Living with our protective instincts

Becoming a parent awakens a whole cluster of instincts, feelings and thoughts.  A dark and scary part of our psyche, inherited from ancestors long past and dormant until parenthood, wakes within us.  We find ourselves tasked with a single overriding mission: our child must survive. We discover that becoming a parent means being haunted by the fears of our ancestors.  We are haunted by fears of disease, of attack, of accidents, by fears that our child may die.  The overwhelming majority of parents report intrusive anxious thoughts about their baby’s safety in the early months of parenthood.   As a new parent, with a tiny newborn, my own brain seemed to replay endlessly at random intervals the panicked thought: ‘Is she breathing? Is she breathing?’  Even now, intrusive, anxious thoughts about her safety are a regular part of my life.

We also find, within our emotional life, an entirely new emotion: maternal rage.  Maternal rage is the aggression of the mama bear defending her cubs. I didn’t realise, before experiencing it, that it feels so different to ordinary rage.  Ordinary anger is hot, burning, it makes time speed up, it makes us reckless.  When we act on anger, we do things that we later regret.  Maternal rage is a different emotion altogether.  Maternal rage is cold, calculating, it makes time slow to a crawl, it gives us a chilling rationality. It is remorseless: ‘My child must survive.  Everything that must be done to achieve that must be done’. Maternal rage is cold for good reason.  Maternal rage is there to spark the aggression necessary to defend our children.  It is not there for fuelling attack which may only put our child in more danger.  Since becoming a parent, even my nightmares have changed.  Instead of being overcome with terror, running, heart pounding away from the threat, I find myself overcome with maternal rage, coldly, desperately ensuring my daughter’s survival within the terrifying dreamscape of my nightmare at all costs.  Waking, my first instinct is to check that she’s okay (‘Is she breathing? Is she breathing?’).

Along with the deepest joy, parenthood brings dark, uncomfortable and frightening thoughts and feelings.  My grandmother used to say that once you have a child you never experience a moment of peace again.  Yet, protective anxiety and maternal rage are a normal and healthy part of any parent’s psyche.  Our new instincts, thoughts and feelings may be distressing but they have served our ancestors well in the past and they will serve our children well too if we can learn how to live with them.  We need to stop dismissing and mocking our own protectiveness and, instead, understand and respect it.  That doesn’t mean that we need to take every anxious, panicked thought about our child’s safety as the literal truth or that we need to eliminate the ‘threat’ to our child every time we feel maternal rage arise.  It just means that protective anxiety and maternal rage are parts of parenthood that we need to learn to live with.  That dark and scary part of our psyche is supposed to be there.

Apply it to your life:  How do you live with your own protective instincts?

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FREE Brisbane Mother’s Day Weekend Event

I will be holding a FREE Mother’s Day Weekend Event in my hometown of Brisbane. Please join me for a FREE presentation and afternoon tea on Saturday the 10th of May in Aspley and discover:

  • True parenting confidence
  • How to manage criticism and unhelpful advice
  • Strategies for building a meaningful, rewarding life as a mum
  • Practical step by step strategies you can implement today
  • The strength to mother your way

The event is baby and breastfeeding friendly.  Please invite your friends!  You do need to register (for catering purposes).  To register, and for more information, please go to: www.koawhittingham.com/event-registration/ 

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Hold the parenting rules lightly

Modern parenting is full of rules.  I don’t mean the rules that parents set for their children.  I mean the rules that society sets for us.  You know the rules like, ‘Never feed, rock or cuddle your baby to sleep’ or ‘No television before the age of two’.  There are heaps of them.  If we compiled society’s parenting rules into a list, it would be a very long list, far too long to conveniently fit on your refrigerator.  Ironically, it would be exactly what parenting experts say a list of rules shouldn’t be like.  Too many rules!  Not realistic!  Too contradictory! Too confusing!  Too difficult to follow! Not consistently enforced! Not enforceable! And rules should tell you what to do not just what not to do!

The truth is that some of the rules are useful at times.  Some contain a grain of truth.  But they should all be held lightly because even a useful rule can get in the way.  The trouble is, when your focus is on rule following, you stop noticing what really matters, like whether what you are doing is actually working, or whether you are having fun, or how your child is feeling.  So the parent who religiously follows the rule, ‘Never feed, rock or cuddle your baby to sleep’ doesn’t notice that they actually enjoy cuddling their baby to sleep.  The parent with the strict ‘No television before the age of two’ rule doesn’t notice that, some days, a little Sesame Street in the background allows them to stay calm and to keep from yelling at their boisterous toddler.

Whatever parenting rules others tell you, whatever parenting rules you like to follow, hold them all lightly.  Even the rules you find useful.  Don’t forget to notice if things are working, if you are enjoying yourself and what your child needs.  And, every so often, maybe drop the rules altogether and go with the flow instead.  Just for the fun of it.

Apply it to your life:  Can you hold the parenting rules lightly?

