This blog entry has been written and reworked about ten times this week. I’m really struggling to expand on what I mean by ‘what is the most loving thing?’
You’d think it would be obvious, but in my personal experience, and in observing other parents first hand (and on forums and other blogs) I have come to see that our motives as parents are often veiled, even to ourselves. We can think we are loving our children, when we are not.
I think the best way I can do this is to offer examples from my own parenting experience to illustrate what I mean. What I don’t want is for anyone to feel I am judging them for their parenting decisions – I recognise that for most of us, parenting is done in survival mode, and often our decisions are born out of sheer desperation!
When I first became a parent I was determined to be the best parent I could be. This, I think, is probably what most of us aim for. No one cradles their first child and thinks, “Well, now my life has changed. I’m going to be a safely average parent.”
However, speaking personally at least, my motive included a hefty dose of pride. I didn’t see this at the time. I thought I just wanted what was best for my baby (and I did, but this was at least equally matched by pride). The pride was first in my belief in my ability to be the perfect parent (I had no idea that tiredness and the nature of children would reveal a new level of impatience and selfishness in myself); and secondly in my desire to be the perfect parent. I wanted to be admired and looked up to as a good mum. I wanted my children to be glad they had me; my husband to see what a great mother I was; and I wanted other people to ask me for advice because I had such lovely, well-behaved, securely attached children.
Oh I’m blushing now. Such honesty has come through years of falling again and again to my quick temper, my impatience, and just basic selfishness that doesn’t want to play cars or talk about lego spaceships, but wants to check facebook for the tenth time this morning (or just finish a cup of coffee without having to get up to wipe someone’s backside, for pete’s sake!)
Looking back, many of my choices were a mixture of pride and love. I did genuinely want the best for my babies, and still do, but mixed in with that is that pride at being a ‘good parent’, and also a desire for my own fulfilment.
What I mean is that I believed having children would bring me fulfilment, and make my life complete. (If you read a bit of my blog you’ll understand that a strong driving force in my life has been a desire for ‘life to the full’). What I believed would fulfil me was being the best parent ever. This led to a skewed decision making process, where I put the interests of my baby above my husband, and my own physical and mental health. That’s what a good mother does, I thought, and I was determined to be a good mother. It also led to a great deal of disillusionment as my children, far from fulfilling me, drained me of all energy and happiness and left me an exhausted, gibbering shell.
One way I thought I was being loving was because I couldn’t bear to leave my sons to cry. I had read all the blogs and books which labelled ‘crying it out’ as cruel. How could I leave my helpless baby to cry alone in the dark? All he wanted was his mummy. But I was exhausted and unable to function because of sleep-deprivation.
Now, there is a huge difference between a baby under three months of age, who is still learning to trust his caregiver and who is still disorganised in their sleep rhythm, and a baby of six months and older, who usually is getting enough nutrition during the day to no longer need milk at night, but who also now is securely attached to their parents and knows their needs will be met. There is also a huge difference between the child who is very anxious and needs a great deal of reassurance and close contact with his parents, and the baby who has just become used to a habit of falling asleep that is now disruptive to the family.
Let me explain – my two sons were bad at falling to sleep. Neither of them would willingly just lie there, close their eyes and drop off. Those cute pictures of babies who have fallen asleep in their high chairs are a mystery to me. My boys fought sleep. The only time they fell asleep without protest was in the pram or car. (And yes, we tried swaddling, dummies, patting, picking up and putting them down. In fact we could probably write a book of ideas to try to get your baby to sleep.)
With my eldest we got into the habit of rocking him to sleep. We had read the books and knew it was a rod for our backs in the making, but there was no other way he’d sleep when he was tiny. It’s time together, I tried to tell myself, bouncing around in a darkened room at 8 p.m. … though all I really wanted was to sit down on the sofa and not move for two hours. However, when he got to nine months old and woke every night at 2, 3 and 5 a.m. to be rocked back to sleep, and when he got too heavy for me to do it (we had been taking shifts) my husband put his foot down. (Did I mention that the rocking had to be done standing up? If we sat down our son would scream blue murder).
Basically, we were held hostage by a nine month old baby.
Again, looking back, my motives were mixed, but had a great deal of selfishness in them. I couldn’t bear to leave my baby to cry – the reason was partly because I feared we were refusing a need for comfort, but also a great deal of it was because I was protecting myself. I didn’t want to feel upset because he was crying.
Again, I want to stress that there is a huge difference between the crying of a four-month old baby, for example, and a nine-month old. My son was waking because he wanted to be rocked, not because he needed us. We realised this because he would quite happily settle if we rocked him in his car seat and not in our arms. It was the motion he wanted, not reassurance or physical comfort.
And his want (not need) was making us exhausted, irritable, and resentful.
Having left him to cry himself to sleep for a few nights, I realised that this had been a good decision. We all needed a good night’s sleep, our son included. He just needed to realise that it was possible to fall asleep without being rocked. His cries (which lasted 40 minutes the first night, 30 the second, and then gradually tailed off until he would moan for about ten minutes each night) were an angry protest, not distress. I should also add that my husband would go in to check him every ten minutes or so, until we realised that this was actually upsetting our boy more. He settled more quickly and with less crying if we just left him to it (listening out for that hysterical, I need you cry).
