My husband used to talk to my pregnant belly everyday, telling his daughter how much he loved her, how he could not wait to meet her. Her birth, however, was complicated by maternal fever and a resultant fast baby heart rate. The doctors whisked her immediately to the warming table after delivery to culture blood and place an IV for antibiotics. Our baby vehemently expressed her discontent–body tense, red-faced, mouth wide open, eyes shut, screaming as loudly as a newborn could. Daddy leaned over and gently said, “It’s ok. Daddy’s here.” She quieted, turned toward his voice, and gazed upon his face, sensing his comforting presence.
After bringing our precious bundle home, we continued to diligently respond to her distress cues. She learned consistently that Mommy will nurse when she’s hungry; that Daddy will change her wet diaper; and that we will always hold, rock, and cuddle her as needed. Securely attached to Mommy and Daddy, she confidently engages her world. She can focus her energies on enjoying friendships and learning about God’s creation.
Early childhood mental health experts would consider this an example of healthy infant “attachment” supporting “emotional state regulation.” The science of early childhood development points to proper parent-child attachment as the foundation for the ability to form relationships and learn about the world. Indeed, advanced brain imaging techniques in recent years show that anatomical and chemical pathways grow and connect properly in response to a mother’s attuned reactions.
Unfortunately, many children are deprived of healthy bonding experiences with their parents, beginning in the womb. Prenatal drug exposure changes the brain structurally and chemically, making it more difficult for baby to be calmed by a caregiver. Mommies and Daddies addicted to drugs do not understand when their baby is calling for help, and the newborn’s cries of distress may go unanswered. Sometimes her cries may result in harsh words or even a painful slap. The lack of consistent nurture alters brain development–some areas stop growing while others form aberrant connections.
I am a pediatrician who works in child welfare, where abuse and neglect are often transmitted from generation to generation. Parental problems can shape little brains to look and function differently from those with the proper nurture and protection. Studies have found that abused and neglected brains have visibly missing or shrunken parts. Thus, many experts argue that promoting early childhood mental health via healthy care-giving relationships is the most effective intervention in preventing relentless cycles of homelessness, addiction, and abuse. What better time to intervene in a child’s life than at birth?
I have been blessed with opportunities to serve mothers courageously working to break these cycles of abandonment and violence. Community’s Child in Lomita operates a transitional living program, “Building Hope,” for homeless mothers with infants and young children. All of the women there have experienced degrees of trauma unfathomable to many of us. What is it like to be abandoned by one’s parents who loved drugs more than you, only to be bounced from foster home to foster home? What is it like to hang onto the side of a bed rail for dear life in order to delay being hit by mom who is in a bad mood? What is it like to know the confusion and shame of sexual abuse by a so-called “trusted” family elder? What is it like to know the betrayal and hopelessness of ending up in a hospital bed, badly hurt from a severe beating at the hands of a man who once professed his undying love for you, pregnant with his child? For the mothers at Building Hope, these experiences are far too common, and way too personal. Psychology explains their homelessness and addictions via attachment theory; neuroscience via brain biology; and sociology dooms them to lifelong hopelessness.
However, we at Community’s Child see dignity, worth, and potential–via the life-giving, life-changing, and restorative work of the Savior. The Father has affirmed His love and high regard for us; Even before conception, He declared His love for us. Despite our total depravity–completely helpless and hopeless in our sin–He chose to love us. It is only by this regenerative relationship that the miracles at Community’s Child occur. Despite a lifetime of insecure attachments and manipulative relationships, once these ladies accept Christ’s gift of love, His restorative work begins relentlessly in their hearts, and, I daresay, brains. If Jesus can make the blind man see and the lame man walk, He can certainly rewire brain circuitry! They not only persevere to study and acquire life skills, but also learn to love, nurture, and parent their children in healthy ways, thus, breaking the cycle of insecure attachments, neglect, and violence:
- Hope, who came to Community’s Child from a life of inter-generational community violence and drugs, is now married to her children’s father. He was also transformed by Christ–from a gangster into a “Kingdom Man,” serving his wife and children with sacrificial love. Together, the family serves the Lord in various church ministries, including a recent missions trip to Mexico.
- Katherine not only overcame her own addiction problems, regained custody of her children, completed her education, and became a successful business woman, but also helped other members of her family out of addiction. She continues to help care for her mother and siblings, in addition to her own children.
(Names have been changed to protect our graduates’ privacy.)
Community’s Child is dedicated to shaping future generations with the highest impact interventions, both physically and ontologically. We provide the material structure for mothers to attend to the physical and emotional needs of their babies, securing healthy attachments from the beginning. Most importantly, however, we nurture the mothers’ relationship with their Savior. “Secure attachment” to their Heavenly Father is the foundation from which they learn to successfully cope with life’s challenges. He whispers comfort to His children, they gaze upon His face, and receive the joy and peace of His Spirit. Deeply rooted and thriving relationships with Christ not only break generational cycles of abuse and abandonment, but begin new cycles of hope–nurturing future Kingdom men and women.
The words “Jesus Christ” were symbolically etched throughout the foundations of Building Hope. The photo here is taken from the driveway at the front entrance of the home. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Christ as Foundation)