How it all started

When I was pregnant with my first child, it all seemed so simple. I was horrified by the way I saw some parents interact with their children, and I swore to be nothing but loving, gentle, understanding and sensitive with my child. Above all, I was never going to let my child “cry it out”! The last thing I wanted was an overload of stress hormones to stunt their development and make them needy for the rest of their lives. Especially since I knew firsthand how painful it was to feel needy most of the time.

This horrified feeling was exacerbated when we moved to France when Louis was only 5 months old, and I witnessed how many French people behave quite cruelly with their children. This cruelty ranged from letting them “cry it out” when it was bedtime or naptime, to unhurriedly strolling to the car with a screaming newborn while chitchatting about how hungry they were. (Why didn’t they feed their baby! Didn’t they know that this was a matter of life and dead in the world of their newborn?) It also included putting them in school for 8 to 10h when they were only 2 or 2 and a half years old, all for the sake of “getting their lives back”, “not being a slave to their children”, “being a woman, not only a mother”, and “to socialise their children”. I also saw parents telling off their 3-year olds and grabbing their arm (in a physically aggressive way) instead of comforting them when they had made a bad fall. I’m not sure what the rationale was for the latter but I can only assume that it made the parents feel better by way of yelling and venting their frustration.

Of course I was going to do things differently. And I did. I breastfed on demand, I never let my (first) baby cry without picking him up and soothing him, and he slept in my bed so I could breastfeed him as soon as he showed any sign of unhappiness. Of course it exhausted me, even more so because I was unlucky enough to have a child with reflux and so I spent the first 4 months of his life holding him day and night because he was so uncomfortable and unhappy, changing his and my clothes every couple of hours because he kept vomiting on us, and breastfeeding him every hour day and night because that’s what made him feel slightly more comfortable. Luckily this period passed and things calmed down a bit, but then there was the teething and frequent nightly feeds due to that. At 15 months I finally had the courage to make a change and stop breastfeeding at night. It was heartbreaking as Louis cried in my arms for an hour that first time I refused the breast and offered him a bottle of formula. My husband, Leonard, who didn’t quite understand why I had waited so long to stop breastfeeding at night, caved and suggested that I breastfeed him. But by that time I couldn’t take it anymore, and so I persisted, all the time telling myself that I wasn’t just letting him cry it out, that I was there to comfort him and hold him, and that that made all the difference. It took three days for Louis to adapt, and soon after that he finally started “sleeping through the night”. Of course it often took 1 to 2 hours to get him to sleep, and 2 adults taking turns to stay with him, before we could have that uninterrupted sleep, but that was such an improvement that we were thrilled.

Every age has its difficulties, and with every choice we made on how to raise our child, I knew that we were making things more difficult for ourselves than many (I dare say most) parents did. But, apart from being convinced that this was a worthwhile investment into his mental, emotional and physical health as an adult, I also just wouldn’t have had the heart to do it differently. It was far too easy for me to imagine how he must be feeling and to remember the painful emotions of my childhood as well as my adulthood.

When he was three years and three months, I gave birth to his baby brother, Lars. We had been preparing Louis ever since I got pregnant, and we were so happy to see that he was very gentle with his baby brother, and seemed to love him already. Of course there was jealousy and some little regressions, but we allowed him to be annoyed and angry with his baby brother for taking up so much of our time and attention, and we acknowledged that he might have preferred that Lars had never existed. It paid off. An interesting book on siblings made me realise the link between violence (physical or verbal) from the parents towards the firstborn and how the firstborn then becomes violent towards the second child, and so on. We were proud that Louis was sweet and gentle with Lars, and we took it as a confirmation of the effectiveness of our parenting style. We had never hit and we rarely shouted to our child, but he was better behaved (with others, not at home!) and was much more gentle than other kids we knew.

