A Mother’s Story
My “mothering crisis” began soon after the birth of my son, Jacob. At this time, I noticed an intense anger emerging in my daughter Becky, who had just turned three. She started having frequent emotional outbursts, deliberately misbehaving, and most disheartening, hitting her brother Jacob. Becky had been a fairly amiable, easygoing toddler. Sure, we had moments that were less than perfect and a few “battles of the wills”, but they were infrequent and short-lived. I had always felt in harmony with Becky. Now something was going wrong, and her anger deepened and intensified between her third and fourth birthdays.
How could my precious little girl who had been lovingly nursed on demand (and was still nursing), had slept in the family bed since birth, and had never been scolded, yelled at, or punished, do this to me? I had always considered myself an “enlightened” parent, having read all the “right” literature on loving guidance. And hadn’t I done all the things a good, loving mother is supposed to do — take her to the playground almost every day, spend endless hours playing with her, and most importantly, dedicate my life to being a mother — put all my needs on hold while I sacrificed my soul for my child?
As that year went on, and I watched my beloved daughter become more and more agressive, I convinced myself that, although I had met many of her needs by breastfeeding and sleeping with her, her adverse behavior was the result of not having a complete in-arms experience that I had read about in The Continuum Concept, which I had not read until Becky had just turned three. Jean Liedloff’s message was so powerful, and as I carried my newborn in my arms, I grieved for Becky’s loss of a complete in-arms phase. I tried to console myself thinking of all the right things I had done. I had carried her in a sling or backpack a great deal of the time, and of course she was nursed and in the family bed since birth . . . but she had not been in arms 24 hours a day. Her birth had been a traumatic ordeal, and then she spent three days in a hospital isolette with minimal human contact. I responded immediately whenever she cried, but she had screamed on too many occasions in her car-seat. If only I had known, I thought despairingly, I would have happily carried her on my body those first six months or so of her life. If only I had known, I thought, then now I would not be having these problems at all.
The Transformation Begins
After agonizing over this for a year, and enduring a year of Becky’s angry outbursts, I called Jean Liedloff for a phone consultation, just before Becky’s fourth birthday. Becky’s attacks on Jacob were completely out of control, and I was completely out of control. I felt depressed; I never imagined mothering would be this painful. I needed to find out from Jean if Becky’s anger was the result of not being in arms 24 hours a day. Or, was it something else — something I was blind to? After all, why weren’t all the other children I knew, who also didn’t have a complete in-arms experience, this angry?
With compassion and warmth, Jean immediately enabled me to bury my guilt over Becky’s birth, her disturbing hospital ordeal, and her lack of a complete in-arms experience. I had to recognize all the good I had done, and acknowledge that it was more damaging to carry around regret and blame. Based on what I told Jean, she immediately suspected where Becky’s anger was coming from. It was not the consequence of not being held 24 hours a day, it was the result of me being too child-centered, she explained.
Jean proceeded to describe all the common mistakes made by parents who are genuinely trying to do everything right (holding our babies, nursing, sleeping with them). Terrified of doing anything wrong, and trying so hard to save our children from all the agony we suffered as children, we go overboard in the other direction (what Jean refers to as “child-centered”). We try too hard to please, and too hard not to antagonize. We are over-attentive and self-sacrificing (how did Jean know me so well?). We look guilty and anxious as we plead with our children, ask permission of them, and continuously reason, explain, and apologize. All of this puts the child in control, and since what the child innately wants and needs is not to be in control, and to have a mother who is in control, it makes the child insecure and eventually angry.
“The child needs a mother who is confident and calm,” Jean explained. “A mother who knows what to do, and doesn’t ask permission from her child. It may look the opposite — that the child is struggling for more control, but ironically she is struggling not to be in control and is pushing you until you stand firm. When a child feels that she might gain control, her impulse is to push for it. She cannot resist this, as it is human nature and is exactly what she is programmed to do.
