The Resilience of Children, and All of Us

Photo of Maya by Jay Premack, www.jaypremack.com

Maya…in…space, photo by Jay Premack, http://www.jaypremack.com

From the time a child is born, there is the struggle: to know, to do, to become. As a parent, we spend a baby’s earliest days answering to their cry, becoming trained ourselves in an extraordinary responsiveness.

As infants become toddlers and then, far too quickly, young children, we watch, amazed, as they master new skills, as they alternate between the drive to autonomy that makes them insist on doing something themselves, and their quick collapse into tears and frustration when the button won’t slip through the tiny hole. A certain amount of retraining has to occur for parents, to still our impulse to help them through each small challenge, to step back and wait to see if they call us to act.

I’ve been reflecting recently on several articles, including one which detailed a self-confessed helicopter mom’s struggle to let her child take risks, and another which clarified a crucial question about happiness. In the first, with laudable honesty and self-reflection, the mom works with the author of Free Range Kids, a book about over-parenting in modern life, to recalibrate her family’s boundaries for her two kids.

She makes a list of risks she has disallowed, like using a hammer or playing in their front yard with access to the street, and works with the coach to address her own anxiety. She mentions the exhilaration in her son’s eyes as he tackles each new possibility, and how he perseveres with the hammer even after whacking his thumb.

Her candor provides a ready guide for parents who have gone overboard, as a means to re-introduce reasonable risks to children’s lives. As the research shows (for example, here), there is a widespread concern that some kids — read: children with an attentive family — are being coddled in ways that threaten their development, and even, over the longer term, diminish their feelings of self-worth. Perhaps it’s because we have fewer children per family, or because the 24-hour internet is always tripping our alarms, or perhaps even because so many of us work (indoors, in antiseptic environments) that we both view childhood as more precious and can judge risks with less accuracy.

But it was the second article, on the common confusion between the search for meaning and our quest for happiness, that really clarified my thoughts. The article recalls an important, ancient distinction: between “hedonic” happiness (i.e., satisfaction from acquiring status or stuff) and the more challenging terrain of doing work that is meaningful to you and the larger society. The medical research shows, amazingly, that people pursuing happiness without meaning are creating the same kinds of stressors in their bodies’ immune systems as people experiencing chronic adversity.

This is both an astonishing result and blindingly obvious. Who hasn’t looked at a paunchy investment banker and thought their pallid complexion belied their public success? This is physiological evidence of what creates resilience in our lives.

We know that people who serve others seem more vital and grounded — we admire them for their drive and their service, both. In movies and books, we celebrate them as heroes — as long-toiling, unheralded, creating meaning out of darkness. If so many people did not choose this path of simple respect for hard work and quiet dedication, nothing would work: our mail would never get delivered, scientific discoveries would not be made, and dinner would never get cooked.

This is necessary work, and life is work. Of course, the work of children is play, and exploration. And while they grow, we would like to protect them from harm. Some days, though, we would even like to shield them from fear or disappointment. Balancing our need to protect them with an understanding that resilience is a learned response, and trusting that they are active agents in the co-creation of their lives, both capable and aware, is the challenge.

Complicating the task, as yet a third prescient article pointed out, is the rarely acknowledged fact that living is inherently traumatic. Even now, at two, Maya will worry about Swiper, the most innocent of villains in her (idiotic) Dora books, or bring home concerns about whether the lions in the zoo can come to our house. I reassure her as best I can, but I know that one day relatively soon she will see through the facile surface of my soothing tones, and come to doubt my word if I over-promise. I can tell her today that the lions aren’t coming, but I can’t promise her much else.

Fear of loss is written into our lives, and figuring out what information is appropriate for which child at which age is a constant act of careful judgment and re-balancing. Of course, grief and loss interfere more often than we care to admit with the lives of children, most commonly when they must dealt with the death of a loved one or a beloved pet.

In these difficult conversations, our own apprehension can mean we just talk too much: interpreting their questions, which can turn out to be quite simple, as a need to understand the whole picture from an adult perspective. Slowing down to really hear what they are asking and assess what they need to know in response turns out to be essential, so that we don’t overshare inadvertently. Often what is required is the simple facts.

