Small Ceremonies: Parenting as an Act of Resistance
Last winter, I spent most of my days on our old green leather couch, feeding my infant daughter, looking out the window, and wondering what kind of person I’d become. Suddenly responsible for someone else’s life, I took to heart what the parenting books piled on my floor were whispering in my ear — that every moment, every act of caregiving for an infant was crucial, taut with consequences. I placed my daughter on her back on a blanket on the hardwood floor and watched her look up at the stained-glass lamp with equal parts skepticism and wonder. Soon she was turning herself over onto her stomach and writhing angrily, yelling for me or at me with needs that both she and I could only begin to fathom. I began to ask myself: do I pick her up and tell her everything is ok? Do I let her figure things out for herself? Is there a developmental milestone that tells me when a child is ready to learn independence? If I miss this milestone, will I have somehow failed both of us?
I started typing these early-morning questions into my phone, and one day I found something that looked like an answer: do the smallest thing. The phrase came from a parenting blog by Janet Lansbury, author of Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. Lansbury’s blog post encourages parents to embrace the paradox: being fearful and protective is natural, but it’s possible to channel our energies to help the children we nurture to achieve the feeling of accomplishment that even the littlest ones crave. Lansbury’s advice is to do the smallest thing necessary that will help children work through their frustration on their own.
In my case, I gently placed my hand on my child’s back as she furiously yelled into the blanket. And then I simply sat there, next to her. To my surprise, she stopped yelling. She was still miserable, but her emotions, at least to my mind, seemed less overwhelming. She gradually became more calm and focused. I immediately ordered Lansbury’s book.
Lansbury is a proponent of RIE, Resources for Infant Educarers, also known as “respectful parenting.” RIE caregivers dedicate quality time to everyday tasks such as diapering, feeding, and bathing; you can find multiple videos extolling the nurturing aspects of changing a diaper. RIE parenting is about under-scheduling, mono-tasking, and practicing “sensitive observation and selective intervention.” Magda Gerber, who founded RIE in 1978, believed that respect was the cornerstone of caregiving. She advocated trusting in children’s abilities to process the world and to develop their own responses to it, counseling caregivers to be receptive to a child’s need for independence. She famously proclaimed, “Many awful things have been done in the name of love, but nothing awful can be done in the name of respect.”
I was drawn to “respectful parenting” because I found strength and purpose in the work of building a relationship between my daughter and myself. I began to see my labor as an act of devotion, physically exhausting and yet somehow mentally stimulating. I wanted to sit with my child in stillness and clarity. But I struggled to find a way to embrace childraising that was ethical, rather than just another outgrowth of my racial and class privilege.
I began searching for caregiving role models who combined love, respect, and the ongoing, everyday work of political resistance. I soon discovered that, at the same time Gerber was developing RIE in Los Angeles, feminist philosopher Carol Gilligan was developing a way of thinking about both caregiving and political action from the perspective of attention, responsiveness, and respect. Her work helped pioneer the new field of the feminist ethics of care.
Paralleling Gerber, Gilligan argued that care is a type of practice focused on empathy, observation, and communication. Since the human condition is fundamentally one of interrelatedness, relationships should be considered the basis of our ethical standards in civil society. Gilligan argues that a feminist ethics of care is an “ethic of resistance to the injustices inherent in the patriarchy.” Caring, in her eyes, is a transformative practice that can transcend or even dismantle gender binaries and systems of exploitation. Seen in this light, then, I could conceive of RIE and respectful parenting as not only my own quirky approach to childrearing; I could claim diaper changing as a practice of resistance.
While the RIE movement doesn’t hew along specific political lines - its membership seems to span from progressive to libertarian - respectful parenting was born, and came of age, within the deeply political context of World War II. Magda Gerber, an elegant and aristocratic Hungarian woman born around 1910, seems an unlikely transplant to Los Angeles, but she was following in the footsteps of scores of Central European intellectuals who fled Berlin for Pacific Palisades in the 1930s and 1940s. Gerber taught RIE methodology to thousands of people until her death in 2007. Her classes became an under-the-radar sensation, inspiring celebrities and suburban moms searching for ways to create more meaningful, less fraught, parent-child relationships. Gerber spent much of the 1930s and 1940s in Hungary working under her mentor, Dr. Emmi Pikler, a pediatrician who founded a pioneering caregiving approach for institutionalized children. While Gerber implemented her ideas for an American middle-class suburban audience, Pikler worked with the same ideas in a state institution in Communist Hungary.
Gerber studied linguistics at the Sorbonne before marrying an industrialist at age 18. As was expected of her as a bourgeois housewife, she hired a nanny for her three children. One day, she noticed that the nanny was forcing one of the children to finish eating her meal. Upset at the nanny’s authoritarian approach, she dismissed her and announced to her startled husband that she would care for the children herself. Rather than rueing her new routine of domestic labor, Gerber found to her own surprise that she felt deeply engaged and intellectually stimulated.
