Degrees of struggle

Kala_struggle_MiMThere is a story about a butterfly you must have heard – a man was watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from his cocoon. The butterfly seemed like it was having a hard time cutting through and coming out into the world, so the man decided to help – he took scissors and cut the cocoon open. The butterfly came out without a problem, but his wings were all wrinkled and weak. The man was waiting for the butterfly to stretch his wings and fly, but it never did. It only walked around dragging its wings behind…

Infant educator Magda Gerber Said: ‘If you can learn to struggle you can learn to live’. Easier said than done? Surely. But why?

Struggle comes in degrees

Struggle is an integral part of our lives, and if we can learn to deal with it, if we can learn to cope, we can learn to live to the fullest. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It just is. The fascinating thing about struggle is that we have come to believe that it comes in degrees, and it only ever comes in the intensity we can handle… well, usually.

Right now we are observing our tiny baby daughters taking first steps (no, no, not literally – not yet!) in the world filled with struggle. We are looking at them deal with their frustrations, as they learn new skills, master new movements, notice new things.

The other day Kala was lying on the side lifting her head up ever so slightly, and then banging it with her whole strength on the floor. She cried. I knelt down and talked to her, then picked her up. When I put her down, she rolled onto her side and … of course, did the whole thing again. And again. The fourth time she was very careful placing her head on the floor, so very careful. You could see the intensity of experience, the focus, the relief and finally the pride on her face. (Anna)

Learning comes with struggle, but if we protect our babies from the daily struggle from the very beginning, we might be doing what the man in the butterfly story did – we might be preventing them from experiencing the degree of struggle that is necessary for them now to be able to fly later.

Learning to struggle is the first real experience of learning to deal with frustration, emotions, fears and anxieties. The first opportunity to live life to the fullest, with all its ups and downs, floors and blankets, bruises and laughs.  What better way to learn to struggle than in a safe place, with our beloved mum or dad nearby?

This tiny (in our eyes) struggle to reach a toy, to roll over, to get out from under the chair is exactly the level of struggle our kids are designed to endure… and overcome. The older we grow, the bigger the struggles in front of us.

First it’s your head on the floor;

Then a toy that is too far to reach;

You got stuck under a table;

Your Mum or Dad disappeared behind the doors;

Then it’s a fight with a friend over who will get to use the yellow tractor;

A ball that you wanted to kick but missed;

Not exactly the grade you wanted at school;

An exam you failed;

A friend who turned out not to be one;

But maybe, just maybe, if we were allowed to experience the tiniest of struggles in the beginning of our adventure on Earth, we can move on and be prepared to face it all with courage, dignity and the ability to get up and go on when YOU are ready.

In those first moments of struggle if we are present, if we manage not to take it all away, we are teaching our kids a very powerful lesson – that struggle is not bad, it’s not good, it just is. And maybe we are preparing them for a wonderfully full life, when once they fly out from our homes they will be ready to face the world with all its bruises and laughs. Because we didn’t take it all away when they were oh so tiny – but because we were there with them, right there on the floor, crying with them and picking them up, but not taking their struggles away.

Whose struggle is it, anyway?

Why do we struggle when our child struggles? Struggle equals emotions, and so we have to face not only our child’s emotions, but also our own. Our own emotions that have to do with our child’s cries, discomfort, but also our own emotions about the way WE struggle… or choose not to.

Mona has been a real “Zen-Baby“. She was happy from day one. She loves to play on her own for long periods of time. She barely cries or screams. She is taking her time when it comes to gross motor development. She tried to roll onto her tummy for months. Barely showing any frustration if she didn‘t. And if she struggled it was still quiet and calm. I was with her. I held her and then she went on. Right now she is working hard on a sitting posture.  And she wants to get up onto higher furnishings. She realized that she doesn‘t always has to stay on the floor. So she wants to be up. Up up up. But she can‘t. She tries. And she cries. Her crying is complaining. Louder and full of voice now. No more Zen. And it is harder for me to cope. With the noise and the fact that it is still such a long way to go until she will be where she wants to be. (Nadine)

Part of our struggle as an adult is that we know the big picture. We know what we could achieve and if we don‘t, if we struggle, we are upset and it‘s hard to deal with it. We see three steps ahead but often we oversee the power of the moment.

If we step in too quickly in the moment of struggle, if we give them the last push to rolling over, hand them the toy their tiny arms can‘t reach we don‘t just help the butterfly leave the cocoon. We send another message that says: “This now is not it. See over there, behind those big mountains? This is the world. This is where you should be.“ And we take their ability to live right now. In this very moment.

And then, the bigger the struggles are, the higher the mountains become. And we become frustrated. We oversee the small hills in between. We aim for the big ones, we run, jump and… we might fall, because we have underestimated the distance between here and now. We do this once, twice. And then… Well, we suppose most of you know what‘s next. We give up. We‘re fearful. Avoiding. And we can‘t deal with that either. Because we weren‘t able to deal with the small hills.