“A child’s life depends on her parents. She looks up to them for protection, strength, certainty. She wants them to know what’s what, what is good, what is bad, what to do, where to go. ‘You’re a grown up, Mommy, so don’t ask me what I want to do. I want you to know so I can watch you, and follow you, and help you. I’m trying to push you until you are steady and calm, until you stand firm. Then I can feel safe and secure; I can relax and count on you. I don’t want to be able to push you over; it makes me nervous, but if you are looking unsteady I’m going to keep pushing to make sure you don’t fall over. I’ll push and push until you finally know what you are doing, and them I’m going to be fine. Then I can stop watching you, and testing your reliability.’
“Don’t plead with her over anything,” Jean went on. “If you’re pleading with her, then she’s got the power, and it makes her nervous because it means you’re not sure of yourself, and you’re begging her for acceptance. Any grown-up lady that pleads with a four year old is not to be relied on. Do not ask her what she wants to do, tell her, but be sure you don’t do it in an angry way. Just be matter of fact and nicely say what you want her to do. Treat her as your ally, expecting that she wants to know, expecting that she will listen. And you don’t give her endless reasons; that tends again to sound like pleading.
“Even when you hug your child, see if you’re in any way asking for forgiveness — pleading with the child in some way.”
Jean was right, I had tried so hard to please Becky and I was always giving her choices. I asked her where she wanted to go, and what she wanted to do. She had not been a demanding toddler, but she had become a very demanding little girl, seeming to want constant attention. At most every request I (and my husband) would begrudgingly sit and play childish games. If I had to turn down Becky’s request to play, I would anxiously plead and apologize, “Oh Becky, I’m sorry, but I really do need to get dinner cooked. I promise to play with you later, okay?” I felt guilty when I tried to do adult activities, because I thought I should be spending more time with Becky, doing what she wanted to do. It never occurred to me that doing what I wanted to do did not mean spending less time with Becky.
I was so influenced by stories about devoted mothers who happily left their houses a mess, the bills unpaid, and the laundry pile up, feeling that it was important to be with their children, immersed in their activities, because “after all, they’re only young once.” So the more I read, the more I immersed myself.
“The child should not feel she is expected to direct you, and you should not be centered upon her,” Jean said. “You do grown-up things, which includes keeping your house clean if you so desire. The child does what she wants to do, and eventually what she wants to do is what you are doing, and she should always feel welcome to be with you. So don’t engage in her childish games, but let her help you — have her be your satellite, do not be her satellite.”
Jean continued, “Let me tell you what a child is doing. During the in-arms phase, a baby is passively watching and observing the whole of the life it is about to move into. So it needs to be in-arms, in the middle of everything — but the mother should not be focused on the baby. Then the baby crawls off her lap, and is eventually walking and running, tasting, testing, feeling, and seeing how everything works. The child is now actively following his mother around, watching her live her busy life. If the mother spends her time watching him living his, it frustrates him, and throws him into confusion because he is programmed to be following her. His whole orientation for millions of years is stalled.”
How freeing it was, I told Jean, to hear that I did not have to be so self-sacrificing, always placing Becky’s needs first, and my own needs second.
“When you’re doing it right,” Jean responded quickly, “your needs are the same as the child’s and you don’t have to choose between them. ‘This is good for me,’ or ‘This is good for the child,’ is the vocabulary of our time and it’s based on the false premise of ‘Well, I have to think of myself sometimes, too.’ What feels best for you is the best for the child, and what’s best for the child is pleasant for the mother because it’s what you innately feel like doing. Everything that I suggest to you is best for the child, absolutely the optimum, and happens to be comfortable for the parent. That’s no accident because evolution is planned that way.”
Within a few sessions with Jean, I acknowledged that the first step towards a healthier family was ridding myself of falsely based guilt. This enabled me to be less child-centered, and start living my life as an adult, doing what I wanted to do with my children nearby, or participating with me.
The second step was gaining a profound understanding that children are innately social and want to cooperate, imitate, follow you around, and be a part of your team.
“One can observe this anywhere that has not been under the influence of Western Civilization,” Jean explained. “In primitive societies, arguments, tension, conflict, adversariality, ‘terrible-2s’, adolescent rebellion, and sibling rivalry do not exist. Children are not inconveniencing, interrupting, or being waited on by an adult. They are helping the adults, and obey their elders instantly and willingly. While the adult’s behavior is not at all permissive, there is no punishment of children.