The joy of the ‘loving’ principle is that it will look differently with each family. The key is knowing your child, and knowing yourself. If my child is anxious and needy (some babies just are) then it would not be loving to leave them to cry at any age. If my child is demanding and whiny then it is loving to teach them that they are not the centre of the universe. Asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ balances the needs of each family member, and allows parents to decide for themselves which ‘wants’ of their child they are able to allow, and which they must lovingly decline.
To give another example (if you’ve read enough please just skip to my summary at the end), a child may want to sleep in their parents’ bed, but it is not always loving to give in.
I had planned on allowing our children into our bed, but once I realised this involved being repeatedly elbowed and kneed in the back, not to mention having my pillow stolen and being forced right to the edge of my bed because my son hates feeling ‘squashed’ (by which he means having any part of his body in contact with another human body) we quickly returned him to his own bed. We were all much happier that way, and occasionally, if he can lie still and enjoy being close to us, he is allowed to cuddle in bed in the mornings (if his parents are already about half awake and it is nearly time to get up).
Lastly, asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ has really helped me as my children grew older. A small baby has very basic (albeit very intense) needs – food, sleep, and security. In the long run, many of the decisions we agonise over actually make very little difference to their developing into healthy, happy adults. However, as the child develops and grows, how we relate to them and the choices we make have increasing weight in their lives. I realised recently with my two boys that their ‘love’ needs are very different. My second son, age four, is very easy for me to love. His primary need seems to be for cuddles, and as long as I am available for a quick hug and kiss at frequent intervals, he is very happy to play by himself. I love giving hugs and kisses, so our personalities meet very well.
My older son … he is another kettle of fish altogether. He has never been cuddly, pushing me away from a very young age when I tried to offer physical affection. Cuddles are asked for always on his terms, and they are usually very intense, brief, and sometimes silly. What he loves is when I play with him, talk to him, and just generally do stuff with him. I find this form of love very hard to give. I am an introvert – I love my own headspace, and my oldest son loves to invade. He will ask a thousand questions in an hour. He will tell me all about the picture he drew, the lego model he built, and while I try to be affirming and positive, some days my heart sinks. Some days, I can barely talk by the time my husband comes home, my resources have been so drained.
I am very slowly learning how to work out the most loving thing in each situation. Usually, the most loving thing is for me to set aside whatever I am engrossed in, and give my son at least half my attention. I am very bad at doing this, especially when I am tired. But, I have learned, sometimes the most loving thing is to explain to my son, kindly but firmly, that mummy is tired now and needs to stop talking, and that he must think of mummy and go and play quietly in another room (or find his brother and talk to him).
* * * * *
A quick summary, because I being concise is not one of my strong points and you may have got lost in my ramblings:
This question, ‘what is the most loving thing?’ does three key things for us as parents.
- It clarifies my motives. Had I asked this question when my son was waking us through the night, I would have made the same decision as a young parent to leave my son to cry, but it would have been for very different reasons. As a result, I would have had far more confidence in the decision. It would still have been hard to hear my son crying the first few nights, but I would not have been wracked by guilt for months afterwards. In fact, we probably would not have got to that point of extreme exhaustion in the first place.
- It reduces the issues involved to one basic question – the question I asked in the first blog entry of this series – is my child loved and feeling secure today? If I can say ‘yes’, then I am making good decisions. If I am not sure, then perhaps I need to reassess and ask again, ‘what is the most loving thing’?
- It keeps us from swinging to the extremes of parenting – either making myself the centre of all decisions and putting my child’s needs second; or putting my child at the centre of all decisions, and thus making everyone else’s needs secondary, including my own. Neither is healthy for the parents or the child. Instead, a balance is needed, where parents make sacrifices so that their child grows up loved and nurtured, but also where a child learns that the universe does not revolve around them, and that they exist to serve as well as be served.
Ultimately, going back to the whole point of this series, this question releases us from the guilt we so often feel as parents.
It frees me from the need to judge others who have decided differently from me (so I am not sitting in disapproval when my friends choose to return to work and employ a child-minder – I trust them to make loving decisions about their own family, knowing themselves and their own children).
And when, as happened recently, someone declares to my face that my choice to stay at home full time is the ‘lazy’ option, I may laugh (and then blush as I realise they are serious), and I may feel bewildered and a little angry (really? You think this is the easy option?), but ultimately I am not bothered. Because I know they are wrong. I have not made this decision out of laziness. Perhaps, as I’ve said above, my original motivations were not purely selfless or loving, but now, knowing the daily grind and exhaustion of being a full-time mum, I am still choosing it. My husband and I have looked at the options and concluded together that this is the most loving thing for our boys at the moment. And quite honestly, the longer I do it the more I realise it is the right option for me too.
My life is lived to the full as I learn to love.