So, to support our sons and daughters, we have chosen to let them struggle. We don’t walk away leaving them there, we don’t turn our heads, but we also don’t take it away from them. We try to empower them by being there, by making sure they have us right there when they need us, by being their rock and their tree. We let them get out of their cocoons “on their own, with our help”, in the hope that their beautiful wings will take them up when they’re ready.

How do you cope with your child’s struugles? What helps you believe that they can do it? We LOVE to hear from you!

Anna & Nadine


nad_leo_retuszLeander has broken his arm twice this year. The second fracture – only two days after the cast came off – was too complex to heal just with a cast around. It had to be operated on. When we found ourselves sitting in preparation for the OR we were all still in shock. Leander got a light sedative so he could calm down. Apparently that didn‘t work too well because when the doctors asked if I could take his shoes off he refused. And I did not think further and left it to the doctors to do so later. Then I had to watch them take my son away from me. He screamed. He cried and he fought. I just stood there crying. Knowing there was nothing I could do to prevent him from any of it. A nurse came towards me and said two things that are both worth a blog post each. This is the first.

One thing she said to me was: “He will not remember any of this.“ Because he got the sedative. I would have loved to believe her. (Nadine)

But the real problem we both have with this is that neither doctors nor nurses nor anyone really knows what exactly a child a person can remember when being put under sedatives. Their mind might be blurry, their brain a bit spongy. But that doesn‘t mean everything sinks right through and ends up in nowhere land. 

And even if they don‘t remember much of it – is that really a good reason to act the way they act in hospitals or doctors practices? To take children away from their parents before they are put under a general anaesthetic? Having people in green take them into a scary room where they take the child‘s clothes off and put a needle in their arm until – finally – they are sound asleep?

For us as adults this often seems minor. It‘s just a few minutes. It has to be done. He won‘t remember (we believe and hope). For a child it‘s probably something like that:

Mom and Dad are leaving me. Scary people are taking me away. This room is huge, has big bright lights and everything is steel and scary. They put me down and take my clothes off. I am completely naked in front of those scary people in this scary room. They hold me down to put needles in my arm. It hurts. Them and the needle. I am scared. Scared. Scared… sca… asleep.

Unfortunately we cannot change hospital routines. (Believe us – if we could…) But what we can do is fight. We as parents have to fight for every right and every second with our child. And this is not about what a child remembers or not – it‘s about their right for respectful, loving and gentle guidance through a scary enough situation this is.

When Antek had a minor urinary tract infection we went to the doctor to get it checked out. He was barely a year old and did not like to be there at all. The doctor looked at me, winked and said, ‘OK, you hold him down, I’ll pull off his pants and his nappy.’ When I told her I would not do it like that, she looked at me surprised: ‘But he won’t remember any of it!’ (Anna).

So really, does it matter that who remembers what? What if we just tried to act as if everything is going to be stored in our memory (in our mind or our bodies) somewhere, and try to navigate each situation as gently, as respectfully as we can? What if, instead of hoping that they will not remember, we tried to make a bad situation into a memory that they can live with? And that we can live with?

So, what can we, parents of little patients do in scary situations, at the doctors’ and at the hospitals?

  • We can slow way down, and make sure our child knows what is going on and what will happen.
  • We can make sure the doctors know we want to slow down, and how we want to handle things – very often they will be ok with our way of doing things, but they need to know what we expect and how we want to proceed.
  • We can demand every piece of information we can get, so we can understand it ourselves and explain it to our children.
  • We can demand time and slow down at every moment of the process.

Because this is about your child. Not only about a medical procedure in a medical environment in which you are the small patient. This is about your child‘s health in general. Not just about his body, but also about his emotional health.

Everything you fight your child won‘t have to fight. Now or later.

But back to the problem of children not being able to remember anything. We as adults in general like to believe this. Because it makes things so much easier for us. We like to believe children already forgot when after a fall, a bruise or a frightening situation they suddenly jump up again and sing and dance and play. But that‘s not forgetting. That is called living in the moment and has nothing to do with childish forgetfulness.

After the mentioned surgery Leander had to stay in overnight. He was whiny, clingy and very very unhappy. He would not move on his own but demand to be on our arms all the time. Until we were finally allowed to go home. The door of the hospital hadn‘t closed properly behind us when Leander got all excited about the cars outside, the trams and asked me to run down the ramp with him. It was as if we had taken another child home. But Leander had not forgotten. He simply lives in the moment. He left a lot of pain, anger, fear and anxiety inside the hospital. He screamed some of it out in there. Some stayed inside of him, buried under excitement and fun. Just to come out a little later.

When we talked about the surgery at home at some point he mentioned that the doctors wanted to take his shirt off in the OR. And that he did not like that. So much for “He won‘t remember any of this.“ No. He remembered even further.