“But if the basic assumption is that the child is not social by nature, we have to threaten and bribe them to have them cooperate. If this were true we would not have survived as a species over these hundreds of thousands of years. In tribal society children have to be helping. The child is expected (and can feel it from everyone) to do the right thing, and is watching to see what is done.
“Thus, when the Western parent acts correctly and expects the child to be social and to cooperate, the child perceives that she is expected to do the right thing, and since it is built into her nature to meet the parent’s expectations, she will act accordingly.
“I promise you, all children have a radar out for the treatment they need, and when it’s right, they settle into it very quickly. It works like magic because it suits their nature. It’s what evolution has programmed them to expect. So, really convince yourself that we are a very social animal if allowed to be.”
That promise is what gave me the hope and the determination to get things right. After every session I would enthusiastically practice, putting “to the test”, all the fascinating theories I was learning from Jean. With the endless support of my husband — who also put to practice our newly discovered wisdom — I worked on talking matter-of-factly, without pleading, taking it for granted that Becky (and Jacob) would do the right thing. I began telling, rather than asking. I would say “Bring this to daddy,” or “Get me a diaper for Jacob,” rather than “Will you please . . . ” for as Jean explained:
“One of the most powerful things is your expectations — what your child perceives that you expect. It may not be what you expect from the child, it’s what you look as though you expect from the child. When you say ‘Will you please bring your toy in here,’ there is usually a tone of disbelief that she’s not going to do it, certainly not the first time you ask. So then you ask four or five more times (called nagging) with the attitude, ‘I’m hoping you’re going to believe me but I don’t think you are.’ This is why she feels she has to push you until you stand firm, and it also becomes the way she expects to operate with you.”
Becky did begin to listen more. But if she didn’t I would not repeat myself, as Jean stressed the importance of saying something only once. So I would just go and do it myself, but not angrily.
“What happens if she doesn’t obey, or if she misbehaves,” Jean explained, “is that she gets left out, and no child can bear to be left out. Either she’s with you doing the right thing, or she’s left out, but she’s not made to feel badly about herself, and she’s not punished or scolded, or begged or pleaded with, or anything interesting. Don’t get into a struggle with her about anything. Show her that you know what you are doing and expect her to obey and want to help. The point is for you to get as steady as you can so that she will finally feel secure and give up testing.
“When you sincerely believe a child is profoundly social,” Jean proceeded, “you tell her what the right thing to do is with the assumption that she wants the information, and you give the information to her as if she is an ally, a trusted teammate, not an adversary. Being your child’s informant, her ally, works; punishment or permissiveness don’t work.”
I began having small successes. A few days would pass and it would dawn on me that Becky hadn’t hit Jacob. Then another day she would attack him again in a fit of rage, as if she had been storing up her anger before dropping the bomb. How could I be her ally and show no reaction when she hit Jacob? Jean encouraged me to persevere, to be patient with myself. She insisted that it is much easier to do it right than to do it wrong. I just had to change old habits, and changing old habits takes practice and repetition, consciously at first until actions become automatic.
“Eventually you want your behavior to be second nature,” said Jean. “Actually, it’s your first nature. You would be doing it right yourself, without my help if you hadn’t been interfered with by Western Civilization.”
Healing a “Destructive” Nursing Relationship
In spite of our small successes, there was still an intense rage in Becky. I was convinced that I was being less child-centered. I had stopped being guilt-ridden, stopped pleading, apologizing, reasoning, explaining, asking permission. So, what was it about? Why, why was this anger still there? Why was she still hurting Jacob? And why did this intense anger emerge when she was three, when it wasn’t there before?
Finally, three months after my first session with Jean, all the pieces of my puzzle fell together. One morning, Becky awakened and nursed as she usually did every morning — the one time during the day that she nursed. A powerful eruption of anger followed — kicking, screaming, calling me names. I did my best to remain neutral, as difficult as it was, then left the house to go for a walk. Thankfully my husband works at home and I had the option to do that. I needed to deal with the anger I was squelching inside the house.
