ESSAYS AND INSIGHTS.
Leads to Healthy Interdependence
A dozen years ago, I took a pre-natal fitness class with a few moms, one of whom was expecting her second child. In the weeks after her daughter was born, she showed us the six different soft “lovey” blankets she made and offered her baby in rotation. The leopard print on one day, the striped the second, the colored ones in succession and so forth.
“Is there a reason you made so many?” I asked at the time.
“Yes,” she said eager to tell me, “I don’t want my baby to get too attached to one blanket.”
Before I could ask for clarification, she offered it.
“It’s not good to be too attached,” she said, caressing her baby’s head with her delicate fingers.
I wondered, at the time, given her concern about blanket attachment, what she might think of the mother-baby attachment. She said she’d rather her baby become attached to the blanket instead of her. This wasn’t because she didn’t love her daughter, of course, but rather that she believed a special blanket would be convenient for her baby to sleep, travel and transition with and teach her daughter early independence.
“If she learns to be independent now, she won’t be as dependent later,” she reasoned. “She’ll be stronger. She won’t need others to cope.”
It was as if she might have unconsciously been preparing her for her own absence. Six weeks after she gave birth, she discovered a malignant lump in her breast and would begin a two-year battle with terminal metastatic cancer.
In a profound and poignant way, our fears of attachment are connected to our fear of loss. Some parents have the mindset that a child who is attached cannot learn to detach; some think that a baby whose needs are responded to with sensitivity will assume the world revolves around him; some worry that a “secure” attachment is a pathway to clinginess in toddlerhood, or worse, a perpetual key to the front door for a grown child who can’t seem to forge her own path without mommy and daddy.
It’s not that we’re wrong; it’s that we’ve been mistaken about our human development. We think we’re doing our kids a favor by conditioning them to not need us. Our fears of attachment may be signs of our unconscious fear that letting go of each other will hurt too much or be too difficult.
Brain and attachment scientists say we, as a culture, are making a big mistake.
In fact, we have it backwards.
Modern brain science has shown that it’s, in fact, healthy attachment that leads to healthy interdependence, self-regulation, emotional resilience, and overall well-being in our children. But we can’t cultivate healthy attachment if we’re suspicious of it.
A clue to our own attachment mindset can be found in our relationship patterns—in “how” we love:
Some of us keep each other at arm’s length, creating an intimacy buffer.
Some get entangled with others, unable to see where each person begins and ends.
Some vacillate between hot and cold, getting close and pulling away.
Others punish anyone who tries to love them.
And some, feeling deeply unworthy of love, hurt themselves.
Our patterns of loving (reacting, retreating, avoiding, attacking and so forth) are the influential blocks that build our relational foundation. Sure, there will be cracks and flaws. They won’t necessarily compromise the stability of our relationship or of our own capacity for emotional resilience and trust; however, leaving the cracks and flaws unacknowledged and unattended can weaken the foundation and provide little or no scaffolding as our relationship and our child grow.
Repairing our broken attachments is the gateway to trust.
“I can’t bear this disconnection...” becomes “We made it through that disconnection!”
Even babies sense this relief.
Even our precious one year-old child knows the subtle difference between connection and disconnection and how it feels to resume our good feelings with each other after even a brief few moments of our parental anger, negative affect, emotional numbing or lack of responsiveness. What a powerful process for a young child to experience this brief anxiety, fear and physical agitation in himself, and then initiate or receive our own bid for reconnection, and feel positively empowered and triumphant at the expansive quality of this transformation.
Relationships are messy, sure, but when we can focus on restoring our healthy attachments, the mess and mistakes of our parenting experience become the very materials we need to raise kids who thrive in the world and in relationships beyond ours.
Healthy attachment, then, is not the science of perfection, but the science of the great benefit of our relational imperfection. Through our millions of non-verbal and verbal mutual messages and cues, we co-create our relationship that’s not only secure, but, as Harvard researcher Ed Tronick calls it, “unique and non-transferable.”
