Cover image for The eros of parenthood : explorations in light and dark
The eros of parenthood : explorations in light and dark
Oxenhandler, Noelle, 1952-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
xii, 321 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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HQ755.85 .O94 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Leaning over a sleeping child or waiting for a small dripping body to emerge from the tub, what parent hasn't felt the pull of contradictory emotions: the rush of tenderness, the pang of anxiety? We know that the physical love between parent and child is both natural and necessary, yet it's a subject we're afraid to approach - indeed, it's been called "the last taboo." In language both lyrical and provocative, The Eros of Parenthood explores this highly charged and controversial territory.Even to put the two words together- eros and parenthood - is to enter a forbidden realm. Yet the two are inextricably linked. For eros, the energy of connection, fuels the immense labor of parental care, fosters the formation of the human self, and lies at the foundation of all forms of human love. In its intense physicality, the love between parent and young child is similar to that between adult lovers, but it is different in some absolutely crucial ways. Healthy parental love is sheltering, protective. Putting the child's needs first, this love respects the inequality - in size, power, and maturity - between parent and child.Alas, in our zeal to protect children from the trauma of sexual abuse, we often resort to black-and-white thinking. Because we are afraid to acknowledge the erotic component of parent-child love, the most innocent interactions become suspect. The atmosphere becomes so saturated with anxiety that it intrudes on the most tender moments between parent and child.Navigating between the extremes of injurious denial and hysterical fear, The Eros of Parenthood finds a middle ground. While celebrating the passion that naturally exists between parent and child, it seeks the limits of this passion. Inspired by the fairy-tale figure of Goldilocks, Noelle Oxenhandler takes as a central question: "Between the poles of too hot and too cold, too much and too little, how can I find the just right ?"The answer to this question lies in the power of attunement . A dynamic process of adjustment that balances between fusion and separateness, attunement is the compass in Goldilocks's hand, the key to the mystery of intimacy between parent and child. To understand this is tocf0discover a way through the eros of parenthood that, while breaking the grip of fearful thinking, leads to an authentic sense of boundary.In poetic prose that encompasses topics as subtle as a pregnant mother's dream and as dramatic as the recovered memory of abuse, The Eros of Parenthood breaks new ground. Personal, yet with profoundly social implications, the book employs a highly readable format in which each chapter consists of a linked sequence of "explorations" that can be read in a single sitting, in the brief interstices of a busy parent's life. The hardest thing for us, in the wake of what we have too often witnessed is - while keeping our children safe from harm - to experience the full measure of delight in them. To gaze at them while they sleep - on their backs with limbs flung like the petals of an open flower or curled on their sides like an inner ear... Through responsibility and tender awareness, parents and children can reclaim a form of love that is natural, necessary, and the ground of all human intimacy.

Author Notes

Noelle Oxenhandler has been a longtime contributor to The New Yorker . The author of A Grief Out of Season , she is the mother of one daughter and lives in northern California.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Oxenhandler's provocatively titled exploration of the sensual bonds between parent and child considers the biological imperatives that strengthen those bonds, such as the child's recognition of its mother's smell and the mother's delight in smelling the top of her newborn's head. It also examines the physicality of the parent-child relationship, the importance of which is attested by the facts that babies are more susceptible to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) when they aren't sleeping with a parent and that small children suffer psychological damage when deprived of physical affection. Employing anecdotes from her own and other parents' experiences, Oxenhandler discusses the boundary between healthy and unhealthy parent-child attachment. Throughout, she writes lyrically, highlights parenthood's joys, and focuses on the moments of parent-child connection that make lack of sleep and other hardships worthwhile. Mothers of any age should appreciate the book, and despite its concentration on female caregivers, fathers, too, will find some of their experiences reflected in Oxenhandler's musings. --Bonnie Johnston

Publisher's Weekly Review

