Morning world. It’s 7.30 in the morning, and I’ve decided that if I don’t write for the first hour of the day, when Eurik can look after Arun before he goes to work, then I will go insane. Thus follows:
Tightness and Presence: A Review of Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept
I’ve recently read Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept, which I would describe as a profoundly beautiful piece of work. I regret, in fact, that despite it’s having been recommended to me by a number of sources, I’m only just reading it now, when Arun is five months old. It has both helped and hindered my mothering, confused and clarified simultaneously.
Published in 1975, the book begins not with any reference to children or mothers or the South American jungles, but to a glade in a forest in Maine, which a child Jean Liedloff discovered while trailing at the back of a summer camp nature walk. In the beauty of the glade in the afternoon sun she felt she had “discovered the missing centre of things”. It was, for her, “a hint of that sense of Tightness”, her word for that which most of us wish for, but cannot find. Vowing to remember the sense of connectedness, when she was an adult she lost the power of the memory, until she found her way into the South American jungle, when everything came alive again. “The mysteries of jungle life, the ways of its animals and plants, its dramatic storms and sunsets, its snakes, its orchids, its fascinating virginity, the hardness of making ones way in it and the generosity of its beauty all made it appear even more actively and profoundly right”.
The book itself is not so much an investigation of the way to care for your child, but an investigation of the concept of unhappiness. Profoundly struck by the way that the Yequana tribe, the tribe with whom Jean lived, were happy, she tried, from this, to understand the malaise, depression and general misery that seemed to her, in contrast, to pervade the Western society in which she was brought up. The adults were at peace, had a leader but did not compete, refused ever to tell anyone else what to do, and were at rest and satisfied while working in the same way that we may find ourselves at rest while curling up with in front of the TV. The children, as they grew, were gentle and respectful with an innate sense of their own personhood. As babies, their limbs were far more relaxed than the stiff Western babies, with their arched backs and underlying tension. They did not burp or throw up after every meal as if they were allergic either to their food or the stress in the eating of it, and none of them cried as if by rote.
Because Liedloff is a powerful and no-nonsense writer, the book does not come across as an idealistic piece of golden age writing which glorifies, but does not understand, that which we are not and cannot be. I acknowledge it’s description might, indeed it was this which put me off reading the book in the first place: Anthropologist spends two years in South American jungle and comes back with profound insights that change the history of Western parenting. Really?
But, as I say, there is a depth and complexity in Liedloff’s thinking which makes it obvious just why the book had such an impact. From her observations she developed her theory of continuum, essentially a theory of balance, which basically argues that the human body is designed by millions of years of evolution to fit with its environment. In her words here, she evokes for me the phenomenological ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty or David Abram, in the idea that we are not, without that which we meet. Our sight occurs because we have trees, grass and sky to see, our touch because there is that to be touched. One does not exist without the other.
For Liedloff, after observing the differences in the Yequana tribe, she developed the idea that babies are designed to be held by the body of the mother. The first six months to a year, what Liedloff describes as the “in-arms phase”, is a time in which, after spending nine months within the body of the mother, the child, unable to walk or move for himself, learns his world by being held. His role is of an observer, safe and resting. His energy field is passive, and he absorbs the active energy of his mother, as she works, walks, talks, dances, and sleeps.
The idea of lying a baby, immediately as they are born, on a non- living space of fabric, training them to be independent, letting them soothe themselves is, she argues, bone-shakingly ridiculous. When born, babies respond to the genetics of their continuum, which is fit to the environment of arms and body. They don’t know that they’ve been born in this peculiar modernity, when our attempts to address and redress the broken gender politics of the last half millenia has led, like a twisting snake caught in a trap, to a profound devaluation of one fundamental movement in the opera of human being; being parent. They don’t know that, in trying to live in a rapid and mechanistic world, we ask for rapid mechanisation from them, and that we tell ourselves that if they do not conform to our rhythms they will be profoundly unfit to be adults.
There are problems with the book, and with the reading it. In describing so directly what Liedloff’s considers the impact of Western parenting and her assertion of how it can be better she leaves little space to acknowledge the miracles of love and care given by parents endlessly, everywhere. It is not easy to parent, to be this in-arms being (and we all are, whether we breastfeed, co-sleep and baby-carry or not), in a society that has forgotten to acknowledge the value and miracles of person-making, of reeling out and sharing the essence of ourselves to make a rug for our children to grab, wrap, cuddle, chew and grow with until we who were one or two have made for the world a stunning other, and we don’t need to be jungle inhabitants to change the world like this.
