The Globe & Mail
Saturday, March 17, 2001
page R1

The parent trap

In today's climate of anxiety around child abuse and pornography,
U.S. author Noelle Oxenhandler is stirring controversy by arguing that
the parent-child bond is sensual, even erotic. But if our children are being
starved of intimacy, as she suggests, how far can we go to change that?
Kim Honey reports on one of family life's deepest dilemmas.

by Kim Honey

Lynn Morley is an "attached" parent. After a miserable experience trying to breast-feed her first child, the British Columbia mother of three was determined to succeed the next time around.

Not only did she breast-feed her two youngest well past toddlerhood, she transported them in a carrier strapped to her body. For almost six years, she spent most nights in a double bed with whichever child she was nursing as her husband slumbered away on the other side of the room.

For Morley, the experience was exhilarating, allowing a physical intimacy with her children that she never had. In fact, she can't remember the last time she hugged her parents, even as a child.

Any parent knows that physical bonding with a baby helps ensure the fragile newborn's survival. But moreover, a primal attraction awakens in the parents a pleasure that is previously unknown, yet oddly familiar. It is total consumption, drinking in deep pools of eyes, curlicues of ears, rosebud lips, and snub noses; it is an obsession, a fixation on smooth skin, the smell of the top of the head, and the curve of the bottom.

These "thousand small intimacies that weave parent and child together" compelled California author Noelle Oxenhandler to explore the sensual side of the relationship in her new book, The Eros of Parenthood. This dance between parent and baby, she says, parallels the duet between adult lovers.

Oxenhandler's ideas have stirred anger south of the border, she says, largely because of confusion over the meaning of eros. "They're thinking of sexy underwear and pornographic films", she says from her northern-California home. "I'm using the word in its much more ancient sense as ... a form of intimate connection that is intensely physical, which the love between parents and small children is."

In North America today, though, that thought makes us queasy -- we are inhibited by our awareness of child sexual abuse, and by a fear of what other people might think. And that paranoia is well-founded, as evidenced by the recent case of an Ottawa father arrested for manufacturing child pornography.

Andrew Minsk (not his real name), a European immigrant to Canada, had been documenting his son's development with a camera since the baby was two hours old. Last year, when father and son came in from playing in the snow, the four-year-old stripped off his snowsuit and sweaty clothes and started cavorting naked in the living room. His dad thought it was funny, reached for his camera and squeezed off four frames.

The photo technician who developed the films didn't think it was so funny -- he called the police. Minsk was arrested and charged with making porn; the Children's Aid Society accused him of sexual exploitation. The boy was sent to a foster home for four days, while his teenaged sister was sent to stay with a neighbour. The charges were eventually dropped, but Minsk said his family has had counselling to deal with the trauma. His son, now 5, suffered from nightmares. "He felt he'd committed a crime, and he felt guilty", his father said.

When Minsk asked what was considered appropriate behaviour, the counsellor said nude pictures of children over 2 were taboo unless they were pictured in the bathroom or in a pool. The living room was out. "They were talking about a boundary", Minsk says, "but nobody convinced me that what I did was wrong".

Still, the experience taught him a lesson about his adopted homeland. "I know where the boundary is now in Canada. Different culture, different society, has a different way. In Europe, where I come from, there is no such puritanism regarding nudity, especially with your own children."

Since then, the Supreme Court has ruled that photographs of a baby in the bath or other "representations of non-sexual nudity" are not considered child pornography under the law. Still, this week the Liberal government again rolled out new legislation on child porn, now focusing on the Web. The "making, distribution, and possession" of child pornography is illegal under the Criminal Code, but that definition has been deemed too vague for the Internet age.

Last week in London, after Scotland Yard threatened to seize photographs of naked children from the Saatchi Gallery, the city's Crown Prosecution Service decided the pictures were not illegal or obscene. The police were acting on public complaints about an exhibition called I Am a Camera,by artist Tierney Gearon, which featured naked pictures of her three children. Similar problems have dogged acclaimed U.S. artist Sally Mann, who made her reputation with her photos of her family in various states of dress and undress.

