Yesterday, I was having lunch at a small diner and reading one of my favorite authors, biding my time before I picked my stepdaughter up from school. At an adjacent table, a young infant, 6 months or so, in a pink onesie, with a shock of dark hair sticking mostly straight up, sat looking out at the room from the knee of what looked to be her grandfather, based on his age and resemblance to her mom across the table.
As my table faced the side of theirs, I had a perfect vantage point from which to observe the exchanges between Mom and baby over the course of my meal, how the baby’s face brightened or broke into a smile as Mom made funny faces or spoke to her in an animated tone with lots of facial expression. The synchrony in their interaction was heart-warming; remembering it now, I can’t help but smile.
What struck me most during the half hour or so that we were table-mates, though, was how quickly the baby’s mood shifted when Mom walked over to the utensil and drink dispensing area, a station positioned behind Grandpa and out of baby’s sight. Although Mom was probably only away from the table for a few minutes, gathering drinks and napkins, her daughter started fussing in Grandpa’s lap. The sides of her lips turned downwards and she began making sounds of slight distress. Grandpa did his best to calm her, bouncing and repositioning her, turning his granddaughter to face him, but it was only when Mom came back into view and again began making happy vocalizations and bright expressions that the little one’s face broke into a smile and she regained her contentment. If I didn’t know better, it would have seemed like a small dose of magic (and perhaps in some ways, it was).
Watching this brief exchange between parent and child and observing the virtual lightning speed at which they restored harmony, I was reminded of the incredible comfort of closeness that is inherent in the parent-child bond. Or at least inherent in its potential.
Babies are born ready to be soothed and nurtured by the adults who care for them. Indeed, they require it not only for well-being but for their very survival. But being able to soothe a child is not a foregone conclusion; plenty of sleepless parents of newborns can attest to this! It often takes much trial and error, and tremendous patience, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes, it may seem nothing short of pure luck or a gift of grace from the universe that a child settles or goes to sleep.
Sure, some kids are easy-going from the start and their parents feel easily in step with them, able to provide comfort from the outset. This may have been true of Mom and baby yesterday in the diner. But some are just not as readily soothed as others – they may fuss or cry a lot, startle easily, resist change, and generally be harder to calm – and they came into the world this way. Trying to provide them comfort becomes more of a challenge.
I remember a good friend standing through many dinners with her second child so she could swaddle and rock him to sleep in a sling, something she never had to do with her oldest. It didn’t occur to me to ask how she figured this strategy out, but I admired her effort to provide a pathway to calm for her youngest, despite the many meals she only partly got to eat as a result.
Although many like my friend succeed in figuring it out, countless variables stand to throw these efforts at providing comfort off: lack of sleep; stress from work; a fight with one’s partner or family member; not having a partner with whom to share soothing attempts; the demands of parenting other children; worry about finances; not recognizing the need for different approaches; self-judgment about our ability as a parent; etc., etc. If we don’t feel successful, we may start to develop feelings about ourselves and our child that introduce subtle compromise into the relationship and the capacity for synchrony between us. And this tends to occur beyond our conscious awareness, making it harder to recognize that it exists in the first place.
As a child grows and develops, we may start to see evidence of this lack of harmony in his or her behavior and way of being in the world. The pattern of disharmony, once set in motion, may continue unless something shifts and introduces change to the cycle.
But the potential for improvement is always present! The first step is openness to the possibility that something needs to change – in our perceptions, reactions, and approach – mixed with a healthy dose of self-forgiveness for any perceived failing or missteps in our efforts. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is, one that comes with no required training in child development – hard to imagine taking on any other difficult job without some degree of preparation! None of us would likely board a plane if we thought the pilot was going to figure it out along the way, yet that’s what we expect of parents when they welcome a new child into the world. What a lot to ask! Parents often deserve much more credit than they realize for all the things they get right, perhaps never recognizing just how significant that accomplishment is.
The opportunity to explore new pathways to comfort and closeness is a rich one, but one that only opens to us if we invite it. We have the capacity within us if we are ready to look with new eyes and be open to new information. And along the way, we might just become child development experts! Far better than flying a plane without a license…