Whatever our attachment and relational pattern may be (everyone has a story and an adaptive pattern), it’s important—and empowering—for us to know that our own early attachment experiences play a major role in how we create relationship with our own kids. Since the science shows there’s a high probability that our child will follow our attachment mindset and patterns of relating, we can become more aware of our inner life, our feelings, fears and needs, practice empathy with our kids (put ourselves in their booties), and repair the breaks and disconnections as they arise, all of which gradually shifts our very brain pathways and relational patterns—and changes the outcome for our children. LH
Why Soothing Through Surrender is the Brain-to-Brain
Communication Babies and Parents Need to Grow
My baby came into the world wanting a 4th trimester.
He cried incessantly, woke up every forty-minute intervals day and night, panicked at sound of every tug of his velcro diaper tab, felt distressed in the car, was terribly upset about blenders, lawn mowers, restaurants, strangers, sunlight, wind, the doorbell, the telephone and being rocked in a rocking chair back and forth. His nervous system was, as he now puts it twelve years later, “raw.”
In the countless articles and books about how to “soothe a crying baby,” there is little or no mention of this. Many doctors, authors and other experts talk extensively about hunger and gas and fatigue, even loneliness, but nobody explained that my baby might just have had a sensory assault to his system having left the cozy womb because his nervous system wasn’t organized for this world just yet.
I can remember how anxious I felt during these first weeks when “nothing I did” seemed to “work.” And then, I realized. The soothing that we hear and read about is about stopping the cry. Nothing was going to “work,” because it wasn’t about making him stop crying...it was about deeply understanding the process, practice and gift of soothing. What did that mean? Hey, didn’t I need soothing, too? I felt weak in the knee. I felt like I couldn’t “make it better.” Or fix it. I held him close and nursed and walked and sang and breathed and still, he cried and cried and cried.
Oh, these moments play tricks on a new parent’s confidence. It isn’t that our baby doesn’t like us or approve of our “ability” to mother or father, but that, this is a chance for us, as grown survivors of our own early emotional collisions and trauma, to come face to face (cry to cry) with our long-lived practice of reacting reflexively to the first sounds of stress---and start exploring the act of surrender. This is not an easy shift. There is, after all, no off switch.
Instead, it’s kind of like re-wiring the system. My initial response to our baby’s incessant cry was to feel like crying myself. When I did bawl like my newborn, I suddenly felt some kind of compassion for myself. When I felt like collapsing, crumbling, cursing or cowering...I learned to soothe my own heart. Not with my previous incessant head-talk, no, there were no words for this kind of language of self-compassion. It was like a deep inner holding of my own self, a kind of warm blanket of empathy I had to learn to knit all on my own. That’s how I learned to soothe my baby.
God knows it felt itchy at first. After awhile, I didn’t consciously reach for the blanket anymore. It had gradually woven itself into my body’s circuitry and system from the inside out.
It was in those moments that I learned to birth the first inklings of compassion for my baby’s needs.
The art of surrender is an act of compassion--for ourselves, first and foremost. When we hold that kind of feeling for ourselves, our babies “feel” it too. We hold them slightly differently. We breathe differently. We may stop “bouncing” them so much and start finding more fluid movements that flow with their true needs. We find...synergy.
All this through...a baby’s cry?
Our culture has a thing about crying. We don’t like it. It threatens us on many levels.
1) Auditory: We think it’s noisy. Shhhh! Quiet that baby down! It isn’t just strangers in passing, but us too. Some relatives may tell us that a crying baby is a sign of a demanding character. Sometimes, people in positions of authority come down hard on babies for doing what babies do when they’re distressed. Like the airline pilots who asked a family to leave the plane before pushing back from the gate because their 2 year-old was crying so loudly that it was deemed too disruptive to the passengers.
2) Emotional: We feel anxious and worried about crying if it triggers our own vulnerabilities and sense of helplessness.
3) Historical: We carry long stories about crying based largely on how our own cries were met.
4) Medical: We think crying is a sign that something is “wrong.”
The list goes on.
