What sort of parent are you?

 
Parent ‘tag’ is very popular in media. It’s easy to join or at least follow many conversations about parenting going on in social media. I read or scan so many information directed to me as a parent not because I’m parenting blogger but because I am a mother breastfeeding the baby and wanting to occupy my mind with something during that process. Or a mother having half an hour break for myself and being too tired to read the book. Or a mother searching for input on a particular issue which worries me. As a parent of small children I also find parenting the most interesting subject at the moment.
What I look for in those all numerous articles, advices and opinions is a consolation – a comfort of someone else saying something close to my view on breastfeeding or praising the way parents manage children’s screen time, which happens to be similar to mine. I also get excited when some opinion appears to be totally opposite to my view: I criticise it and I go mad: ‘it’s wrong’ I think ‘you can’t say that! it’s not a right way of bringing up children!’

Right – Wrong, Right – Wrong. This is a good way, this is The Way to start a spoon feed, this is The Way to breastfeed in public, the way to deal with siblings rivalry etc. etc.

Parenting world of opinions is completely polarised and it sucks people into thinking in these black – and white categories.
This creates a world where any real reflection or discussion which could enrich people with different views is practically impossible. The comfort becomes a distant dream too.

I lately read an article about letting children to fall asleep on a breast when the night time comes. The author was pro breastfeeding to sleep and critiqued the other article in which a psychologist was warning mothers that this is a bad habit, that breast is for feed not for comfort and that a child will have trouble falling asleep when gets older.

At first I was reading and thinking: ‘oh, great, the woman is talking sense – I am in fact breastfeeding my child to sleep now.’

But then the detailed explanation came and I started to feel bad: ‘ the child is unable to separate herself from the mother until 18 months old’ says specialist. ‘Every attempt to break the mother – baby fusion before 18 months is against nature, is wrong, unfair, can be damaging for a child’. 

‘Oh dear’ – I thought – ‘I do break the fusion…Sometimes it’s my husband putting children to sleep…Oh no, I left my daughter for a week with her father when she was only 14 months, have I done something wrong?’

And then I realise: It’s unfair to impose on us parents such a strong opinions, from arguably informed sources. No one is better informed about our children and family context then ourselves. This is very understandable that we seek reassurance about the way we do things, so yes: we’ll keep reading the stuff. But in my experience we are more likely to get doubts and worries fuelled, rather than become more confident with what we are doing.  
So I keep reminding myself: black and white world is a phantasy. There is no one magic formula to bring up children. Every child and every parent is different. 

What is in your childhood luggage?

We all were once children. Last week I came across very interesting interview (with capturing title: No one annoys me as much as my mother) which addresses relationship with parents from a perspective of grown up children undergoing psychoterapy. The interviewee is a Polish psychotherapist – Danuta Golec. 

I translated a fragment of this interview, which I found very helpful in understanding one of the most crucial parenting skill: containing difficult emotions. 

What are their [adults who talk about their parents] complaints?

It varies, but I can observe one commonality, which I would call: a lack of psychological consciousness.

Some adults think that they weren’t seen in childhood. Their difficulties and needs – emotional in particular – were pushed away. We are not talking about neglected children; they might have had great conditions – being taken to horse riding, swimming lessons, but parents didn’t know what conflicts children were struggling with and what kind of help they needed.
There was a lack of thinking parent, who would understand that child has an inner life. Lack of someone who is able to stand [contain] emotions.
To stand emotions?
Yes, we are talking about parent’s internal space, where we allow our child’s emotions – be it anxiety, sadness, anger. We can take these emotions there, look at them and change them, so as they can become less frightening. We can compare this process to digestion. Child is not able to swallow big chunks of food, we need to break them up. Some adults are not able to do so. Ten year old girl is sharing her difficulties at school and mother is getting anxious, so she sighs: if you won’t stop I am going to get crazy, (…) I’m going to hang myself. In this way mother communicates to the girl that she can harm mother with her problems, so she shouldn’t disclose them anymore, or shouldn’t even have them. Later in life, this grown up girl can hold the unconscious conviction that if she approaches someone and gets very close, she can destroy this person, and this person will lost their mind or die. Obviously, every parent may have a moment of being psychologically unconscious, unavailable, but if this becomes a repetitive pattern it causes trauma to a child.
In some adults’ experience parents were strongly focused on themselves and their own needs. For example they saw the child just in one dimension which was fulfilling their aspirations. They wanted a happy and cheerful child, who amazes everyone. So they did. But if the child tried to show his/her different side, more true version of the self, they went into panic, or just did not accept it. Child was talking to hand – I don’t have friends at school, I am sad. – When you grow up you’ll laugh at this. Go and play.

