Babies need loving, responsive adults to make them whole. This is best illustrated by watching the still face study, which was created by Ed Tronick, a developmental psychologist. This version is done with dads (a great reminder that it’s parents — not just moms – who matter to babies). (You can see a version with older kids here.)
When the baby becomes upset, that’s dysregulation. When parents tune back in, the babies are able to regulate. Babies (and toddlers and children) learn to regulate on their own over time but only with our help.
Now before you start feeling bad about the times you’re on your phone or reading a book or cooking a dinner and your baby is melting down, the important thing is the reconnection. You step away, you come back. They fall apart, you help them come back together. Some frustration is fine because in that frustration are important lessons about trust. Dad comes back. Mom returns. You are not alone. (The second video I linked explains this more.)
Eventually baby’s tolerance increases. As children get older they need less reflection from us and they are able to carry that sense of being seen within themselves. But there will be times when they will need our help even when they’re great big kids. After all, we adults sometimes need someone to hold our hands, too, so we won’t fall to pieces.
“There’s no such thing as an infant,” wrote D. W. Winnicott, famed British child psychiatrist. “If you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for a baby.”
A baby alone is a baby unfinished.
Now imagine what happens if a baby lives alone in dysregulation for a long time or very often. Imagine if a baby does not have someone to complete them. This is what happens to children who are neglected or institutionalized. They don’t learn to self regulate; they’ve never been given the tools to do it. As you can see from the video, some babies shut down and others fall apart. This is where they will go as they get older even if they have help later. Those early experiences leave deep impressions on young hearts and minds.
Now think of yourself. Some adults watch the still face videos and they have a visceral reaction. Tears come to their eyes. They become upset for the seemingly abandoned infant. Perhaps it reminds us of being left to our own dysregulation too often. Perhaps it reminds us of early experiences of fear and loneliness.
Parenting our children can bring up some of these deep seated losses. Sometimes giving to our children what we didn’t have is healing and sometimes it can bring us grief we don’t understand and don’t know how to manage.
So what do we need then? Where can we find connection to regulate? Perhaps it’s from our partner. Perhaps it’s through meditation to connect us to our feelings so we can attend to them. And perhaps it’s in the office of a trusted counselor.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month and October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. On the 15th many families who are living with loss will light a candle at 7pm their time to create a “wave of light” in remembrance of their babies.
At Kobacker House at 800 McConnell Drive, Columbus Ohio 43214, they are hosting a Pregnancy and Infant Loss Art Wall exhibit. The building is open 24/7 and the art will be on the wall on the main floor, just outside of the family kitchen as you walk toward the in-patient unit. The exhibit will be up through the end of October.
They are also hosting two events later this month:
Mourning Walk in the Afternoon, Sunday, October 19, 2pm. This exercise of remembrance will be a reflective, meditative and guided walk on Peggy’s Path surrounding the Kobacker House. The approximate distance is 3/4 mile and involves some hilly paved terrain so please wear comfortable shoes.
Instructor: Sarah Phillips, LISW-S
Location: Kobacker House
Register by phone: (614) 533.6060
Healing Drumming Circle, Sunday, October 26th, 2pm. For thousands of years, drumming has been a part of almost every culture. This ancient ritual remains alive today. Studies reveal that drumming can accelerate physical and emotional healing, boost the immune system, and have a calming effect. Children are welcome. No experience required. Drums will be provided or you may bring your own.
Instructor: Sarah Phillips, LISW-S
Location: Kobacker House
Register by phone: (614) 533.6060
Kobacker House also has an ongoing monthly support group for parents who have lost a baby before, during or within the first year after birth. The next meeting is November 7th at 7pm and there is no cost. Call for more dates and times: (614) 566-4509
Mount Carmel hosts a Pregnancy & Infant Loss Care Line hosted by chaplains who are specially trained “to provide spiritual and emotional encouragement and support to patients and their families from all faiths and cultural traditions.” The number is: 614-234-5999
They are also taking registrations for their upcoming Coping with Loss Educational Series. “A three-session forum designed for grieving parents and their families who would like to learn more about the normal grief process and how to effectively heal. The meetings include guidance and teaching from trained grief facilitators on practical ways to live with loss and find hope in life.”
To learn more or to register, call 614-234-5999 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally the SID Network of Ohio has a resource page for families struggling with the loss of a baby to SIDS. They have a support group but it may not be meeting again this year. To find out more, contact the Sudden Infant Death Network at 800-477-7437 or by e-mail: Leslie@SIDSOhio.org
For those of you who are grieving, you are in my thoughts. I hope you are able to reach out to find the comfort and support that you need and deserve.
Growing up is wonderful; it’s miraculous. New words. New accomplishments and abilities. But it’s also hard and scary and sometimes it’s sad. It’s not just the goldfish that don’t last a week or the blankies that get lost, there are the everyday losses of not being little anymore.
