Posted by: scintillatingspeck | November 5, 2009


On the advice of a friend, I started reading the book “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher” by Rahima Baldwin Dancy.   So far, about 50 pages in, it’s quite a good read.   I want to write about a sudden insight I received while reading it today.

On page 40, the author quotes Rudolf Steiner (the originator of the Waldorf philosophy of education):

…In 1924 Steiner said, “In the first part of his life… the child is, so to say, altogether a sense organ.  This we have to take very literally.  What is the characteristic function of a sense organ?  It is receptive to impressions from the environment.  If something striking occurs near him–for example, a burst of anger–then the reflection thereof goes right through the child.  It will affect even his blood circulation and digestive system.”

What occurred to me as I read this was this: if my child is sensitive and absorbing things like mad (like any child developing relatively normally), then there is no way for her to avoid absorbing and internalizing the less desirable emotions or behaviors I show, no way to avoid confronting, to some degree, the accumulated weight of my various traumas.  I could be as vigilant as I could muster, and still I know that it would be impossible to completely insulate her from my own pain and struggle.  This is a source of great distress to me.  I know it’s important to do whatever I can to avoid laying my own problems, my own history, on my child, as well as the layers of struggle I inherited from my own mother, and that my mother probably inherited from her mother.  And yet the only way to completely insulate my child from that would be to exile myself from her life, which surely would be a far more damaging act. 

All this made me think of a parallel to breastfeeding.  There is a preponderance of evidence that breastfeeding is the healthiest choice for feeding a baby.  I have no doubt that breastfeeding is the preferable option.  And yet there is not a single breastfeeding mother on the planet who is not transferring some of her body burden to her baby/babies.  One’s “body burden” is a lifetime of accumulated industrial chemicals that remain in the body to varying degrees.  (Sandra Steingraber writes about toxics in breast milk in her book “Having Faith“; I have read excerpts from this book, but feel too afraid and dismayed to read the whole book.)  So, knowing both the benefits and hazards of breastfeeding, it still makes sense to me to breastfeed, but oh, the anguish of knowing that literal toxins stored in my body are being transferred to my child, through the very act that most conveys my love and devotion to her.  Of course, I feel anguish about all of the various routes that toxins find their way into the bodies of babies, but this seems like a particularly cruel one.

What if a mother’s emotional baggage is part of the “mind/spirit burden” placed upon her baby?  What if the transfer of some of this baggage is unavoidable?  We all have baggage of some kind.  Anyone living in this culture, call it American, or western, or modern civilization, is traumatized to some degree, in my opinion.  And some of us may be more traumatized than others, whether through direct experience of certain events, particular sensitivity, or both. 

I know my own history, my own mind/spirit burden.  Sometimes I stand in front of it, horrified and despairing, and other times I marvel at my own capacity for healing and strength.  But I know this: that burden will never go away, the same way my body burden of toxic chemicals will never go away.  And if I am to be a good mother to my child, to show up for her, to feed her, to be gentle with her but also be my real self, there is simply no way I can avoid transferring some of the burden.  I can only hope to minimize it as much as possible.

I want to be a good mother.  In fact, I want to be better than good; I want to be perfect.  I want this because it is what Lily deserves.  And truly, all children deserve this.  But none of us will ever achieve this perfection; none of us will receive it, however richly deserved.  Probably nobody ever even comes close.  You might think that grasping this fact in a solid, rational way would comfort me.  It still doesn’t.  Maybe I wrote this post to try to convince myself, once again, through the power of rational thought, that my imperfection is unavoidable, that I should therefore abandon the project of runaway guilt and shame.  Further, I should recognize that expecting all of this perfection from myself, and the resulting guilt and shame, is just a maladaptive coping mechanism in the face of loss of control; that is, the destructive fantasy of perfectionism is that if only I were more focused, more diligent, then I would be able to exert the kind of control that is literally impossible– I will never be able to completely protect my child.

It hurts.

