Space and parenting

Dot writes: it occurred to me a while ago how strongly affected our parenting has been by the space we had to do it in. When Hugh was born, we lived in a one-bedroom flat. It had a daytime room, a nighttime room, a bathroom and a couple of walk-in cupboards. In this space it was natural to have Hugh close by us all the time. He napped during the day in his pram in the living room or the corridor; sometimes he napped in the sling. At night he slept in a cot that fitted onto the side of our bed, and as he got older and seemed less frighteningly tiny and fragile we often took him into our bed. In the evening there was no point at which we officially ‘put him down’; we simply stayed with him as he fell asleep, sometimes getting into bed and reading or watching a DVD on the laptop. There was no nursery to move him into and so we didn’t. We were attracted in any case to attachment parenting, but we didn’t make any particular decision to do things this way. It evolved naturally.

Then in June we moved to our lovely new flat, and suddenly there were all these compartments for different activities. At that point Hugh could sit up but not move around, and I noticed how my daily routine repeatedly took me out of the room where he was, eliciting indignant protests (if I had to be away for more than a minute or two I took him with me). Plus, there was the constant reproach and challenge of His Own Room. Now we had it we had to use it. At first it was mainly a storage space. The buggies live there (not an ideal arrangement, but the corridor is too narrow) as do his clothes and changing table. We tried to get him to nap there. Then we acquired the cotbed and began to put him to sleep in it for the first part of the night. It was lovely to have a slice of adults-only time back, and a chance to stretch out or curl up without arranging one’s body around his, but the arrangement was erratic; he once made it through to 3.30am, but in recent weeks he’s started to wake again and want to join us only an hour or so after we’d painstakingly settled him. We talked wistfully of uninterrupted nights. I worried about what all that night-feeding might do to his teeth. We thought that, if we could put him down and trust him to stay there, one day we might be able to get a babysitter and go to the cinema. So, as of last Thursday (a week ago yesterday), we have moved him fully into his own room. In short, we gave in and used Controlled Crying, and after one hideous night it worked. He can’t be relied upon to sleep all the way through every time, but he is now spending every night in his own cot until at least 5.30am without feeding. If he wakes in the wee hours we give him a little cuddle and put him back.

This is how modern Western people live. We expect to have our own space and to be self-sufficient in that space, and we try to teach this skill, which becomes a need, to our young children. I’ve been trying and failing to find something I remember from when I did the York MA in Medieval Studies and had to read up on the theory of archaeology: it was about how the plans of dwellings can teach us about social relationships, because people learn social categories from their day to day use of space. (Michel de Certeau says something of the sort, but it wasn’t him.) At the time I couldn’t quite think what this meant, but now I have an example that makes sense to me. We are teaching Hugh that he can/must be an individual: he has the privilege and the burden of his own space. He has taken to it better than I expected. I feel glad to be able to sprawl around in my sleep again, but sad that we have begun to move apart. Each morning as soon as he stirs Ken and I rush through and bring him back to bed for a feed and a cuddle. He is only a baby after all.

2 thoughts on “Space and parenting

  1. ken

    On the subject of how dwellings can teach us about social relationships, I remember being quite nonplussed by Skara Brae on Orkney because of the layout of the homes there. If you don’t know what to expect, you cannot get over the fact that the little homes in this neolithic fishing village, as old as the pyramids, are laid out exactly according to the same plan, –stone dresser opposite the door, fire in the middle and beds against the wall on either side. How jealously egalitarian they must have been!

    The other point is about homeless people and dogs (an odd sort of analogue for babies, I grant you!). You often see homeless people begging with a pet dog sleeping beside them on the footpath. I stopped worrying about how well nourished the dogs were when I realised that it is infinitely more preferable for a dog to have their master with them all the time, than to be a well-kept suburban dog left alone for most of the day, trapped in the confines of the back yard or house until the owners come home. Dogs don’t care about modern conveniences. I think babies are probably like dogs. They would like to be with us absolutely without interruption and care little for the size of the apartment. But like Dot said, we’re Western people and we are teaching Hugh to be coldly European just like us. (I shall have to start addressing him as ‘Master Hugh’ soon…)

  2. Dot

    All this is making our decision to move Hugh into his own room sound terribly cruel and cold, but there were reasons for it beyond our emotional constipation. He did tend to kick me in the crotch all night.

    P.S. Just to give you folks out there an idea of how silly this exchange of comments is, Ken is looking over my shoulder right now…

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