In an attempt to reclaim the primal intimacy of the parent-child bond from dogmatists who see close physical affection as suspect or indecent, Oxenhandler (A Grief Out of Season) argues that parental love is inherently erotic. Despite her flamboyant terminology, what Oxenhandler means is that the parent-child bond can have the same physical and emotional intensity as a bond between lovers. There is, she points out, some scientific basis for this magnetism. The chemical oxytocin "controls a woman's pleasure during orgasm, childbirth, cuddling and nursing." Meanwhile, a child's "irresistibleness" in infancy is also a mechanism for survival. But Oxenhandler soon leaves science behind in favor of addressing the different "erotic" feelings a parent may experience. Throughout, she stresses the importance of "attunement," a process by which parents modify their physical affection as their children grow olderÄafter all, the same caresses one showers on a baby are hardly appropriate for an adolescent. While the subtitle suggests an evenhanded treatment of the "light" and "dark" aspects of the parent-child relationship, Oxenhandler is much more skillful at presenting its sunnier side. She admits she has little experience in dealing with victims of child abuse, incest or pedophilia, and her attitude toward these issues may strike some readers as dismissive and uninformed. (In one chapter she suggests that adults use "playfulness" as an alternative to slipping into forbidden territory, though that seems an unlikely remedy to true pedophilic impulses.) Despite the flaws in her argument, many parents will find some comfort in this beautifully written book, which reassures them about the pleasure they may find in their child's natural curiosity and unconscious sexuality. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Writer and mother Oxenhandler here examines the physical affection between parent and childDwhat she calls "the eros of parenthood"Dand explores its conflicts, among them, the need for touch so vital to a child's well-being, the confusing emotions of parents, and the dark menace of child abuse. Beginning with the attunement that envelopes new parents and their infants and moving through the separations that both must make as the child grows, Oxenhandler arrives at the definitions of boundaries that are the right balance between the need for intimacy and touch and the avoidance of inappropriate contacts. This well-written book, which grew out of an article in The New Yorker, will certainly be controversial; its intended audience, however, is not readily apparent, and librarians will need to gauge their readers to see if there would be demand for the title. Recommended for large collections only.DKay Brodie, Chesapeake Coll., Wye Mills, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One ATTUNEMENT * * * ONE DAY, WHEN I was seventeen, I went for a walk along the brown hill, lined with eucalyptus trees, beyond our house. Some months earlier, I'd found out that my mother was pregnant, and I was taking it hard. Underneath a layer of acute mortification at having a pregnant mother when I was a senior in high school, there were deeper, Oedipal swirls. Caught in my own dark emotions, I had not grasped the most obvious fact: that soon a baby would enter my life--a baby whom, the chances were good, I would love.     But on this particular day, walking along the brown hill, I heard a rustle of wind among the eucalyptus trees. I looked up into the shimmering leaves and suddenly grasped, for the first time, the reality of the single being--one leaf among the many--who would soon enter my life. "That was the moment I met you," I have said to my sister, more than once, ever since she was old enough to understand. It was as though in the rustle of leaves, I had caught the sound of her.     In East Africa, so I've heard, there is a tribe of people who actually make a practice of listening for the sound of their children before they are born. When a woman feels that she is ready to bear a child with her mate, she goes out to sit alone under a tree. She waits there, listening--through the sound of the wind in the leaves, of the birds, insects, and small animals in the branches--until she believes that she has heard the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Returning to her hut in the village, she teaches the song to her mate and when they make love, they sing the song, inviting the baby to enter their lives. Throughout her pregnancy, the mother sings this song to the child in her belly. When the child is born, the midwives welcome him with this song. As the child grows, he will hear this song again and again, at key moments of danger, initiation, celebration. The song will be a part of his wedding ceremony, as will the song of his bride. When he lies dying, his family will gather around him and sing the song one last time.     Closer to home, and in a much simpler manner, this attitude is present on the part of those parents who, rather than deciding beforehand, wait to see who their child is before giving it a name. When their daughter was born, my friends Bob and Sarah waited almost two weeks--enduring the uncertainty, the advice and consternation of relatives, as well as the ever more imminent possibility that an unfortunate nickname would arise and stick--before they alighted upon "Amanda."     This period of "waiting to see" really did involve a period of listening, not unlike the East African mother who sits under the tree waiting to hear the song of her child. Names arose in Bob and Sarah's minds; they murmured them aloud to themselves and to each other, and it was as though they were sounding the name against the reality of who their baby--vigorous, blond, blue-eyed, with a piercing cry--had turned out to be. Before the birth, they had decided on the name "Danielle" for a girl. It was a name Sarah had always loved, but when their baby was born, they realized, in Sarah's words, that "The name was too soft for this powerful being."     It was as though in seeking a name, they were bringing two things into attunement--the sound of a name, with its history and connotations, and the who of this particular child. And, in fact, this process of sounding and listening until what begins as distance, disparity, even discord, is brought into alignment and harmony--this is the very essence of what is meant by attunement. One of the first ways that a mother attunes to her baby is by learning to interpret the sound of its crying. In order to match her responses to its needs, she has to differentiate the cry of hunger from the cry of pain or fatigue. Not all mothers learn to do this, but most do--sooner or later, through trial and error.     