We also have to acknowledge that many children live in daily peril of experiencing more tragic events like abuse and violence. Leaving aside awful, sudden tragedies like Newtown, there are entire neighborhoods today that deal with constant trauma from gun violence, as This American Life showed in its stunning two-part investigation into a Chicago high school facing a local epidemic of violence. These kinds of events are, of course, unacceptable, and should be prevented with far more foresight and care than we bring to them currently. Among other needs, what happened with the failure to enact better gun control is shameful.

But if we can set these types of unbearable circumstances to one side, it seems important to allow far more ordinary risks and failures. Imbuing our children with a sense that hard work is essential to success, that some frustration is an inevitable part of pushing through, that even real disappointment is part of the package, strikes me as a key task for parents. To the extent that some philosophies of parenting are interpreted as requiring parents to prevent children from struggling in a healthy, natural way with things that require sustained effort to accomplish, they do a disservice to both parents and kids.

The teachers I have remembered most (Patrice, I mean you) are the ones that invested in me by expecting better of me, all the time. A generous appraisal and belief in one’s capacity is an intensely supportive and empowering form of care, involving as it must such a close assessment of what is enough, and what is too much. And a simple statement of the results following a failure and a discussion of what could change for future attempts is often of more service than cheerleading, brassy dismissiveness, soothing talk or otherwise diminishing the significance of the goals, because any of these provide false comfort and undermine ambition.

Of course, there is a fine line between a show of power and a show of genuine caring. As a guide then, I take a few lessons for my own parenting choices:

1) Fear: Although I will try to keep inappropriately frightening content away from my child, I will also try to address her fears with honesty as appropriate. I will calm myself first, listen carefully to what she is actually asking, and provide a simple, factual response.

2) Disappointment: Although I will never manufacture disappointment (lord knows, children are whimsical enough to do it themselves many times in a day), I will attempt to deal factually and directly with the disappointments that inevitably occur: “No, we don’t have x, you may have y or z.” I will have patience with the melt-down that occurs, and understand it as a lesson in the facts of life: as her new teacher says, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” In this way, I will hope to avoid late-night travels in search of a particular color of strawberry ice cream, as I heard from a friend she once ruefully did…

3) Risk: I will regularly update my assessment of my daughter’s capabilities, allow her real choices, and support my child in doing hard things, because this is where ingenuity can happen and self-confidence can be built. I will make space she needs as she gains independence, and support her ambitions tangibly, without overpraising and without being afraid for her of the always-present possibility of failure.

We should wish for our children that they try and fail at many hard things, to help them discover the things worth working for — and what they are truly good at — from within. As it turns out, sustaining a quest for authentic meaning in our lives, even if doesn’t always lead to happiness, is healthier for both bodies and hearts. If parenting means anything, surely it means this.

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Below is an original poem, from an adult perspective, on the trials of this effort, and its many demands. It’s a bit darker than the above, of course, but I was re-reading it the other day and it struck me that it speaks to resilience as well as hardship.

Creatures of Appetite

There are many ways to be brave.

There is the small fortitude of refusing an invitation,
saying, tonight I will stay at home alone and
do something of no consequence.

There is the tiny  – almost imperceptible – act of not flinching at a threat to someone you love.

There is the courage of yielding gracefully to a moment of inevitability, when it finally fails.

There is this grieving, too much of the time.

There is the stirring of a small obstinacy in the face of incredible tedium,
the getting up, cleaning, the taking down.

There is the fortitude of trying to stay in love or even just
to be kind when love is the farthest
unreachable place.

There is the stubbornness of looking someone in the eye
who is about to hurt you and letting them,
though you will study that hurt like a bone with its secrets.

There is a tacit acknowledgement that what you hoped
is irrelevant, and in the face of such knowledge

there is the strange persistence of how it asks and keeps
asking whatever you have,

how it empties your hands, just to move on.

Are We Done Mommy-Bashing Yet?

The now-notorious Time Magazine cover image of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son was accompanied by the obnoxious question “Are You Mom Enough?” I immediately recognized the tactic as identical to the New York Times’ similar pseudo-rhetorical question atop an article on my efforts on toxics, called “Is it Safe to Play Yet?”

Of course, these kinds of questions are not really questions. Instead, they are snark where journalism should be.

