To Our Little Lion,
The allusion to a New Year reflection post is intentional, as is the suggestiveness of the title that time is moving past us at a regretfully quick speed. Although the first few weeks and months of your life you were changing every single day, the change appeared more gradual and more difficult to notice. Around six months, the pace of change accelerated and after a year you are already entering your personhood and the volume of change occurring is almost impossible for us to note with any detail.
Whereas in the past I sought to document some of the specific observations about your behavior and development that stood out to me, this time I want to share with you about an episode along the way which was particularly trying for the Wolf and me. I want you to understand what happened and how we came to our decision. Finally, I want to do some reflecting but not about you, rather, about us.
When you were born you had some trouble forming a proper latch when you were nursing. It took us several months to figure out that you had a minor and surgically correctable condition called a “tongue tie”– essentially, the fibers underneath your tongue connecting it to the floor of your mouth were a bit too taut for you to control your tongue the way you need to to make breastfeeding easy for you and your mother.
Eventually, with the help of some of our medical consultants, we realized what was going on and had the short (2 minute) procedure performed at a local dentist’s office. However, it took some time afterward for you to develop the strength and dexterity in your tongue necessary to nurse without difficulty. For five or six months, the Wolf was completely dedicated to pumping her milk for you which was then fed to you in a bottle. She had to do this six to eight times a day, for twenty to thirty minutes at a time, and then you had to be fed afterward. It was very hard for her and she was very sad and even angry at times as she learned to accept her choice, which was to provide you with a diet that was largely (75%+) still her breast milk — “the best milk” — even though you couldn’t get to it on your own by nursing. She made that choice because she believed you really needed her and it was important to your immunity, your brain and body development and long-term, your intelligence, health and well-being. It was a difficult challenge, and it was an opportunity for her to form an even stronger bond with you.
Eventually you gained the strength and ability to resume breastfeeding. You were taken back off the bottle and formed the relationship through nursing with the Wolf that she had hoped to have with you from day one. It was a great relief to realize she could give up the pumping routine and just enjoy feeding time with you like that… we were concerned it might never be possible.
Unfortunately, it took us some time early on to understand what was going on with your feeding and during that time you were undernourished. Then, as we made adjustments, you rapidly began gaining weight and strength. Perhaps because of this, your gross motor development was different than the average infant and you were considered, on a relative basis, to be slow to develop your sitting and crawling.
Because of the trying ordeal with your feeding early on, the Wolf and I decided it was important to get more checkups with your pediatrician than we otherwise would bother with because our principle is to not visit with medical professionals unless something seems to be wrong. At the time of this visit, nothing seemed to be wrong, just the opposite, you seemed very happy, healthy and growing every day. But we were fearful because of our early experience and we wanted to be sure. So your mother took you in for a checkup.
The visit with the doctor was uneventful until the pediatrician noticed you were not sitting up. She became extremely alarmed and said that this potentially indicated a major problem for your health and that you needed to be screened by specialists right away. She didn’t offer many other details beside that and was not willing to entertain questions or curiosities from your mother and me. She claimed she had never in her practice seen a child your age not sit up on their own.
To say this was hard for us to believe would be an understatement. I began calling some of the screening agencies she recommended and tried to understand what it was they wanted to do with you and why it was necessary. I tried to get names and contact information for the specialists who were actually knowledgeable about the specific concerns the pediatrician had for you so I could consult with them directly and skip a step. The more I dug, the more confusing the process we were referred to appeared to be and I began losing confidence in the pediatrician’s recommendation.
Your mother and I spent a three week period feeling absolutely awful. We were worried for you. We felt alone and vulnerable, not understanding what was apparently wrong and not having anyone in an authoritative position we could turn to to just ask questions. We were leaning towards taking the pediatrician’s concerns seriously, after all, we had been wrong in not recognizing your earlier nutritional challenges. On the other hand, it was hard to avoid the sense that we were facing a choice of believing her or our “lying eyes”, as you seemed otherwise to be a cheerful and ever-changing infant.
