The Gift of Presence
Coming up to Christmas time, there’s lots of focus on presents. But what about presence? - The presence of a parent looking into the eyes of her child. The presence of a baby seeing the world for the first time. The presence of a child as he engages in learning something new. Presence brings wonder and magic in each moment. When we are in presence with our child, there are no thoughts about what we should be doing, no regrets about the past or daydreaming about the future. All we know is the joy and wonder that comes from looking at our child and seeing him as if for the first time.
We cannot fail to recognise those moments of presence as an adult. We may become aware when our baby or child is in that state. But how can we nourish their ability to live in presence?
The more a parent is present, the more they can “mirror” that in their baby or child. When the essence of a child is seen, he knows who he is. When the parent rarely or ever connects to the essence of herself, she is unlikely to mirror that for the child.
Studies show that babies become very distressed when they are with someone who does not mirror them, or who is preoccupied or distant. This can happen in the case of post-natal depression, or in studies where parents are told to avoid eye contact with their babies. The babies in these studies frantically try to make eye contact, eventually giving up and avoiding eye contact themselves.
Unresolved stress reduces the ability for presence. We know that for ourselves – when caught up in a tense state, we rarely find ourselves noticing the beauty of the trees gently swaying in the breeze, or the gaze of our child. When a parent is stressed, she becomes preoccupied, less sensitive, and more quickly frustrated. Babies and children are exquisitely sensitive, and easily feel confused, frightened or overwhelmed. Parental stress is one of the myriad sources for a baby or child to experience stress.
As stress accumulates in the body of a baby or child, he feels more and more uncomfortable. To avoid the sensation of discomfort, he has two strategies, both of which take him away from connection with himself and others. He can either turn excessively inward, in a kind of numbing, or spacing out. You can see this when a baby is sucking on something with a blank stare on his face, or when a child sits gazing into space and will not answer a question. Alternatively, a child may turn excessively outward. This can be observed when a toddler frantically moves from one activity to another, avoiding eye contact, or when a child runs around constantly, bumping into things and falling over. Accumulated stress also affects the ability to sleep, concentrate, learn and contribute.
The more stress and tension in a baby or child’s body, the less presence he has available.
However, if a parent is aware of the power of being present with feelings – both her own and those of her baby or child, the child will not need to avoid his uncomfortable feelings. The parent’s presence makes his feelings safe. The child learns that feelings are friends, rather than sensations to be feared.
How wonderful to learn then, that babies and children can heal from stress and return to their natural state of presence! Babies do this through crying in the arms and presence of their parent, after all their needs are met. Toddlers and children do this by laughing, crying or raging in the loving presence of their parents. The expression of feelings releases stress hormones and muscular tension.
When a baby finishes a cycle of crying in arms, he returns to his natural state of presence. This is witnessed by a calm, serene presence that fills the room, blissful gazing, and a calm, relaxed and vital body. When a child finishes a tantrum in the supportive presence of an adult, he returns to wanting to cooperate with, and help, others. He smiles, he wants closeness and cuddles, and his body is calm and free from tension.
In essence, a being’s presence determines their availability for connection. When we are in presence, we want to be close with our children and to contribute to them. When they are present, they love intimacy, and want to help us and give to us.
What a true gift, then, to find that we can give our presence to our children. Being a clear mirror to their states of presence, and also the whole range of their feelings, we help them remain connected to their true essence. What a present that is!
"All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys..."
"If I don't think about the time but instead think about being available, about extending my presence, about just being together and being sunlight, it takes some of the pressure off.
I'm not trying for "quality time" but just to be present in the moment. When I am with my children, I don't think about it as "spending time with them" but simply as being with them, whatever occurs.
And if when I am not with them, I can still hold them in my sense of presence (for to my soul there is no distance between us), then I am still being sunshine. They will feel it.
Still, it is true that the more time I have available, the more availability I can provide, the better it is for my child (and me). It is breadth, not narrow focus, that provides the best context for growth and nourishment. And it may well be that a family sometimes needs to reexamine its priorities, its criteria for success, and its needs and desires, and prioritise in ways that will make more availability possible.
As part of that evaluation, it is important to determine just what availability means, for it is defined by more than time.
It is also determined by the presence of heart and soul...
Availability is a state of mind apart from time, a willingness to be open and to be present, without expectation, without condition, without qualification, solely because you love." David Spangler (Parent as Mystic, Mystic as Parent, 160-161)
Books by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
The Aware Baby,
Tears and Tantrums,
Helping Young Children Flourish, and
Raising Drug-Free Kids.