Development is cumulative

As we grow, the present moments build upon earlier moments. In the beginning, there is an absolute need on the part of the baby to be accommodated—in the womb the temperature is perfect, nothing is sharp or too big, noises are tempered, food comes as it’s needed, waste is eliminated without effort. Then at birth, from the child’s point of view the environment changes in a shocking way. Parents often take great efforts to make this change feel less abrupt to their baby—they offer accommodations reminiscent of the baby’s life before birth—swaddling, singing, holding, feedings at the right moments. Despite a parent’s best efforts, the world will inevitably feel frustrating to a growing baby. ‘Sometimes I feel hungry and that soft, milky round thing is nowhere to be found! Sometimes I’m itchy and wet and it feels bad! Something hurts inside and it won’t come out! These important adults come and go and I don’t have a say!” By one year old, the baby has accumulated a complex set of experiences, feelings and thoughts. While he or she will not remember these early moments like we experience explicit memories as adults (recalling images and events, a sense of time, space) the memories of this period are stored implicitly in our bodies, in our bones, and in our feelings—they provide the basis for our sense of self in the world and in our own skin. They lay the foundation for how we will manage our interior emotional lives as we grow. This period is not wholly definitive, but it is formative. When we look at rings on a tree, each ring is formed around the previous—the rings together tell us something about what it’s been like for the whole tree to grow across seasons. Donald Winnicott, a child psychiatrist once said, “Each child of four is also three and also two and also one, and is also an infant being weaned, or an infant just being born, or even an infant in the womb. Children go backwards and forwards in their emotional age.” In this sense, development doesn’t look linear neither does it feel linear. We’ve all wished we could go back to a more desirable period in life—perhaps college or kindergarten—feeling that responsibilities outweigh our inner resources to manage them, or that we had it better or easier at a different time in life, or that we’ve lost something we could never retrieve. These are important feelings that can help us be more open to what growing up can feel like in our children—because for everyone, these feelings originated in infancy. We can see examples of this clearly playing out at the beginning of preschool—children bringing in blankets or stuffed animals from home, clinging to parents’ legs, sucking thumbs, crying, potty accidents. Children can be four and yet feel 1. Our present moments have within them the accumulation of previous moments—we ourselves can be 50, and also 25 and also 5, and so on. Keeping this in mind can give us (and our children) a little more room to just be.