The good nurturing guide

09/03/2012 at 6:48 pm | Posted in Happiness, Healing, Parenting, Wellbeing | 9 Comments
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The author and youngest child, in baby-wearing days.

‘Nurturing’ is a very ancient word, and we all know what it means… don’t we? It’s about being loving, caring, helping young ones to grow and develop. But remove centuries of common usage, and we get a much simpler concept. This is it.

‘Nurture’, ‘nutrient’, ‘nourish’ and ‘nurse’ all come from the same ancient Proto-Indo-European root: ‘nu’, or ‘snu’. That root means, quite simply, ‘to flow, to let flow, to suckle’. The Sanskrit word is very similar: ‘snauti’ means ‘she drips, gives milk’. The ancient Greek is ‘nao’, meaning: ‘I flow’.

So to nurture means, literally, the act of giving milk to an infant. That is it – nothing else.

Why does does this matter?

Because, when you give milk to an infant (and in its unfettered state this is the most marvellous, natural,  flowing feeling in the world), you give the milk, and that is it. True, you also look after the infant – the love and practical care you give them is hugely, extraordinarily important, and makes the difference between thriving and just surviving.  And it is right that we include that sense of loving care within our modern definition of nurturing.

But the actual act of giving milk – the ‘nu’ or nourishment – is one, literally, of letting go. The milk is an unconditional gift. You don’t expect the infant to do anything in particular with it. You know, and hope, that they will grow. But the way they do this is truly not in your control. Their own particular combination of genes and psyche will, along with, hopefully, a beneficial environment, create a unique and marvellous human being.

Nowadays, our notion of nurturing includes a sense of sculpting and shaping the young individual so that they grow up to be a properly socialised being. We feel a sense of responsibility to get this right. Parenting manuals and playground conversations collude to create the pressured sense that we have an awfully big role which we are highly likely, regularly, to get wrong. As the English poet Philip Larkin put it so memorably in This Be the Verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra just for you.”

This past week I’ve been working on the theme of nurturing with students and clients. The pickle we humans collectively get ourselves into over this word has become very obvious to me. I have found two basic themes.

One is a sense of not being nurtured – emotionally, or perhaps nutritionally, as a child.

The other is a well-meaning and futile impulse to shape and sculpt others who are way past the infant stage.

If we take ‘nurturing’ back to its original meaning, of giving milk – or sustenance, if you will – to an infant, then these two themes of profound human disappointment take on a different colour.

When we understand that the sustenance we received – flawed though it may have been – was fundamentally an unconditional gift, then we realise that our own growth and flowering is ultimately up to ourselves, and the laws of nature. We may then choose to care for those aspects of ourselves that have been frozen in childhood patterns of trauma, want or need, and bring them to a more enlightened and happier adult reality.

When we understand that the people we know who are past the stage of infancy do not need to be nurtured by us, it lifts the most enormous burden from our shoulders. Instead of trying to fix or rescue others, we give them the respect of one grown-up for another. And frequently we find that they do flower as a result of that respect.

Nurturing is a simple act that happens in the present moment, and then is gone. Once we have given it, we no longer own it.

Isn’t that a relatively carefree feeling?

9 Comments »

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  1. thanks so much for this post – you are spot on! NEWS to be shared with parents worldwide

  2. Thank you so much charlotteclare. Your feedback is appreciated. I hope that every parent who reads this is another parent freed from guilt. Parents rock!

  3. Thank you so much for this Suzanne. As you know, there is no feeling in the world like bringing up your children and then finally, being able to let them go into the World knowing you have done the best you possibly can for them. We have been blessed with our loving lads and their extended famillies – and are so proud of them all.
    We have a deep respect for who they have become and we are sure they have the same respect for us, as parents, God Bless the lads and all our loving family.

    • How beautiful, Barbara. Thank you for sharing that marvellous parenting experience. Letting go, with love and respect… these are divine qualities x x

  4. P.S. I love the picture of Mother and yougest child – fantastic!!

  5. Thank you Suzanne – I really appreciate your lovely comments.

  6. Thanks for the like on my post – thought I’d check you out. This post is phenomenal; I absolutely love it. The meaning “to flow” is also so important here: it’s not just that the milk is given and then it is gone, but that the trick is to stay “in the flow” with those we seek to love and support. It’s not always easy to let go, but thanks for this reminder of how essential it is.

  7. Thank you for your kind comments and your contribution to the subject, Kamela. I love the extra dimension you give to this post, by reminding us that being ‘in the flow’ is our natural way of being.

  8. […] Blogger Suzanne Ashkam recently posted this gem about nurturance, and the tendency of many of us to try and shape and mold and transform people in our sphere – not just our children, but our partners, our friends, our parents – in ways that are essentially impossible. Nurturing, she reminds us, is a question of flow: offering the necessary tools for health and growth, then letting go. […]


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