On tenderness

1. Showing gentleness, kindness and affection

2. (Of a part of the body) sensitive to pain

The phrases ‘I wish I’d known’ and ‘nobody told me,’ and ‘nothing can prepare you,’ are so overused by new parents that they’re practically meaningless. In fact they are meaningless. The production of parental knowledge is bound up in the triggered-by-a-newborn-scream reptile brain, hormones, topsey-turvey sleep and waking cycles, and this whole he-was-inside-now-he-is-not-me crazy state of consciousness. The idea of a head-knowing before the Miraculous Birth is largely LAUGHABLE.
But actually there is a word that I wish I’d known right from the start. It’s a word I saw in the way other mothers ‘position themselves in relation to their infant,’ as Christopher Bollas describes. It’s a word I saw embodied in the way another mother held my newborn and I thought, ‘ah, that’s it. That’s how I want to touch him.’ The word speaks of both a wound and a set of emotional co- ordinates, a kind of psychic orientation towards the infant.
Many mothers emerge from the act of birth with wounds and a sense of interdependence. Some mothers, I’m one of them, came away from the experience feeling lucky to be alive. Certain biographies, maybe ones that didn’t mean much to me before, became poignant. The remote death of a literary figure I admired, Mary Wollstonecraft , Mary Shelley’s mother, suddenly became almost unbearable to think about. What seems implausible and abstract and nothing but a fact was startlingly un-dead. My particular birth ‘story’ would have meant certain death two or three generations before. Or death to both baby and mother somewhere else in the world now, or some degree of brain death to my son if we’d opted, as we might have done in our enthusiasm and naivity, for a home birth.
To deny this darkness, this not-so-distant possibility is to cut oneself off from the part that is still sore, that is still sensitive. To be tender is to be sensitive, to have the courage to admit that birth is a perilous and violent task, as perilous and violent as the ordinary task of growing a mind of ones own, of traversing development in the face of all of its inevitable deprivations, as Adam Phillips describes. I think being sensitive to this soreness in ourselves is also to know that babies can be wounded as well. To be tender is to be alive to how we affect one another, our own dependence, our own neediness. It is to gently wipe away the tears or purée or vomit from his face, to countenance his frailty and Otherness in that moment and make it as respectful a gesture as possible in those circumstances. It is to affectionately hold him while he sobs over a minor slight or injury, perhaps while compassionately keeping in mind the tears I’ve shed ‘over nothing’. To be tender is to choose to debunk the mythos of self reliance. It means staying open to the notion that, as I heard Kate Brown talk about in her Freud Museum podcast, ‘Attachment Theory and Psychosis,’ ‘we matter to one another ‘.
My heart was in my mouth for much of the first year of my sons life. I felt his fragility often, both physically and psychically. The way I offered him a breast – perhaps expressing a bit of milk from my nipple onto his lips, waiting, wanting him to find it in his own time, on his own terms- seemed more important than anything else. News, appointments, housework all came to a standstill while I waited, frozen in that moment, maybe even forgetting to inhale sometimes, wondering what would happen next, wondering how he might respond. I rarely put him down when he slept. Instead I would nurse him to sleep in my bed and curl my body around his little frame. Or I nursed him to sleep while I held him, smelling his hair as I read. I didn’t want him to think for even a second that I wasn’t thinking of him, that he’d dropped out of my mind: I know the suffering of being forgotten, and that generational injury was to end with me. I cultivated the sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating awareness that every decision I made would probably shape him, imprint a pattern of what to expect from the world, tell him how he could expect to be treated by those he loves and who love him. I hope I’ve wired him up to receive kindness, tenderness even, and I hope he behaves kindly towards himself, say, if he cries ‘over nothing’ when he is a grown man. Another thing I wasn’t prepared for before becoming a parent: I wasn’t prepared for my feminist politics to morph into a politics of tenderness, a call to ask the question of wider culture, ‘what conditions make it possible to parent well? ’ (Oliver James explores this notion much more fully in his books.) Having a career matters to many women, but also, mothering matters too, and the way we, collectively, choose to mother matters to us all.

Copyright Diana Smith 2017
Christopher Bollas, ‘The Shadow of the Object ‘
Adam Phillips, LRB, March 5th 2015, ‘Against Self-Criticism’
Freud Museum podcast, Kate Brown ‘Attachment Theory and psychosis’
Oliver James, ‘They fuck you up/ How Not to Fuck Them Up’

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