To welcome our first apo (grandchild) Ethan, my husband Jeremy and I have been in Philadelphia for the last 11 weeks. After having so eagerly awaited his birth, you can imagine my surprise when I said “no” the first time our daughter Alexandra asked me if I wanted to hold Ethan.
On reflection this was in direct contrast to my own mother’s behavior with Alexandra, her first own apo. In fact, there was hardly an opportunity to ask because my mom would take her way from anyone as soon as she walked in the door.
On the rare occasion I continued holding her despite my mom’s being there, she would swoop down and take Alexandra away if she so much as whimpered, looking at me accusatorially as if to say, “You don’t know how to take care of babies, but I, who’ve raised 3, do.” Worse, I believed her.
Thus, when Ethan started to fuss, I immediately looked to whoever else was available, certain that, that person could soothe Ethan better than I ever could.
My mother was like a beacon of low self-esteem shining brightly on any behavior which, to her mind, proved I was incapable of taking care of my own child.
Back then, 35 years ago, she presented herself as the only capable judge of my parenting skills. My father and my only sister, expected to agree with anything my mother said, did so. She was a force of nature that was far better to accommodate than defend against. Once satisfied she had gotten her message across, she would stop as quickly as she started.
This message of being a less-than-adequate-mother could have stayed with me forever, had it never been challenged .
This is not to say I had no choice in the matter. I did then, as I do now. But old habits die hard and peace at all cost was the primary goal in my family of origin. No arguments were brooked, no alternative hypothesis entertained.
This is what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) does to you.
One minute you’re fine, enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon, and then the next second you aren’t. Instead, you are frightened to death simply because a car backfires or an unaccounted for shadow flits across the room and you are once again in the midst of the life and death situation you were years ago. You respond in ways that were adaptable in the past because that was how you stayed alive. But these responses are no longer necessary (or adaptable) because life has moved on and you have changed.
PTSD can be helped by psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), deemed one of the most effective therapy around. But PTSD is such a visceral, physical reaction, that you often need more than a “talking cure.” Thus, anything that physically cuts off the connection between the stimulus, in this case, the baby crying, and handing him over, would help.
It sounds so easy that it seems hokey. But if you want to know more about this latest discovery in therapy, please read The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force written by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley (2004) and The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain written by Louis Cozolino, PhD (2014). They are exceptional resources that clearly explain and illustrate this phenomenon.
My panic whenever Ethan cried was a symptom of what I call PTSD lite. (READ: [Bodymind] Spiegelman or Schmiegelman)
I say PTSD because, like many fellow sufferers, there have been times since Ethan’s birth when I behaved like the insecure, floundering woman who had no clue how to take care of her own baby, instead of the confident grandmother I usually am. I say lite because the sheer terror of possibly dying from bullets and bombs is, to put it mildly, far worse than being dressed down by one’s mother, even mine.
Fast forward to Ethan’s birth. Alexandra is now a seemingly mini me and I am now my mother in relation to her as a new mother. If theories about Indian, Chinese and Filipina mothers-in-law were accurate (and they are not, at least not always) I would be as fearsome as my Mom, and Alexandra as hesitant as I was. It is called “getting your revenge at last.”
Happily however, Alexandra is a fierce and instinctive mother, who would never allow anyone else to tell her what to do if she felt she knew better.
My husband Jeremy and our daughter Alexandra reassure me that the only reason I see myself as a bad grandmother is selective perception.
Alexandra’s insistence, with Jeremy’s cheerleading, that I keep holding him no matter how much he cried was the quickest and most effective way I could break the connection between the past and the present, disconnecting my misperceived reason for Ethan’s crying from the (again) misperceived reason for his stopping the minute he was in someone else’s arms.
I now realize that sometimes babies cry for no reason we can fathom, and that they eventually stop crying. The trick is to do all you can to make them comfortable and happy and if nothing you do is successful, then chill. Eventually, they will stop.
I also now see that, having Alexandra taken away from me no more than 5 seconds after she started crying, was not enough reason to conclude I couldn’t comfort her on my own.
But my mother needed to convince herself that, while she was really only the Lola, she had every right to behave like the mother because she knew best. I took the path of least resistance and agreed with her.
This message of being a less-than-adequate-mother could have stayed with me forever, had it never been challenged. Indeed, this message might have never even been discovered. But along came Ethan and the rest, as people like to say, is history.
I know, I know. What sort of a psychologist am I when I cannot even heal myself? A damn good one, I like to think (haha, joke…but true!). At least, a psychologist aware enough to accept that your greatest teachers are not always fellow social scientists, but can also be people you trust to have your best interests at heart, and humble enough to accept that, no matter how up to date you are with the literature and know yourself to be an empathetic and sensitive therapist, you can still be blind-sided in your personal life.
And sometimes, that can be a damn good thing. Indeed, Barbra Streisand was right after all: People who need people are the luckiest people in the world. – Rappler.com
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