“You want to read that book?” I asked. She nodded. I reached to pick her up, intending for us to read it together, when she shook her head and said, “No. Book.”
“You want to read it by yourself?” I asked. She nodded and said, “Yeah.” I handed her the book, and she sat down in her crib, opened the book, and began “reading” it out loud.
Her “reading” books out loud is not new behavior for her (I refer you here and here). In fact, doing this on her own isn’t new behavior, either. So as she flipped through the pages of the book, happily chatting and pointing, I sat down in the rocker next to her crib and enjoyed the adorable show. When she finished the book, she laid it down beside her in the crib and stood up. She pointed to her book shelf against the wall and said, “More books.” I went to the bookshelf and grabbed a stack of four or five books and handed them to her. She promptly sat down, her back to me, and proceeded to read every one. When she finished, she repeated this process, pointing and declaring, “More books.”
This went on for forty minutes. She “read” every single board book in her collection (I elected not to hand her books with paper pages, lest she rip them in her zeal). During this time, the only interaction she had with me was to instruct me to bring her more books. While reading them, she was completely oblivious to my presence in the rocking chair, where I was alternately snoozing and waking up for the day. Each time I gave her a stack of books, I increased the number, giving myself more time to rest in the chair while she read to herself.
After a half hour, I realized that she wasn’t interacting with me at all and I could go check my email. I handed her a stack of books and left the room. “Daddy!” she shouted. I came back. “Are you ready to get up?” I asked. “No,” she said, sitting down and picking up a book. So I left again. But I couldn’t get six feet from her room before she was on her feet, shouting at me to come back. Each time I did, I asked her if she wanted to get up, and each time she said no. It became clear that she wanted to read books by herself, but she wanted me in the room with her.
This became frustrating to me. I mean, if you don’t want to interact with me, let me go do my own thing! I’m an introvert, I could use some time alone, and after several days of being the only parent, I needed it more than ever. Besides, it seemed she was getting her own alone time, reading books to herself. What did it matter if I was in the room? She wasn’t reading to me. She turned her back on me, and I even snuck out once while she was reading out loud. But she noticed, and hollered for me to come back.
I imagine that this is a somewhat familiar scene to many parents. As it turns out, this is a completely normal and healthy stage of development for young children. The developmental psychologist D.W. Winnicott refers to it as “the capacity to be alone.” He wrote about this in some detail in his 1958 article of the same title (included in the collection The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, International Universities Press, Madison CT: 1965, pp. 29-36). This is different, he says, from actually being alone. There is an odd contradiction at work: “The basis of the capacity to be alone is a paradox; it is the experience of being alone while someone else is present” (p. 30, italics mine). Actually being alone is something we don’t always control; if I find myself literally not in the presence of another person, then I am actually alone. But if I have the capacity to be alone, then I can be alone even when someone else is with me. Developing the capacity to be alone – to be comfortable with oneself without interaction or direction from another person – is developed early in childhood, and can only be done in the presence of good and safe parent.
Winnicott calls this “ego-relatedness.” The child begins to discover that she has her own ego and is a separate individual from the rest of the world: “It is only when alone (that is to say, in the presence of someone) that the infant can discover his own personal life… The infant is able to do the equivalent of what in an adult would be called relaxing. The infant is able to become unintegrated, to flounder, to be in a state in which there is no orientation, to be able to exist for a time without being either a reactor to an external impingement or an active person with a direction of interest or movement” (p. 34). Now, one could argue that my little girl, in reading books, was being an active person with direction or interest. However, I think that would imply that she was trying to read books correctly, or for a purpose, or in order to achieve a particular goal. But she was doing it for no other purpose than to engage her imagination. She didn’t need me to interact with her.
But she did need me to be present: “It is important that there is someone available, someone present, although present without making demands… It is only under these conditions that the infant can have an experience which feels real” (p. 34). In Winnicott’s other works, he talks about a “holding environment;” here is the perfect example of this. Another ego presence is required to validate the child’s experience of being alone. After all, paradoxically, the child isn’t actually alone without being in relationship to another person.
Let me unpack that: the very idea of “aloneness” requires other people. Without the presence of others, aloneness means nothing. It’s the same as “light” requiring “dark” for it to make sense. Winnicott parses the phrase “I am alone” to demonstrate that it begins with “I” (the sense of an ego self as an integrated unit); then “I am” (implying an existence and life within an environment); then “I am alone” (which suggests the child’s understanding that the parent continues to exist without the child’s active engagement). This is essential emotional development and will continue so that “in the course of time the individual becomes able to forgo the actual presence of a mother or mother-figure” (p. 34).
As an adult – and an introvert – I am able to enjoy the experience of being alone precisely because I trust that there are supportive relationships in my life. I can “relax” – or “flounder” or “be in a state in which there is no orientation” precisely because I know I can trust that I can come back to a place with orientation. This started when I was a child and I could trust that I had a mother and father who would still be present to me when I needed them. Now, I have a spouse, a community of friends, and (still) my parents. As we mature, this “introjected mother” becomes more complex and nuanced. I would argue that this is where adults begin to understand the concept of faith and an understanding of God.
Developmentally, my little girl needed me to be present in order to bear witness to her capacity to not need me to be present. It’s a bit head-spinning, but it’s all good news. It was frustrating when I’d rather exercise my own capacity to be alone. But I am honored to be able to offer her the same safety that my own parents offered me; after all, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my own capacity to be alone had my parents not been actually present to me as a child.
It also helps to inoculate me from every parents’ ultimate wound: the recognition that as our children grow, they need us less. This is true, of course, but it’s also not true. Our two-year-old beauty is already showing extreme signs of independence. This weekend she spent forty minutes trying to pull her pants up, absolutely refusing any help from me. But to whatever degree children tell their parents that they don’t need them, it’s because they were able to need them at some point. I will carry this with me as my little one grows. One day I will look at her and think, she’s all grown up, she doesn’t need me anymore. But that’s because in those early days when she needed me, she developed the capacity to trust my safe presence. Children can forgo the actual presence of their parents because they can trust the ego-relatedness of that love that continues to follow them.
So no matter what my daughter says to me in my lifetime, no matter how strongly she insists she doesn’t need me, I will always remember the morning when she needed me to stay in the room while she read books to herself.