A neighborhood friend just adopted a 2 month old puppy. Let me back up a bit here and say, my friend is in her early 70s. Her kids have grown up and moved out of the house and her husband died a couple of years ago. She has been alone in a house empty of other life forms (except the occasional ant, spider and mouse) for these last couple of years. Understandably, she felt hesitant about bringing a new life into her home, knowing that to do so would curtail her movement out into the world. A puppy needs lots of companionship and care. Leaving on a trip, even just an overnighter, requires finding a place for the pup-easier to arrange than leaving a child, but still, one more consideration.
During the first week of the puppy’s arrival, my friend left her home often, leaving the little guy alone for up to 7 hours one day. Her rush to the door reminded me of how, when I was a young mom with an infant, I felt trapped by what was supposed to be this adorable little bundle of joy-and guilty about my urge to escape. Although I truly loved my baby, just as my friend loves her puppy, I wanted to run away. In times like this, a woman alone in a home with crushing caretaking responsibilities has a choice. She can get the hell out of the burning building or stay and burn along with everything else. There is convenient parenting advice by “experts” she can use to support either decision.
In Bali a child’s feet do not even touch the ground until his or her second birthday. There are always people around to hold her. In contrast, 19th century Germans were advised to ignore a baby’s cries, believing that responding to their cries would create willfulness. The German parents felt that they were developing more independent and resilient adults by leaving the babies alone to cry it out. These two very different approaches to parenting create two very different cultures. Both cultures believe their way is the best. How do we choose a parenting style and, once we’ve chosen, how do we know we are not just justifying our own prejudices and desires? I’ve puzzled over this for years and discovered a few things along the way.
In indigenous cultures, such as Bali, there are always parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, brothers and/or sisters, around to hold the baby. Little ones sleep curled up snug beside a warm body with a beating heart. William and Martha Sears called this approach Attachment Parenting, and have written many books about its value and how it is accomplished. The 4 key components of Attachment Parenting of infants is:
Co-sleeping- either in the same room as parents or (with appropriate safety precautions) in the same bed. This may involve having bedtime occur on the child’s, not the parent’s, schedule.
Feeding on demand- allowing the child to set the timing of feeding (whether breast- or bottle-fed), along with self-weaning.
Holding and touching- keeping the child physically near, whether through cuddling and cradling, or by wearing on a front- or backpack arrangement.
4. Responsiveness to crying- not letting the child “cry it out,” but instead intervening early in the crying bout, reacting to the child’s distress before it gets out of control.
As a young mom I struggled to find the best way to deal with my baby’s crying. The piercing sound of a baby’s cry demands attention. The urge to respond to the cries of an infant has evolved over ages, for survival reasons. When the little one is in distress and unable to defend himself, he needs an adult’s protection. The piercing cry alerts the adult to the infants need. Whereas it is instinctual to respond to the cries of our young, ignoring those cries is more of a societal creation. One is the way of the gut, the other is the way of the mind. There is more ease when following our gut instinct. Anyone who has tried to go about their business while a baby is crying can attest to this.
Puppies, and babies have no sense of “now” or “later”. To a baby, being left alone is akin to exile- one of the worst punishments that can be doled out by any tribe. Their cries say, “I am all alone. I don’t feel safe, help me!” Studies on responsive parenting show a wide range of psychological and physical benefits derived from comforting the infant with our presence. For example, studies show that infants raised this way have lower stress levels, cry less often, feel more connected to other people as they get older, and show higher levels of empathy.
It takes a village to raise a child, but what if you don’t have a village? Or, what if your village is crazy? Ideally, we have people around to help us when we feel drained. But many of us are raising children in less than optimal circumstances. Given that we can’t always find our community when we need them, how do we deal with feelings of being trapped and lonely while tending to the seemingly endless needs of a young, vulnerable life?
I was one of the people who had a hard time finding support when I was home with my baby. Staying in the burning building when I most wanted to bolt became, by necessity, my spiritual practice when I was a young mom. Bit by bit, who I thought I was, and what I thought I wanted out of life, burned in the fire of my responsibilities. What remained was an emptier, vaster self. Being able to bear the burning was largely the result of my Buddhist practices. These practices offered a perspective that eventually made the staying interesting, even enjoyable. In the end, I feel like a deeper, happier person for the burning.
In contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, there is a period of “entering the cave”. The monk enters the cave with his or her practice of mindfulness, watching each moment-boredom, fear, anger, hunger, discomfort, elation- with curiosity and interest. A young mother’s cave is her home. There, she practices meeting the moment as it is, without judgment. In Vipassana this is called choiceless awareness. In Zen it’s spoken of as not picking or choosing. We are where we are and have what we have-now what? Just that simple turn of the lens creates a completely different experience. The discomfort of staying when I wanted to bolt became just one more sensation to experience, neither good nor bad. Eventually the fear dissolved and the space that binding fear had occupied opened up. A world of infinite possibilities within my small life was revealed.
Another perspective the monk brings into the cave is the understanding that everything is always changing. No need to get wound up about feeling trapped, it’s only a temporary situation, as is our child’s infancy and their dependence on us. In what seems like no time at all, children are weaned, go off to school and live their own independent lives. If, rather than running away from feelings of being trapped or bored, the parent becomes curious, asking, “How do I experience this discomfort in my body?” “What does it look like up close, then closer?” “What else is in this moment, apart from my interpretation of the moment?” there is an opportunity for real enjoyment.
Infancy, childhood and adulthood go by in a flash. May as well sink into the now of the experience and drink in whatever is found there. It doesn’t matter if you’re a monk in a cave, an artist in a studio, an executive in an office, or a mother or father in a home-it’s all just one moment after another. This is your life. Enjoy the burning!