There are no sheep on our farms

I’m pretty sleep deprived at the moment, as regular readers will know. Bubs has decided to start waking every two or three hours in the night, not sure why, we’re trying to figure out a way to encourage him to go back to sleep by himself; in the meantime, I’m scraping by, repeating the mummy mantra “this too shall pass”. My husband has been chatting to the other parents at his work, keen to hear their tips, their reassurance. A few days ago, someone told him that we should use cry it out – worked like a charm for their girl, apparently. They ignored her crying at night when she was just six weeks old, took five nights of crying for about an hour each time, but she’s never kept them up since.

I wince at that.

If you’ve never spent much time with kids, child abuse and neglect might seem like a bright line – good people on one side, awful people on the other side. It’s not quite that simple though, not with a small baby. None of us live up to our parenting ideals all the time. The other night, the little dude was wriggly wriggly wriggly and cross cross cross when I was trying to get him dressed after the bath. I yanked his top over his head, too roughly, and he shrieked and started wailing like the world was gonna end (I panicked – was he badly hurt? did I pull his hair? did his finger get caught?). I felt terrible, oh my little darling, mummy’s sorry sweetheart, mummy’s sorry my little one, it’s OK, it’s OK. I started crying too. I was tired and frustrated at his lack of co-operation, but he’s just a baby, I should have been more gentle. Sigh. It’s no biggie, of course, but I was annoyed at myself for getting to the end of my tether such that reserves of patience and self-regulation are gone.

But it’s not about me, because you’re reading this and thinking “that is super minor, don’t be so precious!” Yes – I know. The point is that we all occasionally snap and fall short of our standards. I’ve almost forgotten the worst moments of the newborn days, but I still remember what it feels like to look at a baby who just won’t stop crying, and despair, and realise your empathy is running out. Like the giddy shock you get when looking down from a tall building, and see ever-so-briefly how easy it would be to jump.

Child abuse should be an aberration – but with 150,000 notifications to CYFS a year, and 60,000 requiring follow-up action, that’s sadly not the case (source). Half of all reported violent crime in New Zealand is family violence (source). Around ten children a year are killed by those who are supposed to care for them – mostly under five years old, and the largest group is under one (source). It’s not surprising that abused and neglected children often grow up to be abusive or neglectful towards their own children; parenting brings out an instinctive mode of behavior. It’s a miracle any of those kids break the cycle. I find myself repeating patterns from my own childhood, the same lullabies, the same rocking motions, the same tone of voice. These inherited habits feel like guardian angels on my shoulder; some parents have demons instead.

Society also has some demons. In conversations with parents who think they’re a million miles removed from the abusers, it’s apparently OK to ignore the cries of a tiny newborn for a whole hour (shudder). Until very recently, it was legal to beat a child as punishment, causing bruising that lasted for days. As though children aren’t proper people. As though they should fit in with whatever the adult demands, to hell with their legitimate and specific needs.

We live in a culture that is mostly indifferent to the needs of children and their carers, and at times seems almost hostile. Yet we talk about abuse like it’s a mysterious evil perpetrated by irredeemable sadists. Step one: own the problem.