“Listen to your instincts.” It’s a phrase I often use when discussing breastfeeding and other parenting decisions with mothers. When they tell me that they are confused and that other people are giving them advice, yet they aren’t sure what to do, I say, “Listen to your instincts.” Do you ever wonder, “But how do I do that?” In our society we are bombarded by parenting books, websites, discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter throwing endless advice at us. Parenting experts litter the pages of newspapers, magazines and dance across our television screens. When someone tells you that you are the expert on your own baby or that you should listen to your instincts and all shall be well, does it sometimes have a hollow ring?
I didn’t think I had any instincts. When I had my first baby other mothers seemed to know just what to do to calm and entertain their babies. I was all fingers and thumbs, trying and failing to get my baby to stop crying. I wanted her to be laid back like the other babies, but she was highly strung. Everyone seemed to have an opinion: maybe she would calm down if I put her down more; if I gave her a dummy/pacifier; if I just relaxed; if I (my personal favourite) whispered when I spoke to her. Well-meaning advice wasn’t helpful; rather, it continued to chip away at my self-confidence. Already I felt incompetent: when others pointed out what I could be doing differently, the underlying message was that what I was currently doing was somehow wrong. When I finally heard the phrase, “Listen to your instincts” it felt on the one hand like a God-send, but on the other hand I wondered, do I even have instincts? If I could tap into my instincts I knew this would be the key to liberation from endless parenting advice, and perhaps might even result in a happier relationship between my baby and me. It was a novel idea: rather than listening to others, the answers were inside me. But how to reach them?
If, like me, you have been stymied in your attempts to tap into your instincts, here are my top 5 ways to get in touch with that little voice inside. This is what worked for me; perhaps something else worked for you. I would love it if you would share your stories and ideas in your comments:
1. Spend some time each day connecting to your child. It sounds so simple, but many of us have very full calendars and finding time to have unscheduled, unhurried space to nurture our connection with our children can be tricky. Playing with my children and being silly or letting them be in charge, sitting quietly with them reading a book or nursing, listening as they tell me something about their day, holding their hand and chatting while we walk along, making an excuse to cuddle them, tickle them, to somehow touch them– all of these have been great ways for me to build connection with my children. And when I am connected to them, I find that I forget about what other people have said I should do. Suddenly, I feel centred on my child’s needs, and my connection with my child helps me to feel more confident about the fact that I know her best. Watering this seed of confidence with a loving connection to my child, allows that seed to grow into a small sapling, and gradually I understand that from connection with her flows connection to that deepest part of me where my instincts reside.
2. How does it feel? My body tells me things before my mind knows what it’s thinking. A tight stomach, sore neck and shoulders, a tension headache, a face that falls in a frown– all of these tell me that something isn’t quite right. I cannot imagine that the grand design of parenting is that it should be a highly stressful experience that involves parents being at odds with their children most of the time. I believe that parents and children will naturally flow in the same direction if we listen to our hearts. So I can try other peoples’ suggestions, but a great question to ask myself is, “does this feel right?” If it feels forced, or if it makes me unhappy, then there is little point in sticking with it. Sure, I might get used to the unpleasant sensation of having to (for example) leave my baby to cry in his cot/crib to get him off to sleep, but it feels much better to hold him, cuddle him, nurse him and bring myself to a state of softness, whereby I accept that my baby’s needs are intense but fleeting. I connect with my instincts by noticing how my body reacts and asking myself how this feels. If it doesn’t feel good, it’s time to try something else.
3. How is my child reacting? From birth, babies have the ability to tell us whether all is right in their world, or whether something needs to change. I can remember my baby crying when lots of people turned up at the house, and I thought, “I wonder if she doesn’t like the noise and being passed around”? But I mistrusted myself because my guests all seemed to be trying to shush her rather than passing her back to me; they said, “maybe she’s tired” (she’d just slept), “maybe she has a dirty nappy” (she’d just been changed), etc. I didn’t listen to myself responding to her crying because I didn’t trust my instincts. In university I was trained to interrogate my sources, in other words, when you read a book or an article, think about who is writing it and what that person’s background and motives could be. This small voice from within seemed to have no credentials: who are you and where do you come from, I asked! Show me your papers! But my instincts couldn’t produce a CV or resume so I mistrusted myself and failed to give voice to a part of me that had been dormant for years. Now I know that I can watch my child, and her reaction will tell me as much as I need to know about what she needs. Now that my eldest is 9 she can verbalise many of her needs, and it is reassuring to see that what I instinctively think she needs is usually what she confirms to be exactly what she requires.
4. Be flexible! For me, following a certain ‘method’ or a proscribed routine was a sure way to shut the door on my own instincts. To tap into your instincts it is essential to be open-minded about what they might be saying. If the received wisdom is that you shouldn’t ever give in to your toddler because you will be showing yourself to be a pushover and he will ‘rule the roost’ are you actually cutting yourself off from being a flexible parent? What if your heart is saying, “it doesn’t actually matter if he uses his fingers or his fork to eat that spaghetti; why am I making an issue about it?” Are you letting the parenting book overrule you when you decide what to do in this situation? You are the parent, you decide. If you want to listen to your heart, free yourself from the shackles of popular parenting advice and seize control of your own life. I often have to resist the temptation of letting my heart be overruled by what other people have said, or what I have read in a book. Why do I have to do what other people tell me to do? I show my child that it’s okay to be flexible by being willing to rock with the ebb and flow of my instincts.
5. Remember why they’re there and give them the credit they’re due. What an awakening it was when I realised that human mammals have instincts because they are protective of our species. Picking up your baby, holding him close, shushing him and patting his back– all of these nurturing behaviours are what have kept our species going! We seem to have done pretty well without the current wave of parenting gurus or Great Aunt Sally who thinks that if you’d only be more strict with little Katie, you wouldn’t have half the problems you have now. Parenting trends come and go, but instincts are a constant. And ok, we no longer live in grass huts and need to worry about tigers carrying off our little ones, but there are many other threats that merit keeping our babies close. Perhaps the most pervasive of these threats in our society today is a profound sense of loneliness and lack of meaning in peoples’ lives. Surely by building a deep connection with your child now, by listening to your human instincts, you go some way toward protecting him from this terrible malaise?
Sometimes my instincts speak as though through a megaphone, but more often than not they are a small voice within. It has taken time, and I have had to clear away a substantial amount of leafmould, weeds and litter in order to see the small shoots that my heart sends up. I nurture those shoots by keeping clear the space around them; I fertilise them with love and connection; I protect them and mulch them with supportive friends and family, and observe their growth and flowering. In time, I will offer a bouquet to my children and say, “Here is what my bravery and independence has brought you. Take this, and drink in the scent of your mother’s love.”