My baby cried this morning. He cried and cried and cried. Close to an hour of constant heart felt tears. He squirmed his tiny body next to mine on our family bed. He cried hard, tears streaming down his face. He pushed his head firmly into the pillow and thrashed his body. He came close to me then pulled away. Until he stopped, closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
As he cried I lay beside him. I held his hand, kissed his cheek, told him I loved him. It felt good to allow his release without a need to stop the crying. It felt good to be present and receive his painful feelings without judgement or fear. I now understand my childrens need to release their painful feelings, and provide daily spaces for them to do so. I feel connected to my son. He trusts me and knows that I wont leave him to cry alone.
As this scenario unfolded I began to reflect on our journey to this point. As a new mother, I thought by stopping Harrys tears I was stopping his pain. I breastfed his every whim away. He was attached to my breasts constantly and I chose this as a method of comfort. As a result Harry breastfeed every two hours day and night for a couple of years. This was fine in the beginning but as time when on this approach resulted in a child that never had the opportunity to release painful feelings through crying. Even when injured I breastfed the hurt away.
Sleep time became either a feeding marathon or an aerobic workout as we danced and rocked him around the room. He rarely allowed his father to put him to sleep and woke constantly through the night until he was two and a half years old. This was very common among my group of friends and despite my tiredness and growing resentment, I felt it was normal. We saw no other way. Controlled crying was not an option so we continued down this track, unaware that by allowing our baby to cry we could all sleep through the night.
Harry never showed interest in eating solid food until he was over 12 months old. Whilst distressing at first I resigned myself to the fact that he was getting plenty of milk and showed no obvious interest in food. I felt deeply upset when a health practitioner suggested over feeding was the cause of his disinterest. After all I was doing my best to calm his crying.
We were and are strongly committed to the ideals of Attachment Parenting. We feel this is a useful path for raising our sons and we followed the rules diligently. However, in our efforts to subscribe to these ideals we lost sight of our son individual needs. As we watched him settle and become calm we assured ourselves that our demand feeding was the most loving response to his cries. I felt that the more I feed my baby the more responsive I was being.
In the process of becoming attached to our child, I lost sight of myself. There were no longer boundaries or space for me to pursue my own interests and needs. I became totally engulfed in my child. He became my whole existence. After a few years of never being alone, of no one else ever putting him to sleep or being able to settle him, I became very tired and resentful. Nevertheless, I could not let go of my ideals and continued to breastfeed as a response to his need to sleep, eat, and cry.
On weaning, at three and a half years Harry experienced considerable fear and anxiety. He expressed much anger and aggression and demonstrated an inability to release his painful feelings easily. He would have times of extreme acting out in an attempt to test the safety of his surrounds before allowing himself to cry or tantrum. In short, Harry had a bit of catching up to do!
It was at this point that we learned of Aletha Solter and her work on crying. This was one of the most confronting and challenging times of our parenting career. We realised, with much regret, that our loving attempts to sooth Harrys tears had resulted in the pent up anger and frustration he was feeling now. Harry had not had the opportunity to cry in our arms. He had not developed the trust and knowing that we would sit lovingly with his painful feelings. The breastfeeding was gone and he was now lost in unknown territory. He was overwhelmed with emotions with no trust in himself or us to find his way through it.
In her book Tears and Tantrums, Aletha Solter explains that babies need to cry in order to release the pain resulting from both emotional and physical trauma. Anything that stops the crying is a disservice to the baby, even though it appears to be loving and kind. The need to cry does not disappear when a baby is nursed. It is simply postponed. The tears will need to come out eventually. (1)
So we began the next chapter of our parenting journey. Armed with new knowledge and insight we began to sit with Harrys tantrums. As he raged and cried we sat along side him. This was not an easy thing to do and at times we questioned the wisdom of this approach. But as we persisted we began to see a peaceful, happy child emerge.
