Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Bad Habit of Love

"Are you putting her down yet?", the Health Visitor asked.  Her manner was stern, and slightly concerned, as if she might be simultaneously wondering who she might mention me to on the community mental health team.  With my baby just a couple of weeks old and sleeping on my shoulder like a dollop of marshmallow, I stammered, "!...Er...Should I be?!".  "Yes", she replied, unequivocally. "You need to start putting her down more.  If you hold her all the time you will create a bad habit."

Oh.  I felt confused.  I didn't have any kind of parenting plan, I wasn't following the advice of any book, it just hadn't occured to me to stop holding this tiny soul.  I liked having her in my arms.  She seemed delicious to me in every way that it is possible to be delicious.  She felt at ease, draped across the body she had only recently vacated.  And besides, I didn't really have anything else to do, but hold her, sniff her, count her eyelashes.  What could this woman mean - 'bad habit'?

There was more bad news from the Nursery Nurse at the six week check.  Bleary eyed, I confessed I was not getting much sleep.  "Do you have a dog?", she inquired.  I was baffled, but luckily she was about to enlighten me.  "Babies are just like dogs", she confidently declared, "You have to train them to do what you want.  If you pick them up every time they cry, they will come to expect this.  You make a rod for your own back.  You create a bad habit."

I think if I had a pound for every time in the last three years of parenting that someone has used the phrase, 'rod for your own back', I could probably afford to hire someone called Rod to massage my back and other areas of tension on a nightly basis.  Basically, any loving act towards your baby or small child is likely to incite someone to use this phrase.  Feeding on demand, picking them up when they cry, letting them sleep in your bed, carrying them in your arms, not being strict about routines, food, naptimes, bedtimes...actually make that 'not being strict': if you find yourself indulging in any kind of crazy, love-driven behaviour, someone out there will be only too glad to talk to you about rods.

I suppose, in some ways, they are right.  Love, and the expectation of being loved, is a bad habit.  To truly love someone, unconditionally, purely, and fully, is, (as every mother knows), a place fraught with danger.  With love, there will, at some point, be loss, and pain, and suffering.  Perhaps it is the fear of this deep and inevitable suffering that drives those who instruct us not to get too close to our children, not to be too attached, not to, as one poet put it, 'unclip our minds / and let tumble free / the mad mangled crocodile of love'.  It is safer not to love.

Of course, our babes in arms know nothing of such matters.  Engaged as they are in the act of building a vastly complex adult brain, their world, for now, is dazzlingly simple.  Like the most advanced meditators, their consciousness sits completely in the present moment.  As every event takes place they experience it fully and respond with vivid emotional states.  For the first few months, they have no sense of where they 'end' and where 'other' or 'mother' begins.  What happens 'to' them, becomes part 'of' them.  When we hold them, and they feel deep comfort, peace, contentment, these powerful positive emotions become the very foundation blocks of their developing selves.  For the rest of their lives, they will be able to call upon these invaluable resources, comforting themselves in times of distress as we have comforted them.

A baby is not capable of manipulating or taking advantage of their loving carers.  The idea that you can be 'too' loving towards your own child belongs to an era that knew nothing of child development or neuropsychology, an era that also told us to 'Spare the rod and spoil the child'.  These archaic values need to be consigned to the past, particularly by those who are in the powerful position of giving advice to new mothers in an official capacity.  Otherwise the only thing at risk of being 'spoiled' is the sheer blissful pleasure of loving our babies freely and instinctively.  To teach our children how to love themselves and others, unconditionally and without limits, is not a bad habit, it is a great gift.