From time to time I have the pleasure of sharing the perspectives of other parents, educators, and early childhood professionals familiar with the work of infant expert Magda Gerber. This post is by Miven Trageser, M.A., a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. Miven specializes in parenting, mother-infant attachment therapy, play therapy with small children, and couples therapy. She attended RIE Parent/Infant Classes with her now 11 year old son and 8 year old daughter.
It’s a big family party and your beloved brother who has never met your newborn approaches with great joy and excitement. “My brand new nephew!” his voice is booming. He swoops his face inches from your baby’s and starts grabbing under the baby’s chin and on the tummy, making gootchy-goo noises. Your baby seems to freeze. Is this OK with you?
a) Of course. That’s his uncle and he’s expressing love.
b) If my baby ends up laughing, then I guess it’s OK, but I feel kind of nervous.
c) No. I adore my brother, but my baby has NO IDEA who this man is and looks completely overwhelmed.
If your answer was ‘a’, I’m going to offer a challenge: Would it be OK with you if a stranger did this to you? How about a stranger who towered over you? Can you imagine how it would feel if you were helpless to move away? Isn’t it even worse if this grabbing is happening to you and you don’t like it, but everyone you trust around you is smiling and laughing?
From the mom-perspective, the fact that your brother (or other relative) is utterly familiar to you and that his intentions are clearly loving makes it hard to see that he is a stranger to this baby. We can wish it wasn’t so, rationalize somehow, but then we are still seeing this situation from the adult’s perspective, not the infant’s. It’s very hard to know what to do when you are torn between adults you can identify with (you can feel your brother’s intentions), and the baby you are taking care of.
There are lots of interpersonal reasons why your decision might tip towards understanding your brother’s point of view and temporarily tuning out your baby’s, which is answer ‘b’ above. It’s a huge challenge to really consider the helplessness of infants, and remain an advocate for them in the face of social pressures.
Magda Gerber, the founder of RIE, (Resources for Infant Educarers) opened my eyes to the actual experience of infants and toddlers when I read her books and was able to attend a RIE parent-infant class when my children were babies. In these weekly classes I practiced a new skill of observation without agenda, sometimes called ‘looking at infants with new eyes.’ This awareness continued to grow as my children passed through many developmental phases. Being able to imagine your child’s experience is a strong indicator of secure attachment between parents and children.
Why is this important? There is a lot of exciting new research in psychology on infant attachment, and the relationship structures that get ‘embedded’ early in life. A lot of this work in psychology, brain research and child development, focuses on how infants regulate fearful emotional states, something that is called “affect regulation.” In the infant/uncle scenario, the infant who freezes and stares vacantly is experiencing a fearful state of emotional and physiological arousal and using a strategy of dissociating.
What’s sad is that the uncle in this story is attempting to reach out to the infant in the best way he knows, but he’s not starting from where the infant actually is. He’s starting from where he is and where he wants the infant to be with him—close and connected. It’s a sad fact of life for many dispersed modern families that babies may not know their uncles, aunts and grandparents as well as they know their babysitters or their mother’s friends. Sensitive conversations may have to happen for you to mediate between the relatives’ needs and wishes, and the perspective of your baby.
If you picked ‘c’, then you are accepting the inconvenient reality that this person you love is not familiar to your baby. Once you accept what is, you can foster the beginnings of an authentic uncle-nephew relationship. I believe this is the most respectful and aware way to go, though I can’t say I always followed this path. I know there were times when I chose to keep silent about something in the interest of not rocking the boat. When this happens, it is important to be kind to yourself.
As a parent, you are always balancing your needs and the needs of the baby. If you can practice the discipline of considering your baby’s point of view and needs, while not forgetting your own, you are doing heroic work, and your parenting path will be its own rich reward.
Miven would love to hear your thoughts, and will respond here to any questions. Please check out her website: http://www.losangeleschildtherapist.com/.
She can also be contacted at:
Miven Trageser, MA,
Marriage and Family Therapy
Psychotherapy: Individuals, Couples, Children