We struggled with our own feelings provoked often from watching Harrys tantrums. They were wild and full of energy and aggression. I would often end up in tears as I confronted my own emotions. There was no short cut in this approach. It took some time, persistence and learning to finally reach a point where we sincerely embraced the tears and tantrums. During this time not only Harry learned to cry and release. We too learned the value of crying in our lives and so began a wonderful healing journey for all.
With maturity and experience comes wisdom. Before the birth of our second son, we had a new plan. Steve had a strong desire to be more involved with Baxter at a younger age. He wanted to be a part of Baxters sleep routine. He wanted to be able to comfort Baxter himself without my assistance. He wanted a strong and deep connection early on.
With two children, it was no longer possible or desirable for me to be so consumed with one. I wanted greater sharing of the parenting. I wanted a team approach. Whist I still maintained a strong commitment to breastfeeding, I wanted to share all the other aspects of raising our children. I wanted to maintain my sense of self whilst honouring my dedication and commitment to my family.
We wanted to trust Baxters natural ability to heal himself from the stresses of everyday life. We wanted to embrace our crying baby and accept his crying as healthy and productive. We wanted to feel strongly connected to our son and empowered as parents.
People frequently comment to me of Baxters deeply peaceful character. He is an easy going baby who happily interacts with others. He breastfeeds regularly and enjoys the wonderful world of solid food. He no longer feeds throughout the night and finds comfort in snuggling close to us if we wakes. Baxter feels safe with Steve. He cries freely in his arms and spends extended periods with him away from me. Sometimes he sleeps only with Steve overnight. They both enjoy a very loving and trusting connection. He trusts us with his feelings and knows we will never leave him alone to cry. We no longer rock or breastfeed our babies to sleep but rather lie close to them creating a safe and loving space.
I am still strongly committed to breastfeeding. I love the closeness and nutrition it brings. I value how it slows the pace of life and gives time to be still and hold my precious children. By learning to listen to my childrens cries I have found a depth in knowing them and understanding their real needs. I now truly listen when they cry.
Harry has become an emotionally strong and communicative young boy. He now trusts us with his painful feelings and frequently expresses them through his tantrums. We now embrace these times with him knowing that we are healing together and paving a pathway of connection. As we continue to learn from our mistakes, we grow stronger as a family. Harry has been my greatest teacher and I honour him for allowing me to learn.
Some thoughts on crying: From the first moment we ourselves cry, many of us learn a culturally ingrained approach. We are taught that our crying should be distracted, punished or ignored. Today, many child care professional advocate controlled crying as a useful and healthy response to babies and toddlers who find difficulty sleeping alone. Is it any surprise that when we hear our own childrens distress, we have a need to stop the crying? As our own experiences emerge we rock, feed, distract, ignore and chastise our children. Most parents share the deep desire to grow emotionally strong and healthy children. Yet we disallow them the expression of feelings that we find painful or undesirable. What then do we expect them to do with such emotions?
Crying in the arms of a loving adult is an essential ingredient in nurturing emotionally strong, connected human beings. When we can sit undistracted and lovingly with our childrens painful feelings, we offer them the opportunity to heal and connect. We teach them healthy ways to express their pain and that we will not leave them when things are difficult.
It is not easy to undo the cultural conditioning of our society and childhood and try a different path. For most parents, the initial experience of receiving their childs painful feelings is very challenging. It may evoke anger and resentment, fear and concern. When tantrums take place in a public space or with unsupportive onlookers parents can experience considerable pressure and judgement. As parents we are expected to control our children and the expression of anger, disappointment, sadness or fear is seen as bad behaviour that should not be allowed.
Aletha Solter explains that emotional problems, behavioural problems and stress related illnesses are not caused by stress itself, but by the suppression of the natural healing mechanisms, specifically crying and raging, that serve to the purpose of restoring the bodys physiological and psychological balance following stress. (2).
Our children come equipped with all they need to work through the difficulties of life. Our job is to allow them to do it.
Reference: Solter, A. (1998) Tears and Tantrums What to do When Babies and Children Cry Shining Star Press California (1) p. 66(2) p.150