On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Personhood of Babies

I wonder whether part of the reason that we have such a difficult time seeing unborn babies as persons is that we have a difficult time seeing babies in general as people. Babies are an attraction, for sure. But so often in the clamor to hold the baby, pass the baby around from Aunt Clara to Uncle Bob, to Great Grandma Hoosier, Great Aunt Agnes and Mrs. Mc Gillicutty from next door, we forget that this is not a teddy bear, it's a real little person. It's a little person who doesn't yet know that their mommy and they are two separate people and so feels real distress when they are far from her or their daddy's arms (babies learn about daddies pretty early because the daddy is the other constant person in their lives). Pass the baby, kiss the baby are both practices with a lot of cultural acceptance, but they aren't necessarily great for the baby. Newborns, in particular should be being colonized with their mother's bacteria (to which they get immunity from her milk) rather than the bacteria of every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the neighborhood, or even Great Aunt Agnes. Babies stay oriented best by smelling their mother, they develop their immune systems best by being skin to skin with her. The time for relationships with other people will come. If we really respect the baby as a real person, we won't treat them like the present at a birthday party that simply gets passed around for all to see.

This is true for newborns and some people even accept it for newborns (because of the germs etc), but it continues to be true later in the first year. Babies may very often not like to be held by strangers (and if you aren't in the retinue of people who see them for upon hours every day they may well class you with strangers), sometimes they don't even like to make eye contact with strangers. Some family members respect this, others behave as though they're being insulted. I remember a friend whose little girl saw her grandmother nearly every day (they lived just a couple of doors away) who at 9 months wouldn't leave her mother's arms to go to her grandmother. My friend was distressed, the grandmother was upset, but I assured her that she simply needed to give the little girl time. In a few months grandma was happily one of the people Shannon was comfortable with; it was simply a developmental stage.

Some babies are quick to warm up to strangers, even at the most separation anxiety ridden stages. Other babies are slow to warm up even to their fathers (trust me, I had one of those). It is so important for family members, neighbors, friends, etc. to let the parents be the judge of just how comfortable their particular baby is at each particular stage of growth. If the parents are carefully respecting the individual personality of their baby, it's because they are respecting the baby as a real person instead of treating them as some sort of human doll.

We have a long history in this country of trying to make babies adapt to adult's wants instead of adults adapting to the baby's needs. Scheduled bottle feedings, letting babies cry it out to "train them" to sleep through the night, frequent separations from their mothers, and little concern about consistency of child care providers are just a few of the things we have done in our effort to make sure that a baby doesn't "disrupt" adult priorities any more than necessary. Mothers whose babies go on a schedule early, whose babies sleep through the night at an early age, whose children will go to any adult their parent hands them off to without complaints are congratulated on having done a good job. Mothers whose babies nurse ad lib, whose babies sleep close to them and wake in the night, and who prefer their mother's arms to a strangers are accused of spoiling their baby and having not done a good job. But it's the smart baby who knows where the best food is, who sleeps lightly and avoids SIDS, and who is well attached to its parents. That baby will eventually eat at family meals, sleep through the night, and make friends with people outside the immediate family circle, they will do it at the developmentally appropriate time for them and we need to respect them enough to wait for the appropriate time.

When my daughter was 2 our church had a Sunday School class for 2 year olds. Up until then Abby had gone into my class with me (in the back pack) or I had co-taught the class with her daddy and she was in arms with one or the other of us. The year she was 2 I taught a class of older children and she went to the 2 year old class, with her daddy. The teacher of the class was a first time mom with a two year old of her own. She was very critical of the fact that David went to the class with Abby, despite the fact that with him there Abby was having a good time and he was actually a help with the other kids. She said that we were encouraging clingy behavior and that Abby would never be independent. I assured this young mom that we knew what we were doing and that independence would come at the appropriate time. It did. As a matter of fact she was always by far our more independent child (once she was developmentally ready that is). If I'd been a first time mother I might have been coerced by that teacher, but by that time I knew something about children and how they come to learn independence. There was another little girl in our Sunday School whose mother listened to those coercing voices and kept putting her little one in the nursery during church. I happened to be the only one of the moms this little girl knew well, and I wasn't in the nursery for the whole of nursery time every week. I stayed in church until Abby and "had enough" and then she and I went to the nursery. Every week when I got there this little girl would be in nearly hysterical tears, until I picked her up. She wasn't completely happy then, but she was mollified sufficiently to be reasonably calm. The absolute only difference was that she knew me, and didn't know the nursery workers.

