One of the central, and most familiar, ironies of the parent-baby relationship is that despite the seeming imbalance of visible physical power, its actual contours are quite clearly regulated and determined by the child. Indeed, the very ‘weakness’ of the child, its utter and total vulnerability and dependence on the parent grants it this power. The result is an entanglement with a human being where conventional notions of relational dynamics get upended quite spectacularly. Only a pathological human being would attempt to assert their unbridled will and exert the fantastical control over the baby that is actually possible; the rest of us do the baby’s bidding. It is the recognition of the baby’s weakness that lets us allow it to assume that power. Our helplessness in the face of its demands is a function of our recognition of its own helplessness, its dependence on us. (Mark Twain’s toast to General Baby is a witty recognition of these facts.)
Many years ago, a friend made some rather interesting remarks about the parent-child relationship, describing his son and himself as a closely coupled system of sorts. One of its components, the parent, had commenced operations with very particular, preconceived notions of how matters were to proceed: inputs were to be to sent to the child; it would respond accordingly; and slowly, over a period of time, it would evolve in a manner, shape and fashion determined by the parent. A half-duplex communication channel or transaction if you will. Instead, like all tightly coupled systems the relationship of the two components quickly became a co-determining one: the parent’s interactions with the child were determined by the child’s responses to the inputs sent its way; slowly, over a period of time, the parent was also changing in response to the child’s interactions with it. And those changes in turn regulated how it interacted with the child and how it responded. And so on, as these feedback loops iterated endlessly.
The child then, is not a junior partner in the relationship the parent forges with it; it is an equal in many interesting ways. We feel ourselves change as it ‘commands’ us to do its bidding; we sense its resistance, we retreat to safer ground and rethink strategy; at every step of the way, despite its physical and linguistic incapacities the child asserts its will with startling clarity. Again, only an unhinged human being–sometimes a parent unwound comprehensively by lack of sleep, sometimes, less excusably, a plain old misanthrope– would respond with angry or violent defiance.
As my daughter moves into the fourth quarter of her first year, I have been surprised at how early her assertiveness and wilfulness has manifested herself; perhaps I had entertained some charmingly naive notions of how much later in her development these would emerge. There is a personality of sorts on display; a rich repertoire of expressions, both verbal and physical; demonstrations of clear preferences. All of this overlaid, of course, on an increasingly sophisticated physical interaction with the surrounding world and its affordances.
My relationship with her is fraught with much uncertainty, but its one I welcome.