We know our children must grow up, and sometimes we prod and persuade them into growing up as soon as possible. A midwife tells us that cuddling will spoil a newborn infant; a mother weans her baby early from the breast in anticipation of her return
Since the aim of growing up is to move from dependency towards autonomy, society looks for early evidence of separation of a child from its mother. The baby who sleeps all night alone, the toddler who does not cry when his mother leaves him, the teenager who does not rebel these are all models of “good” behaviour, with the implication that they are a product of “good” parenting.
The tendency to set ourselves goals in parenting is a legacy of the Western work ethic. Real work is generally defined as an intense, self sacrificial activity, with rewards to keep us going. Yet the process and demands of childcare are quite different from the Western approach to work. Children defy any method or work schedule. No one will pat you on the back at the end of the day or give you a bonus. And you can never really hold up your child and say: “Look what I made!”
Nevertheless, mothers and children continue to be judged according to unspoken factory rules. These assume that you “make” children in much the same way as you make sausages. The end product is supposed to be an independent child who does not bother us with his childish needs. This is the philosophy which informs most of our parenting, whether or not we realize it, and parents often judge themselves by this criterion, as harshly as any health worker or outside authority.
It is the rare mother who accepts her children exactly as they are at any given time, despite the fact that their way of interacting with the world is very different from her own, that they are experimenting with socially unacceptable behaviours, and that the limits of her tolerance are under constant siege.
It is difficult to live in the moment with our children, when we model our day on the nine to five pattern, which is all about results. By worrying about the desired end product, we neglect the means used to get there, and the journey becomes painful, even perilous.
Even families following alternative parenting strategies are prone to worry about the kinds of children they are creating, and may try to mould them to a pre conceived pattern. Mothers who carry their babies on slings and breastfeed on demand, for instance, are under great pressure to prove that their efforts have not “spoilt” their children. They, like other mothers, may be relieved when their children reach autonomy, are non violent and stop clinging to their knees.
I have certainly felt this pressure at times as my children have passed through seemingly ‘”difficult” phases. So when, despite the benefits of close contact nurture, my three year old daughter was reluctant to leave my side to go to nursery school, I was confused.
In fact, when I watched other children entering nursery school, I realized that many (though not all, of course) were persuaded over the threshold with bribes or threats. Parents often ignored their pleas to go back home. The consensus that three year olds “need” nursery school, based on society’s “need” for women to return to work, has resulted in yet another pressure for parents to separate prematurely from their children. Not to send the child to pre school has become, in some circles, a sign of neglect.
I became well and truly caught up in the dilemma, sitting for hours with Frances in the Montessori classroom. She said she wanted to go to school and enjoyed many of the Montessori activities, but was not yet ready to leave me every day and enter a large, social group without me. I expected her to tell me exactly what she wanted with words, but eventually I learnt to trust her body language, and I made the adult decision for her. She came home with me, where she did not need to cling or act shy, or be brave: where she could regulate her own life.
Responding to our children’s needs means knowing ourselves, accepting our limitations and learning to live in our own environment. It means trusting in the process of childhood itself, and not being so eager to control it. It means letting go.
Frances is due to start at our village school this autumn, two days before her fifth birthday. She is excited at the prospect, and manifestly better equipped this time for her move into the wider world. But I shall be ready with open arms to provide an emotional refuge, should school prove not to live up to all its promises.
Deborah Jackson is currently working on a new book about letting children go, to be published by Bloomsbury in 1993.