Obviously, I take the toxics question more seriously than the Times’ Home section. We should also try to figure out the issues, and challenges, posed by “attachment parenting” – not as a catty lifestyle question or a sneer at “natural” moms – but as a serious inquiry: what kind of parental attention do children really need to thrive? And what actually works for women and families, given these needs?

There has been a predictable media and commentariat kerfuffle about the Time cover, including some terrific responses, like the one from Lisa Belkin, that pointedly refuse to sit in judgment of other moms. And some have raised the issue of this young child’s privacy and exploitation by the magazine in pursuit of sales.

In addition to the annoying headline, the photo itself is a cheap shot, substituting the intimacy of breastfeeding for a defiantly sexy image with an unmistakable Oedipal subtext. In the wake of the much-hyped release of Elisabeth Badinter’s attack on attachment parenting, The Conflict, it does appear that there may be a staged effort to transmute the “War on Women” meme that is so devastating to (mostly male) conservatives into a messy girl-fight. (“No fighting In the Mommy War Room!”)

We shouldn’t let them get away with it, and largely, we’re not. But there’s more to the discussion than simply not taking the bait. When I actually read the article associated with the sensationalized cover, I almost yawned.

The underlying story is, essentially, an arch take-down of Dr. Sears, accompanied by a tiny side-box in the print version that pronounces a few of what it calls the key tenants of attachment parenting either “true” or “untrue” – based on “the science.” For good measure, Time also threw in a short oped from a comically self-caricatured father smugly touting the benefits of being a “detachment” (read: self-indulgent) dad.

While the profile notes Dr. Sear’s extensive empire of endorsements, it disappointingly fails to take him to task for endorsing total crap, like these freeze-dried sugar pellets posing as “baby-friendly health-food” yogurt blobs. Far more importantly, while it mentions in passing his aversion to formula, strollers and cribs, it doesn’t take such subjects seriously enough to explain what, exactly, parents might usefully think about with regard to these topics. (On a single subject, the on-line, but not print, magazine does look at the “cry-it-out” issue with more seriousness, which I appreciated.)

If Time was actually practicing an act of journalism, it might have explored the research on brain development and maternal physiology that leads to infant-mother bonding and growth, or the structural tensions between the expectation that women work after having children and the alleged consensus that the benefits of breastfeeding are clear.

Instead, the editors chose to feature a mother who is actually a fashion model as an example of the sheer, unmitigated glamour of breastfeeding, and to offer up lame anecdotes like the fact that Dr. Sears and his wife “subsidized” the staying-at-home of his children’s families (hey, those yogurt blobs pay well, I’m sure).

Those of us without endorsement machines for parents have to deal with the real options for families, and it’s not a pretty picture. Structural supports for women’s choices and the choices of families – on everything from breastfeeding to maternity leave to flexible working arrangements to childcare and preschool – are largely missing, meaning that for most families, rearranging their lives around children requires extraordinary effort, exhaustion, financial and career sacrifice and general making-do.

The article did describe Dr. Sears’ evident frustration with the perception that his advice is for women to stay home (though much in his own attachment parenting literature either subtly or not-so-subtly does suggest that, as the piece points out). Generally speaking, one would think this kind of discussion would benefit from some consideration of what women actually want to do with their lives.

For some, certainly, working in the home is the most fulfilling way to raise their family, and to fully embrace its inherent comedy. In contrast, for others like me, being at home, alone, every day, with a toddler, would lead almost certainly to madness, resentment and despair, in that order, and in fairly short order.

In either circumstance, as I’ve suggested previously, it would be idiotic to think that moms, like other humans, don’t suffer ambivalence, regret and grass-is-greener syndrome.

And while it is true that not all parents are equally gifted at the exacting performance that is parenting, anyone engaged at this level with the niceties of how best to do the job is really Not Part of the Problem. So this sort of discussion of whys and wherefores should be a judgment-free zone, a convo among friends over a coffee-flavored beverage, like in those soft-focus Taster’s Choice ads.

As a Natural-Parenting inclined mom with a generally gimlet, skeptical eye, I’ve had occasion to closely examine many of the tenets of attachment and “natural” parenting.