To my amazement, I didn’t feel angry as I started walking. Rather, I had a moment of “enlightenment”. At last I understood why Becky was so angry; Becky was still nursing and I didn’t want to nurse her anymore. I absolutely resented nursing her and her demands to nurse — and she knew it! How could I have been so blind?
Becky had weaned at two and a half when I was five months pregnant with Jacob, and my milk had dried up. We had had a beautiful nursing relationship and I accepted the weaning gracefully. It was time to move into a new phase of our life together. Then when Jacob was born I grieved for the loss of Becky as my baby. I felt guilty that I had interrupted my one-on-one relationship with her by having another baby.
When Jacob was about two months old, Becky showed an interest in nursing again. I was elated! Thankful to have my first baby back, I enthusiastically let her nurse whenever she wanted to even if Jacob was nursing. Before I knew it she was, once again, depending on nursing to go to sleep, and waking in the night to nurse. She became very demanding about nursing, wanting to nurse whenever Jacob did.
After several months of this, I started getting very agitated when they were both nursing at the same time, and desperately wanted Becky to get off my breast. In spite of my intense feelings, I continued to allow Becky to nurse with Jacob because I didn’t want her to feel cheated or left out. I didn’t want her to resent Jacob for getting more of my attention.
After a few months of going on like this, getting more angry, more resentful, I finally told Becky she could nurse only after Jacob nursed. She was still nursing too much, however, and it started to be quite painful for me. Every time I made an attempt to cut back more I’d read something that would make me feel that this was a real need for her, and I should let her nurse freely. Feeling guilty again, I would then become more lenient, and of course my anger would build up once more.
We went back and forth like this for months. I was being so wishy-washy. I was being antagonized by my own child. She was clearly in control and I felt helpless. How could she feel safe and secure with me? It’s no coincidence that her angry outbursts began at this time. How naive I was not to see that Becky’s anger was associated with our nursing relationship. I was trying so hard to be a good, loving mother, a mother who meets all her child’s needs at any expense to herself.
My head was spinning with all of Jean’s teaching: “A child wants a mother who is calm, confident, stands firm ...” As much as I believed in child-led weaning, nursing Becky was making her terribly angry because I was not standing firm. I had been terrified of weaning her and making her more angry — then she would really abuse her brother, I thought. Ironically she was getting angrier because I was doing something she knew I did not want to do. Nursing was no longer a need for her. It was a struggle for control, and she needed me to be in control.
I realized I had to stand firm and end our “destructive” nursing relationship. As Jean had said “The main object of everything we are doing is to prevent the child from feeling badly about herself. This is the worst crime we commit.” I now saw that my anger and resentment over nursing Becky when I didn’t want to was making her feel very badly about herself.
I returned home, calm and centered, feeling better than I had in months. With no pleading, reasoning, or apologizing, I said to Becky in a kind but firm, confident voice, “I decided that you no longer need to nurse. You are a big girl and can do big girl things. I want to hold you on my lap and hug you, but we are not going to nurse anymore.” Becky looked up at me with her big blue eyes and enormous relief swept over her face, as if a huge boulder had been lifted off her. She said “Oh” — and that was IT! She never nursed again and never asked to nurse again. She didn’t need to. She finally had a mother who was in control, who was confidently in control, a mother who was standing firm. What a relief for her!
Needless to say, much of Becky’s anger subsided and she stopped hurting Jacob. She was transformed into a calmer, happier child. Her true, joyful nature was emerging again. Then one day I noticed that she was playing with Jacob. They began playing together often; Becky delighting in Jacob’s companionship, and Jacob just adoring her. Silliness and laughter had replaced hitting and tears.
Progress, Not Perfection
This is not to say that we don’t have any more obstacles. I have gotten to the core of Becky’s anger and have a clear understanding about my children and their struggles for control, but difficulties sporadically come up. Whenever I fall back into old ways of pleading, reasoning, and looking doubtful, my children sense it and act on it. But as I practice and gain more experience, and continuously witness affirming results with Jean’s theories, I am becoming more expedient at hurdling our new obstacles. And having regained my own lost sense of worth and lovability, I am more able to keep my children’s confidence intact; when I feel right, my children naturally will feel right.