The Tyranny of Biological Destiny?

On the weekend I read a parenting book called ‘Heart to Heart Parenting’ by a Sydney based psychologist, Robin Grille. I also read an article entitled ‘Against Nature’ in the New Yorker, which was a profile piece on Elisabeth Badinter, a feminist philosophe, and one of the most influential intellectuals in France. The combination, for reasons that will become clear, did my head in. So I thought I should try to write my way back to a place of equanimity (since I appear to have forgotten my mantra).

Grille’s book, like much recent literature on early childhood, suggests that secure attachment is crucial for the healthy emotional development of children long-term, and that this requires parents to be warm, responsive and dependable. Some amazing recent research has suggested that things like eye contact and skin contact can have incredibly positive effects on the developing brains of babies. The discovery of mirror neurons (a type of empathy neuron that proliferates in healthily attached babies) has helped to establish links between early childhood attachment and emotional intelligence in adulthood. All this new science has led psychologists like Robin Grille to seriously critique many features of birth and early childhood that came to be seen as normal, or even progressive, in the late twentieth century.

For example, in Grille’s book (and in other similar books that I have read) most forms of intervention during childbirth are considered to have negative effects on bonding and emotional development. He also recommends that babies be breast-fed for at least a year, but ideally two because of the beneficial effects not only on physical, but also emotional, health. When it comes to the controversial issue of sleep, leaving babies to cry for longer than a few minutes is seen as profoundly detrimental, while long-term co-sleeping is seen as the ideal (as long as your bed is SIDS risk free). The early use of childcare is seen as having the potential to affect the development of children’s brains and leave them open to greater risks of depression, amongst other things. He cites research into the concentrations of the stress hormone Cortisol found in the brains of children in daycare. He also frowns on the use of television in the first three years of life, again because of its effect on the brain. Even the nuclear family (is nothing sacred?) comes in for criticism. It may serve our modern Western desire for mobility and autonomy well, but the lack of a network of support (such as an extended family or established community) makes it very difficult for parents to provide their babies and infants with the consistent responsiveness they require. The arguments are persuasive (who doesn’t want to do everything they can to ensure that their children grow up to be well-adjusted, emotionally healthy adults?) and yet one can’t help but baulk, at times, at how high the parenting bar is being set in books like this, and the potential for guilt and shame when parents inevitably fail to reach it.

This is where Elisabeth Rabinter comes in. Now in her sixties and having had her children in the Eighties, she sees this new neuro-biology driven parenting model as part of a powerful, if often inadvertant, conspiracy against women’s freedom. After centuries trying to break free of ‘the tyranny of biological destiny’, an array of forces (including neo-feminist fundamentalists, ecological fanatics, breast-feeding ideologues, authoritarian obstetricians and the ultra-conservative religious right) are pushing women back into ‘slavery to their babies’.  ‘Sociobiological fictions are reducing them to the status of female mammals, programmed to the “higher claims” of womb and breast.’ One of the results being that, in a time of economic uncertainty, women are being driven out of the workforce, and their financial independence is being undermined.

You can see why reading these two texts one after the other did my head in. As a parent it is hard not to become paralysed or torn apart by such powerful competing claims, and yet most parents are repeatedly exposed to both these positions or positions like them. How is it that anyone can make decisions at all about childbirth, breast-feeding, sleeping arrangements, childcare etc etc? From experience, and observation, I think most parents find a place they can live with between these two extremes, and then seek out the company of other parents who occupy a similar place to help ease the painful doubts they feel. The tragedy is that the capacity for shame as a parent is so great, that even small differences between the choices you are making and the choices your fellow travellers are making can result in some very awkward conversations and tortured soul-searching, though mainly we just learn what topics to avoid.

At this point I should say, in Robin Grille’s defense, that he is not a brutal ideologue. He encourages parents to avoid fundamentalism, and not to judge those who struggle to meet their ‘parenting criteria’. He advocates parenting based on authenticity, connection and love rather than on guilt, shame and punishment, and he obviously believes that parents need to apply this not only to their kids, but also to themselves and to other parents. The bar is set high, but it is assumed that we often won’t reach it.

