In defense of disorganization

I am not a mother, but I’ve spent most of my life around children and the people who raise them. I grew up in a large family, I was the neighborhood babysitter for years, tutored kids in high school, volunteered with Head Start in College and I hold a master’s degree in child development. After a few unfulfilling research positions I became a full time nanny in New York City. I considered it a stop gap until I found something more challenging, more legitimate. I thought it would be soft, mindless work that I was overqualified for. Then I spent 12 hours in a row with a baby.

For two of the three years I was a full time nanny (that usually means around 60hrs per week) I was with the same little girl and it afforded me insights into families and parenting I couldn’t have gotten from any job or degree. I was enormously advantaged because unlike most parents I had every resource for excellent caregiving at my fingertips. I didn’t have to worry about supporting this child financially, and I had all the best baby gear and classes provided for me. I didn’t have the stress of negotiating parenting with my significant other and I got to go home every night and sleep undisturbed. Still, it was the most emotionally overwhelming experience of my life. I’ve cried on the floor of the bathroom more than once. I’ve had to give myself a timeout so I didn’t loose my cool, I’ve let her have cake for lunch. I’ve put her in the car seat and driven around aimlessly just so I could feel like my body belonged to myself again. I’ve definitely been convinced she was intentionally trying to ruin my day. I’ve absolutely let her out of the house in pjs and a tutu. I’ve bribed her with screen time and I’ve played Let It Go on my phone more times than I’d care to share.

    For a long time I felt that meant I wasn’t cutting it. I felt like all my interactions with her should be magical and synchronous and lovely and if they weren’t, it was because I wasn’t doing a good enough job. It meant I was a failure. As time passed her needs grew and so did the unrealistic expectations of myself. Why didn’t I answer all of her questions? I should have read her one more book, I should have let her play in the bath 10 minutes longer, I shouldn’t have picked up my phone, I shouldn’t have used that tone (the list could go on and frequently does when I’m trying to sleep at night).

    While I collected these granular failures of mine with increasing scrutiny, I found that I paid more attention to  the “failures” of other caregivers, “well at least I didn’t do THAT,” I would think to myself almost daily. I think it was my mind’s attempt to reduce the tension I had between my expectation of myself (and all caregivers) and my limitations. Not too long ago, I was lucky enough to have the ear of a renowned developmental psychologist Dr. Ed Tronick. Thinking that confessing my failures of attunement and unconditional positive regard would somehow absolve me, I listed them off one by one. I waited for him to respond with advice about how to be more present, more sensitive, less selfish or maybe about how I should just buck up, instead he looked at me with the utmost sincerity and said, “I wouldn’t worry about it.” There’s an enormous part of me that is convinced he was just trying to get out of talking to a fan, but the moment has stuck with me nonetheless.

    That weekend I heard Dr. Tronick speak about disorganization and the role it plays in building family connections. I certainly couldn’t do his work justice, and encourage you to look more into it.  What I took away - and what I think is important for anyone who takes care of children should know - is that that no relational system can grow without becoming disorganized. A relationship is an open system, which means that it’s always changing - it’s not stagnant. What has been observed scientifically and anecdotally is that constant synchronicity with your child is not possible. Every interaction isn’t supposed to be perfect.  It’s when a mother and child are able to reorient to each other that they are able to solidify their bond. Basically, the magic of attachment is when you repair the rupture.

    Having a healthy attachment to your child does not mean you never put them down, or never get a sitter or never get frustrated or you never break eye contact while breastfeeding or never want to cry on the floor of the bathroom. It means that your child can count on your dynamic to repair itself. Your child has faith in your ability to come back physically and emotionally. The relationship is designed so that both parties can have break downs. Those moments of disorganization is where the growth happens.

    This information transformed the way I looked at parent-child interactions. The most profound change I observed was that once I stopped giving myself a hard time, I became more compassionate towards other caregivers. When you’re alone all day with your child and you see other parents post the best three seconds of their day on social media it’s easy to feel like you aren’t doing enough or that your experience is unusual. However, the more you share and identify the moments that are challenging with other people, the more connected you will feel.  If we adjust the expectation of parents and caregivers to a more realistic spot, and embrace the inherent chaos that comes with loving a child (or anyone really) I think we’d be able to enjoy the process a little more, feel more supported by each other and cut back on judgement. Love is catastrophically messy, and it’s supposed to be.