Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Bad Habit of Love

"Are you putting her down yet?", the Health Visitor asked.  Her manner was stern, and slightly concerned, as if she might be simultaneously wondering who she might mention me to on the community mental health team.  With my baby just a couple of weeks old and sleeping on my shoulder like a dollop of marshmallow, I stammered, "Er...no!...Er...Should I be?!".  "Yes", she replied, unequivocally. "You need to start putting her down more.  If you hold her all the time you will create a bad habit."

Oh.  I felt confused.  I didn't have any kind of parenting plan, I wasn't following the advice of any book, it just hadn't occured to me to stop holding this tiny soul.  I liked having her in my arms.  She seemed delicious to me in every way that it is possible to be delicious.  She felt at ease, draped across the body she had only recently vacated.  And besides, I didn't really have anything else to do, but hold her, sniff her, count her eyelashes.  What could this woman mean - 'bad habit'?

There was more bad news from the Nursery Nurse at the six week check.  Bleary eyed, I confessed I was not getting much sleep.  "Do you have a dog?", she inquired.  I was baffled, but luckily she was about to enlighten me.  "Babies are just like dogs", she confidently declared, "You have to train them to do what you want.  If you pick them up every time they cry, they will come to expect this.  You make a rod for your own back.  You create a bad habit."

I think if I had a pound for every time in the last three years of parenting that someone has used the phrase, 'rod for your own back', I could probably afford to hire someone called Rod to massage my back and other areas of tension on a nightly basis.  Basically, any loving act towards your baby or small child is likely to incite someone to use this phrase.  Feeding on demand, picking them up when they cry, letting them sleep in your bed, carrying them in your arms, not being strict about routines, food, naptimes, bedtimes...actually make that 'not being strict': if you find yourself indulging in any kind of crazy, love-driven behaviour, someone out there will be only too glad to talk to you about rods.

I suppose, in some ways, they are right.  Love, and the expectation of being loved, is a bad habit.  To truly love someone, unconditionally, purely, and fully, is, (as every mother knows), a place fraught with danger.  With love, there will, at some point, be loss, and pain, and suffering.  Perhaps it is the fear of this deep and inevitable suffering that drives those who instruct us not to get too close to our children, not to be too attached, not to, as one poet put it, 'unclip our minds / and let tumble free / the mad mangled crocodile of love'.  It is safer not to love.

Of course, our babes in arms know nothing of such matters.  Engaged as they are in the act of building a vastly complex adult brain, their world, for now, is dazzlingly simple.  Like the most advanced meditators, their consciousness sits completely in the present moment.  As every event takes place they experience it fully and respond with vivid emotional states.  For the first few months, they have no sense of where they 'end' and where 'other' or 'mother' begins.  What happens 'to' them, becomes part 'of' them.  When we hold them, and they feel deep comfort, peace, contentment, these powerful positive emotions become the very foundation blocks of their developing selves.  For the rest of their lives, they will be able to call upon these invaluable resources, comforting themselves in times of distress as we have comforted them.

A baby is not capable of manipulating or taking advantage of their loving carers.  The idea that you can be 'too' loving towards your own child belongs to an era that knew nothing of child development or neuropsychology, an era that also told us to 'Spare the rod and spoil the child'.  These archaic values need to be consigned to the past, particularly by those who are in the powerful position of giving advice to new mothers in an official capacity.  Otherwise the only thing at risk of being 'spoiled' is the sheer blissful pleasure of loving our babies freely and instinctively.  To teach our children how to love themselves and others, unconditionally and without limits, is not a bad habit, it is a great gift.


11 comments:

  1. Oh I so so agree. Health Visitors are scary people. I got all those speeches from mother and mother-in-law...!
    And I use a Moby Wrap and back when I was wearing him a lot, I got told off a lot. Then went to Ireland in January and same thing there.
    But then they contradict themselves, as they say in awe, with a slight question mark at the end:
    "he's such a happy baby"
    errrrr yeahhhhh!!!!

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  2. Great post.
    There are "Parenting Police" everywhere and the worst thing is that their opinions and guidelines shift all the time.
    Love is a good thing, touch is a good thing, being the mum you actually are is a good thing.
    Respect to you.

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  3. New age ideas! Babies have been born for many years and most make adulthood without too many complications! The modern idea of never putting baby down is ridiculous, how are you supposed to do normal house-hold chores? Is life supposed to stop because you've had a baby?!!For god sake get a life!!

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  4. Makes me wish *I* could visit new mothers' homes, and help them learn about peaceful/attachment parenting.
    Hm. Okay, time to job-search...