Badinter is somewhat of a brutal ideologue, but one whose integrity is quite instructive. She believes that those who hold differing positions can either be ‘enemies’ or ‘opponents’. An opponent is someone who strongly disagrees with you, but who, unlike an enemy, remains civilised, respectful and open in the way they engage. This distinction between enemy and opponent seems to me an important one in a culture where increasingly people seem to divide the world into ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’. ‘Friends’ are those with whom I have a critical mass of shared values and opinions, and with whom I ‘politely’ avoid talking about anything we differ on to maintain the illusion of complete like-mindedness and avoid any embarrassing arguments. ‘Enemies’ are those with who I don’t have a critical mass of shared values and opinions and who I can thus ridicule, demonise and treat with utter contempt – though almost never to their face. The bracing contrarian honesty of a woman like Badinter is a refreshing contrast to this kind of laziness, dishonesty and cowardice.

So where am I going with this? Badinter believes that we in the developed world are in the middle of an identity crisis, and it is certainly true that when it comes to parenting we are in a time when the goal posts seem to be continually changing. What I believe about pretty much every aspect of parenting is different now (in detail if not fundamentally) to what it was a year ago. Living in a time of crisis and flux, wrestling with perspectives as different as those of Grille and Badinter, requires that we be flexible, humble, courageous, respectful, open and, above all, kind (to ourselves and to each other). Without these values we are condemned to live in a state of fearful isolation or shallow identification. Either way, lacking the powerful, honest connections we require to thrive as parents.

I want to dedicate this post to the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (Yes, I’m doing dedications now!), who believed that truth is dialogical (ie arrived at through dialogue), and rejected the idea that if two people disagree, then one of them must be wrong. This is an idea that is most difficult (but also most important) to hold onto when the truth at issue is connected to great vulnerability or passion or where the stakes are particularly high (ie parenting).

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3 Responses to The Tyranny of Biological Destiny?

  1. veryspeedy says:

    The dedication to Bakhtin warmed my cockles. As always, sharply insightful.

    Perhaps as a factor of my sociopathic tendencies, I don’t really identify with the whole shame and guilt parental architecture. I know I don’t know what I’m doing. I know that my parenting is not about ‘bringing up a child in the ways of [mini] me,’ as much as it is about helping them grow up into the world themselves – and getting there in one piece. That’s the ‘plan’ anyway. It’s implementation is a whole other matter. I have ‘chosen’ to implement as I go. Perhaps not the most effective approach, but one I am comfortable with, and one that leaves me more time to re-group (should I screw something up) than the energy it would take me to follow a more expert approach.

    Often parenting feels like Groundhog Day to me, except without the accumulation of memories, experiences or life lessons – just groundless deja-vu. And each decision, each tactic, strategy and conversation is new. Never before applied. And, just as often, each outcome is different – following it’s own chaos theory. How on Earth can anyone hope to connect with a developing human being in such a fluid lanscape?! And yet, most of us manage.

    I blame love.

    The ineffable quality of that connection transcends every strategy or parental trope I have ever encountered. I also think it’s a more difficult path, because one has to let go of any sense of blueprint for this unique journey (it may be similar in structure, but wholly unique in being), and go it ‘alone’. Just you and the child. The dialogic relationship between the linguistic and pre-linguistic is, ironically, where the truth of that relationship develops.

    But that is a frightening thought. Because it never stops. It never rests. It always requires our full attention and presence of mind. And who wants that?

    Dialogue never sleeps. And that’s too tiring a thought.

    • rodbie says:

      Robin Grille is actually really interesting on emotion, authenticity and connection. I really only picked out the strands in his thinking that were most prescriptive to highlight the contrast to Rabinter. He talks about the fact that kid can intuit when you are being inauthentic, when you are not connected and will act out in more and more extreme ways to try to contact something real. This is the stuff that spoke to me most powerfully, because it is not about an expert formula or rules to be followed, but a principle of always seeking to respond authentically, and letting your kids see whatever it is that you are feeling (joy, anger, fear, hurt) though not in a way that overwhelms them. There is a freedom, a particularity and a fluidity to this that I like. It reminded me a bit of what Carlos calls ‘prosthetic roles’, people trying to relate through roles that they don’t inhabit, and thus being absent while present. It is really just another way of talking about the dialogical. Parenting as an lifelong, unpredictable conversation (with all that that involves and requires) rather than a building project (notice clever return to ‘architecture’ and ‘blueprint’ metaphor).

  2. Lulu says:

    Very thought-provoking comments Rod. I have been thinking about what you wrote about the connection a child feels and needs for the past week. I’d like to read Grille’s book.

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