The Wellspring of Wellness, Meryn G. Callander
I became a mother at age 41. It has been the most profound experience of my life. Unlike other major events in my life, this experience will be with me - in a very immediate way on both the secular and sacred dimensions of my being - until the day I die.
My work with family and child wellness is born of my experience of becoming a mother. It reflects aspects of my journey with Siena Travis Callander - the lively, freckle-faced, brown-eyed, curly red-haired delight who joined my husband, John Travis (Jack), and me in 1993 - who I have the deep privilege of calling daughter.
My decision to bear a child came as a surprise to me. I now think of it as an instinct - a biological imperative asserting itself. In my professional life, I had been writing and facilitating seminars with Jack on healing the estrangement that is normative in the Western world for nearly 10 years before we started talking about changing our prior decision not to have children (Jack has a daughter by a previous marriage).
A few years prior to Siena's conception, we discovered Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept, a book that was to radically impact the way in which I perceived and tended to she-who-was-to-become-our daughter - and indeed, all children. I've been writing and talking about, and trying to use, attachment parenting/continuum concepts (and more) ever since. Jack and I have tried to provide Siena with as close to this experience as we could, lacking an extended family or village to support us (and her), but it's very different in our culture.
Liedloff lived with the people of the Yequana and Sanema tribes of Venezuela for several years. She found them to be the happiest people she had ever encountered. In time, she concluded that we "in civilization" are laboring under some serious misconceptions about human nature, and that the way we treat babies and children is a primary cause of the alienation, neurosis, and unhappiness that is so widespread in our culture.
The children of these tribes never fought, were never punished, and obeyed happily and instantly. The very young were seldom out of the arms of others, and were never left to cry; their discomforts were quickly soothed or alleviated. They were breastfed on demand, and continued to suckle for up to five years.
Liedloff's experiences left me with a burning need to question not only the prevailing assumptions about the nature of humankind, but also "popular" notions on how to nurture an infant or child. I determined to look beyond popular practices to find seeds for harvesting a new consciousness in my child, and in myself - if, indeed, Liedloff's observations were to be proved correct.
I read about a number of societies, and was fascinated by the range of variation, from the wholly unaggressive Tasaday in the Philippines to the highly violent societies of the "civilized" world. This variability indicates violent behavior is more learned than genetic, as it is learned. We become largely what our environment and social heredity socializes us to become.
I found many studies, both cross-cultural and scientific, which showed a strong association between early childcare practices and later personality development. The theme is consistent: the child whose every need is promptly met becomes a gentle, cooperative, nonaggressive adult. The child who receives intermittent attention becomes a selfish, uncooperative, aggressive adult.
Social interaction is an extension of the mother-child interaction. Relationships within the family shape the relationships that a child will create throughout his life - be they loving, cooperative, communicative, or selfish, violent, and isolating. The aberrant behaviors we see around us are not innate, but artifacts - symptomatic of a misperception, culturally perpetuated, about the needs of infants and children, and the nature of humankind.
Birthing and early child "care" practices collude in destroying the natural bond between mother and child - separating the two at birth; denying the breast; later abandoning infants into cribs, carriers, and a "room all their own"; anticipating discordant behavior.
Add to this the fact that we live in a culture that denies the child's early awareness that matter is imbued with spirit, that the earth is our home and we are a part of everything in it, and there is little wonder that we experience alienation and violent behaviors as the "normal" condition of us "civilized" peoples. If we retained, as many native peoples do, the infant/child's awareness of our connectedness with all of life, we would not be able to do what we are doing to the planet and to each other.
Practices for minimizing this enculturated alienation range from recognizing the sensitivity and intelligence of the preborn, to maintaining constant physical contact - in-arms, in slings, breastfeeding on demand, co-sleeping, to meeting their innate expectations, not overprotecting them, assuming they are social beings who want to cooperate and learn, trusting and respecting their developing personalities, and including them in our daily life and activities. Adopting even one of these practices will deeply impact a child's wellbeing.
Clearly, there are difficulties in translating this knowledge into our daily lives - from a social and economic fabric that directly opposes continuum practices, to the wounding that we each carry from our own childhood, i.e., the sense of estrangement that runs so deeply in each of us as to seem to be reality itself.
I know that this journey is not one that all will choose to take. Many will argue that we are powerless in the face of a social structure and collective psyche that does not support such radical proposals. However, if we are concerned for the future of our children and this planet, not to mention the liberation of our own minds, bodies, and spirits we have no choice but to do our very best.
We do not like to think that what we have done, or are doing, to our children is harming them, nor that what our parents did to us harmed us, yet we are all products of our time and culture. Neither guilt nor blame will serve us.
I am not a model parent nor is my daughter a model child. If there is one thing that parenting has taught me, it is to have compassion for myself as I discover those things I wish I had done differently. Recognizing my errors, forgiving myself, and learning from my mistakes reaffirms my heart's desire and centers me in the present, and allows me to move on.
As long as I deny the truth of what is happening to children, and refuse to acknowledge my participation in perpetuating normative abuse, I remain not only a victim but a perpetrator of a terrible injustice. For my own sake, for the sake of my child, for the sake of our shared lifekind, I will acknowledge but I will not fight to preserve my limitations. Although I recognize that I do this imperfectly, this is my goal: I will do all I can do, moment-to-moment, to remove the blinders I wear, and to perceive and nurture beauty, goodness, and the desire to love and be loved, that is the essential nature of the human spirit.
My work with wellness is fueled by this commitment.