What does crying signify for us? What do we associate with it? How does it affect our senses, our hearts and our reactions? Does it activate our own stories of helplessness and vulnerabililty? How do we respond?
When I got my own stories clear about crying--I’m doing something wrong; he doesn’t like me--I was able to “hear” and therefore connect with my baby’s distress when I’d rub his back to release pressure from his belly as he nursed and gulped air down too. I vividly remember, even ten years later, this tiny passing a-ha moment, when I consciously changed my voice tone during these stressful moments to a tone of empathy. I remembered how I lowered my voice a few notes...slowed down my cadence...and shared my words from the heart instead of my head.
“I know....oh yes....I heeeear you, myyyy love...yes...it huuurts....” while I rubbed and he cried. And after that first time when I Soothed with
Empathy as opposed to Soothing with a Need for Results, his cry completely changed. I heard it anew, for sure, but his cry was different. It was less agitated. Less pained. Less low notes, less breathlessness. More sweet moaning between catching his breath. Oh, it felt so clear and human to me!
He sensed that I was working WITH him as opposed to putting pressure on him to stop fussing. His level of stress was reduced with my humble offering of empathy, with my level of stress eased by my own empathy for myself.It was as if he knew I didn’t “need” him to be quiet and didn’t have any agenda for what I wanted him to “do.”
Over the months, we got to know him on a multi-sensory level, understanding how he liked to be rocked, from side to side in deep squats, how he liked music to sleep and close proximity and nursing when he might have otherwise developed other ways of soothing. It was the crying and responding in countless iterations and cycles that forged a bond of trust between us. Science tells us that this is a deeply neurological process, wherein our right brains communicate with each other, moment by moment, even through our missed cues and signals, to “find” each other and attune for optimal growth and development. To miss and dismiss the cries is to miss and dismiss the significance of this developmental responsibility.
Our culture says a baby who self-soothes is already on the road to independence. But thousands of studies, articles, books and hours of research on attachment completely de-bunks this myth. The truth is, a baby learns to “self-soothe” by beingsoothed by us within the attachment---through the relationship---rather than finding ways to comfort himself in the absence of it.
Many parents feel that they are doing a disservice to their child if they don’t sometimes “let him rely on himself” for comfort. The most recent robust science shows that this is a mistaken belief based in fear rather than an intuitive knowledge that we, as human beings, thrive through a process of trust and security intimately woven into our selfhood just as we eat and breathe.
So, rather than figuring out how we can stop or minimize a baby’s crying, we can start thinking that he is processing the big, bright, loud, vibrating, busy world he just came into, and that means parenting as if we just developed our own senses for the first time. LH
I hosted a travel show on television awhile back. Traveled so much that I once reached for my seatbelt in a movie theater. Anchored live TV wearing an earpiece in which I could hear the director screaming to producers in the control room when they lost the live satellite feed while I conducted an interview in the studio. Witnessed an industry of smoke and mirrors where the carrot at the end of the stick was designed to be permanently out of reach. Still, on a good day, I thought I had things pretty much under control.
Then I had a baby—a deeply tender and wise boy who stared long at me the moment he was born as if to say, “ Work with me, Ma .” Popular opinion wasn't popular with him. He urged me to re-define everything I knew.
Little did I know, this was a good thing.
Finding balance is no cakewalk. There are the voices. People all around you convinced about what's right for you and your children, what you should be doing with your life, your toddler, your breasts, your heart, your time, your aspirations, your groceries, your money.
We tend to everyone's needs—his, hers, theirs, yours. We give, we nurse on demand, we feed and nourish our children's minds, bodies and spirits. On days when whole-hearted mothering can render us exhausted and filled with doubt, we may wonder how much of our own potential we might have been fulfilling if we were not busy nurturing our children's.
Some people in your life wonder if the balance issue is your fault. Some question your priorities. Your giving. Your parenting. Your choices. The last thing a mother needs to hear when she laments over fatigue or self-doubt is “Well, you chose this!”