Anything else?
Sometimes adults feel that something was pushed into them in childhood years. Parents, instead of accepting and taking in child’s emotions, thrown their own unwanted emotions at a child. Psychological maturity means (among other things), that we are able to see ourselves as a range of things, not only as a pure goodness. We can see anger, guilt and envy. If a person is unable to do it, then every unwanted piece of himself/herself needs to be removed or placed in someone else. Am I envious? Never! You are! (…). We call this mechanism projection
If this is parent’s main way of functioning, a child is constantly bombarded by unwanted emotions. He/she catches a lot of content, which parent doesn’t know how to deal with. Child also doesn’t know what to do with this kind of baggage. This emotional situation can be repeated in people’s adult life problems. They constantly deal with someone else’s psychological baggage. They feel obliged to live other people’s lives. I am a luggage filled with objects, something is banging there, but I don’t know who does it belong to.’

 

Full interview by Grzegorz Sroczynski, Wyborcza.pl 20.05.2015

Ordinary Parents

Royal Mother
Kate Middleton – The Duchess of Cambridge – gave birth to her second baby. It’s not this fact itself, what brought me to write this post, but another blog which in a humorous way commented on Kate’s perfect look during child’s presentation just few hours after giving birth.

The author very accurately picks up ridiculousness of a situation when woman being inevitably damaged and exhausted after enormous effort of labour, appears in front of the world ‘done up’ and ‘dressed up’, wearing high hills.
photo from Kate Middleton facebook page

Yes, the videos and photographs of Kate Middleton reminds me that I don’t belong to royal family and after I gave birth, no wider audience cared wether I had my hair brushed or nails done (and more: if I’d like to dress up straight after labour, someone would bring me on earth and told me to just lay down). It’s fortunately not part of my task as a mother to look perfect. But is it that obvious that the whole parenting venture isn’t about being perfect in any aspect? Isn’t the underlying message from Duchess to other parents: ‘perfect’ is what we all want?

‘Perfect’ is what the photograph captured but what was left behind?
Looking at the photo of Kate Middleton I’m reflecting on big picture of parenting. I am trying to capture what really matters in being a parent and what being a good parent means. I believe that in our era of parenting, where the pressure on parents coming from many angles is very high, we tend to forget what our priorities are and we might find ourselves in a place where we never feel good enough.
Experts and Ideal Parents
In fact, these dangers were present and spoken of in early 60′ of 20th century. Dr Donald H. Winnicot, English psychoanalyst, was particularly concerned about two issues (both of them become even stronger over the years and our culture is investing in turning them into the signatures of contemporary parenting).
One of the issue is a growing role of parenting experts. The market of education and advice for parents is really massive. Parents constantly hear what they should be doing and what is best for their children. I recently saw the post on facebook, written by child psychologist, inviting parents to write their concerns on the psychologist’s facebook wall and she promised to answer each of them in few sentences. This is very vivid example of the wider issue: the ‘expert’ badge, the voice of specialist, is in our culture very powerful. The experts sound so convincing that we are inclined to trust their voice more than our own judgements. This undermines parents’ confidence and makes them feel worried that they constantly miss some skill or important bit of information. Somewhere in experts’ minds exists a perfect and right way of doing things and we, ordinary parents will never be able to fully reach that. We then sip drops of wisdom from specialists’ mouth, hoping that this will be at least good enough.
The second issue is idealisation of parents. To illustrate what it means, I recall today’s radio program, where some caller criticised mothers for returning to work instead of staying at home with children. It was a judgemental speech, claiming that most mothers do have a choice and they still prefer career than the best start in life for their children. That lady simplified the dilemma and ignored complexity of the situation. She divided the world into two: good mothers staying with children and bad ones, returning to work. Her reasoning was fuelled by emotions: she split* them into two and assigned all the good ones to good – stay at home mums and all the bad ones to the other group. This is a process which we all sometimes go through, usually not being aware of this. Black and white world with simple divisions  is a product of our phantasy and it prevents us from seeing shades of the real world. How we as a society perceive parents seems to be influenced by this mechanism of splitting. They are good or bad objects – in minds of others and in their own minds. They experience emotional pressure, the necessity to be ideal and to fulfil unreal expectations.