Lily, if I could, I would make myself perfect for you.  And not only that, I would heal the world, so you could have a reasonable shot at a healthy, happy life.  I would take away all the toxins, all the cancers and illnesses.  I would take away the centuries of war and unimaginable suffering.  I would take away the greenhouse gases and the petrochemicals.  I would take away the abuse, the rape, the thoughtless words, the greed, the oppression.  I would take away the senseless accidents, the unnecessary deaths.  I would take away the pain of loneliness and disconnection.  If only I had that power.  Lily, I hope that in some tiny way, it makes a difference that I wish for all of this, and that I am trying my best to act with integrity and love.

Lily, my beloved



  1. Oh Jen, what an incredible writer you are! Your words resonate with me. I heard Sarah Steingraber speak at the Common Ground Fair the year before I learned about peak oil. I have her books. I, too, have read only bits and pieces. Her talk was so disturbing!
    I woke up to many of these issues when my children were fully grown. I was in such despair, and saddened by what I had done (and not done!) They deserved so much better.
    I’m giving you a call this weekend so we can make a plan to get together soon. I miss you!

  2. that is beautiful ❤

    if you were perfect for Lily, how would she know what to do as she grows up and faces her own imperfections? if the world were perfect for her, how would she know how to take action when something slips? you are teaching her how to move on with grace in the face of personal challenges, and how to work for a better world in the face of global challenges.

    i've read the book, too, though an old edition – would love to hear more of what you think about it. i agreed strongly with a lot of it, and found myself disagreeing with some smaller parts that seemed really off the wall and others that were more authoritarian than i like. of course we're thinking strongly of sending the kids through waldorf education….

    the other book i'd suggest after this if you haven't read already is Whole Child/Whole Parent. it's out of print, but you should be an expert at tracking such things down 🙂

  3. Ah, sweetie, thanks for writing this.
    You can wish for Lily a life of sweetness and light, and it’s loving of you to do so.

    But think–an extreme of perfection on your part might be a pretty big burden on her, too, as she grows into parts of the human condition that you’d like to keep her from.

    As you already know better than I, you’re responsible, as much as you can be, for her safety and health, but her happiness will be her own construction; your wish for that is of a different order. Sometimes it’ll be your job to separate her from things she wants desperately at the moment.

    Loss and fear and helplessness are part of her birthright, as they are yours, especially the next three or four years, as she grows from the Lily-centric world of the infant to the other-aware world of the seven-year-old.

    You will do your best, in love, as you already do; the choices you make cannot make the world perfect, but you make the kind of choices that would improve the world if everybody made them, and that’s something.


  4. Anyone who thinks this deeply about her child is a wonderful mama indeed.

  5. Thought some more about this during the day, where I (once again) interacted with some chronically unhappy people. What do I have that they don’t?

    In some cases, good fortune they may lack:
    a genetic/pre-natal disposition to happiness,
    a good fit of my personality to what I do for a living.

    What I would give them now, though, if I could:
    more patience, with the things they cannot change, and more courage, to change the things they need to. And some perspective, on how other people see things.
    These qualities are developed to some degree by adversity. Of course I don’t wish Lily more than her share of the troubles of the world, or that they would come too soon, but I do hope that she will grow up with the knowledge that she is able to serenely survive difficult or tedious times, and that she is powerful to help others.
    Her frustrations with you, and your imperfections, are grist for that mill. Love survives them.

  6. Thanks for all of these comments. One of the qualities I most hope to encourage in Lily is that of resilience, and Rosemary and CT, you are both quite right that such a trait does not develop and grow unless one is exposed to some challenges.

    It’s also heartening to be recognized. I think the act of bearing witness is extraordinarily powerful and usually underestimated. Thank you for your generosity in bearing witness to me, and offering reflections.

  7. I don’t think I made the point strongly enough in my first comment that you already are teaching Lily resilience! And it’s our job as parents to try to pace the adversity they face so that it helps them grow rather than stunts them. I’ve said to a number of people that my kids are pruning me like a fruit tree – getting rid of my dead wood and even clipping parts of me that were thriving, but aren’t going to fit well into the overall picture of my future. Maybe we’re doing the same to the kids – cultivating kids who can grow and bear fruit, but also stand up to some winds, frosts, insect invasions! And you don’t do this by blasting them with a frost too early in life, but neither can you take a plant that’s never known cold weather and expect it to survive the winter.

  8. mmm, rich rich material!

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