Friday, 29 June 2012

The Art of Stillness: Breastfeeding Statues

An artist in search of a model to sit for them could do a lot worse than ask the mother of a breastfed newborn. Never in my life have I sat so still for such long periods as in those first few weeks of my eldest daughter's life. At first, it seemed an impossible task: my body, tense with the fear of not getting it right, ached; my mind, used to the constant stimulation of my former life, fidgeted and paced restlessly like a caged animal. In a way reminiscent of my many attempts at meditation, I have learnt, or begun to learn, through breastfeeding, the art of coming to stillness, and - harder still - accepting it. Even now, four years on, I have nursing sessions filled with frustration and resistance, when my mind and body together refuse to accept that it's time to just be there, to just be. Sometimes, difficult feelings, dark thoughts arise, and, as in meditation, there is no easy means of escape. On other days I relish the chance to spiral inwards and float around in the depths of my consciousness, bumping into new ideas and old friends and enjoying the stillness.

On a recent trip to the Italian island of Sardinia, we made the grave error of taking two small children on a sight-seeing trip to the medieval walled town of Alghero. After a couple of hours of struggling and family arguments, it was 5pm; the heat was unbearable, the narrow cobbled lanes hard to navigate and the restaurants shut for another two hours. To create a distraction and in a desperate attempt to escape the sun, I spontaneously pulled the two girls into the Cathedral of Santa Maria Immacolata. Covered in scaffolding, it looked pretty unimpressive from the exterior, but inside, we entered another world: suddenly all was cool, marbled, and still. In a side chapel, a priest murmured Mass to a small congregation, there were candles dotted around, and everywhere paintings and carvings of the Madonna and Child. As we basked in the relief that the change in atmosphere brought, I noticed one of the statues, tucked in an alcove to the left of one of the many images of Mary:

Her left arm supports a nursing child, whilst with her right she reaches to touch the head of a toddler clamouring for her attention. A moment in time that was no doubt chaotic and stressful is immortalised here in the stillness of stone. For me, the sculpture captures a great truth about nursing; no matter how busy or fraught our circumstances, it forces us to pause, it brings a change in energy, an altered state, it is the still point of a turning world. We move as from a hot street to a cool cathedral, as from the hustle and bustle of life to the mindfulness of meditation - through breastfeeding, we discover the art of stillness.

Through return to simple living comes control of desires. In control of desires Stillness is attained. In stillness the world is restored - Lao Tzu

Sculpture is the art of the hole and the lump - Auguste Rodin

and here's one to make you smile from London Zoo:

Each image has been credited by a link back to its source. If you are displeased by being included, please contact me and I will immediately remove your photo. If you have an image that you would like to be added please also get in touch. Thank you.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

'What's Good About This?': Reframing Our Post Baby Bodies

Children are natural visionaries, but life tends to whack this out of us as we grow up. Those people who are able to retain or rediscover their childlike ability to dream constantly and create unapologetically usually make a big and positive impact on the world. One such visionary was R.D.Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist, who published several works on 'madness' or 'psychosis' from the 1960's onwards. At a time when most people viewed mental illness as a shameful blight that was best kept hidden from view, Laing 'reframed' this, comparing episodes of mental ill health to a shamanic journey, from which it was possible to return a wiser or more insightful person. "Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through", he said, and he even famously suggested to a patient with chronic catatonia, 'I hear you are very good at sitting still, have you thought about getting work as a life model?'. This she did, and through seeing her condition in a positive way, she was, paradoxically, able to recover from it. In a time when most doctors were asking, 'What's the problem?', Laing instead posed the question: 'What's good about this?'

What's good about this? What's good about this? I've been asking this question myself recently whilst packing for a holiday and being forced to try on a variety of bikini's, tankini's and swimsuits I've got shoved at the bottom of my sock drawer, most of them purchased in a state of pre-baby body confidence I took entirely for granted. I've already written about my post-natal 'melty down tum' here, and my desire to make my peace with it, but I'll admit, standing in front of the mirror this week looking like an elephant in a handkerchief factory, I felt I had a long way to go yet. But who can blame my insecurities, when the news seems to be constantly full of stories about celebrities regaining their six packs just weeks after giving birth? Just this week, we've seen Michelle Heaton (lost the weight), Jessica Simpson (trying to lose it), and Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai leaving critics perplexed (not losing it, not trying). Each week, the names are different but the stories the same: they got their pre baby body back, or they didn't. I didn't.

Aishwarya Rai has been accused of 'betraying her country' by failing her 'duty to look good and fit'. Cinema professor Shohini Ghosh has commented: 'There is a glorification of motherhood in India and Indian cinema. But people are confused because they don’t know whether to glorify Aishwarya in her new motherhood or lament that she is not looking like a runway model.' I know how they feel. Part of me wants very much to celebrate my body and it's earthy curves that brought forth my two beautiful daughters. But part of me laments, yes, laments is a good word, the loss of my 'Ta-Da' beach and bedroom bod, and constantly feels the pressure to erase the evidence of pregnancy from my appearance. Rain and sunshine, sunshine and rain...