To be ordinary

Parenting isn’t about trying to be perfect and fulfilling unrealistic expectations.  Parenting is about ‘ordinary’. Ordinary parents are good enough to provide right care for their children. And to be clear: vast majority of parents is doing great job of loving, caring and nurturing their children.
*original concepts of splitting and good enough parents come from works of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott.

For the peace of mind – baby products tricky marketing

The power of knowledge

Last may, exactly a year ago, my partner and I participated in the antenatal classes at the local hospital. Most of parents at the group were expecting the first child. We were absorbing every bit of information, coming from midwifes, physiotherapists, nutritionists and anaesthetists. It felt like
the right source of knowledge and professional information are the anchor which are going to help us through the process of welcoming the baby to this world and going through the life change.

This is a given that the set up of the antenatal classes gives the power and authority to all those who speak in front of the expecting parents. It is both not welcomed and difficult to imagine, that audience disagrees or discusses with the speakers. They have years of experience in the matter which most of parents to be, are debuting in. They are also talking to people in very vulnerable state, when excitement of awaiting for the baby mixes with the rainbow of other emotions – be it anxiety linked to birth, baby’s wellbeing, mother’s well being, stress provoked by all sorts of life challenges, financial pressure for providing for the growing family, etc.

Being in the process of huge transition, parents are prone to suggestions and it often happens that they are comforted by someone else giving clear and simple instructions: saying what exactly should happen and what steps parents should take. I am sure that intentions of those, who provide information for parents to be, are genuine. There are obviously important bits of knowledge parents need to get and comprehend (e.g. recognising signs of labour).

But some of those messages floating to parents add on to their anxiety and make them feel inadequate and confused.
This is particularly the case with commercial information which often takes a form of persuasion.
Marketing for baby products leaves parents with the impression as if stocking up with expensive and advanced products is the must for all responsible parents.

Anxiety based marketing

The antenatal classes we attended, hosted a sales representative from car seats shop. He gave a presentation on types of car seats; he brought the most expensive brand as an example, and was discussing the difference between basic and upgraded version. He said that the basic version is safe and meets the standards but the upgraded one (no need to mention about the upgraded price) is better for ‘our peace of mind’.
He didn’t say that, but the obvious consequence of his rationale is: if you can’t afford, or chose not to buy more expensive version, you can forget about the peace of mind.
The example from the shop with baby beds and mattresses is even worse. The basic version doesn’t meet the standards for protection against suffocation. If you can’t afford the better version of the mattress – we are sorry to say this – but you are putting your baby at risk. Deal with it now!
Searching through offers, articles, magazines for parents I am coming back to time when I was expecting the first baby and wondering about what we really need before the birth and trying to get get it right. In the hospital I was supplied with the plastic envelope containing the leaflets on birth plan, pelvis exercises, breastfeeding, postnatal depression, etc., and much bigger pile of adverts of cosmetic products for babies. I later on received also a small rucksack with plenty of samples. Marketing baby products is omnipresent and mostly unquestionable. The danger is that this commercial way of thinking becomes a fixed mindset, shaping our reality.

