Born Into Violence: Listening as Prevention

Weeks before she delivered her second child the baby’s father had thrown Sondra against the refrigerator while their 2-year-old daughter Alyssa watched. Sondra held firmly to a fear of physical harm to her unborn son. When she delivered a healthy baby boy, her pediatrician reassured her that there were “no effects” of the incident. Released from the immediate worry about her son’s physical safety, she sunk into apathy. While the nurses remarked on Calvin’s robust cry, she said, “I’m sure he’ll turn out to be a monster just like his father.” She watched TV all day, showing little interest in her son. One of the night nurses, Tracy, alarmed by the situation, asked Sondra during a vital sign check if she might bring the baby in from the nursery. Sondra reluctantly agreed. Together they observed Calvin, noticing how he seemed more calm during the quiet of the night. Sondra saw how his movements settled and he turned his head to find her voice when she spoke with him. Roused out of her depression, she joyfully exclaimed, “My baby knows me!” The next night she asked to have Calvin stay with her rather than go to the nursery.

In that moment of connection, Calvin made hopeful meaning of himself. If he had words, he might have said, “I can change my world to make it better.” He communicated with his mother in a way that also changed the meaning she made of his behavior. Her negative attribution based on her experience of violence shifted. Psychoanalyst Lou Sander referred to this kind of interaction as a “moment of meeting.” Parents and infants make meaning of themselves in the world through hundreds of thousands of moments. Unfortunately for this family, their circumstances did not allow for the calm space for listening offered that night in the hospital.

When I saw them in my behavioral pediatrics practice a few weeks later, a restraining order had been issued against Calvin’s father, who had showed up drunk at her door shortly after her return from the hospital. Their living situation was uncertain as she faced possible eviction from her current apartment. Calvin fussed throughout the whole hourlong visit, shifting from a few brief moments of calm to all out crying in a rapidly changing and unpredictable pattern. Sondra again expressed frustration that the baby was “just like his father.” She distractedly attended to him as she simultaneously reprimanded Alyssa, who’s language delay made it difficult to communicate with her as she climbed on the furniture and upended the toy baskets in the room. The visit felt chaotic and stressful. Sondra did not show for her next appointment and did not answer any of my calls.

When my colleague Suzanne Zeedyk across the pond in Scotland recently opened up a conversation on Twitter about the link between terrorism and early exposure to domestic violence the pushback was swift. She responded “Anyone who thinks that paying attention to childhood pain means that I am somehow sanctioning adult violence doesn’t understand the point of working to prevent childhood pain. Pity & victimhood benefits no one. Understanding isn’t condoning.”

My mind turned to baby Calvin. I do not know what happened to him. If he were to turn to a life of violence I would have no way of knowing the connection between his childhood experience and his adult behavior. But I did see both the opportunity for change, and the way in which lacking resources, he was often on his own to manage his body’s dysregulation as his mother wrestled twin demons of poverty and trauma with little support. If that dynamic went unchecked, the possibility remained that her attribution of him as a “monster like his father” could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my previous writing, I have expressed the need to “invest in infancy.” But what does that actually look like? Sondra needed to be heard so that she could listen to her son’s communication. The idea that because her son had no physical injury, that there were no effects of the violence, was wrong. Perhaps if in a typical fashion, a network of supports held Sondra and her young family from the start, that moment of meeting from the night in the hospital could have been strung together with others sufficient to shift from hopelessness to hope. This ” holding environment” might include a mother’s group to offer social support, a range of services to address Sondra’s emotional health as well as that of her two children. It would insure stable housing, and even transportation, which was often a hurdle for her attending scheduled appointments. It would include affordable quality childcare with providers paid in proportion to the value of the service. Free from shame or blame, an expectation the vulnerable families are a top priority would give Sondra a sense of belonging that was painfully lacking in her life. Recent events in the United States indicate that huge swaths of the population feel that they do not belong. As we embrace new leadership, we have the opportunity to change that, starting from birth.

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