In 1937, Gerber took her daughter to Dr. Emmi Pikler, a prominent Budapest pediatrician. Gerber observed the gentle, thoughtful way that Pikler treated her patients. Even the smallest children were asked to explain their own symptoms, in their own words. In 1946 Gerber began to work with Pikler in a new program she was developing at a state orphanage. The two women would work together until Gerber and her family were forced out of Hungary after the Soviet invasion in 1956.
Emmi Pikler (1902-1984), nee Emilie Madeleine Reich, was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, and studied medicine there in the 1920s. The 1930s, Pikler became a single mother, and a working parent, in the turbulent years leading up to World War II after her husband was arrested for his Communist political activities. Restricted from working in state hospitals because of her Jewish background, Pikler opened up her own private practice, pioneering her progressive methods and attracting elite Budapest families such as Gerber’s. These families helped hide Pikler and her children during the war, ensuring their survival. After the war, Pikler reunited with her husband, and began implementing her pioneering caregiving methods in the state orphanage that would soon become so synonymous with her work that it is to this day known simply by the street is was located on, Loczy.
The Loczy Street Methodological Institute served orphans from birth to age two and a half. From 1946 to 1963, Pikler and her colleagues cared for 722 children at the institute. Children were looked after by at most three different caregivers over the course of their entire life at Loczy. The nurses used diapering, bathing, and feeding time with each child to develop a close relationship with them. During playtime, infants were placed in a large playpen or in a fenced area within the house or garden. Adults did not intervene in the children’s play for any reason except safety. All the children taught themselves how to walk, and how to fall.
Gerber worked at Loczy until her husband was also imprisoned by the Communist authorities. The family narrowly escaped Hungary, reuniting in Austria before relocating to the United States. Gerber developed a pilot early childhood intervention program with Dr. Thomas Forrest, a pediatric neurologist. In 1978, they co-launched RIE as a non-profit. Gerber effectively translated Pikler’s methods to Reagan-era America, where parenting anxieties oscillated between latchkey kids, who spent hours every day unsupervised, and milk-carton kids, snatched by strangers on the way home from school. Nineteen-eighties parents were drawn to RIE because it charted a middle path between these extremes. Respectful parenting promised, to many, a way for parents to foster their child’s independence while still being actively present in their development.
Although not explicitly feminist in content, respectful parenting resonated closely with contemporary feminist philosophers’ ideas of children’s moral and social development and the devaluation of domestic labor. In 1982, Carol Gilligan published In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, which argued that women used a different ethical framework than men. Her ideas, alongside Nel Noddings in her book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984), helped found the philosophical school of feminist ethics of care. In contrast to the prevailing notion of the male-gendered “liberal individual” in moral and political theory, the ethics of care “conceptualizes persons as deeply affected by, and involved in, relationships with others.” The ethics of care as a moral theory de-emphasize acts of duty based on moral principle, arguing instead that “ethical caring does not seek moral credit; it seeks a response from the cared-for that completes the encounter.” Reciprocal receptivity — the buzzy feeling of connection — brings joy. To perform the labor of caring is a natural response to living embedded in relations, and the positive feelings it can produce reinforce this feedback loop.
Because caring is based on inductive, contextual, and psychological reasoning, it is often gendered as female and systematically demeaned. But Noddings argues that caring is strengthened as an ethical and moral practice precisely because it is rooted in the private sphere. In a patriarchal approach to politics, reform is modeled on an idealized public sphere such as the “City on a Hill” or ancient Rome. Yet, a private sphere modeled on the ethics of care can serve as a powerfully effective model for transforming our social institutions.
Pikler and Gerber trained thousands of parents, childcare providers, and educators, who in turn are now training future generations across the globe. Indeed, these caregivers will be ever more necessary as new generations of orphans, refugees, and traumatized children struggle to come of age. Pikler’s orphanage was shut down by the Hungarian government in 2011, despite the personal intervention of Hillary Clinton, as part of Prime Minister Victor Orban’s anti-Western, anti-liberal, and anti-immigrant autocratic rule. The non-profit arm of the orphanage, Pikler International, still offers classes and seminars at its original location, the house on Loczy.
In “The Argonauts,” Maggie Nelson describes one moment in the “long afternoon” of her child’s infancy, an image of her baby paused in mid-crawl at the threshold of their backyard. Nelson wants to pause the scene here, forever, at the moment of her child’s brilliant independence, right before she has to leap into action to keep him from putting something in his mouth. “You, reader, are alive today, reading this, because someone once adequately policed your mouth exploring,” she gently reminds us. Nelson describes parenting as an act of “ordinary devotion.” Emmi Pikler also likened infant caregiving to a religious act. She described these intimate rituals of everyday life as being the foundation of a caregiving relationship of “ceremonious slowness.” Like a child’s first steps, the exquisite act of balancing care and independence, togetherness and separation, is an act of love, of care, that endures far beyond the long afternoon of childhood.