The downside of course was that Louis was “sensitive”, just like his parents I might add, and a bit fearful. We noticed it first at the playground, where he seemed to be afraid of the other children. He loved to watch the other kids play, but was very reluctant to go near them. When another child would queue behind him to climb the slide, he would back away and let the child go first. This didn’t improve over time, nor with us talking about it. When he had friends come over to play, we noticed that he didn’t defend himself when they got a little rough with him. He didn’t even shout or run away. Louis just did nothing and looked shocked. I guess he wasn’t used to violence. So we worked on that with him, and we practiced “shouting stop”. He thought it was a wonderful game to push us and make us shout “stop”, but his own “stop” wasn’t very convincing, no matter how much we practiced and talked about it. Despite his sensitivity and shyness he did make friends easily in small groups and with some time, and so we weren’t that worried.

At the age of three and a half, Louis started going to school, and that’s where it became really clear how sensitive and fearful he was. For many kids that age it is difficult to get used to eating at school, being at school all day, taking a nap at school (which is what they do in France in the afternoon), and playing outside during recess. What finally made me worry (more than usually) is that after nearly 3 months of school, instead of getting better, it seemed to be getting worse. The hardest part of the day was recess, when there were about 90 kids playing outside with only a couple of adults supervising, and without structured activity. This was in the morning. In the afternoon there were three times as many kids on the playground, and some of them up to 2 years older, bigger, and often, rougher. At some point Louis came home telling us that another boy had hit him on his knees and his face during recess. We asked if he had shouted “stop” and run away. He said no. But somehow the teacher found out and apparently told off the other boy, who had to come kiss our son to make up. We live in France, and kissing is big here.

It didn’t sound so bad to us, but after that, things deteriorated quickly. Louis didn’t want to go to school anymore, and would wake up crying in the morning because he had to go to school. Sometimes he would even start crying and whining the evening before over dinner, after he had asked whether he had to go to school the next day. Even keeping him at home, first at lunchtime, then whole afternoons, didn’t seem to help much. Kids were allowed to take their favourite stuffed toy in the classroom for comfort, but he didn’t want to do that. He just wanted to leave his “doudou” in his school bag. At some point he had taken comfort by walking on a teacher’s hand with a bunch of other kids who were afraid as well during recess, but now he didn’t want that anymore either. The only thing that helped slightly was the promise of waving to his father during recess. We live very close to school, and from certain parts of the playground you can actually see our house. We started a routine of “waving to daddy” when I brought him to school. Although we never saw him wave to us during recess, this seemed to reassure him a little.

When I saw the other kids pushing each other around and happily playing rough with each other on the playground, and above all, not being fearful, I finally started wondering whether our gentle parenting choices were to blame. Other contributing factors of course, were his inborn personality, and the fact that he has two parents who are sensitive and shy themselves, and not too comfortable spending time in large groups of people either. Of course every parent wants the best for their child (or at least that’s my assumption), so how could we help him overcome his fear? Obviously we can’t change anything about his genetic heritage. In terms of his environmental heritage, we can try very hard to show the example, be social, and bring him into contact with lots of other people. But in the end we can’t (or at least only very slightly and slowly) change who we are. And it’s difficult to show the example of defending oneself as it is rather rare (thankfully!) to be attacked physically in adult life.

Only our parenting choices remain as an obvious venue for helping our child to overcome his fearfulness as much as possible and to become the best person he can be. As a mother I feel the need to minimise as much as possible my child’s suffering, but I try to remember that there is no growth without difficulty, or even suffering. Challenges are necessary to mature, as long as these challenges are not too big to be handled, and as long as there is enough support to deal with them. I don’t believe in tough love. It is my firm belief and understanding that in order to raise children to become confident and strong adults, we need to give them that support when they’re young and whenever they need it, so they can eventually internalise it and find it in themselves when they are older.

This blog tells the story of the first few years of the lives of my two children and documents the different paths and theories I explored in my search to be the best parent I can be for these two children. It also portrays my own growth as a parent, a wife, and a former scientist (in geophysics) who is aching to again have an intellectual challenge in addition to the everyday challenge of raising two children and running a household.

It is my sincere hope that this blog will help other parents to question the way most people have been giving birth and raising their children and realise that other choices can be made.

Sofie Vantiers

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