Existential Challenges of the New Mother
As a new mother, I have been reflecting upon my current existence and how thoroughly it has shifted from just days before my baby girl was born. In the first instant that I held her, I understood everything my parents had ever done, out of their own combined neuroses to protect me or keep my innocence for a moment longer. It was the most intense wave of realization I’d ever had, right before the one where I realized my journey was only beginning! The first days of parenting and discovering what it is to be our own little family were spent in awe and anxiety: look at the tiny hands and feet, would she make it through the night, look at the amazing wise little eyes, would one of us drop her, look at her sweet mouth and listen to her sigh, was she eating enough and growing properly? The quality, depth and breadth of this intense family creation experience has altered my life in inexplicable ways.
There are times now that I wonder how I am going to continue my existence when it is so closely tied to this other being. Furthermore, how do I ensure her existence is free from my anxieties, and nurtured to into balance through sound parenting and appropriate freedoms? The reality is that if I spend my time thinking about this, rather than participating in our life together, I’ll miss everything. So, I mindfully put those anxious thoughts away and live, being present and seeing with eyes instead of neuroses.
This is far from easy, but after almost seven months of practice, I am able to experience life with my daughter without having Technicolor pictures of disaster flitting through my consciousness. Instead, I am learning the lesson that my canine companions have been trying to teach me all my life: live now—now is the only time there is. The thickening of the present creates substantial existential crises for humankind that do not exist for babies or animals. There is something very lovely about being freed from constant worry over the future.
So, I feel secure in that I am taking care of the little one in a balanced and present way, and that is all fine and good. What about myself, though? One of the perils of new motherhood that my midwife had addressed was the identity crisis of the mother. Sometimes, she noted, mothers become subservient to the care of the baby and lose themselves in the mother-and-baby identity. This was a real possibility—I felt it a few times in the early weeks. I suspect that the major element I had not anticipated about motherhood was the extreme loneliness of it all. I deeply wished for a connection to another mother like myself. My dear friend who had her baby three weeks after mine is in Colorado, and although we text daily, it’s not the same. She feels it too, the intensity of this aloneness. I have been trying to create local community for a while, but I didn’t connect with any of the folks in our two birth classes. Sadly, the “Let’s have a reunion with babies!” emails I sent out were mostly ignored. I attend two swimming classes with my little one, and although I chat with the other parents there, I don’t feel a click with any of their personalities or lifestyles. Craving community on this level had me chatting up random mothers at the grocery store, the baby store, a party our midwife held, the farmer’s market, or anywhere that I saw a woman with a baby! I think back on it now, and it’s startling to me that I was so extroverted.
Fortunately, I got the chance to spend quality time with another mother who has a son two months younger than my daughter with similar interests in parenting. We took our babies to an animal training conference together, and nursed, rocked, carried, and changed diapers in tandem. It was satisfying on every level, and we discussed doing things like that together in the future. Pushing the boundaries of what we were each comfortable with and having a companion to live through the challenge was a great experience, and continuing that is important to me.
Aside from these personal existential crises, I have been educating myself on the different parenting styles, of which there are many. Several news outlets have recently posted articles about “helicopter parenting,” a form of overparenting where children are not given the freedom to fail and consequently cannot tolerate frustration, disappointment, and have little focus on what they actually want in life (Schiffrin et al., 2013). This is something that I can understand, as the drive to protect one’s offspring from any form of pain is great, and realizing appropriate boundaries on that front may be challenging for some parents. Certainly, helicopter parenting is to be avoided at all costs. Added to that, there are other more mainstream styles, such as attachment, connection, detachment—the list goes on—but nothing on the list speaks to me.
This brings us to “existential parenting,” which as a Google search shows, is not yet extant. I conceive of it as a style of parenting that considers the four existential challenges in the lives of each family member and then strives to allow each person to respond to those challenges creatively. As Greening (2003) suggests, finding balance in the face of each challenge comes only through being able to confront each in an individually specific fashion—the everyday creativity necessary to face these challenges daily and have an angst-free life is implicit in nature. I am more or less non-interventionist in favor of providing the most nurturing environment possible for a developing mind to set itself free and learn about the world. As a parent, I do not wish to inhibit growth by overprotecting and inhibiting potential activities and experiments. Whether it is daydreaming, making something artistic out of household items, drawing on the walls, or playing make believe, I want my daughter to feel free to do these things.
I want also want her to understand there are consequences to her actions, which means allowing mistakes and failure. In ways that overprotecting parents aren’t seeing until later, constant supervision and the expectation of monitoring suppresses competency and autonomy (Schiffrin, 2013). I would hypothesize that helicopter parenting doesn’t allow creativity in children because of that tight hold on all success related issues: if you never have to try to succeed, you won’t invent solutions to those problems. That is a major part of everyday creativity, which goes hand in hand with viewing life through an existential lens. I suggest welcoming this fundamental chaos into parenting in order to allow children to successfully face their existential challenges.
Greening, T. Four Existential Challenges: Three Responses to Each. Adapted from: Greening, T. Existential Challenges and Responses. The Humanistic Psychologist, 20(1), Spring 1992.
Schiffrin, H H.; Liss, M; Miles-Maclean, H.; Geary, K A.; Erchiull, M J.; Tashner, T. (2013) Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being. Journal of Child and Family Studies doi: 10.1007/s10826-013-9716-3
-- Miki Merin
Today's guest contributor, Miki Merin, M.A., CTC, ANWI, is a Canine Behavioral Counselor using Existential-Humanistic-based approaches to help people and their dogs live in harmony, and is currently working and parenting in Berkeley, CA.