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  5. Hmm, "get a life". I do believe I already have one and that is involves doing the most important thing in the whole world which is raising a well adjusted human being. A child who is loved, feels secure, and knows that he will never be second to anything. That is my life and I think it a pretty darn good one. To the person, who chose to post anonymously which I think is cowardly, I say remember that once you have a baby your life is not yours anymore. You have to share it and very often not put yourself first. Your precious baby is number 1! And that's the way it should be. Also, it is not a "modern idea" to never put your baby down. Women for centuries have been bundling and carrying their children everywhere they go for everything they do. It's the natural way. I feel sorry for your children if indeed you have any and I certainly hope you do not.

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  6. Well, well Lily, you sound very biased.Are you the only one allowed an opinion!Hope you don't pass this on to your children!! I can assure you that I have brought up two very confident,happy children,who have been allowed to voice their own opinions! The idea of holding baby all day appears to me to be a lazy excuse not to have to do anything."Attachment Parenting" what rubbish! We all love our babies but most of us don't want to risk their lives by sleeping with them!

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  7. Anon...I've published your comments because, whilst I don't agree with them, I think they do reflect the views of a section of our culture and are interesting for that reason.
    You raise many points which I would like to take time to respond to, however, as my time is limited with 2 small children I'm not sure there is any point in my writing an essay since it is clear that your mind is made up anyway.
    I have no desire to start a war with anyone over their parenting style, and I don't think that 'attachment parenting' is the only way to raise happy and well adjusted children. It is, as I'm sure you know, the concept of attachment (different to attachment parenting) that is of fundamental importance, and attachment can be enhanced by many and various parenting styles.
    I'm not sure what has drawn you to this blog and this discussion. You sound very confident in your own choices and I wish you very well.

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  8. I think the thing that annoys me about this argument is both sides think the other is wrong. Both sides are actually right. Both types of parent love their child as much as each other. its just that there are different views on how they want to raise their child. one side sees the other as being cruel for making their child "cry it out" (as an example) the other sees the instant response method as creating needy babies (for lack of better wording) in the end its just a choice that can only be made by the parents yes everyone is entitled to their opinion but i just wish everyone would accept that while they may not like how another is raising their child because it doesn't fit in with how they think it should be. its not your way but its not the wrong way either. accept that its just not how you do it. stop being so self righteous and let it go. the main problem is that its difficult for people to see that their way is not the only way. to the attachment parenting side Its had to understand how a parent can sit an let their child cry for an amount of time while they "sleep train" their child. but going the other way its hard to understand how a parent can put up with having a child over 6mths wake them up every 3 hrs for a feed, or to have the child sleep in their bed. so because we cant understand how the other side feels we think they are wrong and stupid and uncaring even. so remember this next time you criticize another persons method of parenting. How would you feel if someone told you your doing the wrong thing or you dont love your child enough.

    posting as anonymous cos i don't have any account to comment as this page was linked on a friends FB

    Shantell

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  9. A different anon to the first one :) :P

    Shantell just to avoid confusion

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  10. Hi Shantell
    Thank you for your comments.
    Interestingly, I'm pushed for time to respond because I have started a petition to Amazon to ask them not to stock certain books that advocate the physical abuse of children.
    I suppose there are some people who follow such parenting methods eg To Train Up A Child who would feel that my actions are judgemental of them.
    But where do we draw the line?
    There is sound psychological evidence that leaving babies to cry for long periods is damaging.
    There is also plenty of evidence to show that love and care, physical contact etc aids physical and emotional development.
    It is not about how much we love our children. It is about evidence based parenting. I think some judgement is important because this is how we generate debate and this can then lead to positive change.
    I wish you well. x

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  11. Hi there,

    I too came up against a lot of similar 'queries' from some health professionals and relatives.

    To me, it seemed preposterous to put my little baby 'down.' Why would I? I wanted him to know that I was right there with him, so that he could smell me, feel our warmth, hear my voice. How else would he know that I was there with him, for him?

    He slept on me for the first few months during the day and at night). I was relaxed because I knew he was ok, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that I just wanted to gaze at his little face.

    I popped him in the sling and did lots of 'stuff' while he snuggled up to me.

    I have been blessed with a supportive mother and exceptional health visitor, who encouraged me do to this.

    In fact, my health visitor gave me an article from Mothering Magazine, highlighting how we are 'carrying' rather than 'chaching' mammals.

    The article went on to explain that as our babies require frequent feeding (if breastfed), then they simply would not have been able to be left by the mother while she goes to look for food (or do the washing up, for that matter!).

    This gave me a great deal of confidence, and rang so true to my own experience. As a new mum in hospital, I had no idea what to do with my new bundle, so did what I saw the apes do on David Attendburgh shows and held him close, instead of keeping him in his little hospital cot. I know it sounds daft, but I'm so thankful I did it.

    It has got me thinking though -if we are 'carrying' mammals due to frequency of breastfeeds, I wonder if anyone's done any research into how much body-body contact babies who are formula fed have, compared to breastfed babies?

    Keep up the good work, mammamule.

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