Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Whatever Happened to Mother?

Reading conversations on public message boards among adoptive parents about child rearing reveals a widespread, almost passionate resistance to new learning. Our culture has taught us to look for easy and convenient one-sentence solutions. One pill, one sound byte, one easy-to-remember rule.

We shy away from the hard work of examining our lives honestly and questioning our parents' methods. As a result, we continue to apply those same methods with our own children. Rationale: I'm just fine, so the methods used with me will be good enough for my children. Yet in 1979 - three decades ago - Alice Miller gave the world an astonishing gift called The Drama of the Gifted Child. By all accounts, a widely read book.

Yet we still say, "Kids these days!" Yes, we are still blaming it on the kids, as if they are responsible for their own nurturing. Or we blame it on an adopted child's genes (while taking credit for all the good stuff). To see it happen with children adopted as infants is that much more troubling because they have already suffered a primal trauma that adoptive parents (usually) had nothing to do with.

And now, on to the subject of this post: Whatever Happened to Mother? This is an e-book written by Dr. James Kimmel published on the Natural Child website. It will shake you until your brains rattle in your head and you cry a river and throw things. It is upsetting probably to nearly every mother who reads it. But reality is sometimes harsh. This book has been a staple in my repertoire for so long that I only today realized I don't have the link on this blog (and have now corrected that). Please do click on the link (above or in the right-hand column) and save it to your favorites - it is not a short book.

Between Whatever Happened... and Drama..., I hope this will provide those who asked with an answer of sorts. I cannot neatly answer questions about this subject in a few short paragraphs. My knowledge has been acquired by reading hundreds of books and reams of articles and studies. It is just not that simple.

I will leave you with Dr. Kimmel's Preface:
A society that is not responsible to its children, that does not provide them with what they need, will breed a population of asocial and antisocial individuals. Even more destructive to children, in terms of their individual mental health, is a society that pretends to be responsible to its children, when it is not. Its children will not even know what they need. They will be alienated from their human requirement of nurturing.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Are Children Inherently Bad?

This article is excerpted from Aletha Solter's book Helping Young Children Flourish. Copyright © 1989 by Aletha Solter.

The notion that human beings are born with an evil nature pervades Western civilization's attitude towards children. The idea is that children are born with unacceptable impulses and tendencies that would not disappear unless the children were taught to control themselves, thereby denying their own inner nature. The proponents of this theory consider it the parents' job to civilize and tame the barbarian nature of children.

This theory assumes that children would naturally hit and bite other people, would never want to use a toilet, learn to share, cooperate, or help another person, and would lie, steal, and destroy property unless they were disciplined and taught moral values and society's rules.

Parents are urged to punish children who "misbehave" so that the children will feel bad and guilty. Guilt is considered to be the great motivating force behind socially acceptable behavior. The children then learn to give up their nasty, uncivilized ways because they love their parents, want to please them, and want to be loved by them.

This belief has done more harm than any other belief invented by humanity. It is one of the main reasons the world is in such a mess. It has provided justification for violence, coercion, withdrawal of love, isolation, threats, and humiliation under the guise of "discipline." It has caused entire populations to be blindly obedient to authority figures and unable to think clearly about how to act. It has produced generations of adults who are burdened with feelings of guilt, fear, and shame. It has caused children's real needs to go unmet, producing adults who go through life trying desperately and unsuccessfully to fill their early needs, looking for someone who can love, accept, and understand them.

If we could rid ourselves of this deeply entrenched notion, if we could treat a baby from the start with an open, accepting attitude, we would catch a glimpse of the real human being with a vast potential for goodness. We would see an innate tendency for physical, mental, and emotional growth, a striving to understand the world, an astounding ability to give and receive love, cooperate with other human beings, learn new skills, and acquire knowledge. We would see the capacity to reach all the higher levels of human potential.

If we were able to fill all of this baby's needs for love, understanding, stimulation, closeness, and nourishment, and if we treated her with the utmost respect and trust, we would see her grow, not into a destructive, selfish monster, but rather into a thoughtful, intelligent, cooperative, and loving adult.

When adults have tendencies towards destructiveness or violence, we must assume that they were mistreated as children. People do not act in bad, stupid, or hurtful ways unless they have experienced hurtful behavior from others, or unless their needs as children were not met. Studies of criminals have repeatedly revealed severe and early mistreatment of these individuals in an environment that lacked understanding of their feelings and needs.