Trial and error: the attitude of attunement is the very opposite of a dogmatic attitude. For the latter begins in certainty, with beliefs that it imposes like a grid on what it encounters. Children are by nature bad and willful is an example, par excellence, of the dogmatic attitude that prevailed for some hundreds of years in much of Europe and the New World in the name of Christian parenting. Even into the early twentieth century, children were regularly flogged by their parents and schoolteachers without tangible evidence of their having done anything wrong, but simply out of a presumption of guilt. Needless to say, such presumption is a world away from the pliant, wondering quality of attunement. Such presumptions represent a form of fundamentalist thinking, in relation to which attunement is much closer to the via negativa , the not this, not that of the mystical approach, which itself has often been described as a form of listening. Unlike the fundamentalist, who starts off professing a set of preordained beliefs and who wills others to do the same, the mystic listens to "the still, small voice" that leads him--no, not this way, not that--to the state of divine union.     Do such comparisons seem highfalutin, far removed from the realm of parent and child?     Just look at a mother trying to comfort her fussing baby. She lifts him up against her shoulder, but he catches his breath and begins to cry again. She takes him down from her shoulder and holds him against her chest, rocking him. The cries get even louder. Finally, she stretches him belly-down on her knees and begins to stroke his back. The crying grows gradually quieter....     With each change in position, the mother waits for a few moments, watching, listening, to see if she's getting it right. When orchestral musicians tune their instruments, they begin with a single note: the A at 445 vibrations per second, sounded by the flute. Between parent and child, there is no such single, preordained point of departure, but rather, an ever-changing series of states--hunger, repose, restlessness, excitement, delight--through which the two continually adjust to one another. Yet the process--if vastly more fluid and variable than its musical counterpart--is not willy-nilly.     It is guided by many things--by a mother's protective urge, by her own visceral response to her child's discomfort, and also by the pleasure of mutuality. Doesn't our greatest pleasure, both as parent and child, tend to come from those moments when we feel ourselves to be in sync --another musical word--with one another? Among my own happiest memories from childhood are those hours that I spent leaning against my father, dictating a story as he typed it on his typewriter; or leaning with my mother over one of my father's shirt boxes, cutting out figures for a cardboard circus. Among my most satisfying memories as a parent are those moments when my daughter and I seem to vibrate on the same frequency. We lie on my bed sorting through our jewelry boxes together; we lose ourselves in making a sandcastle; we find ourselves laughing at the same slip of the tongue; or are suddenly seized, driving through evening light, by the same mood of melancholy that makes us begin to remember the people we miss, the places we've left behind. And certainly the hell of parenthood is made of those moments of utter discord: a small boy bangs his metal spoon on the radiator as his mother lies nearby with a headache; a jet-lagged father, who wants nothing so much as to stay deep under the eiderdown, wakes at the crack of dawn to the shouts of his daughter, her mouth pressed to his ear, "Eggs, make me eggs!"     Just as water takes on the shape of its container or a liquid takes on the temperature of the room around it, one might characterize a healthy parent-child relationship as one in which both parties have an inclination to adjust to one another. And here inclination seems the right word, as in they incline toward each other, they lean into one another , as my mother and I leaned over our cardboard circus, as I leaned against my father, my words turning into the movements of his fingers on the typewriter keys....     The primal pleasure between parent and child of being in sync plants the seeds of a lifelong pleasure, one that lies at the heart of all forms of love. Through hours of close observation, psychologists have learned that the degree to which people match one another--in posture, gesture, inflection--is an index of how much they like each other. This is true not only of romantic partners, but of friends, teachers and students, even of new acquaintances. When we are well-disposed toward another person, we have a tendency, for the most part unconscious, to bring ourselves physically into alignment with him, through our posture, our gestures, the rhythm and volume of our speech.     Yet attunement, this bringing into alignment of two separate beings, is not the same as fusion, the merging of two identities. A mother who is attuning to her baby as he makes the first sounds and rhythms of human speech does not just parrot his sounds and facial expressions back to him. From the beginning, attunement has the quality not of call and echo, but of call and response. A mother who attunes herself to her baby's communication does not simply repeat his sounds and imitate his expressions; rather, she responds to him in a way that signals, "I see what sort of mood you're in right now, and I--in my own way--am letting you know that I see, I understand, and I participate."     