We all make mistakes
So I came across another article yesterday that basically blamed mothers for any messed up adults (again!) the headline being – ‘How bond with mother in first 18 months can shape our love life!’ I should probably say it was in the Daily Mail which helped me not to take it too seriously. However, the article was based on research done by a team of psychologists and university professors (The study is published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science) which again doesn’t particularly mean it’s any more true – but nevertheless made it appear slightly more official. The researchers found ‘those children with a secure bond with their mothers were likely to have more successful relationships later on in life’. This much I agree with and I know there has been extensive research that the first years are of huge significance to a person’s life course. There has also been extensive research on how physical touch and love have a massive effect on the brain development of children – see a brilliant book on this called ‘The Science of Parenting’. However, the research in this article goes a step further claiming:
‘Your interpersonal experiences with your mother during the first 12 to 18 months of life predict your behaviour in romantic relationships 20 years later.’
Apparently the ability to ‘trust, love and work through arguments’ is developed early on in these crucial stages. I don’t think a single person could read the article and not end up analysing whether there is a correlation between their mother’s love and the success or failure of their relationships. My problem with this is whether it gives adults an excuse for poor behaviour and encourages a lack of responsibility for one’s actions.
The article does go on to say, ‘Old patterns can be overcome. A betrayed baby can become loyal. An unloved infant can learn to love.’ Which suggests we are not a slave to our upbringing though even this was put in a particularly harsh way.
It is not new news that our childhood affects who we are as adults but when it comes to romantic relationships I would have thought we were more influenced by the opposite sex parent to a larger extent and surely at a much later stage in life? As with most sweeping statements it ignores the multitudes of other factors that influence a persons conduct in a relationship.
If this study is to be trusted then where does that leave every mother who has suffered with post natal depression and was unable to bond with her child during that crucial first year? Feeling pretty crap I would think!
I’m a firm believer that most things can be turned around with a big, and consistent, dose of love and that we have the power to change ourselves, break the mould and decide who we want to be!
This week is National Adoption week. To mark it, on the radio station where I work I interviewed 3 ladies for the women’s programme. They were; a retired clinical geneticist, a former family lawyer who now works for a well-known family charity – Care for the family – and a post-adoption team social worker. All are also mothers. We were tackling the age-old debate of Nature Verses Nurture in the light of adoption. When we have children, or adopt, we hope and believe environmental forces i.e. parenting, above all else excels a greater force on our children than nature. That their personality will be shaped by love and discipline. But is it really?
I love a good debate and this is one I’ve revisited time and again particularly since I became a parent and especially since I became a ‘single’ parent. The radio discussion was fascinating: The geneticist, understandably, argued that there is a limit to what good parenting can do as genes do affect behaviour characteristics. However, she added we are never programmed fully by our genes. Ironically, the social worker had done a thesis on nature V nurture years ago and concluded that nurture was the prevailing factor. However, after years of social work she admitted her view has changed somewhat and now believes a lot is down to nature. The ex-family lawyer and charity worker felt, like the other two ladies, that in the early years there is a key opportunity – in particular the first year and continuing until age 5 – when good parenting and a lot of love can have a profound effect.
My problem with this debate is there are very strong arguments on both sides. There is no doubt certain traits and characteristics are passed down through our genealogy and we only need do a case study of our own familes to see it. But, I also believe our environment and circumstances (in this case love and good parenting) can go a long way in shaping the people our children will become. Our genes do affect who we are but the bit I’m interested in is, are we a slave to them or can bad genes be overcome with good parenting for example? How much of children’s behaviour is due to parenting and how much is due to their innate character?
Lionel Shriver addresses this beautifully, if not darkly, in the brilliant ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ book. (By the way don’t read it if you’re pregnant with your first child). The book doesn’t really provide clear answers but wonderfully explores whether a child can be ‘evil’. Furthermore, if this is possible, is it an innate evil that cannot be overcome or a result of experience and circumstance? It’s just been made into a film starring Tilda Swinton if you can’t be botehred to read the book!
Studies suggest that many temperamental and behavioural tendencies are ultimately 30 to 50 per cent genetic and five major personality traits are identified which show the strongest influence called the Big 5: Extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness to experience. Others with a significant genetic legacy include altruism, shyness, accident-proneness and even self-esteem.
I guess we could all frantically go through this list and analyse our children trying to see if they have that same ‘look’ in their eye that mad uncle George had and end up paranoid and fearful. However, it was in fact the geneticist who pointed out in the interview that although good parenting goes a very long way indeed it is helpful to acknowledge that genes play a part because despite our best efforts sometimes our children do go off the rails and parents are the first to feel guilty and ask the question ‘Where did I go wrong?’
As it is National Adoption Week, I have to also mention that I was astounded to learn that despite numerous research concluding that early years are the key time to provide, love, consistency and lay firm foundations for children, there are 3600 children in care under the age of 1 and only 60 babies were adopted last year! I find this disturbing and quite frankly disgusting. Apparently on average children have to wait 2 years and 7 months for a new home by which time a considerable amount of damage will already have been done. It angers me that red tape is getting in the way of these babies having the love and stability they deserve especially when there are adoptive parents put there waiting to provide it.
To end on a more positive note, the family charity worker gave some great tips for making sure your child not only knows they are loved but feels it too. She said we can tell when our child’s ‘love tank’ is empty when they start acting up (at this point I did think Bearcub must be running on empty a lot of the time lately!) but she then went on to quote a fantastic book, which I’ve read called The Five Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman. Chapman explains that it is imperative that we learn our child’s (or partner’s or friend’s) ‘love language’ and communicate to them using it to ensure the message gets across. The Five Love Languages are – Time, Touch, Words, Gifts and Actions. It’s about learning how an individual wants/needs to be loved. I for one found this quite a helpful tip for making sure that BearCub’s Love-tank is regularly and fully topped up!