Copyright © 1989 by Aletha Solter

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Chemistry of Attachment

Bonding Matters. . .

The Chemistry of Attachment
by Linda F. Palmer, DC

Human babies are born helpless, needing to be entirely cared for and protected. Luckily, they are born with all the necessary tools and "instructions" to attain such care for themselves, and to become a loved and loving part of their family and society. The ingrained neural and hormonal interactions provided for parent and child to assist them in this process are among the most powerful in nature. The hormonal cues are clear and compelling and our instincts can provide us with all the appropriate responses. Without taking great efforts to avoid and ignore such urges, parents will naturally follow the advice of their neurons and hormones, nurturing their babies and maintaining physical closeness with them.

Once born, baby's hormonal control systems and brain synapses begin to permanently organize according to the human interactions she experiences. Unneeded brain receptors and neural pathways are disposed of, while those appropriate to the given environment are enhanced.

Oxytocin - a Bonding Hormone

Oxytocin is a chemical messenger released in the brain chiefly in response to social contact, but its release is especially pronounced with skin-to-skin contact. In addition to providing health benefits, this hormone-like substance promotes bonding patterns and creates desire for further contact with the individuals inciting its release.

When the process is uninterrupted, oxytocin is one of nature's chief tools for creating a mother. Roused by the high levels of estrogen ("female hormone") during pregnancy, the number of oxytocin receptors in the expecting mother's brain multiplies dramatically near the end of her pregnancy. This makes the new mother highly responsive to the presence of oxytocin. These receptors increase in the part of her brain that promotes maternal behaviors.

Oxytocin's first important surge is during labor. If a cesarean birth is necessary, allowing labor to occur first provides some of this bonding hormone surge (and helps ensure a final burst of antibodies for the baby through the placenta). Passage through the birth canal further heightens oxytocin levels in both mother and baby.

High oxytocin causes a mother to become familiar with the unique odor of her newborn infant, and once attracted to it, to prefer her own baby's odor above all others'. Baby is similarly imprinted on mother, deriving feelings of calmness and pain reduction along with mom. When the infant is born, he is already imprinted on the odor of his amniotic fluid. This odor imprint helps him find mother's nipple, which has a similar but slightly different odor. In the days following birth, the infant can be comforted by the odor of this fluid. Gradually over the next days, baby starts to prefer the odor of his mother's breast, but continued imprinting upon his mother is not food related. In fact, formula-fed infants are more attracted (in laboratory tests) to their mother's breast odor than to that of their formula, even two weeks after birth.

By influencing maternal behavior and stimulating milk "let down" (allowing milk to flow) during nursing, oxytocin helps make the first attempts at breastfeeding feel natural. Attempts at nursing during the initial hour after birth cause oxytocin to surge to exceptional levels in both mother and baby. Mothers who postpone nursing lose part of the ultimate hormone high provided for immediately after birth. Powerful initial imprinting for mother and baby is intended to occur chiefly so that mother and baby will be able to find and recognize each other in the hours and days after birth.

Yet a lifetime opportunity for bonding and love is not lost if this initial window is missed. Beyond birth, mother continues to produce elevated levels of oxytocin as a consequence of nursing and holding her infant, and the levels are based on the amount of such contact. This hormonal condition provides a sense of calm and well being. Oxytocin levels are higher in mothers who exclusively breastfeed than in those who use supplementary bottles. Under the early influence of oxytocin, nerve junctions in certain areas of mother's brain actually undergo reorganization, thereby making her maternal behaviors "hard-wired."

As long as contact with the infant remains, oxytocin causes mother to be more caring, to be more eager to please others, to become more sensitive to other's feelings, and to recognize nonverbal cues more readily. Continued nursing also enhances this effect. With high oxytocin, mother's priorities become altered and her brain no longer signals her to groom and adorn herself in order to obtain a mate, and thus a pregnancy. Now that the child has already been created, mom's grooming habits are directed toward baby. High oxytocin in the female has also been shown to promote preference for whatever male is present during its surges (one good reason for dad to hang around during and after the birth). Prolonged high oxytocin in mother, father, or baby also promotes lower blood pressure and reduced heart rate as well as certain kinds of artery repair, actually reducing lifelong risk of heart disease.

Although baby makes her own oxytocin in response to nursing, mother also transfers it to the infant in her milk. This provision serves to promote continuous relaxation and closeness for both mother and baby. A more variable release of oxytocin is seen in bottle-fed infants, but is definitely higher in an infant who is "bottle-nursed" in the parents' arms rather than with a propped bottle.