Information about product choices are based on number of assumptions which may or may not be true for expecting parents. The blurring between selling something useful and marketing a product for profit has become profound. Greater pressure is put on parents, and much of the marketing is based on raising parental anxieties…. “If you don’t buy this you are not being a good parent” is the subliminal message….The question is how do we protect ourselves from this barrage of advertising, and make the choices that are right for us, and for our babies?

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photo: http://www.redheadbabyled.com

Let the children be creative

Being a mother of a 10 month old girl, I pay attention to the messages dedicated to parents and I found myself surrounded by products, services and articles, which are suppose to boost children’s learning skills and creativity. I would say that creativity is on the top of the list of abilities which can be developed through interacting with toys, attending classes, playing specially designed games, and even – eating! I recently bought finger food, which apparently has a number of learning qualities, as the text on the bag stated. I pictured a baby, asking their parents who are looking for the signs of learning processes while the child is having a snack: ‘please, let me eat in peace.’

This obsessive attempt to influence and enhance babies’ experience introduces the pressure of competition in very early stage.
The holy Grail of our society is the underlying promise behind all the products and stream of information that as long as parents stick to the certain strategy, they will be able to develop their children in the ‘right direction’.

Lets focus here on the creativity at the early stage of children’s life. Parents want their children to be creative and they easily find the support in their quest of how to make them be more creative. I would argue that this is tackling the matter from the wrong angle and consequently, setting up wrong parental goals.

The most popular definition of creativity states, that this is the ability to generate novel outcomes that are valued in particular context. The playful way of explaining the subject is the ‘Laconic Definition of Creativity’, which focuses on the three types of spontaneous reactions for the creative outcome. These three are 1) Ah! 2) Aha!, and 3) Hahaha!, which stand for: enchantment, understanding and amusement. If we find ourselves experiencing those three reactions, that means, we are exposed to the creative outcome.

We can now recall any encounter with the toddler, playing freely with the world. Inventing words, games and jokes, making sense of the surrounding, discovering new things and giving them meaning – being endlessly imaginative. If we are just engaged with this kid, we can find ourselves with Ah! Aha! and Hahaha!, coming out of our mouth every second minute.

Creativity is the natural way of being for babies and toddlers. They engage with world creatively simply because they don’t know any other way. They don’t have schematic ways of thinking and cognitive paths which are adults’ shortcuts to solutions and quick answers. They make up the answer each time and they have fun doing it. They repeat their mile stone discoveries and they learn. The most spontaneous and obvious way of engaging with the world is play. And children’s free play is a pure creativity.

It can be inhibited though, by stress, emotional and psychological discomfort. This can have many different sources, child is affected by the difficult life events, as any other human being (even if is not able to fully comprehend the situation).
Melanie Klein, child psychoanalyst, discovered that stressed and troubled children played with toys in a very particular way, which was unimaginative, repetitive, and tense. When she named what was going on for a child (offered them her interpretation), the children came back to themselves and they were able to play more freely. We can assume what were the ‘curing’ factors, which allowed children to come back to their creative selves. It was an adult, being able to:
help them make sense of the difficult situation which affect them,
contain overwhelming emotions,
provide safety and trust.

I would draw an analogy between this difficult situation and parents’ goals in supporting children’s creativity. Parents’s objective is to provide comfort, safety, freedom and trust, which are basics for a spontaneous exploration of the world. Our task is also to help the children understanding their emotions and going through emotionally difficult times. This is how we can participate in our children’s development of creativity.

I therefore argue for changing perspective from trying to be an active agent, who provides children with tools for more efficient development, to being a good companion, ready to follow children in their creative endeavours and step in when it is needed.

