Learning Patient Parenting
By Nora Rock
"I have a new mantra," my mother told me last week: "Effort is fortune".
I had to laugh, not because mantras are new to my mother - she loves them - but because she already works harder than most people I know. Effort is a good thing in our society. We like to see hard workers succeed, and we're uncomfortable with "dumb" luck, with "blind" faith, with anything that implies just sitting around.
But are we possibly working too hard to think, to step back and consider whether our effort is generating the results we want? Do we really want to work extra hours to pay for the new house with four bathrooms, with its three extra toilets to clean? Must we have the big promotion, and the new responsibility of supervising a group of people as ambitious and demanding as ourselves? Or, if most of our hard work is done at home, do we need to be the parents of a child who can read at the age of three, and why?
From an evolutionary standpoint, effort equals survival, so we come by it honestly. But as life has gotten easier, and as the true necessities of life that we must procure directly have dwindled in number, we have had to become more creative about the directions in which we channel our efforts. Our homes are certainly much cleaner (though not necessarily healthier) than the caves and shelters and cabins that housed our foremothers. We nurture personal talents passed on, probably unwittingly, by ancestors who went before and had more cooking and washing to do. And, because being a good parent is highly valued these days, we devote a lot of energy to "raising" our kids.
If we take our cues from most popular media, or from, say, the family courts, we're told that a good parent is an active parent, a doer, one who spends quality time - instructing, raising, bringing kids up. But what if we didn't bring them up? What if we did nothing but watch?
I had my first baby at home. People were surprised. I'm a lawyer, a little conservative, a mainstream type of person. But when I was in college a girlfriend told me about another friend who had a midwife-assisted birth at home, and a little light went on in my head. In a lawyerly way, I checked it out. The first place I went was the law library, and my introduction to homebirth came by way of the transcript of a coroner's inquest into a homebirth death. The baby had lived only a couple of hours. Had she been born in hospital, the coroner found, she might have lived a couple of days. Certain things would have been done, efforts would have been made that weren't practicable at home. I was undeterred. Three years later I had my own homebirth.
But despite being able to rhyme off the safety statistics, I had trouble answering the questions of others about my own, personal reasons. Having now had a few years perspective, and another homebirth besides, I've come to the conclusion that the aspects of birth at home that most attracted me were the passives, the not dones. No drugs. No induction. No speeding car in the middle of the night.
Passivity is woven through the language of midwifery. A midwife is a with-woman, a sitter and a watcher. She doesn't deliver your baby, she catches him: safe sure hands at the end of his journey. The less she does, the less effort expended, the more highly she rates her workday. It's almost an anti-profession; and certainly very alien to what my husband and I were used to in our own careers. But these women touched our lives when we were exposed, raw with the wonder of birth and new parenthood. According to postpartum author Robin Lim, birth leaves a person temporarily open, not just in the anatomical sense but generally vulnerable to emotion and impression(1). And I think our various midwives, despite their hands-off policy, left deep imprints on us as parents.
As our children grow, the influence of that passive midwifery philosophy seems to float to the surface out of nowhere. I remember asking our first midwife how she knew when to wean her own children. Preferring to let me find out for myself, she gave me a joking answer. Our own baby nursed past his first birthday, then his second. My journal is sprinkled with industrious entries: "began weaning him today", but they grow farther and farther apart, until somewhere along the line, heavy and lazy with another on the way, I moved on to other concerns. He nursed past three, without even a notation to mark his final stopping.
There are notes, relentless and obsessive, chronicling the same child's waking in the night. He finally slept through at age twenty-five months, one week. In the months leading up to that first silent night we developed many plans of action, but we were too exhausted to follow them through. It was abundantly clear that nothing we ever did or didn't do about it made one whit of difference.
After that came toilet training. Grandparental advice was unhelpful. According to my mother, my siblings and I "trained ourselves" by two. My child, however, had hang-ups. Weird behaviors. Unvoiced fears. We read potty books. We offered rewards. We embarrassed him by discussing his late training with his doctor. But mostly, we just waited. For the first time, we made the conscious choice to be inactive parents, to listen to the echoed advice from the months and hours before his birth: "Do nothing. Trust. Baby will be OK." He trained suddenly and independently last month, a week before his fourth birthday, and we have never seen him so proud.
Child development expert Penelope Leach puts a lot of stock in pride. Children, she claims, want to learn self-care; they need no external motivation. Role models matter, but here subtlety is key; we parents need not spell out our expectations, because children are better observers than us. Quality time is fine, but normal life is more instructive(2). Children who are encouraged to help themselves when parents are busy learn how to fit into our lives, find their place, and grow secure. Like seedlings in the sun, they bring themselves up, and their proud and timely achievements are more fully their own.
Passive (I prefer patient) parenting is not a new idea. One of my grandmothers had six children; the other had a job; and this in the time before microwaves and washing machines. My own mother jokes that she doesn't know at what age I slept through the night - monitoring the baby, then, meant going to the foot of the stairs if you heard a crash. You kept them safe, you gave them love, you read a book or two at bedtime. Schooling took place at school, and playing was something they did with other kids - not with adults on their knees, pretending an interest in toys. If there was any time left for teaching, no-one broke out the flash cards - instead, the focus was closer to home: how to tie a shoelace, how to set the supper table. Humble skills, but meaningful ones - stamps in the passport to participation in adult activities.
By pushing our children to acquire more abstract skills, we're missing a subtle distinction: our children don't want to be like us, with our language and our ideas - they simply want to be with us, sharing our space and making a contribution to family life. They crave our simple presence. "Stimulation" and child-focused activities are fine for a while, but to the extent that they interrupt normal life, they send the message that adults and children operate in different worlds; that we'll visit theirs when time permits, but that our own world is off-limits until we've taught them how to be like us. Until we've raised them.
But in the raising, so much is lost. Not just the hours spent toilet training that could have been spent in play, but those things we prune off along the way - child logic, child language, child priorities - in our haste to grow our seedlings up. If we wean our breastfeeding children before they speak, we will never hear them describe an experience lost to memory for most of us. If we teach them too soon to tell time and live by our schedules, they will lose touch with the rhythm of their inner selves, the same rhythm that carried them into the world when the time was exactly right, hours or weeks after the midwife said simply, "trust".
At our house, time flies. There's always a new challenge for the seedlings in our garden. My big boy is waking at night again, with nightmares about his "worksheets": lined forms for printing letters that they hand out at daycare. It seems everyone but he can make big B and little b. There is such wonder in the written word; his dad and I can't help but yearn to share it all with him. But that's our agenda. We take a deep breath and ask his teacher to give him a break on the worksheets. In answer, we're reminded that kids who attend daycare are "ahead" at the end of grade two. But for how long, and to what end? Trust, I tell the teacher gently. Our baby will be OK.
1. Lim, Robin, After the Baby's Birth... A Woman's Way to Wellness: A complete guide for postpartum women, (1991) Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.
2. Leach, Penelope; Children First: What Society Must Do - and Is Not Doing - for Children Today (1994) Vintage Books (Random House), New York, NY
Nora Rock is a legal editor and writer living in Toronto, Canada with husband Rob and sons Jake (4) and William (1).