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PAILS of Hope

Parenting After Loss or Infertility
by Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D.
There is nothing like infertility or the death of a baby to shock a bereaved mother into her most basic instinctual parenting mode. If you've experienced childbearing losses, you may come into motherhood with a special eagerness to be close to your babies and to be a responsive, nurturing mother. This article supports your desire to be enthralled, devoted, and consumed by your infant. In fact, this intensity can be a natural and necessary part of motherhood and good for you AND your baby.


Unfortunately, you may feel a certain amount of pressure from friends and relatives to restrain yourself and resist doting on your babies. You may be scolded for being "overprotective" of your little ones or "spoiling" them with your devotion and attention. You may be warned against losing yourself in motherhood, as if your brain would permanently turn to mush, your personal hobbies and interests would be forever cast aside, and heaven forbid you become sleep deprived! Indeed, you may be afraid to dive into motherhood for fear that you will lose yourself forever. You may return to school or work and keep up a feverish schedule, trying to juggle your needs for self-actualization with your baby's needs for a mother. You may not get support and encouragement from others who should remind you that mothering a baby is a relatively temporary state of affairs in your life. Instead, you may be pitied for wearing your pajamas until 4 pm every afternoon. You too may worry that if you give yourself over to your baby, you'll never get yourself back. Many of these ideas come from misguided beliefs about child rearing that discourage mothers from doting on their babies. Many of these myths can be traced to religious, philosophical and cultural contexts, particularly from the last couple of centuries:

  • Christian religious doctrine held that babies were born with original sin and that evil tendencies were lurking and had to be stamped out. Harsh punishment was justified as a way to ensure that the child would be purged of evil and reach heavenly reward.

  • The industrial revolution brought organization, schedules and efficient methods of putting out a product (or a child).

  • Philosophies about child development focused on strict management from day one and training independence as early as possible. Therefore, infant crying should be ignored; behaviors such as thumb sucking and wanting to be held were bad habits that should be extinguished.

  • Concerns about moral development put supreme importance on selflessness and remorse. Hence these deeply rooted tenets:

    • Sometimes you must deprive children of what they need so that they learn to be unselfish; to make children do better, first you have to make them feel worse.

    • Debates about nature-versus-nurture argued that humans had risen above nature, that we were products of our environment and children had to be properly molded into possessing good qualities such as an even temperament and regular sleeping habits.

    • Science and technology gave humans the tools to question what nature had designed. For example, infant formula, concocted in the laboratory, was assumed to be superior to breast milk. The application of science to parenting also gave rise to the belief that there must be one right way to raise a child.

In short, during the last century or so, social attitudes and advice from "the experts" resulted in many parents turning away from the legitimate needs of their little ones. Fortunately, from Dr. Spock in the 1940's to Dr. Mom in the 1990's, there has been a shift toward more nurturing attitudes, including:

  • viewing human nature as inherently good and focusing more on encouragement and guidance, and less on punishment and shaming

  • general flexibility, like feeding on demand and sleeping with baby

  • accepting babyish behaviors like clinging and sucking as normal developmental behaviors

  • recognizing that many temperamental traits like shyness, moodiness, distractibility, and irregular eating and sleeping are inborn and not a result of faulty mothering

  • considering it developmentally appropriate for babies and children to be immature, selfish, impulsive and needy (i.e., they're supposed to be!)

  • respecting the ways nature has equipped mothers and babies to respond to each other

  • understanding that parenting is an art, not a science

Fortunately, these nurturing attitudes strengthen the growing bond between parent and infant. "Attachment parenting" recognizes that babies and children thrive best when they are surrounded by attentive, responsive, emotionally tuned caregivers. When a baby cries, instead of viewed as "being bad", the baby is viewed as communicating a need, to which the caregiver can lovingly respond.


The trend today is toward relaxed, efficient, nurturing, common sense childrearing. However, this style of parenting is not really new. As it is practiced in gentle, primitive cultures whose ways of living have not changed over the past several thousand years, this style is actually a traditional style. Feeding is but one example of how this style works so well. The traditional mother suckles her baby often, throughout the day and night. Feeding isn't measured in ounces or in minutes on the breast. Baby nurses whenever and however long he wishes, on one breast at a feeding if this satisfies. If baby squawks again after a half hour, the mother doesn't fret that he has "just been fed." She naturally offers the other breast and goes about her business. Feeding on demand like this allows the mother's milk production to become well established and to meet the infant's growing needs. Solid foods are offered when baby starts reaching for them. This may be at four months, or it may be at twelve months. The mother trusts that her baby knows when he needs to expand his nutritional horizons.

These traditional mothering ways are relaxed because they are based on the valid assumption that babies respond to internal cues, which indicate what is needed to grow and develop. They are efficient because they don't rely on fancy gadgets or implementing schedules. They are nurturing because they are responsive to the infant's needs. They are common sense because they listen to the baby's cues-even newborns give clear signals bout what they like and dislike. Relaxed, efficient, nurturing, common sense approaches also put a lot of stock in the fact that each baby's development is basically determined by her genetic, biological heritage. The idea that biology is largely responsible for development is gaining more credibility with new advances in genetic research. We already take for granted that teeth, the thickness and length of head hair, and height will come in and grow according to genetic programming. We are starting to accept that motor development, like sitting, crawling, walking and drawing have inherent timelines that cannot be significantly speeded up by extra coaching.