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Allowing your child’s creativity to flourish

I let my child climb up the slippery slide.  Of course, I teach her to be aware of the other children playing.  Naturally, I step in to ensure that there are no collisions.  I watch her carefully and ensure she doesn’t fall.  But in an empty playground she often enjoys climbing up the slippery slide again and again.  I’ll never tell her that the slide is for sliding down.  Because, dear adults, with your heads full of boring adult rules, here is a newsflash—that’s just not true.  The whole of the playground, the slides, the ladders, the swings, climbing frames, is for play.

If you want to allow your child’s creativity to flourish then you need to start by recognising that children come into this world naturally creative.   Babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers spend most of their time playing.  Play is creativity.  Play is spontaneous, fun and uninhibited.  There are no rules and it doesn’t need to be taught.  Becoming a parent is a marvellous opportunity to re-discover creative play yourself.  And the best bit?  Discovering that it is actually easy, effortless and fun.  All you need to do is:

  • Drop the rules.  Why can’t the sun be purple and the sky green?  Why can’t a banana be a phone?  Why not climb up the slippery slide?
  • Let go of criticism.  Play requires free experimentation without judgment.
  • Let go of goals.  You play because play is fun.  That’s what play means.  Having a specific goal for play tends to turn play into something else…like work.
  • Let your child lead.  Let go of any set ideas of your own and let your child decide how the play will unfold.
  • Follow the joy.  Remember, play is fun so chase the giggles.

Allow your child’s creativity to flourish and you may even rediscover your own as well.

Apply it to your life:  Can you drop the rules and criticism and rediscover creative play with your child?

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Escaping the maze of parenting guilt

I think every parent gets lost in a maze of guilt sometimes.  I certainly do.  The list of shoulds, of not enoughs, of weaknesses, of mistakes, traps you at every turn. Stuck in the maze of parenting guilt, it seems like the only way out is to be more, to be better, to be perfect, to cease making mistakes.  But I guarantee that’s not the way out.   If you follow that path you’ll only end up more lost than ever.  Worse still, that path will lead you away from your child…

You see, relationships don’t die from want of perfection. Relationships are not irreparably damaged by ordinary human error.  In fact, relationships turn on a simple choice, made moment by moment, again and again, day after day: to show up or turn way?

Show up or turn away?

Your child doesn’t need you to be perfect.  Your child needs you to show up — to show up, physically and psychologically, as the fallible, fault-ridden, imperfect human being that you are. To show up authentically, messily, making mistakes and slipping up again and again.  Your child needs you to show up in their life and notice them.  Notice your child as the fallible, fault-ridden, imperfect human that your child is and love them faults and all.

And that’s the true path out of the maze.

Apply it to your life:  When you are next lost in the maze of guilt can you choose to show up, as the imperfect human that you are, in your child’s life and love them?

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Parents be warned: professionals only see part of the puzzle

As a parent, you will interact with many professionals in trying to ensure the best for your child – doctors, nurses, teachers, dentists, and perhaps also psychologists, social workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians….   And there’s something you ought to understand.  Each of these professions has something useful to contribute but each holds only a piece or two of the puzzle.  Professionals see clearly only a piece of your child…the piece they were trained to see.  Of course, their insights and knowledge about that piece can be incredibly useful.  A good professional will recognise confusing details about that piece in an instant; will distil for you in easy to understand language the latest science on that piece and the implications for you and your child; will have a list of possible solutions for ensuring the best performance of that piece.   Sometimes professionals are good at acknowledging that they can only see a piece or two and sometimes they are not.  Sometimes they will push for what is best for their piece, with complete ignorance and disregard for how this would affect other parts of the puzzle.   So you need to be clear on what your job is: you need to put the puzzle back together again.  You are the only one who can.  Because you are not raising a set of teeth, or a report card, or a medical condition, or a toilet training chart.  You are raising a child.  Your job is to remember that.

Apply it to your life:

Do you find you need to ‘put the puzzle’ together again after seeing professionals?  Do you stay mindful of the fact that you are raising a whole child?

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Becoming a parent has re-radicalised me

As long as I’ve had any degree of political awareness I’ve dreamt of a better world – a world free of sexism, racism and ableism, a world where no one goes hungry, a world where we’ve learnt to co-exist with the environment, a world where knowledge is valued.  But I had to make my own way in the world that actually is.  I became cynical.  I learnt to cut my dreams down to size.  I got used to prejudice, injustice, the environmental crisis… Becoming a parent has changed that.  I’m seeing the world again with fresh eyes.  The hard, crusty coating of cynicism has broken and my idealism shines through again.  After all, who knows what’s possible?  What I do know is what’s necessary…  You see, I know a toddler who is bright, kind, generous, adventurous and irrepressible.   She is growing up so fast.  Soon she’ll be setting out to make her own way in the world and that means: change is necessary.   Because, the thing is, she deserves so much more than what the Status Quo has to offer.

Apply it to your life:

Has becoming a parent changed your politics?  What kind of world you do want your children to inherit?

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The notion of ‘independent’ behaviour in a baby is nonsense

Not only do professionals, researchers and the media persist in describing particular baby behaviours as more or less ‘independent’; but they also encourage parents to think that the ‘independent’ behaviours are superior.  Parents are encouraged to waste precious time and energy making their baby ‘independent’.  So the baby who suckles to sleep sucking his thumb is ‘independent’ while the baby who suckles to sleep on the breast is not.  The baby who is rocked to sleep in an automatic rocker is being ‘independent’ while the baby who is rocked to sleep in daddy’s arms is not.

