The mother struggles with her child. She's stressed out. He's fussy, maybe tired. She mutters, grumbles, or shouts that she doesn't understand what he needs. He makes no sense, she says. She's frustrated because she can't fix it. He's frustrated, which frustrates her more. She holds him tighter and he thrashes, throwing his sweaty little head back against her arms. Maybe he hits her. Maybe his little fast-growing nails, so difficult to clip, rake her. Maybe it's just the thrashing that hurts as she strains to keep him held against her. She may be little more than a child herself, or she may just be a child on the inside. She feels useless. Feels futile. Feels offense at herself, offense at her child, not yet a toddler, really, so recently a baby, a baby who could be held so easily, a baby whose strength might have been surprising, but within her ability to check. And her strength was not merely physical; he was easier to understand then, easier to anticipate, his needs predictable. She's learned him before. Why isn't this working?
Maybe she puts him down, not a little sharply, her voice rising in tone, her gestures perhaps too rough. She feels rejected and so she rejects him. She takes his fit as an insult, the feeling of impotence just salt to the minor wound. And when he seeks comfort from her seconds later, she feels vindicated and scornful and a bit angrier again. Why does he cry now? Didn't he get what he wanted? Some mothers would punish, withhold affection, walk away, ignore the frustrating little creature. But she doesn't. She picks him up and holds him, maybe softly, maybe more tightly because in time, he thrashes again, exhausting him, exhausting her.
In my life, I've seen this several times. I don't say there are answers; in parenting, there are some situations that don't get solved. From experience--a lot of empathy is required to really satisfy a child, rather than shut them up--I assume, and theory and education seem to validate, that what one sees in the child is what it is: conflicting impulses for connection and independence. It is a conflict that continues, for many of us, through our entire lives.
Most of us follow the process of raising children by observing the effects on the children, and this does matter. Childhood isn't all-important, but it is pretty damn influential. Less discussed is what this means for the caregiver.
Do we allow others to connect with us? What does this mean? Can they walk away? Can they be independent? If they show such desires, do we push them away roughly, reject them as we have felt rejected? Do we turn cold, or stay cold, when others crawl to us, when others express their needs? Do we scorn them, turn independence into a punishment? What relationship does any of this have to the way we live our lives?
Are we allowed independence, or do we find ourselves held tight by others? Do we seek out those who will restrain, reject, or ignore us? Are we allowed to connect with others? It is a fine thing to feel no need to connect and grow intertwined with others--and very different from feeling forbidden to ask for what we want.
Like I said, there may not be answers for any of those questions. But like the desperate parent, we find ourselves involved with others fighting for control, fighting for independence. We may not have The Answers, but in the ways we live and the actions we take, we respond all the same.