It is amazing that the birth of a baby over two thousand years ago could have such a profound effect on our lives up to this day, so that we are celebrating Christmas.
I have to confess I love babies and children. I must, because I had a few of them – the number multiplying rather than diminishing the love that grows still for children and grandchildren. New babies are especially appealing – their skin so soft and smell so delicious.
Special appeal of the new born invites parents and others to be generous in their care – an absolute necessity for the young of our species, given a human baby’s total dependence on others for nurture and protection.
Birth is a normative crisis and the child’s total dependence challenges us to a level of generosity to meet the baby’s physical, emotional and temporal needs.
Parental maturity as foundation for child’s life
Parents who are mature are better able to meet the challenge of caring for a baby and becoming a family. By maturity, I mean that each has become a whole person, competent in the resources of intimacy and mutuality that mark mature adulthood (spelled out in more detail in my book Becoming). They have become a sound couple, able to care meaningfully for each other, aware of mutual sensitivities and able to disclose intimately to each other. Couples reaching such a level of maturity are well prepared to extend the care for others inherent in becoming a family.
Parental maturity is crucial for negotiating the early rocky pathway in becoming a family, as images and expectations of being single, or even a couple, are superseded by the new state. Even though the former life may be missed, there is no going back. A family moves forward to a different state
In the confusion of adjustment to the new life, losses need to be named, mourned and integrated into the family history. Many adjustments confront the couple. The new mother must absorb hormonal and physical changes at the same time as adjusting to new feeding and sleeping routines. A new father may feel somewhat left out of the intensity, yet is still required to support the mother with the child and in minimising other problems.
Unplanned difficulties can arise and resentments surface. Blame can begin to bubble. In situations such as these, the importance of parental maturity becomes evident. Mature people understand that their well-planned life is being re-adjusted. Patience and understanding must prevail.
Processing transition to family
The reason why it is so important for parents to be mature, is that the failure to process the transition to ‘becoming a family’ is the greatest cause of family breakdown and therefore of poverty. Where people fail to make this major interior change, so much harm can be done to, and between the couple and, worst of all, to the child and his/her future.
Too often, news carries reports of children tragically harmed because their parents were not mature: they could not tolerate the baby crying or abide ‘normal’ behaviours; or the parents could not forego their co-dependencies on gambling, alcohol, drugs or violence to care for the child. Patience, tolerance and understanding are resources gained when developing mutuality and intimacy – tasks of adolescence.
Others may hold onto images and expectations of themselves as single people in control of their life (with few responsibilities) and behave accordingly, resenting the intrusion of time, interest and money absorbed in meeting the child’s needs. In doing so, they ignore reality. Co-dependencies and false expectations merely load responsibilities onto others, limiting others’ choice. The longer such a situation prevails, the more chance there is that both parties become less mature. Dissension, division and fragmentation of the individual and the family occur – hence the high social and economic costs of failing to grow up – to grow into ‘becoming a family’.
Conversely, those mature people who love, care and protect each other and the new baby grow in love and maturity, processing the change, integrating the new image of themselves. They are able to celebrate their new state. Both parents and child flourish.
A Foundation for life
The only time a child has a “clean slate” is at birth. Foundation for the child’s life begins early, all the more reason to ensure love and support at that time. State authorities, aware of the impact of early care on a child’s future prospects, are encroaching ever more deeply into family life. Childcare and early education programs are deemed essential to every child, as is return of the mother to work.
In the haste to return to “normality” – i.e. how things were before baby – much can be lost. If fact, there is no return to the same. In becoming a family, the people in the family move onto a new reality. Missing in the urgency is the maturity the child evokes in the parent. Most “experts” talk of what the parents do to, or for, the child. Little is said about how the child evokes love and intensity in the parents, affecting parental growth.
When parents return to paid work, there may be a sense of loss, often interpreted as guilt, at leaving the child. However, what the parents lose is that irrevocable time and growth with the child, as each bonds, one to the other, forming the foundation of relationships for life.
Perhaps the social, financial and career rewards of the labour market warrant the choice for paid work. Financial advantages may be a necessity. And it is the parents’ choice to make – not the fault of someone who chooses differently. In a privileged world where most will live into the 8th and 9th decade, a short time out of a life of self-interest to lay the foundation for a child’s life (and enhanced adult maturity) is little to ask.
Otherwise problems can arise early. Remediation is often fraught, costly and unsuccessful – all the more reason to do the utmost to ensure a sound early foundation. If this means putting aside self-interest for a time, so be it. The child will grow soon enough and move on. Only when the foundation is sound can one look forward with hope, to enjoy the fruits of efforts in producing and socialising a new person. The child may not become Pope or Prime Minister, though there is every prospect of being on the way to becoming a sound contributor to society.
Change all round
I have a fridge magnet that says “Every time a child is born, so is a grandparent”. Change is constantly occurring in family relationships.
A new baby often means new grandparents whose expressions of love may swamp the new family, perhaps with unwanted attention and advice. The new parents and grandparents have to negotiate the change in the relationships to establish parameters that suit all. Some new parents are known to take the hostile “look and don’t touch” approach to a grandparent bursting with love for the new grandchild, bound to set off unpleasant flags. Others, less precious, fully engage with grandparents and the broader community, recognising the child as part of a community of interest.
Just as the parents set the foundation for the child’s life, so too do they set the tone and nature of relationships with extended family and community. While seeking to protect the child, parents need to remember that their main task is raising a competent adult. Too much ‘protection’ will not serve the child well when he/she must ultimately find its way in the community.
It takes a village to raise a child. While parental values and interest are paramount, they need to be mindful of enrichment, knowledge and sense of history that grandparents can bestow on the child, as well as the affirmation of life that a grandchild brings to the grandparents. Only the immature meddle with such natural progression.
Bright Christmas medleys cycling through store audio systems at this time of year add to the spirit of the season, even if a little wide of the spiritual mark. The music sounds of hope and joy that accompanies the birth of a baby and the immense changes that a baby brings in our lives. To many, Santa Claus is the highlight, focussing as Santa does on giving and receiving gifts and sharing joy. What is not to like.
Take time to rejoice, share and renew with family and friends this Christmas and may 2018 find you in good health and prosperity.