If we want to understand the oak,
it’s back to the acorn we must go
· - Dr. Bruce Perry
Sometimes when social work themes and research hit home, it causes us to look back on our pasts and pause or question our perceptions of day-to-day life. For me, this has resulted in some difficult conversations, angry speed-walking through the neighborhood, and more than a few tears. But in this case, I CANNOT BE MORE EXCITED! Why?
I GET TO BE AN AUNTIE!
My sister, Sarah, and brother-in-law made the long trek from New Orleans to Lander, Wyoming this past week for the last time as a party of two. And of course, the topic of pregnancy came up on multiple occasions, including the stresses of being a first-time mom and the multitude of opinions concerning a newborn coming from all directions. As Sarah described the contradicting advice sent her way about whether to swaddle or not, the pros and cons of binkies, and the inevitable challenges of working from home with a baby, we both realized something: while these parenting choices are important, aren’t there more impactful and foundational behaviors that are important for a child’s development? What does research show as being vital for a baby and/or child to develop a healthy and supported mind? What does this loving environment look like?
This is the point of full disclosure: I am not a parent. Therefore, I can’t fully understand the complexities, mental strain, and multitude of other facets of giving birth to and raising a child. As we all know, we can read as much as we want on a subject, but digesting content can only build a surface-level understanding. So, these are my learnings from the field and research, and interpretations based on my own experiences as a school social worker and interpersonal violence intervention advocate.
Sarah described the overload of information, advice, and, sometimes, judgment, as “emotionally exhausting” and instead expressed that “it’s about prioritizing decision-making and not stressing over the smaller stuff.” Although a completely different topic, it made me think back to contemplations and conversations I have had with Curt, as well as students, co-workers, and mentors: how can we address the small “stuff” without understanding these larger themes such as trauma, a person’s eco-systems, and multiple other influences that greatly impact our perception of reality or what is ‘normal?’ For today, I decided it best to turn to the psychiatrist and senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy, Dr. Bruce D. Perry, and placed his most recent book on my sister's bed: What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, written with Oprah Winfrey (2021. She quickly opted out for the Cliff Notes version (she is a very busy woman)...so here goes!
Dr. Perry (2021) illuminates the importance of childhood development by stating: “belonging and being loved are core to the human experience...and the capacity to be connected in meaningful and healthy ways is shaped by our earliest relationships” (p. 75). Early primary relationships (i.e. those with caregivers or our microsystem) are especially important in the first three years of life when the fastest rate of brain growth occurs in a human’s lifetime. Even during the stages of development when a child is not yet ready to communicate verbally, predictable actions and responses are required to build emotional resilience because their brain continues to interpret a worldview that, hopefully, will envision people as good and their caregivers as loving. In practical terms, love is developed through thousands of moments of skin-to-skin warmth, the smell of the parent, the sounds and surroundings of the child’s caregivers, and the responses they receive from caregivers when they cry. Infants and toddlers store vast amounts of input from their surroundings, and high-quality adult relationships (i.e. spending time on the floor playing, reading, etc.) encourage the infant to trust others and the ability to depend on their caretakers in the future. This is an example of what Dr. Perry (and Dr. Bob Murray) refer to as the “brain codebook,” which essentially stores connections through complex memories as we develop (especially in the first year of life). This codebook is made up of millions of links based on experiences to make sense of what is going on around us, and the safest ways to respond to stress (i.e. resilience).
In biological terms, the brain develops from the “bottom-up,” meaning that the lowest networks (brainstem & diencephalon) organize signals based on experiences through their core regulatory networks (CRNs), otherwise known as our neural systems, begin to form in the womb and are the first to progress (see figure above, Perry & Winfrey, 2021, p. 52). Dr. Perry describes this growth as building the foundation of a house: during the first couple months of life, the framing of a child’s brain is built followed by the wiring and plumbing – the young child’s interactions with others. If these relationships are predictable, consistent, and, most importantly, loving the child is much more likely to create enduring bonds with others throughout their life. These interactions, Perry argues, don’t always have to be happy-go-lucky, and in fact, challenges that are still deemed ‘safe’ not only increase a developing mind’s resilience but also encourage intimate trust and safe relationships.
At the end of the day, as Perry (2021) states, “love, given and felt, is dependent upon the ability to be present, attentive, attuned, and responsible for another human being. This glue of humanity is essential to the survival of our species – and to the health and happiness of the individual. And this ability is based on what happened to you, primarily as a young child...in the small moments (p. 81). There are thousands, if not millions, of books concerning childhood development, early childhood trauma, and especially “best practices” in raising an infant. The research only goes so far, and as Jenny Lawson says...
The trouble with learning to parent on the job is that your child is the teacher. A teacher who is constantly shitting his pants. AWESOME.
Citations & Further Resources:
Angelina Spicer wants to say things out loud about postpartum d