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Monday, 9 March 2015

Fear of the tiger

In my last post, I posed the question "why is mothering not easier, more evolutionarily refined?". I asked because I so often overwhelmed with the intensity of motherhood in the early days.  I wondered why I didn't naturally have greater internal resources - mental, emotional, intellectual and physical - to deal with everything my baby threw at me, and indeed why my baby didn't naturally sense my exhaustion and do something to help!

Evolution - or more specifically natural selection - has of course done much to ensure successful mother and child pairings.  It's just that it selects for traits important for survival, rather than those that guarantee an easy life. For example, babies almost certainly want to be held a lot in the early months (and cry loudly when put down) because in the days of cave dwelling, it simply wasn't safe to pop a baby down and leave it.  'Good' babies who didn't make a fuss would most likely end up freezing to death, or being munched by a peckish sabre toothed tiger, thus extinguishing their particular genetic line.   Looking at the other side of the partnership, as a mother, your baby's cries cuts through you because to ignore them might once have mean death for your baby, or indeed for you if the predator your baby attracted with its cries was hungry enough.

So, evolution has given us the drive to nurture and protect.  Where it's not so helpful is providing the energy and practical day to day techniques needed to keep both baby and mother happy and comfortable in the prevailing environment. We are not born knowing how to wrestle our baby into a babygro, deal with tantrums or get our baby to sleep in a cot - this is where family, community and society (and Google) step in.  Their role is to ensure we raise physically healthy kids, but also informed, well adjusted and useful members of our community.

Arguably, the problems arise when society somehow falls out of sync with our natural biological programming. Though human social groupings are a product of evolution themselves - survival is far more likely when people live and work together - societies change far more rapidly than inherited individual traits do. As explained above, because neglected children are less likely to survive into adulthood, a propensity to care for our children has been engrained in our behaviour as humans over many millennia.  Unfortunately our power of reasoning, another great triumph of evolution, can subvert this natural instinct if the ideas it produces are socially embedded to any significant degree.
 
Consider the generations of parents who were told to leave their babies to cry to avoid 'spoiling' them.  The idea came from a combination of the Victorian obsession with germs (which led doctors to recommend touching babies as little as possible) and Behaviourism - an influential paradigm in psychology during the early 20th century which represented all human behaviour as conditioned responses to external stimuli. So, an ignored baby would eventually stop crying (the desired outcome) as they learned that it did not result in attention from a parent. A true enough hypothesis, but one that failed to recognise that this short term gain for the parents could have major long term psychological and physiological implications for the child.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that ignoring a baby raises the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in its brain and over the long term, this can actually alter the way the baby's brain functions.  Children who are not adequately comforted (or are actively abused) by their parents grow up with a much lower tolerance for stress, and as such are more likely to react disproportionately or impulsively in stressful situations, or abuse substances to help them to cope with life. 

The reason for this is no doubt itself evolutionary - as Margot Sunderland's book "What Every Parent Needs To Know" explains, the human brain is highly malleable at birth, enabling it to be 'wired up' according to the environment the child finds itself in.  The brain of child with bullying parents will therefore develop chemistry and synaptic connections that promote hypervigilance, a strong sense of fear and / or aggression and rapid attack / defence reactions.  This will probably help that child to survive, but will be at the expense of their 'higher' reasoning and self-soothing abilities, and in all likelihood their long-term happiness.  Furthermore, their adult behaviour is likely to be disturbing to others in their family and community and detrimental to overall social cohesion, particularly as a child who has not been shown love in their infancy will find it much harder to express love towards their own children, thus passing down their 'toxic' stress through the generations.
 
Poor care as a result of parents who have been damaged by poor care themselves is a more intractable problem than poor care due to the unhelpful advice of pseudoscientific experts (and the 'helpful' relatives who have been influenced by their thinking). Social institutions can however act to remedy both situations.  Counselling has been shown to help adults resolve some the issues arising from a lack of love in childhood, and institutions such as the NHS can do a lot to supply good quality, evidence-based childrearing practices (at least until the next set of scientific studies show us we have it all wrong!). Many now do so, and though some unhelpful ideas certainly persist, a degree of circularity is now observable in the way that attitudes towards childrearing have changed over the past few centuries. "Instinctive" parenting, once the norm for lack of any other methodology, was for a time replaced by advice that essentially denigrated parental, particularly maternal, attachment as weak minded, inconvenient and in more recent years, a bit 'hippy dippy'. Today's more rigorous scientific methods and brain imaging techniques (plus, arguably, greater female involvement in the public sphere) are however changing this hippy dippy label, and we are once again returning to an emphasis on more natural, nurturing behaviours. 
 
Returning to my original question, I think, on reflection, that actually I am quite lucky - not only do I have the basic mothering instincts bestowed on me by the countless generations that have come before me, but I also had parents who were loving and, thank goodness, a mother who had studied child development as part of her training to be a Nursery Nurse, and therefore managed not repeat some of the mistakes she admits her mother probably made with her.  Evolution has actually refined my skills far more than I realised - it's trying to fight against what feels most instinctively comfortable (because sometimes, unavoidably, we do have to get dressed and leave the house) that makes life hard!  My resolution for this month therefore twofold.  Firsly, I am going to try to trust my mothering instincts more, rather than berating myself for not 'getting it right' (see my last post for more on that!).  Secondly, I'm going to try to bear in mind that everything Duckling does also has some basis in his ancient genetic programming.  While I know that my baby is not going to be eaten by a tiger at 2am when he wakes up alone in his cot, he does not.  So, however aggravating it may be, the best thing I can do is respond, comfort and dream of the day when he's old enough to understand that suburbia is a tiger-free zone.

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