As a mental health professional, I often encourage my clients to name their experiences. Giving a name to the feelings that we experience allows us to have a better sense of understanding and groundedness. At the same time, this can take away the magic of the unknown and weaken our ability to find comfort in that space. While it is valuable to define our experiences, becoming too attached to labels and definitions can negatively impact our experiences, interactions, and relationships with others.
Consider the ways in which we use labeling to introduce children to language. We begin with simple nouns, items that can be commonly seen in the child’s environment, such as bird. We may point to a bird every time we see one, reiterating for the child that this is a bird. The child now begins to associate the label bird with a flying, feathered animal that occasionally lands on the ground, a table, a bench, or a tree. This animal can sometimes be heard making a sound, which the child will learn to associate with a “chirp.” This method works well for teaching language as a tool for communicating with others and making sense of the world around us. However, in limiting our understanding of something to a label, are we unconsciously creating a dilemma that will later require deep unlearning?
This issue comes up for many of my clients who are becoming new parents. Whether you’ve been trying for five years or the pregnancy is a complete surprise; whether you’re adopting, carrying your child, or having a child via surrogate; once it’s clear that your bundle of joy is headed your way, you may be flooded with all sorts of emotions: anxiety, excitement, fear, curiosity, uncertainty, and gratitude, to name a few. You naturally start to wonder at this life that is growing before you, this child, and with that come the fantasies of who this child will be. The brain immediately pulls upon every frame that it has catalogued to understand the meaning of child. Over the next several months, you may fantasize about everything from the baby’s delivery to his/ her high school graduation and beyond. There are very specific pictures that come up that represent both hopes and fears based off experiences you’ve had in your own life.
Much like the example of the bird, some people use broad strokes when considering what their child will be. This doesn’t come from a place of selfishness or lack of love; I truly believe that parents aren’t even aware that they are doing it. In your desperate hope to plan for the arrival of your child you’ve read every book, you’ve gone through every possible scenario and you have learned every developmental milestone you should be looking for, from latching on to first steps. All you want to do is prepare and understand. You are desperately trying to define what a child is and how to best care for that child in all circumstances. But in seeking out all of the definitions and answers in parenting preparation, are we taking away from the magic that happens by just allowing ourselves to observe and learn our children?
In considering our children through the lens of our own limited definitions, do we take away from the depth that can be found in simply observing? Just because we can label one a child doesn’t mean we’ve really allowed ourselves the gift of getting to know and understand that child. When we teach a child to identify a small, flying object as a bird, we should also take the time to teach them the flexibility of this label, exposing them to a variety of birds of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Encourage them to observe and identify what they notice about each one–its eyes, the shape of its beak, the color and pattern of its feathers–rather than just imparting on them a frame of generalization. Consider the flamingo, a flightless bird. This unique feature doesn’t change the child’s definition of what it means to be a bird; rather, it simply adds to it.
Each child is vastly different, each of their quirks so precious and special. There is a beauty and magic that unfolds when we allow a being to simply develop into themselves, without the burden of our ideals and expectations as to who they should be and what they should do.
Of course, doing your research and paying attention to norms in preparing for parenthood is still vitally important. However, the goal is to find a place of balance, where you remain aware but also see your child for who they are as an individual. Being a parent takes more strength than 1,000 armies. I firmly believe that it is the hardest job in the world. The world has already set unrealistic expectations as to what it means to be a parent, which can leave parents feeling as if they are constantly falling short. So, give yourself a break! Give yourself the gift of getting to know your child for who they are–not your ideas of who they should be, but who they actually are. Your life as a parent will be full of unknowns; why not give yourself lots of practice by settling into that magical space?