Child Care: Common Parental Anxieties and Worries

1. Normalcy of the Unborn Child

The parental anxieties may start from the time of pregnancy. The joy and pride of parenthood is mixed with a fear, “will my child be perfectly normal, i.e. without any birth defects?” The answer is a question, “why not?” The chances of a baby being born abnormal are minimal. It is just like worrying whether the roof will fall on one’s head one day, which is no cause for worry simply because the chances are minimal.

Various other fears, which may haunt the mother, may be like she may not abort the baby, give birth to a preterm baby, give birth to a baby with some physical handicap or mental retardation, giving birth to a dead baby etc. The chances of all these happening are very less, so less that they should not be taken seriously and sleepless nights spent over them. It is most appropriate to bundle all these worries and throw them out of the window once and for all.

Friends, neighbours, relatives etc. may narrate anecdotes about pregnancy and childbirth, which may unwittingly give rise to anxiety in the prospective mother. They may site examples about abnormal babies etc. Just don’t pay any attention to their “experiences”. Such “hearsay” is best discouraged. Just relax and enjoy your pregnancy. Active work and exercises in moderation during pregnancy is in no way detrimental. However, chronic mental stress can be harmful to the baby.

Caution: If there is a family history of genetic disorders e.g. Thalessemia, or you had abortions previously or a baby was born abnormal previously; go in for genetic counselling before planning your next baby.

2. Sex of the Child

Another common worry is regarding the sex of the child; i.e. will it be a boy or a girl? In today’s rapidly progressive world, where both the sexes are having equal opportunities and are doing equally well in the all important and meaningful spheres of education, career, independence and ‘bread earning’, this question has lost much of its relevance. But still due to social pressures and cultural values like propagation of the family’s name, this question is not redundant. The parents should realize that a girl is in all aspects equal to a boy.

Infact she is superior biologically and can absorb the shocks and tensions of life better than a man, which is much more important than physical prowess. Also the girl is of a gentler nature and sweeter. One complaint told to me by a mother of 2 boys was that she was constantly worried about their falling in bad company and more than that about their career and future settlement. “Had they been girls, this agony would not have been there”, she remarked wistfully. And she was dead serious.

Mothers, particularly in India, are under a lot of pressure to deliver “preferentially” a male baby. If she doesn’t do so, even after 2 pregnancies (as if she had been given 2 chances to deliver a male baby and she failed to capitalise on both of them), the patience, particularly, of the inlaws, may start wearing thin. The mother is directly or indirectly, blamed and held guilty for not being able to deliver a male child, which puts her under tremendous mental stress. The irony is that the mother has nothing to do with the sex of the baby.

Simply stating, a baby with “XX” chromosomes becomes a female, while a baby with “XY” chromosomes becomes a male. The mother always contributes only the X chromosome (i.e. the X in “XX” and the X in “XY”). The other chromosome (i.e. the X in “XX” and the Y in “XY”) comes from the father. Therefore, the sex determination of the child depends upon the chromosome which the baby gets from the father, and not from the mother. So, why the mother should be blamed for not giving birth to a male child? In fact, no one is to be blamed (either the mother or the father). It is just chance as to which of the father’s chromosome (X or Y) will fuse with the X chromosome of the mother to form the first living cell of the baby and hence determine its sex. And the chances are 50% for either a male or a female baby to be born in each pregnancy.

3. Illnesses in a child

After the birth of the baby, a significant concern may be about any harm befalling the baby in the form of various illnesses. The parents worry about the baby’s crying thinking that something is seriously wrong with the baby. They worry about almost everything, from a benign sneeze to some harmless spots or rash over the skin of the baby. Some “sensitive” parents may tiptoe into the baby’s room to see whether the baby is breathing normally and all is well. All this is nature’s way to ensure that the parents take their responsibility seriously. However, the fact is that the newborn, though it looks so frail, is in fact a very strong and robust creature.

Its defence mechanisms (immunity) are well developed to ward off the common infections. Even if the newborn falls sick, by and large the infections are contained by immunity so as to not become serious. Therefore most of the common infections in a baby are by and large benign and self-limiting (as in adults). In fact I have found in my clinical practice that babies respond very well to treatment and recover faster, even better than adults do.

This may be due to the fact that the baby’s tissues are still actively dividing and therefore has a much greater regenerative power as compared to the adults. In adults, the organs, with age, start losing their “vitality”. Another important reason why the babies respond better than the adult to a disease is that they don’t have any psychological component (like anxiety, depression, feeling of helplessness and uncertainty etc.) attached to a disease. These psychological factors (called psychosomatic component of a disease) aggravate the disease, making healing delayed and difficult.

4. Feeding and Growth of the Child

Another common parental concern is about the feeding and the growth of the child. Mothers invariably feel that their child does not eat well, is thin and thus not healthy. This is due to a comparison between their child with other children of the same age group and finding differences between them.

As far as “poor eating” is concerned, remember that even a 1-day-old has an inborn mechanism to signal hunger by crying when it is hungry. So no child can starve of its own accord. Mother, due to her anxiety that the child is not eating well tries to force or coax extra morsels down the baby’s throat. The child may resist this because something is being forced upon him against his wishes. Put yourself in the baby’s shoes and imagine someone stuffing you forcibly. Won’t you revolt?

Not only that; with time you will lose all the pleasure of eating and consider it as a dreary task forcibly thrust upon you. Also you will feel antagonism towards the “force feeder”. Same theory applies to a child also. So next time when you have the urge to somehow make the child accept that “extra morsel”, stop…. and “put yourself in the child’s shoes!” Respect the child’s natural instincts and be secure in the belief that nature has so ordained that the child will signal and will accept food whenever it is hungry; and thus cannot starve and become weak as a consequence.

