If you have ever been in the presence of a newborn baby, you know what love looks and feels like. You may have heard declarations that babies are close to God, the Divine, the Mystery. Their little faces present a pure expression of presence.
There are those who would argue that babies are not really capable of love; they are just designed to look cute and lovable to enable their survival. They need us. Their cuteness endears them to us, stimulating us to protect and nourish them. Babies have instincts to attach as a survival mechanism, but they are not aware of the people around them as individuals and are not capable of truly loving…
Science has historically viewed babies as bundles of reflexes, not really conscious (or human) until they begin to speak and demonstrate their learning and memory. The belief that infants did not feel pain led to the practice of routinely performing surgery on young babies without anesthesia, until remarkably recently.
We now know that babies are human, sentient beings from the moment of conception. Little ones in the womb respond to sounds, stress and attitudes of those around them. Daddy pats mommy’s belly and baby kicks back. Newborns demonstrate a preference for their mothers’ face and voice. Preverbal children clearly demonstrate memory of places they have been earlier in their lives, as well as prenatal experiences, when we take care to listen to how they express themselves.
Little ones may not have words, but their behavior and play patterns communicate exquisitely. Why would they not be capable of love? In fact, those who remember their early days and are able to describe their experiences include reports of feelings of love. They are aware of and care about their mothers, fathers, older siblings, as well as twins they have lost before birth. Even if babies weren’t capable of loving others, I still see babies as a pure expression of love.
What is Love?
How do we define love? We can look at love as being about affectionate feelings for another person, as attachment, longing to be with the other, appreciation for another. Babies demonstrate all of these quite clearly. But, we can look at love another way.
"Attention is the most basic form of love; through it we bless and are blessed." - John Tarrant
Love can be defined as presence. Being present. Compare this with fear of what will happen in the future. Compare it with judgment: You are too thin/fat; you should eat more/less. You are too selfish; you should consider others. You are too lazy; get out and do something!… Have any of your relatives or “loved ones” spoken to you like this? Is this an expression of love?
All the ways we judge others or situations take us away from what is. Judgments express a need or wish for things to be other than they are. Rejecting what is, rather than presence, takes us away from love. Love is about being with what is, accepting what is, even if we don’t condone it.
I have never encountered a newborn expressing judgment of others, or themselves. They may not like what is happening and be angry about it, but I have seen no evidence of judging. Babies are present with what is. They fully feel their feelings, and then move on to the next. They are pure expressions of whatever it is in the moment. They are presence. Babies are love. We can learn from them.
Our physiology changes when we shift our awareness from negative thoughts, like judgment, and enter into appreciation and gratitude. The heart functions in a more healthy way as we settle into the present moment. When we shift to appreciation, we come back into acceptance of what is. We return to love.
The Love Hormone
If you watch new parents with their baby, you see appreciation. Their eyes light up. You can almost see, and can definitely feel, their hearts light up. If you observe their baby, you will see the same ignition occurring. Is this love?
Ocytocin, an important hormone supporting birth and bonding, and also secreted during love making, is known as the “love hormone.” It facilitates the kinds of interactions and feelings we associate with love. As a child, I used to have a feeling I described as not knowing whether to laugh or cry. What a beautiful way to speak of love! It touches our hearts. When we are touched, we laugh or cry, or at least feel moved in our hearts. An ocytocin feeling.
Babies are designed to be met with love. We all arrive with a need to be welcomed and loved. We also need to have our love received! None of us, including babies, however, can force our love on those around us. Receptivity is essential.
Not all babies are warmly received and met with love. Some babies arrive unwanted. Their parents may not be ready or able to welcome them into the world for various reasons. Or their parents may be shocked by an unexpected appearance.
Those greeting the newborn arrive with their hopes, fears and judgments: Is it a girl or a boy? (In some cultures and families, one is wanted and the other rejected.) How many toes and fingers does my baby have? Does he look like me? Whose nose is that? Is she breathing adequately? These are normal questions to ensure that the little one is our kin, and is healthy enough to survive. Depending on the culture and family the child is born into, aspects of appearance have varying effects.
