Related to
Early Years

By Miriam McCaleb, DipT(ECE), BTchLn, PGCertHealSc.

I have found parenting in an age of brain scans to be both a blessing and a curse.  

Certainly, the irrefutable evidence regarding the power of appropriate care and nurture has been a joyful parry to those who would undervalue infants, toddlers, or their caregivers.  

For example, I remember the delight I felt in rebutting the ignorant insults of a neighbour who told me that talking to my newborn daughter was a waste of time as “it doesn’t know what’s happening and it can’t hear you anyway”. It!  Seriously? It? Hell hath no fury like a mama enraged. I fixed him with a haughty stare and declared “Au contraire, she can hear me just fine. She’s been hearing me since she was in utero. She’s in a state of exuberant synaptogenesis”, which would have been fine if I hadn’t added: “while you, sir, are in neurological decline”. Oh, SNAP!

Meanwhile, the overthink-y among us can be tempted to dwell on the imperfections of our parenting practice and superimpose upon these imperfections a translucent MRI of an underdeveloped brain (complete with dramatic cello soundtrack).  

The value of early nurture and attuned mothering upon the trajectory-setting lifespan of our young is well documented, and an awareness of this can lead to temptation in striving for nothing short of magnificence in our parenting. Every moment offers an opportunity to get it right (or wrong!) for the very future of our children. Such high stakes!

It has been my anecdotal observation that there are a great many families suffering from some version of this ‘overanalysis paralysis’, where the truckloads of reading and mama blogs and oft-contradictory, well-meaning advice swirl around the heads of exhausted parents, robbing them of ever being truly, blissfully, goofily in the moment. Ironic, because children tend to excel at this.

Overthinking might reveal itself in the practical aspects of parenting, like what accessories to purchase: “This pushchair faces forward, which might be less than ideal for social development, but it lays flat, which is preferable for pre-locomotor physical development …” or what to feed a baby “Mashed avocado would provide valuable fats but they’ve been imported and I don’t want my baby to bear the burden of the food miles …”.  

But these decisions are minor when compared to the knots parents can tie themselves in when trying to create an optimal (and yet authentic!) relational climate.

Seriously. Every tiny moment can be a head game. A second-guessing, self-doubting, sidelong-glancing quagmire. This is not a joyful place in which to parent. And the deep irony is that the constant questing to be an imagined “perfect” version of a parent only makes for a less effective parent.  

A mother whose head holds a vision of what “perfect” looks like cannot help but be disappointed when she (and her children) inevitably fall short. As I’ve written elsewhere, the energy we spend chasing our imaginary vision of the “perfect mother”, would be energy much better spent chasing our kids around the lawn.  Barefoot, weather permitting.  

Jean Brautigam Mills is a family therapist in the US. She has described the dangers of modeling that “perfection is the goal, and imperfection is intolerable”. Worse, says Jean, parents obsessing about perfection become emotionally unavailable, and fail to demonstrate what it is to be a “good, imperfect person”.

A mind busy with the guilt of “doing it wrong” is a mind that’s not truly in the present moment. Attunement begins with being present.  Responsive care begins with observation. Knowing how to pause in our adult busy-ness and breathe slow in Baby’s time is a skill worth cultivating. Just sometimes. Accepting imperfection here too!

For flip’s sake: we can’t use our hands to cuddle our kids if they’re busy wringing in a worried frenzy.

To put it another way, Brainwave uses the language of Risk Factors and Protective Factors to talk about the influences in children’s lives.  

Imagine life as a game of snakes and ladders, and children are advancing along an imaginary board toward a final square of Success (however you may define it … Love!  Fulfillment!  Fiscal flourishing!). The Risk Factors are like the snakes, sliding children away from the Success Square and necessitating a longer path and a need for even more lucky rolls of the dice. Examples of risk factors as cited previously in this publication by our own Keryn O’Neill include parental depression, poverty, toxic parental stress, family conflict or violence, emotional neglect, and alcohol and other drug use in pregnancy.  

On the other hand are Protective Factors, which serve like Ladders to launch our imaginary child closer to their Success square. Examples of protective factors include being breastfed, loving touch, play and shared reading. These factors are all more likely to be present if a child has the most giant Ladder of all: a secure attachment relationship. 

And in snakes and ladders just as in life, sometimes we slide down through hard times despite amazing rides up ladders. At other times a slide down is followed by the roll of a six, another turn, and a zippy ride up a long ladder till our goal is in sight.  We win some, we lose some. Nobody gets to win all the time, and pretending that it’s possible serves nobody.

This is why the messages around Good Enough parenting are so important. The phrase was coined by British pediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, and he summarised a baby’s fundamental need as being devotion of the “ordinary good mother”. This Good Enough parent recognises that the world is imperfect, that we are all imperfect, and that sometimes laughter is the best defense from all these raging imperfections.  

Good Enough parenting acknowledges that an emphasis on providing protective factors means we can let some other stuff slide.    

Wherever possible, we prioritise relationship. With integrity, we unplug the myriad of devices competing for our attention and we give our young the gift of our time and focus. Could you leave the dishes, just for now? You have our permission.      

First published in the Brainwave Trust Newsletter 21, Summer 2014