One of the constant dilemmas I face as a single-mum to my 2 year-old bear-cub is how much negative emotion to try to ‘hide’ from him. The other day we found a huge spider in his bedroom and I tried to calmly explain that we needed to take him outside so he could ‘be with his spider friends’. When bear cub questioned why I was putting the spider in a glass and not picking it up with my hands I answered, through gritted teeth and with shaky hands, that I simply didn’t want to accidently squash him! From the look on his face I don’t think bear cub was convinced for a minute. I however, was actually quite proud of myself for managing to get that close to a big spider even if there was a glass between it and me. Dealing with spiders is yet another new territory for me since becoming a single parent.
But there are so many questions here regarding fears. We, as mums, instinctively want to do what is best and right for our little ones. We cannot fight the overwhelming force which leads us to want to protect them from all harm at all costs. On the other hand, most of us recognize how in the long term it does not benefit our children to grow up completely ignorant to some of the harsh realities in life that they inevitably will face. The fact is, bad things do happen in life and it is not always a world of Cbeebies-happiness. But how much should we educate them in the darker side of life and at what age? I constantly change my mind on this one. As a child, I was exposed to the troubles of the adult world too much and too soon, the result being my sister and I were in somewhat of a role-reversal situation with our mum particularly in our teens and we were forced to grow up too quickly. The positives are my sister and I are very strong, independent and calm in a crisis but we do some times wish we’d had a few more years of the care-free existence of a child who only has to worry about what they might not get for Christmas. This experience has made me adamant that my son will not feel burdened with the responsibility of ‘making sure mum is ok’ or feeling guilty at having his own life and certainly that he will not feel that he has to be ‘the man of the house’. Having said that, despite my best efforts, if I’m having a ‘difficult’ day which I feel I am handling internally I’ll often catch my little boy making an extra effort to make me laugh or smile. It saddens me that he can so easily pick up my mood and want to or even feel responsible for turning it around.
My reality is that my little boy does not have his daddy living with him and although we’re trying to make that situation as smooth for him as possible he is beginning to become aware that this is not the case for many of his friends. I’d be doing him a disservice as a parent to not sensitively communicate with him about this in terms he can understand. I think we’d all agree it is not healthy to wrap our children in cotton-wool but I also believe it is good practice to let them know it is ‘ok’ for mummy to not be happy all the time and that sometimes people get sad. More often than not, if it’s explained in an appropriate way they can handle it and move on. After all, as I have discovered, kids are not stupid and know when you’re faking something anyway!
What’s your views/experience on this topic?
We got round to watching this week’s Doctor Who on Sunday evening. After a hectic, but fun family Sunday with old friends, which entailed stopping toddlers from fighting and trying to make them eat, we settled in for an iPlayer moment and a hot chocolate. (It’s just so rock and roll in our household!). I was trying not to keeping thinking about morethanamumblog and just to relax and enjoy sitting on the sofa with the long-suffering husband, but even Doctor Who conspired to trigger the mummy blogger in me and I had to run and get my new notepad (more of that in a later blog!) and make few notes.
If anyone else saw the episode you are likely to realise that it was pretty early on when the inspiration struck. If you’re not a Who fan, then just a brief outline. James Cordon helps the Doctor save the world, but despite his apparently poor parenting skills at the beginning, it is his love (the Doctor explains it in a much more scientific manner at the end, but resorts back to love for us mere humans to understand) for his son which saves the day.
The sight of James Cordon, surrounded by mess, desperately trying to persuade everyone that he was “coping” made me remember those first few days, weeks, months with a new baby. “You read all the books and they tell you you’ll know what to do, it’ll be fine if you follow your instincts. I have no instincts.” Says Cordon, looking unkempt and at the end of his tether. Brilliant; it must have been written by a parent. No matter how much of an earth mother (or father) you may be, we all have those days. Those days when we wish we were like the Doctor and could speak baby, but know full well that we can’t. Those days when it feels like you know nothing about parenting, and if the baby could talk it wouldn’t tell you what it needed but that you are a crummy parent. But, take heart; we do all have those days!
One thing I used to do early on, and still do sometimes, was Google the issue. Often it wasn’t finding a solution that made me feel better. One thing I’ve learnt about parenting over the last 30 months (not long, but long enough!) is that there rarely is one easy solution. No matter what parenting manuals promise, every baby is different; every parent is different; every family is different. Some things work for some people. If they don’t work for you, you can bet your bottom dollar that’s not because you’re any different to a massive chunk of the population, it’s just because parenting doesn’t come in a one-size-fits all mould. Although I may have Googled to try and find the solution to various problems and even tried many of the ideas which were sold as the cure, it was finding out that I wasn’t the only Mummy struggling with a particular issue that made me feel better; realising that I was no different to many other Mums and Dads; all of us just muddling along.
So, my advice if you’re worried about something is Google it, by all means, but when it’s really getting to you, take a leaf from the Doctor: put your finger to your lips and ‘shhh’ all thoughts of yourself as a bad parent from your head. We all get it wrong some of the time, but (cue cheesy comment – sick bags ready) it is the fact that you love your child that it will all come out in the wash. Oh, and sometimes it is easier once they learn to talk. At least then they can tell you what’s wrong…even if you do still have to tell them it’s not allowed!