So I will gamely, even perhaps foolishly, propose that I will do Time magazine’s job over the next little while, by examining, each in turn, a set of propositions related to attachment and natural parenting, including the following sizzling-hot subjects:

  1. Toddlers – Are there brains in there?
  2. Mother’s intuitionBasic biology or bunk?
  3. Natural childbirth – Is it for everyone (but me)?
  4. Breastfeeding – Are boobies really better than that magic powder?
  5. Co-sleeping – Do babies always have to kick your face in the night?
  6. Baby wearing – Are strollers Satan spawn?

Ok, the question part is most unserious. But I will try to tackle some of these subjects – not from a place of asking ridiculous non-questions about parenting adequacy or the evil nature of some choices – but as a chance to reflect upon my own efforts seeking to understand and grapple with these topics.

And I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments about your own experiences, questions and conclusions concerning what was right for your family.

If you have topics to add, please drop me a line – maybe you’d even want to write a piece or two for the series. (Please! How about: Cloth diapers: Are they really full of poop? Annie, I’m lookin’ at you.)

Just Those Silly Women, At It Again (Responding to Badinter)

The Women Fighting for the Breeches, by John S...

The Women Fighting for the Breeches, by John Smith (died 1743). National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal books page included a breathtakingly vicious attack on moms and families that practice more natural approaches to parenting, in the form of a book review for French writer Elisabeth Badinter’s new hatchet job on modern feminism called “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.”

Review author Molly Guinness nods inanely along with much of Badinter’s “argument” that, for example, “naturalism” in childbirth, breastfeeding and co-sleeping are problematic because they place too many demands on mothers and render fathers less relevant.

Notably, the book is not yet available in print in the U.S., and few facts are shared in support of this perspective. Yet Guinness deems it even more salient in the U.S., where, she alleges, without irony, that “a vast industry peddling organic baby foods and anxiety is sucking the joy out of motherhood.”

She also points out with patent admiration the “fact-y facts” that French women reportedly feel no compunction in packing their newborns off to daycare right after they’re born, and that this lack of attention to their children renders them sexier, and far more willing to recommence their wifely duties towards their, in turn, more manly, fulfilled husbands. Guinness admiringly calls this “grown-up.” Labeling co-sleeping and “militant” breastfeeding “aggressively antisexual,” she actually praises French doctors who ask new mothers the somewhat creepy question, “Is Monsieur happy?” (IMHO, the only appropriate answer: Well, I just delivered him a baby.)

(Pained side-note: if I read one more fact-deprived paean to the alleged superiority of French parenting skills, I swear that I will make protest art out of a rotten wheel of brie. And send the horrible image around on the Interwebs. I lived in France, and from my sample size of, well, me, I can say with real confidence: they’re not that great. And the men are shaped like cigarettes. And they have lots more financial support and paid leave than we do, including home visits from nurses when they are pregnant. Etc. Duh.)

In some small way, I guess it’s good news that conservatives have evidently dialed from “Freedom Fries” all the way back to just “French.” The title of the review – “Women’s War on Women – makes it all too clear why the Journal is keen to promote Badinter. It even helpfully connects the dots on the recent faux outrage from conservative circles over Hilary Rosen’s unhelpfully disparaging comment about Ann Romney’s lack of qualifications to set economic policy.

Most have moved on from this non-issue. But the Journal persists. If the “War on Women” can be recast as a girl-fight jello wrestling match, the jerky men’s club who rigged an mostly-male Congressional hearing on birth control gets off the hook. Conservatives would obviously like nothing better than for us to reimagine their latest round of attacks on women’s rights as another tragic, contested chapter in the Mommy Wars: just those silly women, at it again.

Amanda Marcotte’s insightful take-down of the right’s false sanctimony about the “hard job” of motherhood is well worth a read. As she also points out, the hypocrisy of conservatives’ reverence for stay-at-home-moms was exposed when Mitt Romney’s statements from recently as January surfaced about the need for low-income women, even those with young children at home, to work outside their home in order to get any access to basic financial supports for their family.

But Guinness is basically on board. She picks up on Badinter’s bizarre argument about contraception, which evidently, because it gives women a choice about having a child, creates an “infinite debt” and leads to “extreme mothering.” Neither of them consider that being able to choose to have a child actually means that women may want (and be able) to make space to value the process of parenting – that volition leads to the urge to be a better mother.

