You’d think as I put away the bassinet for the fourth time that I’d be an expert on all things infant. Not so. Not only is each child entirely different, but I forget an astonishing amount. So here I am, on baby number four, trawling the internet for tips on HOW CAN I GET THIS KID TO STAY ASLEEP OH PLEASE SOMEONE HELP ME!!!???? Fourth time around and it still takes some convincing to believe she will not be waking 5 times a night for the next 18 years. I think I fairly thoroughly defy pigeon-holing on the topic of baby sleep. I like to start with straight up co-sleeping, then putting her in a bed next to mine and answering her every whimper. Then I move the bed a bit farther away so I won’t wake for slight sounds but if she wants to get up and party at 3am, well I guess I’m down with that. Then along comes a day, at different ages for every child, where sleep has regressed to the point that baby is not getting what she needs and neither am I and I decide, “Ok, this is out of hand”. That day the crib goes up in the nursery and we get serious about sleep training. It’s right before this last phase that I end up online researching to try and shove myself over the edge one way or another on sleep philosophy. Will I decide cry-it-out is the devil or salvation? Funny, in advance I never know what I’ll decide. This is not a post on sleep actually though so HAH go on wondering. All the research though has reminded me of a little child development theory of mine on… child development theories.
When I was in marriage prep a few months out from my wedding, my priest said something that really struck me. He told me that I shouldn’t “go to confession” to my husband, and he shouldn’t have to confess to me. The idea being, yes, we’re getting married and the two shall become one, but we’re still both entitled to our own interior lives and our own relationships with the world around us and with God. I don’t have the right to know every thought that passes through his mind and I also get to keep some of my own thoughts to myself. Not that marriage can thrive with secrecy on all things! Still I think this sense of personal integrity is valuable. Marriage is so much seen as the end of a search. “Oh look, I found this man and he makes me entirely happy forever and always. He is my be all and end all”. Yet my self, while fulfilled in marriage, is not synonymous with the marriage. Respect for the other, as a whole and discreet individual, is very healthy and breeds trust between partners, both that your spouse will tell you what you need to know, and that he will give you the space to think through things you are working on privately. Sometimes when I’m looking at my husband while he sleeps, or sits outside enjoying his evening beer, I am struck by this contrast: that I love him entirely and wish I could get inside his head to know every last thing about him, that I couldn’t do that even if I tried, and that I shouldn’t try.
This same thought occurs to me often while watching the children play. I long to understand them totally, but I need to recognize that I can’t. Oh if only I had a little more insight into how those little minds tick! Especially my darling fierce bad rabbit Gus! Since he was a week old he has stymied me. He went on a nursing strike after a week of easy success and within a month he was dehydrated and still under birth weight. Mike was away, JD was less than two, I was sick and we knew nobody in town. I had to give up. I occasionally call him my little social experiment baby, because he’s the only formula fed one. If he turns out differently we’ll know why. While this is totally in jest I certainly could waste valuable energy wondering if the fact we operate on totally different wave lengths is somehow due to the difference in “bond” created between bottle and breastfeeding. Boy would it be a waste though. Maybe we couldn’t make it work precisely because of operating on different wave lengths. My philosophy prof would warn against the logical fallacy of “post hoc ergo propter hoc”. (Pardon me a moment while I high-five myself for using that liberal arts degree.) This seems to me a common problem in theories of baby development: assuming that one thing is definitively the cause of another simply because one follows the other. My child wouldn’t nurse. We have difficulty understanding each other. Formula destroyed my mother/child bond. Your child walked early. He is bad at math. Walking early made him bad at math. We see these sweeping pronouncements made all over the place, about every decision a mother makes even before the child is even born! How you get the baby out and interact in the first moments of life will impact his newly forming psyche. Circumcision will shatter it. Nursing will permanently cement a loving relationship with his mother while bottle feeding will create a gulf. Go on Moms, fill in for yourselves what you’ve heard you’re doing wrong.
Of course the obvious negative by-product of this is intense maternal stress and possibly guilt. This is a toxic environment to mother in. The joy of self discovery and achievement when you succeed at something can be destroyed by the fear that what seems to be working is doing vast secret damage underneath. How terrifying, how paralyzing, to feel that one tiny unrecognized misstep will forever change a child’s very personality and potential. I think, however, there is another less considered problem with this over analysis. Babies are not extensions of our selves. They are their own. They have personal integrity just as our spouses do. When we analyze them too much we impinge on that. No adult is pleased to be subjected to the armchair psychology of their friends and neighbours, yet we engage in it regarding our children quite extensively. It’s a natural impulse. When my son is acting out in a bewildering way of course I want to know why. Knowing why will help me to help him. By no means am I saying child psychology has no value, or that we don’t need to turn to experts sometimes for insight and help in making good parenting decisions. Yet I mustn’t forget that at best I am making an educated guess. A child who is too young to articulate his inner processes is still going through them in his own way. If I assume I’ve cracked the code I am in some way denying him the right to his own story. Because he lacks a voice does not mean I can give him mine.
What does this look like in practice? Well, I try and deal with what is happening while acknowledging I may not know the reasons why. I’m bad at this; I find armchair psychology fascinating. What I’m better at is remembering to keep my guesses to myself as much as possible. For example, I may be fairly certain they are struggling with one of Dad’s long absences. I consider that in how I treat the situation, but I don’t tell them “I think you are acting this way because you miss Dad.” Now if they tell me, we talk through it, of course! I should also help them figure out how to tell me about their problems. I am just leery of accidentally shaping their inner narrative by handing them the script I think makes sense. In dealing with infants I pay more attention to what works and less to what it all means. I’m not going to decide a child is too attached to me because I carry her around all day, or that she is suffering abandonment because she goes to sleep in a crib at night. To make assumptions like that would be to decide a great deal about who she is before she even has an opportunity to discover it, let alone share it with me. Finally, I try to take no more than my small share of the praise or blame for who my children become. I’m sure this will be more and more challenging as they grow. They will have gifts, they will have challenges. Part of that is purely who they were from the moment they came to be. Part of that is formed by the circumstances they grew up in. Part of that is what things we did right and what things we did wrong as parents. What does it really matter? They are who they are and they can always make of it what they will. All I can do is hand them a few tools and a lot of love. In helping them I’ll keep looking for tips and ideas from any source I can. Somewhere at the back of my mind though I need to hold on to the truth that every child is a mystery, and entitled to remain a mystery, to everyone but God. Somehow we must balance our need to understand them with their right to autonomy. After all, a Person’s a Person, no matter how small.