And while the book blows me away with the power of its ideas it also seems to me reductive to equate child happiness with the absence or presence of a carrying, co-sleeping in-arms phase. Was it just being carried that changed the situation and make-up of these South American babies? What about the bodies by whom they were carried, and the places they were carried to? Again, without aiming to be reductive or niave, a Yequana life is a life far more drenched in the thing-ness of reality than a Western life. The children in this tribe, presumably, were not carried only by their mother, sister, father, but also by the reaching trees and running water, compact soil and stretching mountains which, as a result of constant interaction, imbued both the energy and nature of the elbows, belly, hands and arms upon which they sat and clung. Is a baby in the Western world more stressed because they are less lifted up, or because they are not taught the big-ness of things, not simply via the touch of their mother but by the constant and unending interaction with the demands of their close environment?
Nevertheless, for me, the book is an important one because it resonates with how mothering comes to me, and, in doing so, allows me to trust the decisions about how, with Arun, I am (as well as regret that which I would have done, if the book read earlier had given form to my instincts in a wider range of ways). About comfort. If my child tells me, by the wincing in his body and the thunder in his throat, that he would prefer to spend his sleep in the presence of another body, in the sling or in my arms during the day and in the bed at night, coaching him out of this is not something that belongs to me. Reading The Continuum Concept was powerful for me because it changed my estimation of my own behaviour, from something lax and over-indulgent to something basic and powerful. And while I’m not interested in entering into a debate about parenting when parenting is as various as parents, I am interested by how much advice today has the capacity to alienate ourselves from our bodies. If we do things that may come to us naturally, against the advice we are given, such as allowing babies to sleep beside us, or allow them to settle to sleep in our arms as they are feeding, how persistent will be the whispers that we are depriving them of the capacity to be independent, and how, then, will we be able to access the glory that is inherent in being a being who carries a child? How is our relationship to our breasts that soothe and our chests that settle changed by using them thus with a guilty attitude of just this once, or god I’m so tired, as opposed to an intractable belief that by being body, with infant, we are right?
A note about debate here; before I read Liedloff I read Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s Gentle Sleep Guide. Ockwell-Smith does enter the debate, from a standpoint of attachment theory and with the impact of Liedloff resonating through the book. If you are interested in the discussion from a more scientific and 21st century standpoint, I would absolutely recommend Ockwell-Smith’s work. The following being entirely my opinion: much contemporary sleep theory is given the tag “gentle” as a misnomer, and results in a screaming baby utterly confused as to why you are “gently” making them, over and over, do that which they have asked, pleaded and begged you not to. In Ockwell-Smith’s case, gentle is also a misnomer, as she swiftly and caustically dismantles pernicious assumptions (a “good” child will sleep through the night at four months, for example) to create a sleep theory that starts from a realistic understanding of babies and allows parents to maintain their own sanity while respecting the personhood of their children.
There is much more to say, so it seems I better do this review in two parts – I’d like to talk about Liedloff and her attitude to work, for example. However I’ve gone on long enough for one post and I’d like to end with this thought. There are two French philosophers named Charles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose large and largely impenetrable tome, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia is the basis for much contemporary theory. One of their thoughts is that Western human society is based on debt; I’m sure this is based on a lot of economics that I don’t know. But as I understand it, one of the essential points is that we live in a world in which we are kept away from the flow and fluidity of life by symbolic structures (langauge, money), which are based on the myth of not having. Money only works because it is not that which it stands for. So now I wonder how much the myth of not having begins with infancy. There are two things that these little people want most of all, it seems: milk and presence. We are no longer coached to restrict milk, but we are to restrict presence, particularly during sleep, so that our child may, as soon as possible, sleep well alone. But in fact, neither has to be lacking; in essence, what our babies want from us is just for us to be. We are, therefore we make happy. So while there is no doubt that a child has to learn the ins and outs of individuality and the sadness associated with not always having, it seems to me that we are far more obsessed with teaching this than letting our children reach out their hands and be struck by the incredible miracle of what is.
As I finish this post I’d like to make clear that I’m writing as a maybe somewhat experienced thinker, but an utterly inexperienced mother. These ideas are smoothly carved, and then there is the messy reality of screaming baby and me trying to compound myself into still existence while being for my child a safe universe of is. The ideas I’m expressing are those that strike me after reading the book, but in the actual ins and outs of parenting, the difference is chaotic, milk-driven, nappy-flailing, red-eyed reality. Just so you know. I began this post by sharing my need not to be needed, not, for a moment, to make happy by being but to be happy by being me. And so I shall end this post held tightly, as a writer, in the space of contradiction that let’s the reality come in.