When I was a new mother, I was frequently accosted by older women in check-out lines instructing me to enjoy my baby. “Enjoy it!” they commanded. I was tired, haggard, and bitter…and enjoyment of motherhood was not on my radar screen in those moments. The well-intended instruction to “enjoy it” did not sit well with me. Since that time, I understand better what these women were trying to tell me. But still, I don’t like it. I get irritated when I see today’s new moms getting similar directions. I am certain that I am not alone in my aggravation.
I’ve been thinking about why this is. Why is it so frustrating to mothers of young children to be told to enjoy their babies?
Here is the answer I have come to. Enjoying a child is a parenting goal. It is an achievement for mothers and fathers. It does not go without saying that a parent can or will enjoy their child. This feeling is not automatic for everyone. In fact, the capacity of a parent to enjoy their child is multiply determined. Here is my preliminary list of five necessary elements:
1. Time to Reflect. Enjoyment of children does not always happen in the moment. Children, in the moment, are often demanding and annoying. However, in moments of separation, like when the child is in bed, parents can reflect on the day…they can remember the funny or cute things their child did with a smile. But you need time and space to make room for these feelings. And to have them in the moment is a great achievement!
2. Sleep. I can’t enjoy much of anything when I’m dead tired. Can you?
3. Support and a Reflecting Community. I find that parents can enjoy their children better when they have other people around who also love them. Ideally, other people can give parents a break (and, hence, time to rest and reflect). In addition to time, though, parents benefit from being surrounded by others who can appreciate the beauty in their child. These loving others help the parent to reflect on their child in a different, often meaningful way. Parents can then see their children from a different perspective. It also helps when a parent gets to behold someone else admiring their child. Pride facilitates enjoyment!
4. Positive Childhood Attachments. Some parents are lucky enough to have been born into good-enough families, and as a result grew into adults with a sense that the world is a safe place. They have positive mental models of parenthood as they become parents themselves. Their secure attachment style gives them increased freedom to enjoy their child. Other parents are not so lucky. These parents were born into families where there was trouble, and where things went wrong in their early days. They did not develop a sense of safety and security in the world, because, for them, they could not necessarily rely on others to meet their needs. Compared to parents with a secure attachment, parents with an insecure attachment have increased difficulty enjoying their children.
5. Psychological Strength. Parents who suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental disorders tend to have a hard time bonding with their baby. I, personally, believe that these feelings are associated with a parent’s own upbringing. (Although this is not always the case.) When a parent is suffering, whatever the cause, enjoyment capacity also suffers. In fact, the absence of the capacity to enjoy (i.e., anhedonia) is a diagnostic criterion for depression. Parents who are emotionally depleted cannot enjoy their children to the same degree as their non-depressed, non-anxious counterparts.
There was a great opinion piece in the NY Times last October by David Bornstein on protecting children from toxic stress. One thing that stood out in this article was a quote by the clinical director of a program that works to repair broken attachments in parents, for the sake of their children. She says of the parents’ responses to their children, “We want delight! Delight is protective.”
Yes. Exactly. We want delight! We want parents to enjoy their children! Let’s work, as a society, to help this be possible for every parent. And let’s keep in mind that these feelings don’t happen on demand, in check-out lines.