I have been co-facilitator of a drop in New Parents Group for about four years. This is a surprisingly interesting thing to be doing and is the catalyst for my decision to apply to Social Work school. Recently I've noticed that things that I've said to our parents, as they are wrestling with some classic new parent issues, have really resonated and I decided I should start marking them down in case I need them again. Feel free to skip these posts if they are not your thing.
A week or so ago we were having a discussion of breast feeding and baby led weaning. This is a remarkably stressful process for some people because you are sometimes just getting the hang of nursing when society, or the baby, or both, start pushing you to substitute solid foods. Sometimes this is before you are ready, and sometimes this is after you are really ready to drop the whole breast feeding on demand thing. But its a very difficult moment for a lot of parents because there is so much emotion attached to this new relationship of dependence and interdependence. Usually we let the other parents take the lead in discussing these things but I decided to throw in my two cents which was this. Its all about weaning. Its always about weaning. From the moment the child is born right up through their adolescence and, indeed, all the way up to your own senescence. We think its all about feeding and caring for the child, and it is largely about that. But almost from the middle of the first year it also becomes about weaning. In the Kabbalah there is a midrash about how the world comes to be. Before the world was created there was only the creator, filling every corner and every available space with its own divine being. In order to bring the world into existence the creator had to withdraw into itself and create an empty space, a womb, in which a new kind of creation could come into being. Just the way we have to create a space for the baby to grow. And once the new being comes into existence we have to keep up this process of encircling and withdrawing, protecting while creating space, so that this new being can grow and thrive apart from us. This was an enormous hit with all the mommies and we all had a good cry.
This week we were talking about one woman's struggle with her spouse over breast feeding--there is definitely a theme here. She had just mastered it when they went out to dinner and had spicy food. The next two days the baby has fought the breast and been very uncomfortable and unhappy when nursing. What had been a very joyful, intimate, experience has suddenly become fraught with anxiety for her. When she told her husband she was worried about breast feeding, concerned about the baby, she said he became "very logical" and instantly explained to her that "in the worst case scenario" they would "just switch the baby to formula" and the baby would be "just fine." Inexplicably she was both furious with him (since it was a perfectly reasonable thing to say) and also very discomfited and embarrassed. She kept excusing herself to us saying he "was so logical" and "rational" and her concerns were so "emotional" and came from "inside" somewhere "deep" and (perhaps) beyond words or irrational. Since she divided things up in this way she was at a loss in how to address the issue. I'm pretty familiar with this dynamic and we see it very frequently in this parents group where many of the women are married to engineers or scientists who self identify as (supposedly) relentlessly "logical" and "rational" which leaves the women (who are often themselves scientists, mathematicians, and engineers) somehow left holding the short end of a binary stick. Its also a discussion I have had with my own spouse (blessed be his name) when he tries to problem solve for me. In fact we just had this discussion when he remarked to me that his own mother had rejected his perfectly reasonable suggestions for how to deal with a knotty problem. "Why," he said, somewhat wonderingly "she said the same things you always say to me...if it were that easy I would have solved it already myself!"
Its harder than you think when you start writing these things, by the way, to capture the back and forth--I told the woman in our group that it was not accurate to label her position as "emotional" and his as "rational" or logical. And not correct for her to self label her position as responding emotionally or inappropriately to a logical problem. Nor was it correct to say that he had a rational/logical response to the same problem. They have each diagnosed a different problem: he sees the problem as purely nutritional and it can be "fixed" (he thinks) with formula. She sees the problem as one of a relationship between herself, the breast milk, and the feeding of the infant. There's a possibility that there is something wrong with the baby that the discomfort and discontinuing of the breastfeeding relationship is a sign of. To "fix" this problem you don't just switch the kid to formula (breaking off the breast feeding relationship and possibly damaging the supply). You'd need to investigate different aspects of feeding first.
Its not correct to divide these two arguments into rational/irrational, non emotional/emotional, or logical/illogical. Both parents are afraid that the child is sick or the feeding situation is untenable. One member, the father, is trying to handle his fears by retreating behind a simulacrum of "logic and rationality" and the other, the mother, was using a different but perfectly logical and rational approach to resolving her problem (the feeding situation in totality).
One of our second time around mom's then pitched in to the discussion to point out that breastfeeding has a kind of urgent quality to it--as you get more and more engorged you become frantic and finding some way to relieve that feeling through feeding or pumping becomes necessary. I pointed out that it was more like a ticking time bomb scenario than a purely cut and dried restaurant situation. Which goes back to the difference in the original husband/wife approaches to breastfeeding problems. Only one of the two experiences a sense of physical urgency and relief during the feeding process. Although they can both, of course, be anxious and fearful about how its going.
So many women came up to tell me how great these analogies were after group that I thought I'd better write them down before I forgot them.
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