Although awareness of infant specialist Magda Gerber’s “babies are whole people” approach is increasing, many of her recommended child care practices are still considered unconventional. Parents and professionals who embrace Gerber’s vision of respectful infant care often feel alone in their views. And without the support of family, friends or associates (sometimes even the family doctor), the already challenging job of caring for our children is a whole lot tougher.
I deeply admire parents and caregivers who maintain an inexorable conviction in their beliefs despite scarce or minimal support. Many have shared with me their feelings of frustration and isolation. Here is one parent’s account of the struggles and successes of her son’s first year…
A week after my son’s first birthday he learned how to climb down our three front porch steps. The day after that he climbed all the way to the top of eight steep steps at the playground, had a look around, then backed up and made his way safely to the bottom. I was blown away. I only wished my husband were there so he could savour this moment with me — validation of a year of parenting against the grain. Everyone had told us we were wrong, but our son’s growing self-confidence assured us otherwise and made every metaphorical splinter worth it.
Rewind 12 months… My first real opportunity to breastfeed was rough. The midwife was like a hurricane — jerking breasts and arms, shoulders and neck as if baby Jess and I were detached appendages. She was brusque and kept repeating ”refusing the breast”. Little wonder RIE with its emphasis on respect and gentle, unhurried hands appealed from the get-go.
I came across Magda Gerber’s child care philosophy online by happy accident, about three months into a mostly joyless start to motherhood. At night I would read passages from Janet Lansbury’s blog to my husband who would turn down the TV and listen attentively. Just as RIE spoke perfect sense to me, he would nod and agree these parenting do’s and don’ts sounded sensible. At last, a way out of the mire of conflicting advice.
We only wished we’d come across RIE before shelling out so much on the pricey plastic stuff. Exersaucer, baby swing, rocking chair, play gym… we had it all and out it went, along with mobiles, rattles and anything battery-operated.
Next, I put the phone down, locked eyes with my boy, and instantly bottle feeds went from a depressing reminder of my failure to produce enough milk to a time of deep connection.
Caregiving duties were suddenly satisfying, and because I abandoned the idea of having to entertain, the time between naps no longer filled me with dread.
For months, we stuck close to home and did our thing. The television was off and our days were slow and predictable. Jess spent hours on the lawn, at first gazing up at the trees, then picking at grass and trying to eat the leaves. Baby was content, mum was finally coping and dad was thrilled … but that’s where the goodwill ended.
Surprisingly, my family found our quiet new routine stifling. To compensate for all our watching and waiting, grandparents and an army of aunts would circle Jess, clapping his hands together, shaking flashy, one-trick toys in his face and pulling him onto his feet. It was an assault to the senses, and they wondered why Jess would cry out for us. They said he needed to toughen up.
I tried not to dictate the way my family interacted with Jess, but I was eager to show off my new way of being with my baby. I was so proud and excited the first time Mum watched me talk Jess through his nappy change. Then she scoffed — scoffed! — and I’d never felt more foolish.
I was full of self-doubt, made loads of concessions and often considered bowing to conventional wisdom for the sake of family unity. Three things prevented me from backing down:
1. My husband didn’t want me to. He is a hands-on dad and had embraced the RIE principles with enthusiasm.
2. I didn’t want to. RIE was such an easy and natural fit that it would have felt uncomfortable to parent any other way. In fact, I felt as if my parents’ criticism — of my parenting choices, my tendency to drift left of the mainstream and habit of reading up on everything -– was punishment for simply being me.
Accustomed to choice, Jess could and would tell me exactly what he wanted — an affirmative grunt that he’d like to be on the floor; a finger pointed at the back door; a tap of the book he wanted me to read. Over time he learned to drink from a cup, feed himself from a bowl (it’s messy) and help me dress him.
His joy of movement was textbook RIE, and because we never rushed in to help him out of a bind, he developed perseverance. People were always saying Jess was “so content” and “knows his mind”, and I never got sick of hearing this ringing endorsement of Magda Gerber’s methods.
So I thought if anyone could convince my mother I was on the right track, it was Jess. “Look at him,” I said one day as he played with kitchen gear. “Look how well he’s doing.” She watched him, then replied: “If he’s this good at entertaining himself with a colander, imagine what he could do with some real toys.”
I felt like I was living in topsy-turvy land.
The irony certainly wasn’t lost on me that my husband and I had chosen a parenting style rooted in trust and respect, and yet my family afforded me neither of those things.
To gain my family’s acceptance I needed their understanding. When that failed, our once-close relationship soured. My parents had raised four healthy children and were offended I wasn’t following their example; my sisters were annoyed that the Jolly Jumper, walkers and buzzy things they gave us for Christmas had stayed in their boxes; and everyone resented the fact that if Jess didn’t want to sit on someone’s lap, he didn’t have to. They all agreed we were weird and extreme.
To be fair, my family adores Jess and could no doubt write their own 1000-word rant about the challenges of dealing with a hormonal, know-it-all new mum.
They’re not alone in being suspicious of a way of parenting that is only just starting to pick up speed. Our early childhood specialist actually used the word “ridiculous” when I told her I warn Jess before picking him up and often ask his permission. Doctors and nurses look at me as if I have two heads when, instead of reeling off “it’s all right, shhh, you’re all right”, I acknowledge our boy’s pain and fear.
While my husband has borne the brunt of judgmental mamas equating a baby playing independently with lazy or ignorant parenting, I too got a small taste a few months back. I was watching Jess slowly warm up in a busy play centre and enjoying my role as “sportscaster” when a woman felt compelled to approach with a ball and roll it to Jess. Was she teaching mother or child how to play right?
Through RIE and our own observations we learned that we didn’t need to teach our son how to play and explore, nor how to roll, sit, crawl or climb. But could we trust him to figure out how to descend steps as well?
Jess had learned to climb up our three front porch steps several months before his first birthday. Whenever he did this (which was often) he would look wistfully back down the steps before crawling away. I had wanted so badly to tell him “backwards, backwards!” But because I stopped myself, Jess eventually realized this for himself.
Kate-t (not her real name) is a 34-year-old first-time mum who works at a newspaper and hates surprises so much she reads the last page of a novel first and shakes wrapped Christmas gifts for clues. She tries her best to be present and savour every day but is busting to know what her child will be like when he’s all grown up.
Kate-t welcomes your comments and questions.
I share more about this respectful approach in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
Thank you so much, Kate-t and family, for sharing your story!