I seldom find panel shows to be sources of wisdom, but one the other night was clearly an exception that proved the rule. It posed the following question to its participants: ‘If there was one piece of advice you could give your younger self what would it be?’ There were various answers to it, but the one that struck me in particular was simply, to be more confident. Now, I know that doesn’t sound particularly revelatory, but as one unpacks that concept, one begins to see that in some ways it can be revolutionary. Consider my life. If I’m honest it was not until the first rushes of youth had passed me by, like a series of unkempt hitchhikers on the side of a busy carriage way, that I came to that tricky fork in the road. A series of events (not unfortunate like Lemon Snickety but they had left me ponderous nevertheless) prompted me to ask myself, ‘Am I doing what people expect me to do or am I doing what feels right?’ By this I didn’t mean, should I ditch the 9-5 and preoccupy myself with the pursuit of hedonistic bacchanalian revelry, you know, the type that ends up somewhere exotic like a souk bar in Marrakech, but rather, did I have the courage of my convictions? To be honest, I didn’t really have an answer to this, but I did have a new found resolve to try and ensure I did so from then on. So why then am I telling you this and what does it have to do with all this mothering business?
When I became a mama for the first time (I hope you’re imagining that word said with a cute baby twang and not in hairy and slightly greasy Italian chef way) there was so much literature on the subject. You would have thought the entire tome of human endeavour had been devoted to this one activity alone. There was everything from Gina Ford to Henry and a whole lot in between. Much of it contradicted itself, which made sense in a mercantile sort of way. After all you can’t rewrite the same thing ad nauseum and expect people to shell out fifty shekels for it every time. What really concerned me were the vast parts of these contributions that appeared to look down, rather disapprovingly to my mind, on what I should be doing. Moreover, I really felt that these ‘baby trainers’ were helping to create insecure and frightened children.
Let me explain…
Firstly, we all know that motherhood can be scary. Now, if you add into the mix the fact that you are drowning in the collective wisdom of a thousand authors who are each telling you that they’ve been there, bought the T-Shirt, saddled the horse, dug the well and built an African village and for a small donation in the form of a book purchase can make it all go away. With a constant stream of caring but jittery mothers making their way pass book shop windows like migrating salmon it’s easy to see why they are in this racket. It’s tempting, right, to abdicate a measure of autonomy in the hope that somehow these people must know best.
Well, they don’t.
Don’t get me wrong there are some good ideas out there for health, safety, nutrition and so on, but a line must be drawn in the sand. You and your child are your own personal fiefdom and I’m convinced that no interloper can tell a reasonable mother what is best when trying to emotionally and spiritually connect with their child. These are individual beings and they are as different as one snowflake is from another (yes, they really are all different) and there is no one size fits all.
I read a good analogy that explains some of the absurd propositions put forward by these ‘professionals’. It asked us to consider a parallel between early child rearing and residential care for the elderly. The author points out that looking after the aged, specifically the mentally and physically infirm, which I suppose equates best with a new born child, can be trying. Care homes up and down the country are full of tired nurses working throughout the night to ensure that those under their care wake up and go to sleep feeling safe and happy. The way this is achieved is varied. There are small things and big things, but none are trivial. It might be something as simple as holding a hand as sleep takes over or responding to a buzzer in the middle of the night to reassure an elderly woman as she prowls the corridors disorientated and frightened or helping a gentleman to the loo to safeguard his dignity or to simply listen to stories for the nth time because it gives a measure of comfort and relief from the compromised state in which life is now lived. The author asks us to then imagine that these nurses are told that after consultation with academics and social workers that new guidelines suggest that it is better to leave these individuals to self soothe. It is even suggested that to do otherwise would be detrimental to future well-being. Okay, the analogy falls down here a little bit. After all, the idea behind leaving a child to self soothe, for example, is purportedly to enable the development of independence and give them the tools to detach and maturate more successfully (I must confess I’m not sure how absence equates to knowledge). Over attentiveness is deemed counter-productive, to be considered in some way as stifling or inhibiting (in this case delaying independence and detachment). Considering the two are in some ways equally vulnerable this disparity seems an odd one. What are we to deduce from this? That such attention has diminished value at the extreme beginning of our lives. Why else would we leave a person to cry for eight or twelve hours? There is a reason we respond to the distress of the infirm. We do so because they cannot help themselves. Rob me of my ability to get up in the middle of the night after a wretched dream or in response to a troubled mind to find solace. Tell me to stay in bed in the dark and scream to the walls. Tell me to repress the instinct to turn to a loved one and seek out their hand in reassurance. Tell me I’m alone and there is nothing I can do or say to change that and I might very well go mad.
To all of those who would disagree I say bah and bah again. There are times in life when these things are needed most. They remind all of us that we are sentient social beings capable of giving and receiving love and perhaps the only reason any of our lives make any sense. Who on earth gave these self-professed experts the audacity to suggest that in the interests of some invented notion of independence I should do anything other than respond? I’m not going to tell you that studies have shown that babies who have a strong psychological bond in childhood are more capable of healthy detachment in later life. This, true as it may be, it irrelevant. It’s not my (please insert expletive) business to get in the way of your relationship with your child. If I want to lie with my child at night until he or she falls asleep, because that’s what they want, then I’ll soddingly well do it. A few minutes to me means the world to them. We all know that. And if they creep in on me while I’m asleep because some dream monster has just scared them silly, then I say clamber aboard. I’m not about to send my child away because they’ve had the crazy idea that I represent safety, love and reassurance. I say, Aye Aye Captain, where shall we set sail? Okay, maybe I’m Peter Panning this thing a little bit. After all, kids in the bed can be sweaty, fidgety bundles of hair pulling insomnia inducing craziness, but I guarantee you, once that time is gone they’ll be moments when you would sell everything you have to get it back again. Listen to the slow swell of that little chest and tell me it’s not the best thing you ever heard. You watch that bundle roll over and reach for the curve of your neck where it reaches for the chin and…okay, so that’s me. But you have your own thoughts in the middle of the night. These are your thoughts and your babies. It’s not brave to leave them to cry. Liberate yourselves from the tyranny of opinions. You love your kids, you want the best for them. I think it’s time we start trusting our guts a little more.