There is a myth still going around that crying is good for a baby's lungs. It's not. While some crying may happen with nearly any baby, crying is a sign of stress, it results in raised cortisol levels, and the other things that accompany stress. One job of parents, particularly with infants, is to reduce the stress, not to compound it. Comforting a baby, putting them back in a more comfortable situation is not spoiling them, it is respecting their personhood.

We need to remember that Our Lord treated children as people of importance. When the disciples saw them as a nuisance He told them, "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." And that we must become like little children. Scripture tell us that perfect praise comes out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. Babies are not playthings or things to be manipulated for the benefit of adults. They are real people.

Often we have to warn our toddlers to be gentle with babies. Sometimes what we tell them is babies are people too, so they must be careful of them. It's important for us as adults to listen to those words as well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Fun of Being Grammy

You might think that the fun of being a grandmother is getting to hold a new baby. Or you might think that it's getting to buy cute little baby items. You might even think that it's getting to take all sorts of cute pictures and show them to your friends. Well, yes all of those things are sort of fun. However, it's not what I like the best about being a grandmother.

What I like the very best about being a grandmother is watching my daughter and her husband develop as parents. I'm loving watching them learn to respond to their baby and learn her preferences. I'm loving watching them talk to her in funny little made up words, and watch her respond back to them. I'm loving watching them learn that things they thought were silly and unnecessary became much more sensible and important once there was a real little person who needed them. I'm loving watch their priorities shift and less important activities fade into the background while becoming a family takes a much more important place. I'm especially loving watching my granddaughter grow strong and healthy on her mommy's milk. In short, I'm loving seeing them transition into the sorts of adults I knew they were going to be. Sometimes when your kids are teens or even young adults you wonder whether you passed on anything valuable (and certainly THEY seem to doubt that). It's really fun to see my daughter doing some things that I didn't even tell her to do, exactly the way I did it.

Eventually, I will have my very own relationship with little the Little Wum (as her parents have nicknamed her). Eventually, there will be tea parties at Grammy's and long discussions around the table. Eventually, I'll teach her how to make Grammy Rowell's filled cookies or some other long cherished family recipe. Eventually, she will have a relationship with me and her grandfather and other family members that is somewhat separate from her relationship with her parents. Eventually. But for right now that's not the case. Right now she needs her mommy and her daddy as the prime people in her life. She is secure in their arms and I love seeing her there. I'm certainly willing to be an "extra pair of arms" when needed, but if the extra arms aren't needed that's just fine too.

At the moment my relationship is still principally with her mommy and daddy. And that is as it should be. They still need support and attention just as they did before she was a part of the picture. I marvel at the fact that the young man whom we had come to cherish over the course of several years became part of our family sacramentally just last year. Now we are not only tied to him sacramentally, but biologically as well. His daughter carries his DNA, but she also carries ours. So with her birth he became even more connected to us than he already was. Since he was already incredibly special to us it makes it just so much nicer. My daughter still is the person I want to provide mothering to and I hope my son-in-law doesn't mind a little extra mothering from me as well. My granddaughter, however, has her own mother and she's doing a super job, LW doesn't need mothering from me.

I never felt when my children were little that we were taking them to see the grandparents. I always felt more that we were going to see my in-laws or my mother and the kids were going along, because, well they always went where we went. The grandparents always related to us as us, not as was the case with some of my friends, as merely the parents of their grandchildren. That was the case despite the fact that our son was the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and our children were my in-laws only grandchildren for nearly 7 years. The kids were dearly loved, incredibly included, but never the sole focus of their grandparents (or the aunt's and uncle's) attention. I want my daughter and her husband to feel that they continue to be important to us. I still want to find time to talk about books with my daughter, to talk about theology and politics with my son-in-law (even when we have a heated debate on the subject!). They are incredibly interesting, fun, and generous people and I don't want our relationship with them to take second fiddle to baby gazing (even when baby gazing is such a fascinating occupation).

We are fortunate to have had a number of years to get to know our son-in-law. Some families don't have quite that luxury. Sometimes an in-law arrives in the family in a remarkably short period of time from the standpoint of the new mother and father-in-law. If there is then a baby very soon it's hard for the focus to remain where it should be. It's far easier to have the baby become the "shared interest" and stop doing the work of really getting to know the new in-law. I think that it was somewhat more difficult for my own in-laws to get to know my brother-in-law's wife because they didn't live nearby and they only saw her a few times before the wedding. However, they really made an effort to try to do so, and I know that my mother-in-law in particular made a real effort to be sympathetic to Susan's attempts to fit into a very close knit family.