“I can sit under the dining-room table and make it my house … Grown ups can’t sit under the table,” says the heroine of Charlotte Zolotow’s I Like to Be Little, “That’s why I like to be little.”
I remember the day my daughter realized that she could no longer sit in the cupboard, squeezed next to the lazy susan and pretending it was her own cozy cottage. She was dismayed the day she couldn’t duck in. She wandered the house trying to find a new home but no little hidey hole was quite as lovely as her that corner cupboard.
“I guess I’m growing up,” she sighed and she was sad.
Part of our job as parents is to urge our kids to go forward at a pace that keeps them oriented to the wonderful future that waits for them. We tell them to pick up their clothes with the idea that we’re helping them grow into people who pick things up. We correct the way they slice the bread or direct them when to flip the grilled cheese. We cheer them on when they round the bases or put together the Lego model or finish the first chapter book. That’s right and good but it’s not all that parenting is. We also need to let them slip back a little bit when they’re going forward fast. Sometimes the child who finishes her first chapter book needs assurance that you will still read to her at night.
The everyday losses of growing up aren’t always clear cut; sometimes your child might have a gloomy day and not be able to articulate why. She only knows that she’d like to curl up in your lap although she no longer fits. Or you might find him watching Sesame Street instead of Teen Titans and when you smile at him curled up on the couch he asks if you’ll make him a PB&J and cut it into triangles just like you used to when he was small.
When you see them reaching back, go a little slower, lean into them a little more and be generous with hugs. Allow them to grieve the very real everyday losses so that they will be ready to celebrate the everyday joys.
You know, parents aren’t the only ones who get misty over old photos.
This song, written by Stephen Spritzer after the death of a friend from Hallowell, Maine, is a lovely meditation on loss. Carrie Cahill Mulligan, maker of extraordinarily beautiful hats, sent me a CD with this song on it. I listen to it often.
You can read the lyrics here.
In the spring of 2002, after three years of concentrated effort and several early miscarriages, my husband I decided that we were at the end of our fertility quest. That’s it, we told each other, let our son be an only child or maybe we’ll adopt but this is the end of the charting, the tests and the medical appointments. Our decision was precipitated by a number of different factors – my mental and physical exhaustion; the end of our insurance coverage for infertility treatment; and the toll my emotional roller coaster was having on my then 5-year old son.
I felt empowered but terrified, calm but bereft. It wasn’t an easy decision but I knew it was the right one. For the first time since we started trying for that second baby I felt in control. Even on my bad days – which still arrived with depressing regularity fueled by baby announcements, baby shower invitations or even seeing two closely-spaced siblings at the grocery store – I could finally see a time when this wouldn’t hurt so much.
I went to my secondary infertility support group with my news. A small close-knit email list made up of women who found each other on another parenting board, the women there bubbled with encouraging posts (“Your baby is just waiting for you to bring her down from heaven!”), treatment advice (“Have you talked to your doctor about the benefits of a 3-day versus 5-day transfer?”), and sympathy (“Don’t let your sister-in-law get to you; one day you’ll be nursing your own little one!”). In this cheer-leading atmosphere, my decision to stop wasn’t popular. The de facto leader of our group had herself gone to great lengths both medical and economic to give birth to her daughter. Second mortgages, intense treatment and loss had only fueled her determination. She argued with me about my decision but I remained firm. That was it. I was done.
“I guess,” she finally said. “That I wanted another baby more than you did.”
Infertility support groups work because for the most part everyone is on the same page (or at least a similar one). But when one member decides to call it quits it can threaten the cohesion of the group.
Looking back now, I can see why my announcement landed with a thud in the center of our virtual coffee klatch. These were women who had been told over and over again (by friends, by family and sometimes by partners) that they were being unreasonable. They needed a group that would cheer them on when other people rolled their eyes and told them to quit trying so hard. You know, “Just relax!” and all that. Now I can see how my saying “enough already”, however personal that decision was, sounded like I was just a step away from joining the critical chorus.
Still, it hurt. These were my friends and suddenly I was on the outside as they closed ranks.
My decision to quit treatment was not any better or worse than another woman’s decision to stay the course. However in the context of the list, my choice was seen in some ways as a betrayal of our group’s “baby or bust” values. It was time for me to go.
If you find that your support community is holding you back but you’re not quite ready to leave, take some time to build up a new support system that reflects the values you are trying to embrace. When I have a client who is looking to make changes in her support system, we go slow as we consider how she will find those people who will help her in her new endeavors. We also talk about how it’s hard to leave people who have been important in our lives even when their presence has clearly become more of a hindrance than a help.
Having the unbiased support of a therapist can help you make decisions that best reflect your particular situation, experience and values. If you’re local and find yourself struggling to figure out what to do next, please feel free to contact me. Maybe I can help.