I had a rather harsh childhood in which my sisters and I were beaten routinely - if our rooms were untidy, if we quarrelled, if the chores weren’t done properly, if our grades were less than excellent, if we skipped piano practice, etc. I don’t resent my parents, because I have accepted that they did the best they could at the time with the knowledge and tools they had at their disposal, and they have recently been a great help to my growing family. But still, while I was pregnant, I felt ambivalent and detached. My own childhood was still an uneasy memory. While I knew I didn’t want to repeat it, I wasn’t sure what my options were.
My mother and maternal grandmother both encouraged me to express my milk when my first baby was born seven weeks premature and was in the NICU for 20 days. The first few drops of colostrum were applauded and admired as if I had produced molten gold! Many years later, I was surprised to learn that both women had had very little success breastfeeding their own babies; from the support they provided, I assumed they had breastfeed all their children.
Breastfeeding ended up helping me become the mother I wanted to be, and gave me confidence that I could care for my babies with ease. Every time I nourished my baby, each leaky smile when they latched off, each stroke of their tiny hands on my breast made me love them more. I felt like a superhero for being able to solve most of their problems with a quick nurse. When they were babies, nothing they did could upset me. All they had to do was smile and I was rendered stupid with love. All that oxytocin from breastfeeding made me incredibly susceptible to their silly squeaks and drool-adorned smiles.
However, as they grew older and had more complicated frustrations to deal with, and the breast wasn’t always the comfort they needed, I gradually realised that we can’t and shouldn’t solve all their problems. I think it’s important to accept that kids cannot be happy all the time. They need to feel the entire range of human emotions, and we need to help them recognise and deal with what they’re going through by being calm and present. Getting upset with an unhappy kid is usually a recipe for disaster.
I was always warned to expect toddler tantrums. I’d seen children kicking and screaming in supermarkets. Other parents said it was something inevitable. However, I realised that if you listen with empathy and respond promptly, tension can be defused and complete meltdowns can be avoided. I honestly cannot recall any of my children becoming hysterical, and I attribute this to at least one adult in the family responding calmly, often with humour, to what seemed like the kids’ unreasonable demands. I’ve learned to listen in order to understand instead of listening to formulate a response. Sometimes, all they want is to be heard.
I like to teach my kids that “big feelings” are part of life. I believe that always accepting their feelings and emotions sets the foundation for teenagers who trust their parents and will turn to them if the need arises. Teaching them that negative emotions are normal means not hiding my own pain and frustrations. I explain when things are bothering me or upsetting me, and tell them if I need space or may be tetchy. I apologise sincerely when I am wrong. My husband and I do not hide our arguments from our children, though we are mindful to disagree respectfully and to be focused on a resolution, rather than hurling accusations or hurtful words at each other just to win the argument.
As they began to grow out of my arms and interact with the outside world more, I realised that children are our mirrors. If I wanted reasonable, respectful and kind children, they would learn that best from how I treated them. This does not mean giving in to all their whims or having no limits. It means explaining calmly why things have to be a certain way and standing by our family’s rules politely.
How we deal with difficult situations also helps them deal with their own disappointments. About seven years ago, I had our month’s grocery money stolen while I was at the market. The kids could tell I was devastated, but I told them maybe the person who took the money had a need greater than ours. We would be okay as long as we were careful. A few years later, my youngest lost a beloved toy in the cinema. After trying everything we could to find it, we had to accept it was gone. He said, “It’s okay, Mama. Maybe he’s with another kid who really really loves him too.”
As they have grown up, I have also encouraged them to negotiate and explain their point of view. For instance, if I ask them to tidy their rooms, they are welcome to explain that it’s not possible for them to do so immediately because they are in the middle of a project, but that they would do it as soon as possible. They’ve also created agreements among themselves regarding chores: my eldest is very organised and likes tidying, while the middle two are physically strong and like jobs that involve carrying heavy loads.
Like other parents, I have had awful days when I feel I have let everybody down. But each day is a new beginning and a chance to be the best mother I can possibly be.
Back to reflecting on how breastfeeding has shaped my parenting style. I have long believed breastfeeding has made me a better mother. It encourages us to feel empathy for our babies and be responsive to their needs, and oxytocin protects us from stress. It may even change our brains permanently. That’s not to say that mothers who don’t breastfeed can’t be good mothers, but it may not happen as naturally.
When dealing with behaviour of my kids which I find problematic, I always try to remember that my children are not “misbehaving” to embarrass me or to manipulate me; they’re simply reacting to things happening to them. I learned this from breastfeeding: babies cry because they want food or comfort or security. The only thing that changes as they get older is that our role becomes helping them to meet their own needs rather than trying to meet all their needs for them.
Close to the Heart Vol. 19, No. 3 (Late-Year 2018)
Please contact the editor for Close to the Heart at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a breastfeeding story you would like to share.
Close to the Heart Articles
Close to the Heart is protected by copyright law. Reproduction and/or use in any form, by any means, graphically, electronically, or mechanically, is prohibited without permission.