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Currently showing posts tagged parenting

  • connection and the circle of security

    I've studied attachment theory with a variety of people, among them the folks at Circle of Security International (COSI). COSI has put together this video about being in relationship with your child--about being biggerstrongerwiser, and kind while offering both a secure base and a safe haven. Those eight bold words are pretty much all you need to know to parent a child--and finding a way to live them takes lots of support and practice. Head on over to their website through the link, or watch it right here:

     

    I'm hoping to pull together a group of parents who are interested in supporting one another in this practice. Email me or call me if you're interested. 

  • rupture and repair

    Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking and writing a lot about attachment--about the ways in which we learn to be individuals only in the context of relationship. And I've been thinking, too, about what happens when relationship changes dramatically, goes away, or just stumbles--as in the Still Face experiment. What happens to the developing person when their primary attachment figure--the person who cares for them most consistently--fails to mirror them? Is damage done? It can seem that way. Just a few seconds of the nonresponsive mother, and the baby begins to experience distress. The mother's emotional absence is experienced by the baby as a rupture in the relationship.

    And yet, how can this damage ever be avoided? If, as Winnicott suggests, the ordinary devoted mother sometimes feels tired or anxious or irritated, and fails to be perfectly attuned to her baby--if she doesn't mirror her baby's experience--isn't this bad for babies?

    Research suggests that misattuned parents miss their baby's cues about 30% of the time. So as babies try to communicate their needs, their desires, their wish for engagement, one out of every three times, their parents just don't get it. Over and over and over again, these babies are shut out or shut down. And research finds that well-attuned parents miss their baby's cues... about 30% of the time.

    Missing cues is normal. It's part of being in relationship: sometimes we notice bids for attention, sometimes we don't. The significant difference between misattuned and well-attuned parents isn't about the missed cues--it's about what happens next, about what they do next. And that's part of what you can see in the Still Face experiment. The return of warmth, the genuineness of apology, the willingness to hear how it felt to not be seen, the pleasure of being together again are all part of what allows babies--and children, and adults--to get reconnected, and to trust that those they most care for are willing to come back over and over and over, to keep trying even when they've made a mistake. And that trust reinforces the bond.

    Attachment theory is encouraging because it's not about urging us to become more perfect parents or partners--it's much more about making room for us to acknowledge the moments when we've failed and missed seeing the other person, because in that acknowledgement, the relationship grows stronger. 

  • the ordinary devoted mother and the good enough mother

    Several weeks ago, I wrote about D.W. Winnicott and his idea that "there is no such thing as a baby." Winnicott began his working life as a pediatrician in England in the 1920s, went on to train as a psychoanalyst, and made a great number of important contributions to our understanding of parent-child relationships.

    Some of his contributions though, like "the ordinary devoted mother" who offers the holding environment that babies need to develop, can seem oppressive at first glance: sexist, demeaning, unobtainable, and more. And to be honest, I'm not yet sure what his own intention was--I'm not a Winnicott scholar. But I do think that the phrase can be used to support us as parents in the present moment.

    "The ordinary devoted mother" is in fact closely linked to Winnicott's lovely idea of "the good enough mother," the mother who in her individuality and in her imperfection does enough of what her baby needs to support its development in all arenas, but not so much that the baby has no room to develop its own capacities at each developmental stage. He is suggesting that in fact our children need ordinary rather than extraordinary parenting--that in the face of extraordinary parenting, there is not enough room for individuation and autonomy-in-relationship.

    Ordinary devoted mothers forget things, drop things, lose things; they feel tired, they feel irritated, they feel sad; they wish they could sleep through the night (when their children are babies, and again when their children are teenagers), they wish they could take a bath (when their children are babies and it's hard to find the time, and again when their children are teenagers and gaining access to the bathroom for that long has become a different kind of challenge), they wish they could walk at their own pace, and more. 