It seemed like a defining moment for us, and for you and for our relationship with you– to begin to see you symptomatically, as somehow “wrong” the way you were, or to have faith that if you were not showing signs of distress or pain you would develop in due time in your own way and that would be fine.
We did manage to visit with an occupational therapist for a consultation, skipping the strange screening process that was recommended to us. The occupational therapist observed you for a half hour and told us that she saw nothing to be concerned about, that she believed you would learn to crawl and sit up with time and that we could choose to work with her to accelerate the process through therapy if we liked. She seemed confident but we still had some uncertainty, what if you did not? What if there really was a problem and you got further and further behind developmentally, whatever that meant?
Ultimately we decided to wait. The very week the pediatrician raised the alarm you got yourself into a crouching (pre-crawl) position on your own, without any encouragement or assistance from us. Your body just told you to do that. As the weeks went by, your crawling changed and you began pulling yourself up against furniture. Eventually you sat up on your own and began playing and manipulating objects in that position. Today, you are on the verge of walking, spending more and more time every day pulling yourself up on furniture and ledges and practicing standing. It’s clear your body just keeps telling you to try this and you are gaining strength and confidence with each attempt.
In hindsight, there was nothing to worry about. You got there and you are getting there, on your own, in your own way. What might’ve been a disastrous path toward treating a “condition” that didn’t exist and becoming the ward of a variety of specialists and other agents that have no business interfering with your health and development at worst, or a subtle transformation in our own perception of you as somehow “flawed” and not okay as you happen to be at best, is instead an already seemingly distant but painful memory. As difficult as it was to go through, it certainly has given the Wolf and I increased courage to be patient with you and to look to the good in you, to focus on what you are capable of right now and what’s going well for you than to dwell on what you can not yet do or to focus on potential items of worry. It has consequently reduced our stress as parents a great deal to have experience to back this mindset.
So now, a reflection about us as parents.
When I watch other people interact with you, I am always surprised to see how much of what they do and say seems to be about them than about you. What I mean by that is, they seem to be playing out their needs and you are an object utilized in the goal, rather than they are thinking about your needs and treating you as the subject of a relationship they have with you.
What seems to be true of them could of course be true of us, your mother and father. And its something I think we need to be the most mindful of in our interactions with you.
Many people conceive of parenting as a project in filling up an empty vessel. Whether that vessel is to be filled with love, values, knowledge, experiences or anything else, the implicit idea is that the child is empty and the parents’ job is to put things in. The result is a “full person”, a wholesome, well-balanced individual.
We think you’ve got almost everything you need to be who you are. It’s inside of you, just waiting for the right time and place to come out. We can feed you, clothe you and care for you in any other way you need us but the real development work is done by you, not by us. In fact, we can interfere and get in the way of your natural development quite easily, but it is difficult to impossible to think of ways we could improve upon it.
The ways in which we would be tempted to interfere would be the ways in which we feel incomplete as ourselves. What we want to pour into you are the things we wish we were in touch with ourselves. If we feel empty in these ways it becomes more likely that the time we spend together is less about getting to know who you are and more about getting to know the distant parts of ourselves. The danger is that we use you like an object on this quest for self-knowledge.
The true heavy-lifting we can do as parents is to keep working on ourselves. If we can model whole, complete, satisfied individuals to you through our own lives, we give you an aspirational development goal that is in alignment with our parenting goal. If we spend at least as much time working to become the best versions of ourselves we can be as we do trying to be “better parents” with more tips, tricks, techniques, tools, knowledge, experience, values, resources, etc., we will be of far more value to you as you grow than we would be if we convinced ourselves that giving you things or putting things into you could make up for the existential emptiness we demonstrate to you with our daily lives, lives you are intimately aware of because you are right beside us the whole time.
What’s interesting about this for us to realize is that this is actually best for us, too. But since our goal is to live with empathy and look for ways to cooperate it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that what’s best for you is also best for us.