* NOTE: As usual, the names of all the babies and mothers have been changed to preserve their privacy. Thank you to everyone who has been following our blog!
His first steps were uncertain at best. When I lifted him from the baby walker and placed him on his own two feet, Baby Harry threw me an incredulous stare. “I promise, it’s not that I’m too lazy to pick you up,” I reassured him. “I just want you to practice walking.” He swayed on the spot, trying to find his center of balance. I crouched a few feet in front of him, motioning for him to join me. “¡Ven, Harry, ven! (Come on, Harry, come on!)” Slowly, tentatively, he lifted one foot and tottered forward. “¡Muy bien, Harry! (Very good, Harry!)” echoed the tutor’s voice from behind me. Harry beamed and staggered towards me. Before I could form the words “Slow down,” he had thrown himself into my arms, laughing in unbridled glee. The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Walk had become The Little Boy Who Could.
When I first arrived at the Hogar, Baby Harry was one year and two months old – and showed absolutely no desire to walk. His preferred mode of transportation was crawling, followed closely by being carried around. Given his age, his refusal to walk put him far behind the other kids in terms of development. As a budding neuroscientist, my most pressing question was: “Why?”
I can’t say that I ever found a certain answer – especially because Baby Harry himself can’t talk. But I did form an elaborate theory about a Monkey, a Mother, and a Motive. Now, before you dismiss me as completely crazy, take a moment to hear me out.
In 1957, psychologist Harry Harlow began a series of experiments about the mother-infant bond. He bred rhesus monkeys in his lab and, upon birth, separated the infants from their mothers. In lieu of their real mothers, the baby monkeys were offered a choice between two surrogate mothers: identical wire-crafted figures that differed in two ways. One “mother” was covered in soft cloth. The other was made of bare wire but held a milk bottle for its “babies.” One by one, each infant was placed in a room with the two surrogates. And, one by one, each made his or her decision.
Harlow and his team found that the babies spent significantly more time with the Cloth Mother than with the Wire Mother – even though the Wire Mother was the only one providing nourishment. When confronted with a frightening object, the monkeys would instantly seek comfort in the arms of the Cloth Mother. Later studies augmented these findings, revealing that baby monkeys deprived of maternal contact showed greater fear towards new objects and experiences. Harlow’s discoveries – combined with the work of other psychologists – formed the basis for “Attachment Theory,” which explains that a healthy infant-mother bond is critical for a child’s development.
So much for the Monkey; now onto the Mother. Yenny was no older than fourteen when she gave birth to Baby Harry – and that was the inception of their rocky relationship. For his mother, Baby Harry was a very tangible reminder of the horror and humiliation she’d lived through. So she sought to distance herself from him as much as possible. She didn’t hold him; she didn’t hug him; and she didn’t show him any love.
That sort of dynamic is not unheard of in the Hogar. Although most of the mothers love their babies, a few still have difficulty accepting their maternal roles. And it’s perfectly understandable why. Though they themselves are innocent, the babies are all products of past traumas. They’re living remnants of the horrific incidents that shattered their mothers’ old lives. So how can Yenny even look at her baby without having to stem the tide of awful memories about his conception? The answer is: she can’t.
Now, there are certainly mothers in the Hogar who have learned to compartmentalize those feelings. Slowly but surely, they’ve grown to love their babies and leave the past where it belongs. Unfortunately for Baby Harry, his mother isn’t quite there yet. And there’s nothing that I, the psychologist, or any of her peers can do to complete the process. She needs to attain that catharsis on her own.
After learning about Baby Harry’s situation, I resolved to give him as much love as I possibly could. I cuddled him, smiled at him, spoke to him, and did everything in my power to help him walk. On a regular basis, I would lift him out of the baby walker and hold his hands as he ambled around the home. And, on July 21st, I watched proudly as he walked towards me, supported by naught but his own two legs.
I won’t attempt to claim credit for his starting to walk. Ultimately, he made that decision on his own. And I can’t divine his precise Motive for doing so, either. All I can say is that I did my best to help and that I gave him as much love as I could.
It’s been exactly two weeks since I saw Baby Harry – or anyone at the Hogar. I’m writing this from my home in California, and I can’t stop thinking about the people in Cusco who became my family. I remember Yasmín enveloping me in a tight hug when I greeted her every morning. I remember Karla crafting a pipe-cleaner bracelet and shyly sliding it onto my wrist. I remember carrying Baby Belle down the street to the hospital, worried about her possible concussion and unwilling to put her down for the world. The surge of memories is overwhelming – tearjerking and heartwarming at once.
Saying goodbye wasn’t easy, but I’m hoping it won’t be permanent. I plan to stay in touch with all of the girls by sending them regular emails through Maruja’s account. And I’ll definitely go back to Cusco to visit them in person; I’m just not sure when. What I do know, however, is that my “Goodbye” wasn’t the “Farewell Forever” that rounds off Shakespearean tragedies. It was more of an “Au Revoir” – “Goodbye, Until We Meet Again.”