Listening to Our Instincts

October 14, 2017

I suspect that parenting is more difficult than ever because of the proliferation of expert advice everywhere one turns. Advice can certainly be helpful. There are those who have done this before, who figured out things that can be helpful. There are scientists who have studied children and their behavior. There are therapists who have spoken with dozens of parents, so have an enriched context for understanding.

However, sometimes sources are untrustworthy. There are political agendas that drive the way we see certain issues, such as the impact of daycare on a child, or the benefits of preschool. Older parents or even therapists have their own biases, or may simply never have seen a situation quite like ours. Research often creates an incomplete picture, and in any case, the population level information that research yields may not be relevant to the unique person that is our child.

As a therapist, it can be easy to assume you know the right thing for someone else. When I work with parents, my orienting goal is to help my client attend better to her own intuitions about her child. “What do you think is going on?” I’ll ask. “What do you think you ought to do? What is your gut telling you?”

There is an exception to this, however. Most of us judge our children with the same overly harsh lens with which we judge ourselves. If a mother comes to me despairing that her child can’t seem to manage himself, I often try to help her see the strengths the child is manifesting in his unruliness. Whatever the problem, there are usually a number of ways of coming to understand it. Some of these are going to be more pathologizing, and some less. In the case of our kids, often our negative assessment of ourselves – and them – can override our intuition.

The Scottish fairy tale “The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh” can be instructive about how precious our own knowledge and instincts are when it comes to mothering our children.

A poor young woman was out wandering with her infant son. She laid him down for a moment while she went to fetch him some water, but while she was gone, two members of the fairy folk known as the Sidh came and took the boy away. The mother was distraught. She asked everyone she could what had happened to her child. A wise woman in the village discerned that he had been stolen by the Sidh, and advised the mother to give up her search, for no one ever returns alive from the fairies’ realm.

“I will not stop until I have found my son,” the young mother said. At last, the wise woman told the mother that she might have a chance of gaining back her child if she were to sneak into the fairy realm on a particular night. “Remember, the Sidh cannot produce anything themselves, but must steal and beg everything. They want to own all that is rare and precious.”

“But I am poor, and own nothing!” cried the young mother. “What can I offer them?”

Nevertheless, she did as the old woman suggested. She gathered eider down from ducks at the seaside and made a cloak as soft as a cloud. She found bones along the shore bleached to brightest white, and used these to make a harp. She had nothing to use for strings for the harp, however, so she plucked her own golden hairs and strung the instrument with these.

By stealth, she was able to sneak into the fairy kingdom. The Sidh were so delighted with her cloak that they agreed to take her to their king if she would give it to them. When the fairy king saw the harp, he had to have it. He agreed to give the woman back her child in exchange for it.

When the king played the harp, the Sidh were so spellbound by the beauty of the music that they didn’t even notice the mother escape with her child.

This beautiful tale uses the eloquent language of symbol to show that what our children most need is what we alone can offer them. Our love, our knowledge of them, and our instincts about them are uniquely ours, and cannot be replaced by the dictates of any expert, no matter how wise.

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