A few days ago I was just getting into the bath with my visionary four year old and I noticed her looking at my tummy. 'What do you think of it?', I asked her. 'I think', she said with her usual careful nonchalance, 'I think it looks like an upside-down rainbow.' An upside-down rainbow. R.D.Laing would be proud of this perfect reframing, this ability to look at the world with optimism and wonder, and to find beauty in unlikely places. To me the rainbow seemed just the right image, and I won't be able to look at my tummy again without seeing it there, or thinking of her, or her sister, or the thunderclaps and sudden sunshine of pregnancy, birth and motherhood. As usual, my daughter inspires me, and I resolve to try harder to remain oblivious - like her, and R.D.Laing - to the norm, the flow, the status quo - and instead reframe the world with the simple question, 'What's good about this?'.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Babies Don't Need 'Attachment Parenting', But They Do Need 'Responsive Parenting'

Everyone is suddenly talking about Attachment Parenting. As the world recovers from the shock of a mother breastfeeding her three year old on the cover of Time, the media spotlight is being shone on this parenting approach, and it seems like everyone, even Alanis Morissette, has got something to say. As someone who breastfeeds toddlers, has a good sling collection and shares her bed with a two year old, it's great to follow the debate, but it also makes me wonder - what do babies really need? In an ideal world, would all children be 'attachment parented'? Is this what we are aiming for, all babies snuggled into their Ergo's, a sort of 'mass conversion', a 'de-buggying'? Would this make the world a better place?

Parenting websites, Facebook pages and forums are consistently bogged down with people debating the right and wrong way to parent, and never more so than now, as we all wonder what we need to do to be 'mom enough'. People can get pretty evangelical about Attachment Parenting, and sometimes there's even a bit of smugness or nastiness, as AP parents take the moral high ground over bottle feeding cot users, who in turn accuse the AP'ers of being enslaved to their kids.

If we try to cut through all this, what really matters? If we look at what we as parents are actually trying to achieve - healthy, happy adults - we need to ask ourselves, does this have to mean sharing our beds with our children or letting them self-wean? I think not. Because what really matters, what is really absolutely crucial to healthy child development, is not 'Attachment Parenting', but 'Responsive Parenting.'

In 2006 the World Health Organisation published a bulletin, 'Responsive parenting: interventions and outcomes', looking at ways in which an essentially 'free' commodity, maternal responsiveness, could have far reaching benefits for the emotional and physical well-being of children across the globe. The document contains a fantastic review of the available research on responsiveness - please refer to it for full references. The report states: 'While children need food, sanitation and access to health services to survive and develop optimally, a warm and affectionate relationship with an adult caregiver who is responsive to the child’s needs is equally importantand that responsiveness is 'parenting that is prompt, contingent on the child’s behaviour and appropriate to a child’s needs and developmental state.'

The WHO analysis found that, '...maternal responsiveness was most often associated with language, cognitive and psychosocial development. For example, responsiveness contributed uniquely to language acquisition, even after considering the mother’s expressiveness and other confounds. Maternal responsiveness in early childhood was associated with social competence and fewer behavioural problems at three years; increased intelligence quotient (IQ) and cognitive growth at four and a half years; school achievement at seven years; as well as higher IQ and self esteem, and fewer behavioural and emotional problems at age 12.'

It sounds like quite good stuff, this maternal responsiveness! But what does it actually mean in action? Here is my attempt to distill it - as always I welcome your views in the comments below:

Responsive Parents:
  • Observe their children, notice and interpret their cues, and take prompt action.
  • Respond to their child with love, consistency, empathy, kindness and humanity.
  • Question and seek to understand their own responses to their children and the familial and cultural background that informs them.
  • Help their children to learn more about their responses to their own emotions, and to other people.
  • Acknowledge that all children are individual unique human beings who need to be responded to in individual unique ways.

Any parent, regardless of their economic status, educational background, age or class can be a Responsive Parent. Any parent, regardless of whether they choose bottle and buggy, or boob and sling, can be a Responsive Parent. Likewise, even a parent who breastfeeds beyond six months or has a family bed, can be an Unresponsive Parent! I believe it's time for mothers to stop the in-fighting and the mummy wars, and realise that by focusing on the rights and wrongs of the many and various choices and approaches, they're missing what really matters: Responsiveness.

Parents who tune into their baby from the start, who listen to them, who treat them with respect, and consider their needs and wishes - are 'getting it right'. Parents who are tuned out are 'getting it wrong' and need support. The WHO research review found that time and again, those parents who were offered help and intervention were able to improve their responsiveness to the benefit of their children: 'All adults have the capacity to lovingly care for their children, but a number of reasons stop some from doing so: poverty, stress, illness, or just lack of awareness of the need for such care.'

Attachment parents such as myself are often very interested in making the world a better place, but if we really mean business, we could do a lot worse than remember the following:
  • Attachment Parenting is just a tiny sprout on a very big tree called Attachment Theory. The founder of Attachment Theory, John Bowlby, never made any mention of co-sleeping, babywearing etc, and was clear that it was the quality of care and the mother's attunement and responsiveness that made the difference, not the parenting techniques she applied.
  • Any parent who responds to their child consistently and lovingly is 'getting it right', regardless of the milk they choose to feed, where they lay their baby to sleep, or how they carry them.
  • Parents who are unable to meet their natural capacity to be consistently and lovingly responsive can be helped with the right support.

As always I welcome your thoughts.