Now that the previous generation has died, I am so very glad that they made the effort to focus on the adults in the family. I am friends with both my sisters-in-law and my brother-in-law. We have differences of opinion, we don't always see the world alike, we live in different places, yet we have an essential family identity that the children of the family can easily recognize. It's particularly special for me because my own biological family is no more. My father died when I was 25, my mother died 9 years ago, and my sister died 5 years ago. Were it not for the family I married into there would be no one who really knows me, the me of my 20's, the me of my 30's, 40's, 50's. I am so glad for in-laws who felt that I was important as me, not just as the mother of their grandchildren. I had the gift of wonderful in-laws and when I see so many people who lack that gift I recognize even more how special it was.

As I told my son-in-law quite some time ago, I want to be the sort of mother-in-law that I had. I want to support him in his decisions, I want to hear his opinions, I want to be interested in who he is as a person. That's the gift I want to give him, but it is also the gift that I want to give my daughter because I don't want her to feel that she has to have divided loyalties. I want her to know that we love him as part of our family as well. I always felt at least as much a member of the Swift family as I did of my own. I actually joked that I married into the family I should have been born into because I truly felt so much at home there. I hope Jim can always feel like he is comfortable with us in that way.

I've thought a lot about what a good grandparent is over the course of the last year. I'm watching a lot of my generation make the transition from parent to grandparent and I've watched the results of some good and bad patterns. I'm considering writing something for grandmothers of breastfed babies this fall because one of the problems I've seen as I work with nursing moms is the conflict that many of them are having either with their mothers or their mothers-in-law.

In Vermont today something on the order of 85% of babies start out their lives as breastfeeding babies. This is an enormous change from a generation ago. It makes passing on motherly wisdom a difficult task for the grandmothers of this era. The rules appear to have all changed and the grandmothers are unsure of their role as a result. When they were raising their babies most of them were using bottles, keeping babies on schedules, giving bottles of water, feeding solids by 3 months at the latest, and putting their babies to sleep in their own cribs, in their own rooms, on their tummies. Now their daughters are being advised to breastfeed on demand, to not give water, to delay solids until 6 months and to put their babies to sleep on their backs in the same room as their parents. Now most of this (other than the sleeping on their backs) is no big piece of news to me. The current advice is very consistent with what I was taught in La Leche League 30 years ago. So for me there is not such a big transition. I'm simply (like generation upon generation of grandmothers before the beginning of the 20th century) seeing my daughter mother her baby in the same fashion she was mothered. However, for the majority of current grandmothers this is not the case. Everything seems to have been turned on its head and it makes them feel rather adrift about how to be helpful and included. They've been anticipating babysitting and feeding a bottle to the baby and often they are not happy when they find that the young couple prefers to pack the baby along with them. They feel like they have no place in the process. What I hope to do is to show them where they do fit in the process, how important their support is for their grandchild to get adequate amounts of milk and appropriate parenting. They are important in the process, they are just important in different ways than they anticipated. They too need to learn that their relationship with their grandchild will be separate and special eventually, but that right now their grandchild principally needs its parents.

Today I was in a discussion with a number of other breastfeeding advocates. We were talking about working moms and transitioning babies to spending time with caregivers other than their mom. I asked what the best way was to transition a baby who was nursing on demand onto a schedule for the caregiver. It seemed like a logical question, but imagine my surprise when my co-leader in LLL said that even bottle babies should be getting cue based feeding, not be fed on a schedule. Even I as a long time breastfeeding/natural feeding advocate had thought that somehow the "rules" were different for bottle babies. I'm still learning too! So I entirely sympathize with a grandma who starts much further back on the learning curve.

The reason for all these changes in the "rules" have to do with research and what's called evidenced based medicine. In part because of the work of La Leche League and other breastfeeding advocates the importance of human milk and biological mothering has become much more recognized as the norm. It's going to take awhile for the culture to catch up. Social policy will need to change, people's expectations are going to be rocked occasionally. Laws are already being written to reflect this new, but old, way of doing things, but in families it can cause a bit of an upheaval. I honestly believe that the grandmothers who didn't nurse their own babies need the support of the grandmothers who did. We have both the experience of having nursed our babies like their daughters and the experience of having parented in the same era they did. We know what it's like to confront moms who get their information off the internet instead of out of Dr. Spock. We know how different it is to use a forehead or ear thermometer instead of the mercury rectal ones of our era. We do in fact have shared wisdom to impart to these young parents. Any of us can in fact assure them that baby acne does go away, that even clean babies occasionally get diaper rash, and that evening fussiness sometimes just has to be endured. The grandmothers who bottle fed don't automatically become non-givers of wisdom, but they will be better able to sift through what is truly wise from what was simply the practice of another era if they begin to understand what biological mothering is all about. Or so I hope at least. I really want them to experience becoming a grandmother as the fun thing it is rather than being the source of conflict that some of them are finding it to be.