Persistent regular body contact and other nurturing acts by parents produce a constant, elevated level of oxytocin in the infant, which in turn provides a valuable reduction in the infant's stress-hormone responses. Multiple psychology studies have demonstrated that, depending on the practices of the parents, the resulting high or low level of oxytocin will control the permanent organization of the stress-handling portion of the baby's brain-promoting lasting "securely attached" or "insecure" characteristics in the adolescent and adult. Such insecure characteristics include anti-social behavior, aggression, difficulty forming lasting bonds with a mate, mental illness, and poor handling of stress.


Friday, February 2, 2007

What Babies Really Need

Copyright (c) 2001 By Ingrid Bauer

As they contemplate the birth of a new baby, parents wonder exactly what it is they will need to buy--after all, there is so much new parenting paraphenalia available. Yet one of the obstacles that can get between us and a full experience of mothering or fathering is stuff. Stuff abounds in our culture, especially where babies and children are concerned.

As the importance of attachment and bonding emerges, manufacturers scurry to keep pace. Advertisers and entrepreneurs relish the market that exists among parents who are seeking the very best for their offspring. They create products that claim to ease the work of parenting and contribute to intimacy. These products--bottles, pacifiers, cribs, baby chairs and swings, stuffed animals and "blankies"---are often nothing more than meagre and unsatisfying replacements for the real thing.

The advertisements---"Shaped like real nipples", "Just like mother's heartbeat", "Soft as your touch"---play on the idea that you and your baby might do just as well, or even better, with these substitutes. Just recently, I saw an advertisement for a blanket that traps the mother's odour in its special fibres, so the baby can smell the mother's scent and feel less isolated when left alone. What a pitiful substitute for the real feeling of being held in loving arms and breathing in the warm scent of another living being.

It is in the immediate economic interests of all "mother replacement" manufacturers, and even many doctors, that women not fully embrace their power as mothers and optimum nurturers of their children. Yet increasingly women (and parents in general) are doing just that. Mothers are rediscovering breastfeeding by avoiding bottles. Parents are giving up cribs and joining the millions around the world who co-sleep in the family bed. They are learning that when babies are carried in-arms, instead of spending their day in plastic baby containers, crying is reduced and a strong bond of affection and trust develops. They are learning to listen to their children and their hearts, and to trust what they discover there.

The need for diapers hasn't been questioned until very recently. Yet diapers can become--both figuratively and literally--a layer between mother and child. Disposable diaper giants battle to create the thinnest, driest, most comfortable product, the one most like wearing no diaper at all. Yet actually going diaper-free is a concept they don't wish to contemplate. Slowly and surely, however, more parents are beginning to consider it. They are discovering that they can keep their babies clean and dry without relying on diapers. They are taking back their power and strengthening that precious and intimate connection with both the baby and themselves.

There is no adequate substitute for a mother's closeness at the beginning of a human life. She is essential and fundamental to her infant's optimal well being and is largely undervalued in our culture. Replacing her with something or someone else interferes not only with the baby's ability to bond, but also with her ability to be present to her baby. Fathers and other family and community members also play a vital role, of course, providing a strong support system for mother and baby.

Respecting and nurturing a mother and baby's entwined attachment takes a courageous and compassionate commitment in our culture. Our economic, political, and social conditions provide meagre support, even condemnation, for families who choose to respond to the primal needs of their most vulnerable members.

Yet the solutions lie, not in replacing the mother with unsatisfying substitutes, but in sharing information, support, and encouragement, and in rediscovering community. They lie in mindfully choosing and living those practices that strengthen the attachment and bring us closer to our children. They require valuing people over things, and relationships over products or outcomes. They ask that we be present to our babies' needs in the moment, and trust the convenience and sustainability of the bigger picture.

There are some things that might make parenting a baby easier and more pleasurable. A good sling, a few well-chosen and supportive books, soft blankets, and cosy cotton clothing. But there is only one thing your baby really needs: you. There is only one thing to do: be fully present. The greatest gift you can give your child is yourself: your body, your acceptance, your responsiveness, your time, and your energy. Nothing could be simpler or more challenging; more vulnerable or more empowering. Nothing could be more freeing, or health and life enhancing.

Ingrid Bauer lives with her partner and 3 children on an island on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada.