Welcome from Michael: About the Baby Whisperer
This course is based on my latest book, The Baby Whisperer. It focuses on wonderment, which is in strikingly short supply in the world of baby-hatching, baby-watching and baby-rearing. Most adults—whether they are parents or professionals—are full of theories about why children behave as they do, and why they turn out as they do. We’re often wrong, leading to over-diagnosing, misdiagnosing and failing to see what is right in front of us. We forget to wonder.
Similarly, parents are often full of certainty about why they do what they do, even when that behavior is antithetical to their own plans of doing better jobs with their little ones than was done by their own parents with them. Often aggressively asserting profound but misguided theories about how to raise children, they forget to wonder. This course offers participants the opportunity to sit right in the room where I sat with very brave and very hurt people, and to wonder about things they could never freely wonder about if the focus were on themselves.
This is not a parenting course. I would never insult parents by telling them what to do, or by pretending I know their children better than they do. It is, instead, a course that respects parents enough to let them peek into the worlds of other families, and then trusting them to take what they wish from what they see there.
Here you will meet families that I had the honor to support and help heal from the most terrible of hurts. And you will meet me—a flawed and insufficiently-prepared man who, at least, knew what I didn’t know, and—perhaps as a result of my limitations—remained open to learning from the many children and parents I encountered over the years.
This is a course that presents stories—real ones—about how babies struggle to tell us of their inner lives, and how parents struggle to understand the babies they once were. The stories reveal what an unborn child does to cope with her mother’s terrified efforts to get rid of her; why a little girl becomes mute upon seeing her mom bash her baby brother’s skull against the wooden arm of a sofa; why a dad goes to pieces before his baby is ever born, anticipating a re-enactment of events in his own infancy that no one ever told him about; why a little boy’s rejection of his seventh foster mother actually makes a great deal of sense.
For more than four decades, it was my job to watch these things unfold as I gave voice to the hurt and the trauma that underlay them. I did it in the living rooms of the educated and wealthy in a university town and in the isolated cabins of dirt-poor folks living deep in the woods. The reader is invited to come along and listen not just for what is said but what is shown in the behavior of infants and parents. Secrets are marvelously revealed in the hearts of the moms and dads and tiny children who are acting it all out.
I know that the parents for whom I write these stories are sometimes terrified by the demons within, but I know they like to read about them. They may be judgmental about other parents, but they also like to read about how other parents cope. They may be defensive about both their babies and themselves, but they are equally eager to know what really causes their little ones to hit or to withdraw or to fall into depression. While they may pretend to not see it happening, they wonder what causes their little ones to pull back in fear or to strike out in defiance.
I present this course for all those adoptive and foster parents trying to understand what happened to the self-control and empathy-for-others they see in some of their kids, but which is strikingly missing in the ones who take up most of the energy in the house. The stories in the course are for everyday parents who want to know why their own parents’ voices are now coming out of their mouths. I write these stories for parents who were sure the birth of their first child would not change their lives much, only to discover that nothing is the same—that they think and dream and talk as they never did before this child came along. I write these stories for all the parents who wonder what in the world is this power in birth, this power in babies, this force with which they are suddenly encountered. I write these stories for everyday parents burdened with depression before or after birth, and who wonder why. I write this book for parents who would never go to therapy (why would having a baby mean you have to see a therapist?!) but still wonder what it might be like to sit quietly with someone who would walk with them through all the impulses and thoughts that have come over them since baby arrived. I write these stories for all the parents who were adopted, themselves, and who are stunned to notice that they are envious of a baby who gets to keep his parents. I write these stories for parents who cannot “get over” (as if there were a limit on how much time one is permitted to “get over” such things) the death of an earlier child, or an abortion when they were younger, or an adoption reversal. I write these stories for every parent who has always felt differently about one of his children and has tried to deny it, but who knows it’s true and can’t figure out why.
I respectfully invite each of these parents in. I invite them to look over my shoulder, from which vantage point they can wonder and can see other parents grappling with these and other thoughts and feelings and wishes and terrors and dreams. For this opportunity I know parents will want to attend this course on The Baby Whisperer.
Upon my retirement from 41 years of clinical practice in the highly-specialized field of infant mental health I set myself to writing the stories of twenty-five of the child-parent dyads with whom I worked that I found most unforgettable. I was certain—based on my decades of telling these and other stories in my lectures—that my speaking of the epic struggles of these moms and dads and babies would be meaningful to parents and clinicians alike. I knew that parents were tired of the worn-out and unhelpful diagnoses appended to their children, when more substantive help was needed. They wanted to see beyond the easy and categorical answers given by the clinicians they sought out or were forced to go to. Could there be a reason for the aggression of their very young children? What should they do about their children who won’t eat, or who cry all the time, or who withdraw, or who resist the very thing they need most: loving care?
It has always seemed likely to me that using a non-jargonized, storytelling model for communicating about the struggles of babies and parents would make complicated developmental ideas quite accessible. I wondered what it might be like to invite clinicians and academics to also listen in on these stories, as long as they stayed on the sidelines and did what I did for all those years: watch, and listen, and wonder, and be awed by the power of infant-parent relationships to bring out the very best and the very worst in all of us.
I understand these things to be true:
- Infants and young children, like most organisms, retain a record of their experience. In the broadest sense, they remember. Such remembering serves the evolutionary purpose of preparing organisms—most assuredly including human infants—to adapt to future events with some preparation for that which is, or seems, familiar.
- Parents carry their own memories—including ones that are not at all conscious and readily-accessible—into greeting and rearing their babies, sometimes repeating things they would rather not repeat.
- It is through the process of gaining access to these early lived experiences—to which we attach meanings that are often quite thoroughly off-base, but which are felt to be true—that babies get understood, and parents get to heal.
- Access to these early lived experiences, and the narratives we attach to them, is not easily accomplished using the logical mechanisms of the left brain. We learn about these things inside ourselves not when someone points them out to us, but when we re-experience them in the moment, right in the middle of daily life.
Intuitively, parents also know these things to be true. They will recognize what they already know when they hear a story about someone else having an experience that feels eerily familiar to their own. This is what makes The Baby Whisperer a most unusual book for parents. One step removed, parents get a chance to read about themselves.