It's tough to be a parent these days, and especially a first-time parent. We all want to do what's best for our children, and sometimes it's hard to sort through all the conflicting advice and ideas that are out there. As a therapist, I hear all the theories that the media promotes, and many (probably not all) of the professional ones as well. How to make sense of it all?
Space prevents us taking a look at some of the ridiculous theories the field of psychology has promoted in the past. What is tremendously exciting to me as a therapist is that finally the areas of psychology, neurobiology (I'll explain shortly!), and our grandmother's common sense are all coming together to prove what we should have know from the beginning - children need their parents!
Neurobiology is the study of the brain at its most basic levels. It is a rapidly developing field, and one of the areas being studied is how our earliest emotional experiences literally affect how different structures in the brain develop. A key concept is that an infant's ability to soothe himself is to a very large degree dependent on the baby's degree of emotional connection with his mother (or other consistent parenting figure. In this article, I'll be referring to mothers.) If babies don't have a strong connection or attachment to their mother, then their needs are not met promptly and consistently, and over time they become chronically stressed and actually traumatized. If the stress is severe enough, then brain development of the structures that help us regulate affect, or soothe ourselves, is affected, and different types of anxiety or other mood disorders can result.
Having tried to summarize a very involved field of research in one paragraph, let me now discuss how these ideas apply to parenting our children. First, if we see parenting as a relationship, then there are at least two variables, the parent and the child. As every parent knows, each child has their own temperament from birth. Some children are very "easy", meaning they eat well, sleep well, are easily comforted and easily connected with. Some children are more difficult. They seem to have a harder time settling down, seem to be more sensitive, more easily disrupted. And of course we as parents have our own personalities as well. There is no guarantee that a parent who dislikes structure and routine is going to have a child who can manage without it, for example.
Probably the single most important task of becoming a parent is to bond with your baby. The word is used so frequently that it can lose its meaning. By bonding we mean connecting with the child, being eye to eye, skin to skin. We mean getting to know them, what their cries mean, what comforts them, being with them even when they aren't comforted. It means getting to know what this unique child seems to need, and trying to provide it as well as is reasonably possible.
This is a very tall order, and it's awfully hard to expect all this from people who have little or no emotional connection to a child. It's hard enough for parents themselves sometimes. Does this mean we should never leave our children in another person's care? No. But it is important to realize that babies do need to connect and connect strongly, and they cannot do this with an infinite number of people. So if we are going to be honest with ourselves, the implication is that we should do as much as we can to create an environment that allows for strong bonding, or attachment, the term the literature uses. Some ideas to consider:
1. try to stay home with your baby as long as possible, especially during those all important first two or three years. In my work with premarital couples, we stress that there are choices that can be made that allow for living on one income, at least for awhile. The earlier a couple plans ahead, the more possibilities they have, and more importantly, the less likely they are to make decisions that require two incomes where one might have been possible.
2. Part-time work is better than full-time work, closer is better than farther, flexible is better than not, etc. Babies do grow up, and options do open up once they're a little bit older. Sometimes we can be very creative with different ways to juggle workloads and schedules so that children are mostly cared for by a parent.
3. Think hard about the permanency and attentiveness of other caregivers. Remember, the key for children is that they are cared for by a small number of adults who love them, know them, connect with them, and are there for them. A fancy
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