The great fur bulk lies supine, inert, warm, creating a sheltered harbor in the deep snow in contrast to the flat, icy landscape. Two milky cubs clamber dough-footed all around, exploring clumsily, arousing no concern. They orbit close by, drawing into contact periodically to suckle and nuzzle. The wind blows a moderately threatening question of survival through the morning. Mother closes her eyes to the sting, looking sleepy and stupid, lifting her blinking face to the sun. She is the solid thing in a shifting drift, placid and mountainous, serenely established on the face of the horizon.
This image of motherhood was suggested to me by a wise psychiatrist as I sat in her Pasadena home with my husband while our daughter crawled at our feet. I was 22 years old and suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety. I wanted to be the perfect parent, to do everything right in order to raise up a child who would take her place as a blessed jewel in the crown of my god. My models spoke in scriptural tones, living or in print. My aspirations were clear, I thought, my inspiration abundant.
The good doctor looked at my 98-pound frame and announced her diagnosis with authority. She looked at my daughter exploring a paperback with her fingers and mouth and recognized great intelligence. It seemed to her that we were not badly broken or dysfunctional, but we needed to relax. Parenting is a living thing, a responsive dance with biology, and although we humans are biologically social creatures, heavy-handed social structure can strangle our relationships and bind us into damaging patterns. My reliance on the authority of these constructs seemed helpful at first, but that lock-step really tripped me up when my children were in their teenage years.
The tendency to defer to “experts” in my Western affluent culture is a dangerous trend for parenting, I think. It can lead to a mistrust of instinct and compassion. That can also translate to lower self-confidence and heightened anxiety in both parent and child. I see that demonstrated in stories of helicopter parent vigilantes, DCSF over-reactions, and soaring statistics on depression and suicide in young people. I also see that in my own 4 children 30 years after my initial visit to an “expert”. They are still working out their concerns about “doing it right” and their responsibility to “make good decisions”. A good decision is perhaps a lot easier to make than we suppose.
My only son was born hastily into the world when the doctor noticed fecal matter in his amniotic fluid. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck as well. At six pounds and six ounces, he had a slight case of jaundice. I brought my fragile bundle home, and the hospital equipped us with a bili light to give him extra skin exposure to the blue light that would help convert bilirubin. I was instructed to give him plenty of fluids and to let him lie under that lamp in just a diaper and protective eye shades for a good 8 hours a day. I kept a detailed record of the time he spent nursing and how much glucose water he would drink from a bottle, and I charted his time in the bili-box. Newborns have an instinctive response to feeling a “sudden loss of support” called the “Moro reflex”. They flail their arms out and cry. This is what my son did when he was in that chamber. It broke my heart. I decided, in my 24 year old wisdom, that what he needed more was to be swaddled and held. So I wrapped him up tight and carried him into the living room. My mother was visiting and helping me with my older child. I poured out to her my worry about whether I should follow the doctor’s instructions to the letter or whether I should comfort my son. She and I commiserated about the difficulties of parenting, and I realized that she wasn’t going to help me decide. She was going to help me by letting me decide and supporting my decision.
And that’s the other sustaining image of motherhood I gained early in my parenting.
When they’re young, lie down with them. When they’re older, support their decisions. Your presence is the greatest gift you can give your children. Don’t try to give them too much of anything else. They need to get those other things themselves.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
– Priscilla Galasso
© 2016, memoir and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved