Loving a baby is pretty easy once you get used to the manual labor and constant vigilance demanded. There's just an awful lot of work to do and it never stops.
You can't leave that helpless creature alone for very long and even when you do, you don't want to go out of earshot. But the child is so innocent and sweet. She/he has no agenda other than lying there, smiling back at you and being cared for. As long as her parents are willing to do the caring, things go as they should.
That oceanic feeling of parental bliss changes during the first year. Once she's moving about, she will really challenge you to be on your toes. You will have to watch her like a hawk whenever she's awake for the next few years, to make sure she doesn't walk out the door, into the street or the pool, play with matches, drink drain cleaner, fall down the stairs or smash into the corner of the coffee table.
There are a million dangers and you're the official guardian and, hopefully, a willing one.
Next, you'll have to learn how to discipline this young terrorist. Around 2 she'll start screaming "no" in earnest. She has clear ideas about what she will and what she won't do. This can be a threat to parents who have not resolved their own conflicts around control and rebellion.
Hopefully, you've made great progress toward growing up, yourself. Those who have been abused or are experiencing acute stress from other sources may find their child's stubborn willfulness increasingly difficult to tolerate.
Children of this age are acutely sensitive to events and conditions in the family environment. You don't remember this, but most of us suffered some sort of trauma during the pre-school years. These events are recorded in our unconscious minds and affect our adult functioning years later.
Imagine, for example, a child separated from his parent, even for a brief period, around the age of 2. Maybe his mother goes into the hospital for a week, or perhaps his parents get divorced and dad moves out. Because of that child's developmental phase, he's liable to believe, unconsciously of course, that his own anger caused him to be rejected. The effect of that mistaken perception can last for life and contaminate that person's intimate relationships right down the line.
It matters a great deal what experiences a very young child has with his intimate others. And yet, in every life, some crisis is inevitable. No parent is perfect, always there with exactly the right remedy at exactly the right moment.
No life is without stress. When stress ends, you'll know you're dead. A normal life is full of stresses, many of them caused by normal development. This continues, by the way, throughout life, so get used to it or suffer.
Around age 3, gender role socialization begins to make a real difference in a child's life. No longer is it simply a matter of whether you wear a pink or a blue bonnet.
If you're a girl, your close bond with your mother provides you with a role model. You begin to realize that, in some important way, you resemble this care-taking person who creates your world.
Your father, depending on how active he is in your life, offers an opportunity for flirting, introduces you to the outside world and helps you separate from your mother to become a "different" female person.
A girl, while identifying strongly with her mother, often finds herself in intense conflicts with her over control and emotional autonomy. In fact, issues of emotional autonomy from her mother (and others) often become the dominant theme in a woman's life.
For a boy it's different.
In order to establish his identity as a male, he must renounce his symbiotic ties to his mother, the most supportive and nurturing person in his life. He must cast himself adrift from her emotional anchor. He must "toughen up." He must learn to "be like" his father, i.e., to be a man. This is not an easy job because, too often, his father is a person about whom he knows relatively little.
Many fathers are absent so much or are so emotionally opaque that the main thing a son learns from them is self-concealment; to isolate himself emotionally and present an appearance that has no bearing on his actual emotional state.
This is, unfortunately, what it means to be masculine in our culture. And it's not just men who teach this unbalanced version of maleness.
Women promote it too, often out of a misguided concern that a sensitive and expressive male child may turn out to be a "sissy" or heaven forbid, "gay."
Nonsense. Nothing a parent does or can do will make a child gay or not gay. All a parent can do is to determine whether a child loves him or herself and is capable of loving and being loved by others. But that's quite enough power. Use it well.
Hugh R. Leavell has been a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach County for 18 years. He offers free seminars on couples communication and conflict managements. Call him at (561) 471-0067 or visit his Web site www.oneminutetherapist.com.