‘S’ Is For ‘Swaddle’: On Baby Anxiety and New Parents

There we were, him holding his newborn son and me with my 1.5-year-old clinging to […]

David Zahl / 2.22.18

There we were, him holding his newborn son and me with my 1.5-year-old clinging to my legs. We were talking, as men do these days, about baby books, and I was trying to remember the last two of the “Five S’s”. I had “Swing,” “Swaddle” and “Shush,” but couldn’t for the life of me remember the others. (Note: “Side” and “Suck”).

It’s not as though I lacked experience. My wife and I are currently cruising through month 90 of uninterrupted “diaper life”; babies have been our M.O. for what feels like forever. I should’ve had the lingo down cold. My friend should’ve been marveling at my supreme and effortless Dad skills. But whatever part of my brain those two words used to inhabit had gone full T-Swift. Not only that, when someone mentioned the phrase “1-2-3 Magic” a couple days later, it took me a full minute to remember what they were talking about.

Either I had erased all that pre-first baby info in a subconscious ploy to revise the memories of those anticipatory months as pure sweetness and light (rather than a mix of excitement, trepidation, tedium and terror), or they had never truly registered in the first place. All I knew for sure was that it seemed really important at the time.

Cue Oliver Burkeman’s fantastic survey of “The Diabolical Genius Of the Baby Advice Industry” in The Guardian a few weeks ago:

…baby advice isn’t only, or perhaps even mainly, about raising children. Rather, it is a vehicle for the yearning – surely not unique to parents – that if we could only track down the correct information and apply the best techniques, it might be possible to bring the terrifying unpredictability of the world under control, and make life go right. It’s too late for us adults, of course. But a brand-new baby makes it possible to believe in the fantasy once more. Baby manuals seem to offer all the promise of self-help books, minus the challenges posed by the frustratingly intransigent obstacle of your existing self.

…Of course all babies don’t follow an extremely precise 10-stage schedule: the very idea, to anyone who is well-slept and thinking straight, is preposterous. But it is difficult to imagine anything more profoundly reassuring to the first-time parent of a one-week-old than the possibility that they might.

Attachment parenting plays on a theme familiar in self-help: the idea that you should reject outside expertise in favor of your own instincts and inner resources – except in the case of the guru offering this advice, who demands your obedience to his or her expertise. Apart from being disingenuous, this fails to quell anxiety anyway. Attempting to care for an infant in accordance with one’s instincts isn’t automatically more relaxing than trying to make them comply with a schedule, since you’re liable to find yourself constantly questioning whether or not you’re following your instincts faithfully enough.

…parents in an earlier era would have been unlikely to imagine they had such power over a child’s future personality. But in any case, the problem with this is hiding in plain sight: if there were a secret to raising happy or successful children, children whose parents didn’t know the secret wouldn’t end up happy or successful. Yet almost every human in history has been raised without the insights of almost every book of parenting advice ever published.

It’s hard not to think of the search for the right techniques as a fuss over nothing – or, more to the point, the cause of added anxiety we’re at risk of transmitting to our children… Our mistake, [psychologist and philosopher Alison] Gopnik argues, isn’t one of employing the wrong techniques, but of thinking in terms of techniques at all – in imagining that anything as complex as a relationship between humans could be reduced to a set of consciously manipulable variables.

Last year, Amy Brown, a health researcher at Swansea University, conducted a study involving 354 new mothers, examining their use of parenting books “that encourage parents to try to put their babies into strict sleeping and feeding routines” – the manuals of the Baby Trainers. The more such books a mother read, Brown found, the more depressive symptoms and the lower self-confidence she reported. This isn’t surprising: rules create expectations from which a baby will almost inevitably diverge, triggering stress… But the advice of the Natural Parents [i.e., Attachment] is hardly any better: their techniques are still techniques, with the added complication that you don’t even have a yardstick by which to judge if you’re implementing them properly.

That last paragraph sounds an awful lot like the difference between Dallas and San Francisco, or you might say, between conventional forms of little-l law (which sometimes masquerade as the ‘big-L’ variety) and more progressive expressions, AKA those of preppies as opposed to hippies, yuppies as opposed to hipsters, Baptists as opposed to yogis. One code is fixed, the other floats, but their appeal is the same–control–as is their result, which is accusation and anxiety. And we all know that if anything characterizes to contemporary parenting, it’s anxiety. (Watch out for that “added complication”: it’s a doozie.)

Burkeman’s experience certainly mirrors my own: baby books, no matter what philosophy they espouse, are roughly 95% about managing parental worry and 5% information or “science”. This is why we forget the information they contain; conveying it was never their (chief) purpose.

Like most forms of little-l law, baby books’ profitability derives from their If-Then conditionality (“If I do ____, then ___ will happen”), the more initial/false approachability the better. This is the sad irony of every cult of control: what’s meant to quell anxiety stimulates and even exacerbates it, regardless of intention. As the AAs often point out, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset you used to create it.”

So… is there a takeaway here? Do we just shrug our shoulders at new parents and reference The Onion’s highwater headline “Study Finds Every Style Of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults”? Hmmm… maybe. Lord knows a little perspective in that regard wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially since it implies its inverse, i.e. there’s no single, definitively right way to parent (that you’re failing at). No, the point here is not that all baby advice is created equal–feeding/washing/holding your child regularly is better than the alternative, of that I am sure. The point is that, whatever you may say you believe, the act of bringing a child into the world is fundamentally an act of faith, not control, and leaps of faith are scary. They often feel more like a push than a leap, pun intended. But however you get there, it’s no coincidence that the freedom from control a newborn necessitates also ushers in such love and joy.

So maybe becoming a parent is more of a conversion than an evolution. As much as folks can describe the experience, you don’t know what you’re getting into because you cannot know what you’re getting into. Sure, you can account for all sorts of potential circumstances and problems related to the baby, but you cannot account for the fact that you yourself will be a different person when the time comes.

There’s so much anxiety law related to having a baby, maybe that’s the grace: the child itself, this beautiful rejoinder to your fondest strategies, this moment-to-moment reminder that your control only extends so far, this new person who makes you into a new person not just parent, one for whom the How-To’s that once seemed so pressing fade into obsolescence and are replaced, however fleetingly, with a fresh MO, the only kind with the power to carry a person through the sleepless nights and endless demands ahead: the unconditional love of a parent for their writhing, exhausted offspring.

The conditions will come later (Lord knows!), but in those early days, as my friend had learned and I had forgotten, there’s no If-Then, only Because-Therefore. It’s as close to one-way as we ever experience, a reflection, however distant and imprecise, of a deeper hope—to which the only ‘S’ that applies is ‘Swaddle’.

Take it away, Dr. Forde:

The gospel of justification by faith is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but “because-therefore” pronouncement: because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness-knows-where, something we can’t really seem to wrap our minds around, the logic of which appears closed to us. How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat out, “You are righteous for Jesus’ sake? Is there not some price to be paid, something (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such thing as a free lunch, can there?”

You see, we really are sealed up in the prison of our conditional thinking. It is terribly difficult for us to get out, and even if someone batters down the door and shatters the bars, chances are we will stay in the prison anyway! We seem always to want to hold out for something somehow, that little bit of something, and we do it with a passion and an anxiety that betrays its true source–the Old Adam that just does not want to lose control…

It is true, you see, that as old beings we simply cannot understand or cope with the unconditional promise of justification pronounced in the name of Jesus. What we don’t see is that what the unconditional promise is calling forth is a new being.