Regarding the child’s weight, it is important to bear in mind that there is no “ideal weight” that you should become obsessed with and strive to achieve. To give an example, two perfectly healthy adults may weigh differently (say one is 60 kilos, another is 70 kilos). Yet both of them are normal and healthy. So we should realise that there is a range of normalcy, rather than a fixed set point. For example, a child of 1 year has a normal weight if it lies between 8-12 kilos, though if 2 children weighing 8 kilos and 12 kilos are compared side by side, one may appear robust and the other may appear thin.

And finally remember that too much plumpness in the baby is also not desirable, as there is evidence that this may be the harbinger of obesity in later life. I remember a doctor friend of mine whose baby tilted the scales at a hefty 8 kilos at 6 months of age. She looked so chubby that people around used to cite her as an example of a perfectly healthy baby. But the doctor father knowing that excessive fat at this age leads to obesity later; put her on diluted milk and rice water i.e. “dieting” to decrease her weight, much to the chagrin of the mother, who however, was wise enough to realise the logic of such a step.

5. Psychological and Mental Development of the Child

Nowadays, in this competitive world, parents pay a lot of attention to the mental and psychological development of the child. Parents have high expectations from their children, wanting them to be “perfect.” They want their child to excel in academics in the school and be amongst the toppers. Not only that they also expect their child to excel in the extracurricular activities and come out with flying colours in various fields like dancing, singing, sports etc.

All this puts a lot of pressure on the child because he has to constantly strive to live up to the high expectations of his parents. When in spite of his best efforts, the child performs below the high set standards; it leads to a feeling of worthlessness and inferiority in the child along with loss of self-esteem and confidence. It also leads to a feeling of disappointment in the parents. Therefore simply stating, the high expectations of the parents create neurotic children.

The parents should only support and guide their child to tap his full potential and not burden the child with their expectations. For example, the parents may want their child to be amongst the top ten in the class, but the child may not achieve it. Under these circumstances the parents should not let their disappointments be known to the child. Rather they should try to improve the child’s performance by modifying the method of preparations for the exams. The parents should never criticise him for doing badly or compare him with others. Rather they should praise the child for his efforts. After all, the child has tried his best.

Parents, particularly educated ones, also are concerned a lot about the psychological development of their child. Some may consider their child to be timid, docile, socially withdrawn and shy. Others may consider their child to be hyperactive, aggressive and “difficult” to manage. All this may lead to the nagging feeling that there is something wrong with the child’s psychological development. This in turn might lead to a feeling of guilt in the parents.

They may feel that if only they had been more loving and devoted more time and attention to their child, the child’s behaviour may not have been like what it is. It is important to realise that adults also are introverts and extroverts i.e. some adults may be shy and reticent while others may be boisterous, energetic and outgoing. Yet as long as their behaviour confers to the accepted social norms, it is considered normal. Similar is the case with the children. As long as the family as a unit is stable and the parents love their child and have a feeling of care and warmth towards him, the child will blossom normally.

Therefore parents should not pressurise themselves and harbour feelings of self-blame regarding the rearing of the child. After all parents are doing their best and no loving parent will deliberately neglect his child. Once in a while if parents blow their tops and get infuriated with the child doesn’t mean that they have spoiled the psychology of the child or created an indelible negative impression on the child’s mind.

Caution: There are some parents who are overly doting, who look the other way every time their child does something wrong, and instead of being firm with him; bow down to all his tantrums, whims and fancies under the umbrella of the convenient excuse that he is small. Such parents who cannot find or don’t want to find any fault with their child are running the risk of making their child a spoiled “brat”. Parents should set firm guidelines as to what is wrong and what is right and acceptable, and then treat the child accordingly without wavering. This is what discipline is all about (more about it in a separate chapter on “Child Psychology”)

6. Working Parents

Another common source of parental worry and self-guilt is when both parents are working. This particularly affects the mother because of the strength of the tradition that mothers are supposed to give priority to child-care and child-care is primarily their responsibility as compared to the father. Thus she is caught on the two horns of dilemma. She has to work mainly due to economic considerations, but by doing so she feels that she is not being a “good mother” and neglecting the child.

This feeling is very common amongst all working mothers. This is minimised if the husband and other relatives approve and commend her for her efforts in child-care and also share some of the burden. If the mother can resolve her guilt and doubts, her child will not only accept it, but will be proud of her being a working lady. He will feel proud that his father is so and so and his mother is also so and so. It has been studied and found out that if the mother also is working, it in no way hampers the mental and emotional development of the child, if the family bonds are strong and based on love and affection.

In fact it is the mother’s extra sensitivity and doting (after the work hours to “compensate” for her being away from the child) that may have negative effects, and not her absence during the working hours. It has been shown that children whose parents are working are in the long run more autonomous, free and decisive. They become independent faster and don’t depend on their parents for small things. They also interact socially more freely and are less shy and clinging.

To overcome the pangs of self-guilt, the mother and the father tend to be extra sensitive towards the child. They shower him with gifts and presents, bow to his wishes, and “literally” let him get away with “murder”. When the child finds that the parents are so good appeasers, it makes him more demanding. So working or not working, the parents should shower that much love and attention as comes to them naturally. They should expect reasonable behaviour from their child. In other words they should act like self-confident, firm parents without letting the guilt complex bow them down.

What are the alternatives for such a couple where both are working?

• The mother’s and father’s duty hours can be adjusted so that both are not absent for a prolonged period simultaneously.
• The job hours can be cut down or alternatively the mother can look for a part time or a short duration job of 3-4 hours.
• Engage a caretaker for the baby.

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