsWhen 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 humor.
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 sympathetic.
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 baby learn?
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 dependencies?
The way you give to your baby now is the beginning of all that.
More Articles by Peggy O'Mara
Editorial, Mothering, No. 85, Winter 1997, Pages 4-6.
Reprinted with permission.