Monday, December 6, 2010

Unconditional Love

I've started jogging, something that I vowed never to do.  However, due to my lovely offspring, I find it to be just the right exercise to distract my mind from the chaos running amok in my house.   It gives me time to think about my blog posts and to listen to music, radio shows, iTunes, etc. 

(Photo courtesy of Amanda Dixon Leung.)

The other day I was on one of those jogs and listening to an episode of This American Life.  A mother told her story of raising an adopted child with an extreme attachment disorder.  At times the mother worried that her son would become never actually love her, but she never doubted her love for him.  Throughout the frightening ordeal of helping him find attachment, which consisted of intense tantrums and major physical resistance, and pleas from her husband to find him a new home, the mother never felt the love for her son disintegrate.  She loved him unconditionally.

I started thinking about this love a mother has for her children- this enormous, all powerful, unconditional love.  My love for everyone else in my life is somewhat conditional.  If my husband cheats, I'll leave.  If my friends are cruel and untrustworthy, I'll make new ones.  But my kids, they could commit multiple homicides and I would forever adore them.

One of my greatest anxieties lies in my mortality.  I realize that one day I will die, and so will my husband, and so will the kids.  Of course, like all parents, I hope that I die before my children, just not too long before.  Ted and I have discussed legal guardians for the children, in case we are ever on an airplane that crashes in the Andes and our fellow passengers survive by our cannibalization.  My fear, my torment and anxiety lies in this: who will ever love my children as much as I do?  If you have had the opportunity to meet them, you would know exactly what I mean.  There are many moments a day that the girls behave as only a mother could love.  And, even though I know that they won't be toddlers forever, I do worry that they may be very small terrorists for a long time.  I cannot count the number of times I have wished that the California Safe Haven policy applied to 3-year-olds.  If there wasn't this undividable bond connecting parent to child, I don't think that most people could weather the 2-year-old storm.

Interestingly, this unconditional love we now shower on our children is a relatively new phenomenon.  Only 50 years ago psychologists were advising parents not to kiss their children more than once a year (yes, that's once every 365 days), for fear of spoiling them.  Parents were supposed to help children to be independent.  Seen, and not heard.  It was even believed that over-cuddling babies led to disease and infant mortality.

Things began to change in the middle of the last century when Harry Harlow began researching the mother-child bond using rhesus monkeys.  In his experiments he separated newborn monkeys from their mothers and placed them in a room with both a terrycloth and a wire surrogate mother.  The monkeys all attached themselves to the warm and cuddly terrycloth mother, even when the wire mother provided the milk.  The cloth mother provided them not only warmth and snuggle time, but also with comfort and confidence.  When the baby monkeys were alone in a new setting with their cloth "mother" they felt secure and able to explore the setting.  However, alone in a new setting (or with the wire mother) they retreated, cried, and even sucked their thumbs.

Harlow's research pioneered the modern attachment parenting movement, showing for the first time the importance of a child's attachment to her parents.  Since this work, and the work of a few others in this time period, psychologists are promoting a much more compassionate, loving, and active role in parenting.  Spanking is out, cuddle time is in.  Kiss once a year is out, "hug it out" is in.  Long gone are the days when you are told "Spare the rod, spoil the child." Now we hear "There is no such thing as spoiling an infant."

So, the question we must ask is, have we gone overboard?  Have we tipped the scale too far in the unconditional direction that we now feel the need to worship and praise our child for every word uttered and every diaper dirtied?  And by doing this, do we help our children gain a sense of limitations?  Furthermore, dare I say that maybe we over-love our children?  Maybe over-love is not the appropriate word; should I say over-adore?  As soon as they let out their first scream they become the center of a parent's universe.  Should everything else in life take a backseat to the child and her needs?

It seems that parents these days are terrified of not providing unconditional support.  If we don't support every creative instinct will our children grow to resent us, to lament to their therapists that we didn't believe in their talents?  Elana's preschool sends home each piece of paper that is graced by her hand.  Unfortunately, Elana spends about 90% of her time in school at the art table so there are many pieces of paper.  Most of these "drawings" consist of a blue scribble next to a purple one.  Since I asked her teacher to please recycle her work appropriately, have I played havoc with her self esteem?

Dweck, has done extensive research on praise, and has found that all of this "Oh, Ethan, you are so smart!" and "You are an excellent artist, Olivia!" is actually hurting our children.  By praising their ability, or smartness, the child attributes her success to something innate, and not effort.  When a difficult challenge arises, these children retreat, afraid of failing.

Discipline is almost completely off limits.  We now love and respect our children so much that we use conversation and reason to correct misbehavior.  (If you have ever succeeded in reasoning with a 3-year-old please write in and tell me your magic secret!  I would love to study you like a science experiment.) I think that I am tired of seeing mothers console their children after they bite another kid on the playground.  "Oh Love Bug, why did you do that?  Are you feeling OK?  Do you need some attention?"  Puh-lease!  Is it wrong to tell the child "No!"? Would it crush his or her independent spirit to say "That was bad!"? 

Although I mourn for a balance in parenthood, I must admit that I also fall prey to these values- overattending to my children's emotional needs and wanting to provide them with total support (intellectually, emotionally, and creatively).  However, through all the screaming, biting, scratching, and tantrums, I wouldn't trade my girls for the sweetest, cutest, brightest, most well-mannered toddlers.  Maybe it is all the time, energy, and effort I have invested in them over their short lives, or maybe it's biological- in them I see myself- or maybe the moments of pure joy and love are enough to sustain this bond.  Whatever the reason, they are my little monsters, and I love them completely and unconditionally.  (The jogging helps!)

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