It's a minefield that would make any parent feel conflicted about physical intimacy with their children. How do we decide what is and isn't appropriate? Is nudity okay? Until what age? What about a father who bathes with his young daughter? Is kissing a baby all over a sensual act? What is the difference between sensual and sexual?

In The Eros of Parenthood, Oxenhandler links adult sexual pleasure with the pleasure a parent gets from touching their child. "Who could deny that adult sexual love evokes the earliest feelings of childhood?" she writes. "Lying naked on a bed, spread out before the eyes of an admiring lover, one is not so far away from the naked baby, lying on his changing table, under his mother's gaze."

The author makes it clear that, although the parent-child romance has all the emotional intensity of adult love, it is non-sexual. "I think we have a very hard time grasping that two things can be similar without being the same", she says.

The book was born from her feelings while waiting for her daughter, Ariel, to emerge from the shower. Standing outside the stall, holding a dry towel as her daughter had asked, she had a "Kafkaesque feeling of guilt, when you simultaneously know you haven't done anything and aren't about to do anything, but yet you feel somehow you're in the wrong."

Talking to friends, she found she was not alone. They, too, sometimes felt embarrassed or fearful that someone might interpret their physical relationships with their children as exploitive or abusive. Oxenhandler blames this on a "global cooling in the public sphere", driven by heightened public awareness of childhood sexual abuse.

Just as social workers, teachers and camp counsellors are careful not to touch their charges in any way that could be misconstrued, Oxenhandler thinks parents, too, are pulling back for fear they might be wrongly accused, like Andrew Minsk. Oxenhandler believes that children need physical intimacy to develop to their full potential, and that parents need to be more hands-on.

Not everyone agrees. Pediatrician Ken Finkel, a professor emeritus and member of the Child Advocacy and Assessment program at McMaster University, says parents' expressions of love for their children are very individualized. Most of it goes on at home, where there are no prying eyes.

"I don't believe that parents are inhibited in their interactions with their children because they're afraid of who is looking over their shoulders", he says. "I think it's entirely a matter of personal style -- and cultural style, for that matter."

And just because a parent is less demonstrative doesn't mean their children will be emotionally impaired, he says; there's more than one way to get a message across. For example, telling a child he is doing a good job conveys precise information. Reinforcing that praise with a squeeze on the shoulder is even better. But if a parent just walks up to a child and squeezes him on the shoulder, the message isn't clear.

The pediatrician, however, finds it interesting that photographs of naked children are somehow the exception. "There are some hints that ... it might be inappropriate to take pictures of your children nude beyond a certain age because of the risk that somebody -- and it's a kind of a Big Brother somebody -- might misinterpret, especially when you get into the child pornography stuff."

At Memorial University's School of Social Work in St. John's, professor Ken Barter calls Oxenhandler's claims extreme. "I haven't read the book, but I don't seem to follow that thinking at all", says Barter, who holds the chair in child protection at Memorial. "I think that maybe it's an interpretation that's taken to the extreme on something that's very beautiful in terms of child nurturance and child care ... the bonding and the attachment and all these things."

As for the damage done by false allegations of sexual exploitation such as that suffered by Andrew Minsk, Barter says it is "unfortunate" but "all done in the best interests of the children". He notes that a nation-wide study of child-abuse cases investigated by child-welfare agencies in 1998 estimated that a third -- involving about 45,000 youngsters -- concerned unsubstantiated allegations.

But Jill Vyse, head of the Canadian chapter of International Association of Infant Massage, knows all about the vagaries of Canadian parents' inhibitions. The massage therapist notices that fathers are slow to bare the bodies of their tiny daughters, but when it comes to baby boys, "the dads strip the baby right down before I even finish my intro".

One of Vyse's classes recently agreed to be in a video on infant massage made in conjunction with the Canadian Institute for Child Health. When it came time to roll the camera, only three sets of parents gave permission to film their daughters with their diapers off. "It blew me away", Vyse says. "In class, most of them run around like my teaching doll, which is bare."