What.  Utter.  Nonsense.

There are two meanings of the word ‘independent’

  1. Self-determining; free from external influence or outside control
  2. Self-sufficient; not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence

Somehow, for babies, the focus is always on the second definition.  When babies decide, for themselves, the circumstances in which they will feed, fall sleep or play that kind of self-determination is merely seen as more evidence of the baby’s dependence as self-determining babies tend to choose means which are not self-sufficient.  But I am not arguing that we should begin judging baby behaviour with the yardstick of self-determination instead of self-sufficiency.  I am arguing that is absolute nonsense to talk about independence in a baby at all.

In order to truly be independent, whether in a self-determination sense or a self-sufficiency sense, you need to have a clear sense of self and other.  How can a person be said to be self-determining without clear knowledge of their own desires, the desires of others and the difference between the two?  How can a person be said to be self-sufficient without clear knowledge of their own capacity, of the support available from others, and of their ability to choose to take or to refuse it?  They cannot.  A particular baby behaviour may look more ‘independent’ to us, perspective-taking beings with a clear sense of self, but it makes no sense to say that the baby is being ‘independent’.  A parrot saying ‘Polly want a cracker’ may sound like language to us, verbal beings, but it makes no sense to say that the parrot is verbal.  The parrot has just learnt to repeat specific sounds without any understanding of what the sounds mean.  A baby who falls asleep sucking her thumb has just learnt to suckle in this way without any understanding of what this might mean in terms of self-determination or self-sufficiency.  When a baby wishes to suckle for comfort she doesn’t think to herself, ‘I know what would settle me – a good suckle.  I can do that by sucking by own thumb and then I won’t have to wake dear old mum, who could do with a sleep-in today.  I’ll get my needs met that way’.   That would be true independence.   A baby’s thoughts, put into words, would be more like this, ‘I need to suckle!  How did I make that happen last time? Oh yes, I lifted my arm like this and oh!  There’s that thing I like to suck!’  or ‘I need to suckle! How did I make that happen last time?  Oh yes, I cried out like this and oh!  There’s that thing I like to suck!’

Babies who suck their thumb, rather than breastfeed, or fall asleep by themselves, rather than with their parents, are no more likely to be developmentally advanced in their milestones or to look ‘independent’ in any other way.  They are no more likely to be independent at school age when true independence is possible.  Why?   Because babies aren’t being ‘independent’ at all…

Apply it to your life:

Ignore the nonsense about your baby’s supposed ‘independence’.  What works for you and for your baby?

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The importance of generosity

Many parents are concerned about the effects of spoiling their child; concerned that too many toys, too much fun, too much received too easily, will result in a child who is materialistic, focused on instant gratification and selfish.  To prevent this kind of spoiling, parents may measure out toys and activities carefully lest they give ‘too much’, ban specific activities and toys altogether as ‘a waste’, or ensure that their child needs to wait or to work to ‘earn’ the objects or experiences of their desire.  In short, parents may attempt to counter selfish and indulgent materialism by teaching their children frugal austerity.

I have a different view.  In my opinion, the opposite of selfish materialism is not frugal austerity.  In my opinion, frugal austerity is just as materialistic as hedonistic materialism.  Both the instant gratification, possession-obsessed selfish materialist and the stingy, careful, penny-counting economist are equally obsessed with things.  In my opinion, the opposite of materialism, both the selfish, hedonistic kind and the frugal, stingy kind is generosity.  The generous person is focused, not on things, but on people – on their needs, their dreams, and their joy. A generous person is equally capable of delaying short-term gratification for a long-term gain and of enjoying fully today’s abundance without guilt or judgment.  With generosity, the joy of others is not something to be quantified or judged and things can only be ‘wasted’ if they go unenjoyed.   Open-hearted generosity means sharing freely life’s fortunes without judgment, letting go of material possessions with equanimity and finding the joy in the simplest of pleasures.

So I aim to be generous with my children:  to share my love, my time and, yes, my money freely and generously.  I do so without fear of spoiling them, secure in the knowledge that I am, in fact, teaching them, by example, to be generous.

Apply it to your life:

Do you model generosity?  How?

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Merry Christmas

I love Christmas.  I love Christmas trees covered in baubles, houses bedecked with lights, Christmas carols, shortbread, snow globes,  Christmas movies, tiny trains driving in circles past tiny houses…  But it is more than that.  I love marking the end of a year with such joy, spending time with my family and reconnecting with friends.  I love the sense of unbridled generosity.  The loved ones that we have lost are never closer.  The traditions, regular as clockwork, bring them back to us and they live again in our minds — echoes of Christmases past.  Yet, Christmas is also about looking ahead to the year to come.  At once Christmas anchors us in our past and beckons us with a fresh start.  Christmas reminds us of what life is truly about.  And then, a new year lies in wait, just over the horizon, waiting for us…  What will you make the New Year about?

Apply it to your life:

What does Christmas mean to you?  What do you want to make the New Year about?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

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