From availability to presence: A vital transition in child development
The mother’s availability is crucial for the newborn. Maternal availability is almost unconditional in the first weeks of life. Gradually, however, the mother and also the father become present in the life of the child, even if sometimes their presence does not signify total availability. This transformation begins already in the early months of life, becoming more and more pronounced as the child grows.
What is the difference between presence and availability? Unconditional availability manifests when the parent acts to satisfy each and every need and demand of the child. This is typical at the beginning of life. At this stage, the needs of the parents (and particularly the mother’s) take the backseat. In some respects, the mother is virtually irreplaceable, for instance, in breastfeeding her child. In a short time, however, full availability gives way to parental presence, that is, a situation in which the parent is not just an extension of the child, but an individual with needs of their own. This happens, for instance, as the father or another caretaker also plays a role in feeding, soothing and caring for the baby. This happens, as the mother and the people in her surroundings understand that she must rest. Some babies react well to other people’s care, but some require help in this transition. For instance, the mother may stand by the other caregiver, holding the child by the hand, caressing and talking to the baby in the process. In this way, the mother “authorizes” a third person to fulfil her role for a while. The mother is present, but not totally available.
The transition also takes place, when the parents let the child busy himself, play, or explore his surroundings on his own, under their caring eyes. Another delicate push in this direction, occurs when the parents soothe the baby by talking, singing or caressing him, without actually taking him in their arms. And yet another, when the parents let others soothe the baby so as to allow themselves a rest. In all these the parents can help, by showing the child they trust the caregiver, for instance, by putting an arm in caregiver’s shoulder and caressing the child at the same time, as if to say: “You can trust her!” Gradually, the parent’s presence becomes less physical and more mental. That is, instead of being present only in person, the parent is present in the child’s mind. I described this crucial transition in detail in my book “Courageous Parents”. This process continues throughout childhood, whenever the parents show the child they are thinking about him, so that the child thinks about them in his turn. We have shown this kind of mental presence to be helpful even for teens who start driving on their own. For instance, when the parents give the new driver the keys to the car, they may tell him: “Please, send us a short message when you arrive at your destination! And please another one before midnight, so that we may go to sleep knowing that you are safe!” We have shown that when parents insist, the great majority of young drivers do so. We have also demonstrated that thinking about the parents (as they do when they send the text message) gives those teens a kind of parental accompaniment that makes them drive more carefully. Who would think that this process begins already at the first weeks of life!
The transition from availability to presence creates the conditions for many important developments. The child learns to busy and soothe himself, to keep the parents in his mind, to become comfortable with other people, to develop a broader sense of belonging, and to see the other as a person with needs of his or her own. This final point is crucial for developing the capacity to form positive relationships. The parents’ ability to convey messages like, “Now I’m going to rest!” “Wait until I finish talking with Grandma!” “I’m busy now, please don’t disturb me!” plays a central role in the passage from availability to presence. The reason is that now the parents not only cater for the child’s needs, but are persons with needs of their own. In this way the child learns that the other is really other.
There is no objectively right pace for transitioning between availability and presence. Different parents and different societies create their own rhythms. Some parents feel comfortable with a very gradual passage, sometimes even drawing inspiration from a different culture in so doing. This may work well for many parents and children. However, sometimes there are signs that the child (and the parents) may be lacking something substantial. For instance, when the parent shows signs of “parental burnout” (this condition has recently become a focus of research), when a child continues sleeping in the parents’ bed, when the child refuses to stay alone with anyone else, or when the parents of an anxious child feel obliged to come to his rescue at the very first sign of anxiety. These situations occur all through childhood and even beyond it. In our work with parents we have witnessed various kinds of “entitled dependence” also with grown-ups. The oldest “child” whose parents came to us for help was 62! We recommend that parents start earlier with their transition from availability to presence.