The infant-massage movement is founded on the idea that parents ask permission to touch their babies so that even the smallest infants develop a sense of who they can trust and what intimacy is about. "Asking permission allows the child to start to develop boundaries [so that] when they're on their own and there's no parent around and somebody starts touching them ... they know that lady or that fellow has not asked permission and so red flags come up", Vyse explains. The children become very confident about who may touch them and who may not.

Infant massage is recommended as a way to increase skin-to-skin contact and initiate the parent-child bond, but it can also help with physical ailments such as gas, chest congestion, back and leg pain from tense muscles. Mainly, though, it provides a way for parents to get over their inhibitions about their baby's bodies.

"As a parent educator, I really say, 'You know what, dads, it's okay to feel good about touching your baby. And moms, it's okay to put your arm around your four-year-old son and hug him close to you.'"

Canadian author Marni Jackson, who first wrote about the erotic side of parenthood in her 1992 book, The Mother Zone, finds all this a little strange. Like most people, she agrees that these anxieties about touching children -- even babies, for God's sake -- are uniquely North American.

She notices it has manifested itself lately in the grandiose size of baby carriages, some of which she jokingly referred to as "four-wheel drive" strollers. "It's okay when you see a two- or three-year-old riding in them", she says, "but you see these tiny little infants in these gigantic vehicles when they should be carried on the body. The baby needs the body for a long time."

Jackson believes the reason North Americans are so squeamish about intimacy with children is that we confuse touch with sex. "Touch is bigger than sex", she says, "and touch includes physical pleasure, which is the same thing as erotic pleasure. When we feel physical pleasure touching our children, we get worried that means sex."

She agrees that we have withdrawn physical affection from our children for fear we will unleash deep and dark desires. But she believes this creates a hunger to be touched and a hungry self, "which is then going to use sex to get love".

For Lynn Morley, the stay-at-home mom who lives with her family in Maple Ridge, B.C., attachment parenting has meant her children -- now 12, 9, and 6 -- are kinder, gentler people who are not afraid to hold hands with their parents or hug them. She believes the close physical relationship she and her husband have had with their kids has resulted in children with high self-esteem. At the same time, she realizes there are people who think she is "perverted" for sleeping with her kids and breast-feeding her youngest until she was 3.

"You can parent this way but not be weird or strange or odd in any way", she says. "It is a normal way to parent. My kids are normal now: They wear Gap jeans and they ride bikes. They have friends. It's what you would expect in a normal kid, but they still come to me with all their problems. It's a close physical attachment as well as emotional."

And it has boosted her own self-esteem in a way she never thought possible. "This is empowering to me. It's like, 'Wow. I did this. I had a huge hand in doing this. They are this way because of me.'"

What the experts say:

William and Martha Sears, The Baby Book
Infant massage: Good for stimulation of growth-promoting hormones, improved digestion, and bonding with baby
Sleeping: Babies and mothers sleep better together
Breast-feeding: Recommended until baby is a year old; mothers may feel "alarmed" by intensity of feelings
Body parts: Handle genital play like nose-picking: discourage it in public (including family areas); never tell the child the body is "dirty"

Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoff, and Sandee E. Hathaway, What to Expect: The Toddler Years
Nudity: Parents shouldn't walk around naked by the time their child is 3; same-sex showering may foster positive body image
Sleeping: Toddler should sleep in own room
Breast-feeding: Wean after one year, due to possible health risks (e.g., increased ear infections) and overdependence on mother

Benjamin Spock and Steven J. Parker, Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care
Nudity: Parents should keep "reasonably" covered at home and keep kids out of bathroom when they are bathing or using toilet
Touching: Mothers and fathers should "fondle" newborn for first hour after birth; use a cloth carrier instead of carriage
Sleeping: Babies okay in own room from birth, but can share room with mom and dad, who can safely move them by three months when "they don't need so much care"
Breast-feeding: Encouraged, but most babies "start showing signs of decreased need" for the breast between nine and 12 months

Copyright © 2001 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.