I would like to make this point stronger by recalling one famous person, who was a genius student of creativity and wisely choose his teachers. Pablo Picasso was fascinated by children’s creativity and he learnt how to truly come back to this purely creative state of mind, which gets lost with time. He achieved a mastery in freeing his imagination from constrains and schemata, which force most of us to think, feel and see things in a right, acceptable by the majority way.
If we could reverse the situation and learn from children, rather then instantly attempting to teach them, both children and parents would benefit. Perhaps we resist this because we have an underlying fear, that as a side effect of creativity, we would become less conformist…. and that would force us to face ourselves in new ways…. Creativity is much sought after, but so is conformity!

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Pablo Picasso, Female Acrobat, 1930. http://www.studyblue.com

Reel Parents…Unreal Babies

This post was written by the guest blogger – Simon Western. Thank you Simon for your thoughtful contribution!

Reel Parents…… unreal babies 

Parent baby cinema groups – what they tell us about societies view of babies

Reel parents is one of the names given to the parent and baby screenings now showing at cinemas. This is an interesting idea, parents can take babies under 1 year, and watch a movie together with other parents and babies. A good business idea for the cinema and a good for parents who often can’t get out in the evenings. However, I was shocked to see 12 Years A Slave as a Parent And Baby Screening, and realised other films with loud and violent scenes were being shown. I wondered what this says about our social attitude towards babies? What it says to me is that babies are considered as some sort of pre-human object, rather than being treated as human subjects in their own right.
I have seen no social comment on this practice, except something in Poland which I will return to. Do we imagine babies are unable to engage with the sounds of screaming men and women being whipped, or affected by brutal images on large screens in front of them, or too the emotions stirred in the mothers and fathers watching? The IMD film company warns parents of older children that this film shows “A naked woman is shown being savagely whipped. At one point, 12 Years A Slave is a very brutal, cruel film. It is extremely emotional and some viewers may find it hard to watch. Lots of torture, violence and abuse is shown realistically.

 Some people may be disturbed by the sexual abuse of one of the female slaves. A mother is also sold and separated from her children.” And they mark it 9/10 for being disturbing.
I don’t claim to be an expert on what babies can see on big screens, but I do know that my 9 month year old converses with me on Skype when I am working away from home, and enjoys watching the Jungle Book on You Tube. I therefore imagine young babies can see something of what is happening on huge screens and I am certain babies take in the sounds of screams and violence. One thing is for certain, that babies are completely in touch and sensitive to a parents emotional reactions (hence attachment theory). So parents watching images or rape and whippings, and reacting to disturbing narratives on screen will be passed onto the infant is some form.
The question this raises for me is are babies emotionally neutral objects who are numb to the emotional lives of their parents and their environment, or are they human subjects from birth, with deeply sensitive emotional lives? One place where there was protests against such films being shown was in Poland where I heard that the Catholic conservative right, prevented a showing Nymphomaniac at a parent and baby screening. Of course this fits with their conservative political agenda (sex is sinful, films like this destroy family values etc etc). What I found interesting is that ‘progressive mothers’ argued that it was their cultural right to see any film they chose, and they shouldn’t be prevented from this liberty. This so-called progressive voice is in fact the opposite. It was the Victorians who treated children as emotionally neutral objects ‘who should be seen and not heard’ and packed them off to prep-boarding schools and outsourced them to nannies as quick as possible (not unlike the Royal family today). Zizek speaking to radical protesters said “Don’t be afraid of words like work, discipline, community and so on. We should take all this from the right wingers. Don’t allow enemy to take from you to determine the terrain of the struggle.” (Zizek 2011) This is true of progressive parents who should not take a self-righteous narcissistic view ‘I have the right to see the film whatever it is’ as this is a reactionary and conservative position. The progressive position is to stand up to social norms that demean the humanity of a baby.

The issue of parent and baby screenings of violent films, highlights two disturbing social trends. Firstly, it’s the parents that matter not the babies, reflecting our increasingly narcissistic society. Secondly how babies are increasingly becoming commodities, passive objects of desire, a nice thing to have a push around in a designer pushchair.
Both trends seem to forget that babies are deeply emotional human subjects and need to be engaged with as such, by parents and by wider society.