Other areas of development, such as self-soothing, sleeping through the night, and getting out of diapers are stubborn strongholds in the "parents should maintain and exercise control" department. Even though these too are biological processes, parents brag if their three-month-old can soothe herself, their six-month-old is sleeping in eight-hour stretches, or if their two-year-old is dry, day and night. Although parents like to take credit for these marvels, they are merely lucky in the crapshoot of genetic inheritance. Just as well they could have given birth to an infant who needs to be held a lot, a baby who sleeps in two hour stretches, or a toddler who needs diapers until he's three. Although a self-soother, heavy sleeper, and eager toilet-learner can make a parent's life easier, alas, these traits can be determined far more by biology than training.

Another primitive idea coming into vogue is that it takes a community to raise a child. Modern mothers who wonder why they are going nuts raising their children in relative isolation can look to the past. Families throughout history typically lived with extended family in small, closely-knit communities. A mother and her children spent their days with other mothers and children, not cordoned off into single-family houses or apartments. The children had close and longstanding relationships with other adults and kids. Getting together was spontaneous and easy, just a matter of course in regular daily cooperative living- not meticulously scheduled between commitments and errands. Mothering burnout was warded off with adult conversation throughout the day, and older kids and relatives regularly supervised the little ones.

Nowadays, full-time motherhood is spectacularly challenging. In our society, most mothers don't get their needs met for support, adult contact and relief from childcare, and then they feel guilty for feeling deprived and resenting their children. It is important that you find ways to meet those legitimate needs for community. When you feel ready and able, joining playgroups, gym classes, mother support groups and going to the playground are some of the ways you can hang out with other moms and kids. Don't expect yourself to stay home alone!

So, if you come into motherhood with childbearing bereavement, take advantage of your primed eagerness to be close to your baby and to be a wise parent. Listen to your mothering urges and listen to your baby. Follow your baby's lead, take into account your needs, find a balance, and do it. While books and friends offering support and advice can be invaluable, remember that you are the ultimate expert on what is right for you and your baby. Although you will make mistakes, often times that is the only way to learn what works. Don't consider every microscopic event as potentially traumatic, and don't consider every microscopic behavior as evidence of deeper problems. There is no perfection here, either in terms of yourself or your baby. Perfection is not possible, and your child is resilient in the face of your blunders. (Resiliency is a blessed trait-without it, human babies would have crashed and burned at such high rates that our species would've been extinct by now!) Expect yourself to be a good enough mother to a good enough child. Relax, dote, and enjoy yourself and your baby. And if you are brushing your teeth, you're overachieving!


Especially in the past decade, pediatricians, psychologists, child psychiatrists and anthropologists have written parenting books that question many of the old rules about how to raise good children. They point out the disadvantages of rigid schedules, punishment and ignoring a baby's cries. They point out the advantages of trusting an infant's cues (babies are born knowing what they need), respecting a child's special temperament and development (every child is unique), meeting dependency needs (a need doesn't go away until it's fulfilled), having realistic expectations (babies aren't bad, they're just young) and coaching children to acknowledge and cope with their emotions (ultimately, success and happiness rise out of emotional intelligence).

The better parenting books recognize that just as every child is unique, so is every parent and every family. Beware of authors who admonish parents to follow precise instructions, spout off absolute rules of parenting or give rigid advice that promises specific results. Wise experts support and respect parents as collaborators, helping them uncover underlying problems and find tailor-made solutions that can work for their special situation.

Similarly, wise parents see experts as consultants, not bosses. They dare to question. They keep what works for them and their child, and toss what doesn't.

That said, the best parenting books contain many good ideas and suggestions, but most importantly, they offer encouragement and support to the parent. Reading them is NOT like doing parenting homework-it's more like getting a hug. (If you like a particular author, look for other books she or he may have written.) Finally, the best parenting books focus on emotional intelligence and strengthening the parent-child relationship- to a degree, all of the books recommended below do so.

Books that are general, empowering, supportive guides:

The Mother of All Baby Books by Ann Douglas (this book is also attentive to the needs and perspective of bereaved mothers)

Dr. Mom by Marianne Neifert, M.D. with Anne Price and Nancy Dana

The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers by Jack Newman, M.D. and Teresa Pitman

Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser

Books that support and strengthen the parent-child relationship:

Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent by Meredith Small

Bonding: Building the Foundations of Secure Attachment and Independence by Marshall Klaus, MD and John Kennell, MD

Nighttime Parenting by William Sears, MD

Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma by Jane Bumgarner

Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences that Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children by Stanley Greenspan, MD

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen

Books that focus on emotional intelligence & health (including your own sanity):

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph.D.

The Path of Parenting by Vimala McClure

When Your Child Drives You Crazy by Eda LeShan

Kids, Parents and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

When Anger Hurts Your Kids: A Parent's Guide by Matthew McKay, Ph.D. et.al. (the best book out there that addresses parental anger and how to manage your triggers.)

Books on raising a child who is more challenging:

Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent and Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Normal Children Have Problems, Too: How Parents Can Understand and Help by Stanley Turecki, MD

The Challenging Child: Understanding, Raising and Enjoying the Five 'Difficult' Types of Children by Stanley I. Greenspan, MD

The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, "Chronically Inflexible" Children by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist who specializes in perinatal and neonatal crisis, medical ethics, parental bereavement and adjustment, parent education and child development. Dr. Davis is the author of four books for bereaved parents, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart (Fulcrum, 1991; 1996), Loving and Letting Go (Centering, 1993), Fly Away Home (Centering, 2000) and Stillbirth, Yet Still Born (PILC, 2000). With Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D., she is the coauthor of The Emotional Journey of Parenting Your Premature Baby: A Book of Hope and Healing (NICU Ink, 2002).

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