When babies are loved and wanted before they ever come, they arrive with a great start. But I’ve come to believe that the first year of life is perhaps the most important one of all. I remember holding my own first baby for the first time—all the mixture of feelings—amazement, awe, recognition and a bit of inadequacy. Never had anyone needed me so much. He was all made out of…me. His skin, his fluffy hair, his little bright eyes. Here he was breathing, squinting around, trying to find food and I was what he wanted. When he was a few days old, I was marveling to my sister about how connected and intertwined we were—him needing to eat, me needing to feed him, how much he loved to be with me, how much I craved his feel and smell. She made a comment that set a course for my life as a mother. She said, “I read once that babies don’t realize that they are separate people from their mothers. As far as they’re concerned, you and he are the same person.” Yes. That’s exactly what it felt like.
For each of my babies, the first year of life is a time of very close, tight nurturing. They sleep near me (or with me), they bathe with me, they eat when they are hungry, I hold them when they want, they go where I go. I am definitely an attached parent. For each of our 11 children, I have basically given myself over to them for the first year. And through the years, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about bonding. It’s just a fascinating subject for me. Imagine how excited I was when I stumbled upon a book one day at the library called, “The Biology of Love”. It’s written by a Dr. Arthur Janov who has developed therapies over the years to help people who got off to a bad start in life. He demonstrates in the book that during the first year of life, the brain is still very much in formative stages and that the parents complete the important connections that will last through their child’s life-time.
The book is intense but here is my best summation of it. I know it’s an over-simplification, but just tell me that it doesn’t make perfect sense to you. The brain is very complex but is divided into two hemispheres. One controls emotions and feelings while the other controls logical reasoning and thinking. When a baby is born, the logical side is dormant. It won’t kick in for about two years. But the feeling side is entirely active. A baby may not understand anything we say, but they are fully attuned to our voice, our expression, our smell, our touch. They cry and we respond—and as we do, we are building connections. The mechanisms in their brain that produce serotonin and dopamine are set. When babies are routinely neglected, there are whole sections of brain connections that are “pruned out” and unrecoverable. These babies grow up with hungers and needs that they can’t explain so they often turn to drugs or alcohol for relief. I realize that none of you neglect your babies to that extent. But I really believe that it’s impossible to give a child too much love or to respond too much in the first year. Dr. Janov points out that the process of nurturing a baby is labor-intensive but that we will put in the time now or later—now in building what he calls “a loved brain” that functions well and responds appropriately to life—or later, trying to understand and remedy problems from early neglect.
My sister’s casual comment was true. Our babies really are incomplete with only half of a brain—the feeling half. We provide the logical side until theirs is functional. It’s up to us to meet the needs that they can’t articulate or meet themselves. And it’s helpful to realize that they are not logical enough to have an agenda—to manipulate us. They only know that they need something, and often that “something” is just to be with us.
When a baby emerges from their first year with “a loved brain”—the feeling side of their brain fully connected and formed, the logical side of the brain begins to develop. Connections form between the two sides of the brain to create an emotionally healthy person. A person with a loved brain is more likely to be able to form strong, meaningful relationships throughout his life, to cope with and solve difficult problems he will encounter in life and to have a deeper ability to perceive right and wrong—because he understands and “feels” the impact of his actions on others.
I believe this. There is evidence of it all around us. And while it may seem like a burdensome bit of information, it is, for me, truly freeing and motivating. I am free to love my babies without reservation. And I am doing everything I can to insure a happy life for them. I know they’ll have hardships and difficulties as we all do. I can’t spare them those things. But I can give them their best chance to handle those things well.
I was talking to a young mother in our ward a few years ago. She was frustrated because she hadn’t done a thing for three days except hold her 2-month old baby—who was unusually fussy. The house was falling down around her and she couldn’t get anything done. I shared some excerpts with her from “The Biology of Love” and reassured her that though it didn’t seem like it, she was doing something permanently good as she rocked and soothed her baby. Later she told me how helpful that information was—that it had really changed her perspective. That’s what I hope this is for you—just a deeper understanding of the role you’re playing.
Over my lifetime as a mother, I’ve seen a quiet, concerted movement aimed at separating babies from mothers. In our society, women are cautioned to look after their own interests first. Modern methods encourage mothers to teach their babies to soothe themselves—that the ultimate success is to make your baby as independent as early as possible. Why is that success? A neat compartmentalized life doesn’t work with babies. Their needs vary from day to day and their deepest needs are often met at inconvenient times.
I know that you’re picturing a mother run ragged trying to meet the demands of her new baby as well as the rest of the family. But it really hasn’t been like that for me. I’ve found great personal pleasure in that first year and a deep sense of accomplishment. My husband is wonderful with babies—and I think it’s partly because I’ve shown him how to enjoy them. My other children have learned (without any formal lessons) that babies are precious and wonderful. Babies uniquely bind a family together. One of my favorite memories was bringing our seventh baby home from the hospital and laying him on my bed. The children all came in and gathered around. One of them said, “It’s like he’s a little fire and we’re all getting warm.”
Sometimes I want to say to young mothers: “Throw all the books away and follow your instincts.” Tie that baby on and take him with you. Don’t dole out love in measured doses. Just make it as natural as air. Kiss, snuggle, smell, whisper to, caress that baby all that you want to. Picture their little brain lighting up and thriving.
Ezra Taft Benson, in summing up the ten ways a mother could be effective in her child’s life, ended with this jewel:
“Tenth and finally, mothers, take the time to truly love your children. A mother's unqualified love approaches Christlike love."
Here is a beautiful tribute by a son to his mother:
"I don't remember much about her views of voting nor her social prestige; and what her ideas on child training, diet, and eugenics were, I cannot recall. The main thing that sifts back to me now through the thick undergrowth of years is that she loved me. She liked to lie on the grass with me and tell stories, or to run and hide with us children. She was always hugging me. . . . And I liked it. She had a sunny face. To me it was like God, and all the beatitudes saints tell of Him. And sing! Of all the sensations pleasurable to my life nothing can compare with the rapture of crawling up into her lap and going to sleep while she swung to and fro in her rocking chair and sang. Thinking of this, I wonder if the woman of today, with all her tremendous notions and plans, realizes what an almighty factor she is in shaping of her child for weal or woe? I wonder if she realizes how much sheer love and attention count for in a child's life."
Sheer love. I like that. Good, good things are happening out there! Thank you for your dedication to this process.
All my love,