This is the beauty of attunement: it permits us to embody the mystery of being one not two, two not one. It is an experience that we seek our whole lives long. As Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence , has written: "Making love is perhaps the closest approximation in adult life to this intimate attunement between infant and mother." And for the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, it is the primal experience of attunement, defined as a process of "mutual recognition," that underlies the adult capacity for erotic love. In The Bonds of Love , she writes: The positive experience of attunement allows the individual to maintain a more permeable boundary and enter more readily into states in which there is a momentary suspension of felt boundaries between inside and outside. The capacity to enter into states in which distinctness and union are reconciled underlies the most intense experience of adult erotic life. In erotic union we can experience that form of mutual recognition in which both partners lose themselves in each other without loss of self ... Thus early experiences of mutual recognition already prefigure the dynamics of erotic life. * * *     It is because attunement contains the reality of both separateness and mutuality that it is the key to understanding the eros of parenthood. The rewards of this love, in its healthy state, may be understood as a function of proper attunement. And its dark side may be seen as a failure of this attunement, in the form of a parent who remains too separate, unable to resonate empathically, or a parent who floods the boundaries of the child's self--through violence, sexual abuse, excessive neediness, or what has been called "emotional incest." It's not God I want, it's someone in skin!     A real child called out those words, a child in skin. And what they mean is: You, my mother, in this very body, with your particular smell, the color of your eyes, the sound of your voice, the texture of your hair, you are the supreme value in my universe, the source and sustainer of my being . A mother, attuning to the passionate intensity of this request, consents to be that someone to her child, that god in skin. She does so knowing that the very destiny of such a god is that as her child grows, she will have to shed one role after another in relation to him, just as a snake sheds its skins. She will have to shed her child's various perceptions of her, including some that are most flattering, most gratifying, to her--for this is the essence of a healthy mother's attunement to her child: she takes her cue from him, she keeps his needs uppermost. Yet sometimes, in order to attune to his deepest needs, she--like the mother bird who pushes her chick from the warm nest of sticks and moss so that it may spread its wings--may need to frustrate his more immediate desires.     For though an infant may be perfectly content with a mother who is completely immersed in him, a growing child needs a parent who, while remaining empathically aligned, exists as a separate self, a self with its own needs, desires, gifts, griefs. Recently a friend told me about a young mother she knows who, though she is recovering from a serious back injury, will not let go of her intensely self-sacrificing style of mothering. Even when other caring adults are in the house and she is nearly immobilized with pain fatigue, she cannot bear to leave her three young children long enough to take a nap in her bedroom. My friend described her lying collapsed on the sofa as her youngest boy ran a toy metal truck over her face. When her husband tried to rescue her, she protested, "Oh, let him be--he's just playing!" This is an example of a mother's self-abnegation, her disappearance into her child--not what I am calling attunement, which is the bringing into alignment of two separate beings.     In the earliest phase of parenthood, the infant needs the parent to harmonize as closely as possible with him: to meet hunger with food, loneliness with presence, boredom with playfulness in a way that minimizes frustration. While the latter represents the orthodox definition of attunement, I am using the term in a much broader way as a process of mutual adjustment that continues throughout the growing years of a child . Thus I am asking it to encompass also those later stages during which the responsive parent must team to frustrate the child's desires in an appropriate way, in order to confront both the reality of the external world ("No, that's hot!" "No, that will break!") and the subjectivity of others--including the parent herself. ("No, I can't play right now!" "No, I need to be alone!")     When attunement is defined in this broad and flexible way, it can become the prime navigational tool through the eros of parenthood. As such, it does not provide the comfort of ready-made certainty or of absolute safety. It cannot guarantee that we won't sometimes lose our bearings. But if we remember to pause and take a reading at regular intervals, the chances are good that we will not stray too far from the one sure note: the sound of our children's needs. These needs change over time--so that what we're listening for becomes a great deal more complex than the difference between a cry of hunger, pain, or fatigue, yet the basic process remains the same. Listening and responding, we chart our course. Attunement is not magic, like a wand. It does not even have the static reliability of a key. But it is the compass in Goldilocks' hand, and with its quivering needle, it guides us-- not this way, not that .