We live in a culture that both glorifies and scoffs at the notion of ‘having it all.' A mother's needs are largely ignored and dismissed in the corporate world, by government, society, sometimes by friends and family, even under our own roofs. Often by us.
In reality, ‘having it all' flies in the face of balance. “Having” keeps us self-seeking, doing the math, calculating who gets, who wins, who loses. “ It” is an abstraction, aptly named in order to keep up guessing, doubting, pursuing something elusive. “All” feeds our anxiety, our envy, our fear that our needs cannot, may not, or don't deserve to be fulfilled.
I have never wanted it all, mostly because I have never defined “it.” I have never liked living in a state of yearning, wishing I was somewhere else. But in my first year of motherhood, nearly seven years ago now, I remember distinctly feeling like I had lost my footing. It wasn't an overnight loss of balance, but a gradual nearly imperceptible one. I came to know my son's needs intimately, could decipher every cry, knew his motivations, understood just what he needed to keep his equilibrium. But I had begun to lose sight of what I needed. And the scary thing? I had begun to feel the quiet ache of indifference. How did I get here? I thought.
I now know one thing for sure: it is impossible to find one's own balance from the outside in. I now know beyond a doubt that finding—and maintaining—our balance is an inside job.
Most of us could balance our needs pretty well on our own. It's in the context of relationship that maintaining balance is so hard. I've come to see that balance and boundaries are good friends. When boundaries collapse, as they necessarily must in new motherhood, it is easy to feel like we have lost ourselves. But as my dear friend Jane once said, “I think we're supposed to lose ourselves at the beginning.”
The lines blur. At what point down the road do any of us ever know where to draw them again? It's a boundary thing. So hard for us mothers. I think once we get the idea that we must care for ourselves, care about ourselves, and let others (spouses, children, bosses, relatives, and friends) know what our boundaries are on our physical, emotional and spiritual health, then we can enjoy a pretty balanced life.
A sense of balance comes naturally when we can let go of worry, not let anger fester, find ways to be proactive instead of reactive, befriend and forgive ourselves. With no boundaries, we invite resentment, over-exhaustion, depression, self-pity, self-loathing, guilt, shame, hopelessness. Our kids don't turn out better because we have depleted ourselves in parenting them. They can't thrive when we burn out. On the contrary, wouldn't they benefit from bearing witness to our perpetual growth along side their own?
Somewhere between conception and this morning, I've come to realize that balance can only truly be achieved through chaos. Using chaos as a compass while we flail helplessly, struggle, navigate our own labyrinthine thoughts and emotions. Chaos and order require big picture thinking as well as respect for the mundane details.
To live an inspired life and be the inspiring women we are, we need perspective at every turn. We need open minds. The ability to see the forest and the trees. We need balance. Our balance.
For some, that translates into the balancing of work versus home. For others, it means balancing parent-child love and romantic love with a standing Saturday night date. For those seeking a balance between child care and self-care, it might be a membership at a fitness club. A walk every morning before the day starts. A meditation for ten minutes at bedtime. Some find spiritual balance in bread-making. A forest hike with the children. Journaling. A long, hot, cleansing shower. A pottery course. Pursuing an idea, a calling, a passion, whether in tiny increments or giant strides. Whatever nourishes our minds, bodies and spirits, and models the same for our children.
For many of us, balance and vertigo play seesaw. There are those days, moments, stretches of time, where I feel like I'm attuned to both my children and myself, aware of their and my place and purpose, accepting of the divine timing of things, knowing not to rush the process. That's when I'm living in the present. And I realize, keeping balance, for me, is about trying to stay present and be relaxed in the present—not just in my children's presence, but in my own. What good is the balancing of schedules and time and priorities if our skin doesn't fit right?
In a perfectly balanced world, we would want nobody to derail us. But if we're going to let somebody rock our world, let it be a child. Not to run us ragged, but to turn our stale perceptions on their heads. To make us think hard about who we are in their eyes and our own. Let our children remake us in our true image.
So we may nurture ourselves like we nurture them. LH