And there’s certainly no mention of the research on child development, summarized nicely in this book, that shows, pretty unequivocally, that healthy brain development in children ages birth to three depends upon their sense of security in the world, their social bonding with parents and caregivers, and the flow of good communication. The science backs up “attachment parenting” theories, but is in no small tension with the fact that, unless you’re the Romneys, most families need two incomes to survive. And those who do choose to stay at home pay a steep price in career advancement as well as income. Badinter thinks that decision is the problem; while I think that penalty is.

Moms who are aware of this, and have to go to work anyway, like me, probably do seek to compensate for their away time by bonding with their child in such crazy, unnatural ways as co-sleeping (like millions of families do around the world). How this harms anyone is beyond me. And rather than pitting me against my husband, he seems rather on board with the whole thing, because, you know, he’s science-y and all.

Here’s a big problem both Badinter and Guinness appear to miss: you know what really “sucks the joy” out of being a mother? Answer: An unwanted, unintended pregnancy. If contraception drives us to extreme mothering, but we’re supposed to remain always ready-to-go for the sake of our husbands, um, we’re all going to have to deal with this one, over and over again. That’s a lot of babies to kinda’ ignore.

Also on my joy-sucking list for motherhood generally: having to worry about hormone-like chemicals inside the lids of ready-to-use formula and baby food jars. Or, say, IQ- and fertility-lowering pollutants in my sofa, nursing pillow and car seat.

I would have to say that it did “suck the joy” out of motherhood, just a bit, for me to have to spend 20 hours or so over the past month researching where to get an affordable, environmentally healthy new sofa given that the chemical companies evidently have purchased a stranglehold on lawmakers in Sacramento, California, 2000 miles or so from my home. So there’s that.

Neither Badinter nor Guinness specifiy whether we’re supposed to just stop buying organic foods, or whether we should actually go ahead and affirmatively sprinkle, say, lawn pesticides, on our children’s Cheerios for added crunch. Of course, Badinter is sitting prettier on this one than we are. France actively bans many genetically modified organisms, and all of Europe has far better chemical standards than we do here. Under a law known as the REACH treaty, many chemicals must be proven to be safe before the chemical companies can put them in our bodies. (Funny story: European lawmakers were so utterly appalled by the hardball lobbying tactics used when REACH was being contemplated that they called us at Public Citizen to help them design some half-decent lobbying and ethics rules. We recognized the insidious tactics they described from, er, basically every regulatory skirmish in the U.S.) I wonder if parental outrage about potential health impacts was a factor in European governments’ choices to make any of these protective decisions…

And I can go on from here. Yes I can. For me, and I’m just speaking for me here, what really sucks the joy out of the so-important job of being a mother is the fact that we have no mandatory maternity leave in this country. That our child care tax credits are so misaligned with the actual costs of childcare it’s laughable. In fact, it’s hilarious.

Or that it took until last year for the federal government to admit breastfeeding equipment is a medical expense that we can pay for with pre-tax dollars, thereby saddling my family with thousands in higher out-of-pocket medical costs. Or, thanks to politicians like Romney, that low-income women don’t get any monetary credit at all for working to care for their children in their own home, even today.

To state the obvious: while we all now expect women to work outside the home, the actual feminist agenda of making society support the multiple roles women are supposed to play never got finished. Instead, the right pays lip service to family values while screwing women in policy and fact, and the left never seems to get around to taking our needs seriously on the big structural questions that impact women’s choices and lives.

Meanwhile, we go to work and come home, and co-sleep with our kids. And, yes, thanks, it does feel like a lot to ask of mothers to balance all these demands on their time. But asking us to care less about our children as a means to get it all done, or to stop worrying about all those pesky pesticides in our water and food, is not exactly a reliable way to restore whatever delusionally “joyful” experience of motherhood supposedly pre-dated the current moment.

Instead, we need a plan to actually support good parenting, one that really delivers for families, so that we can focus on our needs and be less stretched for time and money. Maybe, just for giggles, we should check out all the supports that they supposedly have in France.

Women engaged in the new domesticity, or good parenting, or whatever you want to call it, are not backwards looking. Instead, they’re just trying to make good on unfinished business: the core promise that feminism once made that women should be able to freely choose the values that will determine their lives.