Emily Perl Kingsley wrote the short article Welcome to Holland in 1987 (www.our-kids.org/Archives/Holland.html). It describes her experience of having a baby. The preparation period is compared with years of planning for a wonderful trip to Italy: reading the guide books; learning some of the language; imagining oneself at the sites there. The actual arrival of the baby and the years that follow is then described as landing in Holland.
It is not that there is anything wrong with Holland. The point is that it was not what was expected. There’s a sense of disorientation; a need to get up to speed in a new reality. And sometimes maybe a yearning for Italy – that image of what one imagined it would be like.
For some, motherhood is everything that one imagined it might be. But for others, becoming a mother is very different to what they expected. Emily Perl Kingsley says we get on with things and eventually learn to enjoy the wonderful things that Holland has to offer. But that process can take time.
Emily Perl Kingsley was writing about her experience with her son, Jason, born in 1974 with Down Syndrome. The article has been reproduced countless times and translated into many languages. Because? Because it speaks of a reality for many, many mothers, perhaps.
Whether the baby has a “special needs” label or not, it doesn’t alter the fact that some babies require a greater level of management than others. A baby might be a fussy eater, temperamental sleeper, hypersensitive to stimuli, reactive to changes in routine and liable to “winge” and cry. All babies are exhausting at times: such a baby is especially exhausting and requires greater input from Mum and Dad to help him/her negotiate the ordinary dramas of everyday life.
All babies give joy back to their parents. But the smiley, cuddly, good eater and sleeper’s gifts back to the mother are more readily felt and more immediately nourishing. The more aloof or fussy baby gives too, but sometimes Mum must learn a different language in order to receive these gifts.
If there is a special-needs label then there maybe support and sympathy directed towards you. However, if there is no obvious cause to the apparent neediness of the baby, then there may be suspicion and judgment coming your way, shaking an already crumbling confidence. In response, mothers can start to look for a diagnosis in the misconception that that might release them from blame.
I don’t mean to suggest that having a fussy baby equates to the challenges of a lifetime ahead with a child with a major disability. What I do want to do is to connect to the vein that the piece Welcome to Holland tapped into: in those first few months, or first few years, having a baby that you find extremely challenging (with or without a diagnosable disability) can feel like being in Holland, when your friends are in Italy.
The question: ‘Is there something wrong with my baby?’ is natural and, needs to be explored. And the path to the answer might take you down many blind alleys. But there is another important question sometimes forgotten: How do Mum and Dad respond to this demanding situation? Do the parents have the confidence, support, energy and time to meet this challenge? More often, Mum, for example, engages in self-criticism and self-doubt and becomes stressed and isolated. Dad might respond to Mum’s heightened stress by withdrawing into himself, or into work, or shift his attention to the other children. And so begins the possible reinforcement cycle, where the needy baby creates the stressed and strained parents, which potentially contributes to the baby’s neediness.
A family unit straining under the particular demands of a baby or child for a prolonged period can benefit from external help. External help might take the form of extended family giving Mum and Dad a break and the opportunity to support each other; or additional domestic services to help in the home; or guidance on establishing routines and managing the baby. Sometimes such practical support alone is not sufficient. Sometimes the family, or Mum in particular, needs to be able to talk through the emotions evoked by the struggle, to have a place to discharge these emotions, and to begin to look at herself, her child and the situation in a new way. Such emotional support can give Mum, and the family, more energy and enthusiasm to meet life’s challenges… and to find more enjoyment in Holland.
Sharon Murphy, Counsellor
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