Becoming a parent is an opportunity to participate in one of the deepest emotional experiences that life offers. The arrival of a baby tends to bring with it an increased sense of responsibility and an upsurge of all our fears and hopes. As parents we have the extraordinary task of nurturing an entirely dependent, entirely trusting, brand new, miraculous little self through the eighteen or twenty some years of childhood and adolescence. Babies commit us to nurture the seeds of a future adulthood. Most of us long to provide our babies with a solid enough emotional foundation that they will be able to grow up and have satisfying adult lives of their own.
As parents we bring as much to the experience of parenting as we are able. Most of us want the fact that we deeply love our children to be able to be enough to insure that they will grow up successfully. While we know if we need help learning how to bathe or feed our infants, we can find help.
However, we tend to think that because we have had the experience of being a child that grew up, we should know how to parent the emotional life of a child without help. If we do get help with parenting, even most parenting classes tend to focus on how to get children to behave, without abusing them. And if you are pregnant or have an infant the tendency is to think that you don't even need to learn about parenting skills until the "terrible two's." Due to the stress of modern life, it's easy to get caught up in just dealing with the problem that comes up in the moment. However, this creates the danger of patchwork parenting. Understanding the emotional development of our infants and what they need from us to nurture their emotional life will greatly increase our ability to give them the best possible start. While it is true that some of parenting is instinctive, it is also true that much is learned. This understanding is relatively new, and our information can now be updated.
We have learned so much from psychology and especially infant researchers in the last twenty-five years. Through observation with new technology, we are the first generation to know about life before birth, witnessing many aspects of intelligence at work. It used to accepted that intelligence was located only in the brain -- that intelligence meant thinking, and since the brain was not fully developed until after birth, there was no intelligence or awareness before birth. Now we know that consciousness begins before birth. What does this mean for parents? It means we have a special responsibility to treat our babies as conscious intelligent beings from the beginning. And since they come into their relationship with us from a state of total dependency and helplessness ready to love us and trust us completely. We need to honor that trust with gentleness and respect.
Conscious Parenting: Bonding, Mirroring, and Separating Skills
Learning the developmental themes of bonding, mirroring, and separating and the skills that support them from early on will give your baby the best possible start. These themes are ongoing and lifelong. We all need to be attached and bonded. We all need to feel understood, and we all need to be respected as an individual with experiences and feelings of our own.
Let's look at some examples of how learning and using these themes can help in pregnancy and birth. We had a conversation with a very upset newly pregnant mother. She said tearfully, "Everyone said pregnancy is a wonderful experience. And I feel awful, like I'm being invaded by an alien being. Why is this baby doing this to me?" We drew her out and learned she felt very intruded on by her mother her whole life -- not listened to and not treated like an individual. She was feeling overtaken by the new life growing inside. We explained that she was reacting to the experience of the relationship with her mother, and that the prenate was doing just what it was supposed to be doing -- making an attachment with her. We encouraged her to talk to her growing prenate. She told us later that she talked to him in utero like we suggested, reassuring him that he was doing exactly the right thing. Explaining that she felt scared because of her mom, that this was her problem, and that he wasn't doing anything wrong, allowed her to make a successful attachment to her baby, before he was born. Understanding her own emotion's and separating them from him, really helped her calm down. And since we know the fetus experiences the mother's emotions in utero through her hormones in the amniotic fluid, this increasing calmness also helped the baby's development. A failure to bond, and a post partum depression had been averted.
Looking back at our own feelings growing up will help us become more conscious and better parents. Did we feel close and attached? Did we feel understood? Were we treated as an individual even when we were little? Our own tender spots will reoccur with our babies. This is not to blame our parents, but we all have some bumps and bruises. Owning these tender spots, and separating them from our babies breaks the chain. If our parents inadvertently hurt us, repairing the injury and not passing it on is just what they would want!
Bonding takes place through affectionate contact. Loving presence, touch, eye contact, and sound.
Empathic mirroring is a listening skill. Reflecting to the baby that you hear and understand and are attuned to her or his communication both secures the bond and supports individual development.
Even during birth, babies are having their own experience. Babies feel the pressure of the contractions, and use all their energy, and their hands and feet to help push their way out. When mom has a hard time during labor, the baby may have a hard time emotionally, feeling scared. When someone at the birth can be there for the emotional needs of the baby, explaining what is happening, mirroring and reassuring, the emotional trauma of birth for the baby is greatly reduced.
Separating means owning our own feelings and expressing them as our own -- Making "I." statements. This is important because we are not saints and do not have perfect feelings. For example, telling a startled newborn with kindness, "I see you got startled when mommy and daddy yelled and had a fight. Grown-ups get angry sometimes, especially when we are tired. You're okay, we love you," mediates the effect of the fighting. Even though its true that adult fighting stresses children (even in utero) , never feeling angry is an unreasonable expectation to have for either ourselves or our children.
Conscious parenting will allow us to raise children whose individual identity becomes their reference point, the inner place from which they feel connected with others. Then children become adults who can participate meaningfully in life. Children who feel good inside care about others. Our children arrive at a time in history when we know more clearly than ever that little ones grow best in an emotional climate of safety and trust. When they can count on their deep need and ability to be emotionally attached to us to provide a relationship within which they will be cared for and listened to from an understanding and open adult heart, they have the opportunity to become the future citizens that our planet needs.
Editor's Note: For more information, go to The Parenting Process.