I was leafing though the September 2006 issue of the magazine American Baby when I came across an article describing the concept of emotional intelligence. In the article, a Harvard psychologist named Daniel Goleman was quoted saying, “Whatever our mental faculties may be, our emotional intelligence determines how well we put them to use.”
This article struck a very resonant chord with me. I have always believed strongly in the importance of the first three years of a child’s life. More explicitly, I have believed in the importance of the child’s life while in the womb and the first six years beyond the womb. I even named my company Womb To Grow! While I did not coin the term “emotional intelligence,” I have encouraged parents to give their children unconditional love and support during their early years to establish a strong base of self-esteem. In my experience, if a baby feels loved and valued from pre-birth on, she will be able to handle whatever life experiences come her way with a greater degree of resiliency and fewer emotional scars.
The article went on to explain that no matter how many intelligence-building toys and music and activities a baby or toddler is exposed to, he won’t be able to take it in, much less put it to use, if he doesn’t feel emotionally secure. I can relate to this concept from my own experience as a baby and toddler.
My mother was sick when she got pregnant with me, but her doctor didn’t know what was wrong with her. “You have too much time on your hands, Trudy,” he said. “Why don’t you have another baby?” My sister was eight years old at the time and my mother had been suffering for years with strange, undiagnosed ailments. She followed the doctor’s suggestion, and I was born about a year later, but Trudy’s health did not improve. In fact, it got worse.
When I was two years old, my mother was sent to John’s Hopkins University Hospital, where the actual diagnosis was made: she had Scleroderma, an auto-immune disease which affects the skin and other organs and is eventually fatal. She died a little over a year later, when I was three and a half and my sister was twelve.
I have no clear memories of my early years, just disjointed pictures and feelings, and stories (like the above) told to me by aunts and older cousins. The clearest early memory I have is of sitting in my highchair in my Aunt Goldie’s kitchen. The phone rang and my aunt answered it. She listened, then dropped the phone and wailed. The picture is still vivid to me to this day. No one told me what had happened. No one needed to tell me anything. I knew that my mother was dead.
I am telling you, the reader, all this because I want you to understand the difference between emotional intelligence and mental intelligence. I was a very smart little girl. I came from a family of very smart people and everyone liked to say I was the smartest in my family. I may have been the smartest, but my emotional IQ was very low. I am not blaming anyone for this situation. My mother was very sick. She was in and out of hospitals from the time I was born. My sister was watching her mother slowly wasting away. She had no time for a little baby that took what was left of our mother’s attention. My father was working six days a week at his grocery store, and trying to deal with the needs at home of two children – one very young – and a beloved wife who was obviously dying. It is no wonder that no one had time to take much care of my emotional needs.
Before and after my mother died, my Aunt Goldie tried to provide the emotional support my mother could not give to me. Her love for her departed younger sister and - by extension – for me helped to soothe my pain and fill the void my mother’s death had left in my heart. Even though she lived across town, she would have my uncle drive her up to our house to put me to bed each night. I went to sleep to the sound of her voice telling me stories. I cannot over-emphasize the healing effect she had upon my young life.
When I was four, my father tried to put me in Nursery School as it was called then. I became hysterical and refused to leave his side. I was not ready to be among children my own age. Never a patient man, he took me home and left me in the care of our housekeeper. I spent most of my days playing by myself. I developed a rich fantasy life which may also have helped to heal my sorrow and allow me to gradually become ready to enter the world of school. I went to Kindergarten at the age of five and was able to manage and even excel at school. But to this day I am uncomfortable in large groups of people and have to force myself to go to parties or other social events.
My journey toward the healing of my early emotional trauma has taken me many places – to college in Boston – to California during the tumultuous ‘70’s and to the coastal mountains of northern California as part of the “back to the land” movement – to an East Indian holy man – to the practice and study of yoga and meditation – to my two home births and mothering my own two children – to becoming a therapist for abused women and children – to helping to raise my own grandchildren – to starting Womb To Grow and Babynut.com. And all along the way I have never forgotten that little girl in her highchair and the loss I felt as I watched my aunt react to the death of her sister, my mother.
We cannot completely script our lives. We can plan and hope and dream and some of the plans and hopes and dreams may well come to fruition. But there is an old Yiddish saying: “Man plans and God laughs.” Or, in the words of a John Lennon song: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” When an unexpected event or trauma is visited upon us, it is our emotional resilience and security that will see us through.
Love your babies with all your hearts. Give them the very best start in life that you can – the knowledge that you love them for who they are and are there for them when they need you. All the fancy toys and classes and preschools are just window dressing compared to a strong and positive sense of self. They will develop their mental intelligence with much greater ease if they have a strong emotional base.
If you are not able to be home with your baby or toddler each day, make sure the people in charge of child care understand how important it is to be loving and reassuring. My grandchildren are cared for by their parents, but also by various grandparents during the week. They know they are loved and supported by each and every one of their caretakers. Professional caregivers can also be kind and supportive. The important thing to be sure of is the intent of the caregivers and the love and respect they show to your child and expect in return.
In the words of my favorite child/parent guru, Mister Rogers: “The roots of a child’s ability to cope and thrive, regardless of circumstance, lie in that child’s having had at least a small, safe place (an apartment, a room, a lap) in which, in the companionship of a loving person, that child could discover that he or she was loveable and capable of loving in return. If a child finds this during the first years of life, he or she can grow up to be a competent, healthy person.”