I was in love. She had the biggest chocolate brown eyes. Her whole body smiled at me. Nestling and nursing her brought depths of unanticipated joy. I never imagined that I would feel this in love.
My baby was still new to me. Through my reading about baby and toddler care, I learned about when she would make talk, crawl, wave, and walk. We celebrated each and every new skill.
Ages and stages information helped me understand what to expect each month and how I could nourish her growth or understand why she was doing crazy things like waking up to stand up in the middle of the night.
But I had a second, secret set of milestones in mind. When I thought about what was coming with these ages and stages, I was fearful and anxious.
How would it feel when she turned two and a half and then six? The ages my sister and I were when my mother left our family.
How would it feel to see her at the
age I was — when I was managing the sexual abuse by my grandfather?
Would a switch flip inside me when she reached my secret milestones and keep me from loving her?
I was a new parent — carrying the weight of these experiences and wondering how I would manage the memories and how they would affect my ability to parent and love my daughter.
Maybe you’re a caregiver with similar concerns.
stresshealth.org is a website that might help you. It includes an explanation of healthy child development, what toxic stress is and how it can affect children and families. stresshealth.org explains how children’s brains are impacted by toxic stress and how to support children’s brain health if something happens. You can take a quiz on toxic stress for yourself or your child.
Plus it has some tips on strategies that can help make the tough but rewarding job of caregiving a little easier — especially when you’re carrying the weight of your own childhood experiences.
These strategies are simple but not always easy to make happen in the craziness of work, commutes, errands, chores and well, life:
- healthy relationships
- sleep for you and your baby
- good nutrition
- mental health care
Strategies recommended by stresshealth.org are research-based and supported by pediatricians.
Put on an Oxygen Mask
When my daughter was born, I didn’t know about the impact of toxic stress on brain health. I just knew that I didn’t want my past experiences to get in the way.
To be a good enough parent, I discovered that I needed to take care of myself first. I shared my concerns about my past experiences with a trauma-sensitive therapist.
With her support, I figured out my own oxygen mask — a way to hold onto myself through the bad memories — and be engaged and present with my daughter.
Since then I’ve learned that from the very youngest age, a child’s brain is primed to receive positive interactions from caring adults.
Neuroscientists have identified that repeated positive “serve and return” activities actually build the connections in the brain. Strong brain connections at the earliest stages in life are the foundation for a lifetime of good health and mental function. Because of the brain’s windows of sensitivity, a child who misses out on serve and return because a caregiver is depressed, struggling with addiction, or absent has a much harder time learning skills later in life.
Check out stresshealth.org to understand how toxic stress may be affecting you or your child. Then work on your own oxygen mask. For local resources to help you build your own oxygen mask, be sure to call 211.
Pilar Olivo is the ACEs Liaison for The Child Advocacy Center of Frederick County, Maryland.