In a medical environment, these questions dominate. The fear is enhanced. Doctors are trained to look for dis-ease. Their important orientation unfortunately can entrain everyone at the birth scene to their fear. What happens then to love?
Armor in the Nursery
Have you ever noticed how little ones seem so open and soft? What happens to us as we grow older that we are not all like this? Most psychologists agree that we develop armoring of some kind in our early years. When we are judged, rejected, traumatized or otherwise treated unlovingly as little ones, we must find ways to cope. We develop a harder shell to keep ourselves from feeling the pain.
Our armor can develop in many ways. Some children misbehave or treat younger children or pets disrespectfully. Children tend to act out what has been modeled for them. If they have been abused, shouted at, hit, insulted, spoken to sharply, or hushed, they will act this way with their dolls, animals, or others when possible. Some children become very quiet and good. They try to avoid being mistreated by being invisible. They may also be in a shock state, if they have been unable to integrate how they have been treated.
Whatever style the armor takes, it serves to separate the child from his or her pain. Unfortunately, it also splits the child from a more authentic self. For example, a naturally playful, joyful child, who has been scolded for playing and laughing, may take on a more serious persona in order to survive in this environment.
Little ones are extremely impressionable. We are designed to quickly learn about the environment we find ourselves in. A child born into a gentle, accepting, nurturing family learns how to be in gentleness. A child in a violent family learns violence. It is not quite this simple, however. Babies are impressionable even as they are being born. A child of a gentle family may not be born in the gentleness of that family’s home. A birth involving multiple medical interventions may be experienced as far from gentle by the little one. This experience leaves an imprint. Similarly, a child born into a violent family may also be imprinted by the gentle presence of a birth attendant. I have had many students and clients who have reported that the one resource for them growing up was the kindness of someone outside their immediate family circle. They felt this was what enabled them to get through their childhood.
Having a gentle presence or a nurturing family can serve as an essential resource when being born in a speedy, fear-based hospital setting. Even so, being taken away brusquely from mom and rushed to another room for emergency, often painful interventions, easily overwhelms a newborn. Simply explaining to the little one what is about to happen and why can greatly reduce the effects of interventions, as these little humans attend carefully to what is communicated to them. Unfortunately, this simple step is usually omitted. Often, the parents are also overwhelmed by the situation. Even if they are allowed to be with their baby, they may too much in shock and fear to take supportive action at the time.
It is not unusual for new families to need quiet time to recover from birth. This may not be available until after they return home from the hospital. Once they are able to settle quietly together, which may take professional support and encouragement, the family begins to process their experience of the birth. Being able to talk about what happened in a calm, accepting environment helps them come to terms with it. Baby also needs to be able to express his or her story. Where the opportunity to fully welcome baby was missed, repair can happen.
As baby and parents settle together, they tend to return to what they know within - a biological template of love. If ocytocin has been overshadowed during the birth, it can surge again. Feelings of hurt, confusion, anger, sadness, even despair, that may have been stimulated by birth, can be expressed and released.
Under these difficult feelings awaits the original one. Love is our essence. Love is our original state. When we return to love, the armor begins to melt. For little ones, melting can occur more readily as the armor has had less time to harden. Fortunately, armor can melt at any time of life. As it melts, our tissues also thaw. Our faces soften and widen. We begin to see and feel what we have barred ourselves from, and we begin to allow ourselves to be seen and felt in ways we have resisted.
Return to Love
As love returns, we come into presence. Instead of orienting to whatever event it was that caused us to become armored, we let go and return to the present. In love, we welcome and receive this moment, as we needed to be welcomed and received at birth.
The greatest challenge often is not about welcoming and receiving others. It is not about loving someone else. The greatest task for most of us is to love, welcome and receive ourselves. Then, we become open to the love that awaits us. As we learn to love ourselves just as we are, regardless of the number of fingers or toes we have, or whatever else we may judge about ourselves or have experience being judged about us, we begin to attract and be attracted to those who can love. In returning to love, we return to our birthright.