    Ordinary devoted mothers have their own imperfections, their own feelings, their own desires--and still they are present with and to their babies. And that is enough. That is what good-enough mothering looks like: an adult who is at once present to themselves and their own inner world, and to their child and their child's developing personhood. 

  • what is a baby?

    One of the best known, and arguably, most important statements by a therapeutic figure about babies is this, from D. W. Winnicott: 

    There is no such thing as a baby... If you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. 

    People sometimes take this statement to mean that babies cannot survive without the nurturance of another person, who commits themselves to the baby's care. And that it is accurate. In babyhood, we are profoundly dependent on another person to ensure our physical security and wellbeing.

    But Winnicott is saying something more than this here. He is suggesting that the very personhood of the baby is dependent on the ongoing relationship between the baby and person who loves her/him. That without that loving attention, the baby cannot become a person in the truest sense of the word. That to develop a self, and a sense of self, a baby must see her/himself reflected in someone's face, someone who mirrors back to the baby what it is that the baby is experiencing--and who in doing so demonstrates that the experience is bearable, that it is meaningful, that there are ways of talking and thinking and feeling about it, that it can therefore be shared, and that it belongs to the baby--that the baby is its own distinct person. Without that mirroring presence, the baby is lost in a morass of sensation that has no proportion and no meaning; without it, the baby cannot make sense of her/himself, or of the world.

    This, Winnicott suggests, is the way in which the develpment of the person unfolds, in the awareness of another who lends their presence to the developing person we call "baby," who helps the baby to be with their own experience by being with the baby, and who in doing so helps the baby to become a person. That person is what Winnicott calls--writing in the 1940s--"the ordinary devoted mother," the subject of a future post. 

  • baby steps

    The New York Times has been running a lovely series over the last few months that explores meditation in real life, offering suggestions about when and how to move into a more mindful state.This piece looks at how to be mindful while holding a baby. I am drawn to this piece, and to this practice, but especially drawn by these parts of the practice:

    If the baby you are holding is awake and content, notice the changing expressions on his or her face. 

    If the baby is interested, gaze into its eyes for some moments. Notice any thoughts or emotions that may arise as you do this. 

    If the expression on the baby’s face changes to unhappiness or you hear sounds of fussing, notice any emotions this brings up for you — sadness, compassion, frustration or anxiety. 

    If the baby begins to cry, notice how this makes you feel, as well as any thoughts about the future, such as “how long will this last?” or “I don’t know what to do.”

    Feel the feelings, as unpleasant as they might be, and return to the breath. By working at being with your breath, your body may become an anchor for the baby to find calm in the present moment.

    This interplay between child and parent, parent and child, is the essence of the practice, just as it is the essence of the relationship: observing the other with care, noticing and allowing whatever thoughts, feelings and experiences arise for us as we observe, and returning to the place of calm within us in a way that allows the other to feel that calm and to use it for themselves.

    I spoke with a group of parents yesterday about just this: how to mindful of what is happening for each of us as we live in relationship with one another at the same time as recognizing that our needs and our child's are not always the same. It’s hard work—work that often goes unacknowledged because it is described and/or dismissed as “natural,” meaning instinctual, effortless, lacking in intention. Good parenting is the antithesis of this: it is a skill that we learn in relationship with a particular child who has particular needs; it requires great effort, often when we are feeling depleted ourselves; and the more clarity we can bring to our lived experience as parents, the more easily we can notice those moments when we are or are not acting in accordance with our own values. 

     

  • birth plans

    We enter parenting in many ways: by choice and by chance; birthing children, fostering children, adopting children, taking respnsibility for our siblings, our nieces and nephews, our grandchildren, our neighbors... 

    For many of us preparing to give birth, there is a deep desire to enter into the process with some clarity about what we want for ourselves and our babies, with some control, with a plan. But birth doesn't comply with our wishes. 

    A birth plan not going according to plan is an apt introduction to motherhood because the reality of raising a family includes surprises and ultimately letting go of control.

    The New York Times recently published this beautiful illustrated piece on four births, four philosophies, four outcomes. Give it a look.