I love lesser known tales that vary from the more predictable narratives. The Czech fairy tale The Wooden Baby is a fantastically macabre tale that does not have many common variants. Better yet, it deals with the dark side of parenthood.
A poor couple lived at the edge of a forest. Even though they barely had enough to feed themselves, they longed for a baby. One day, the man was in the forest cutting wood, and he found a stump that was shaped vaguely like a baby. He roughly carved it to look more like a child, and then he took it home to his wife and presented to her as a gift. When she wrapped the stump child in a blanket and sang to it, he opened his mouth and cried, “Mother, I am so hungry!”
So far, this is a familiar tale. There are many stories of longed-for children made from inanimate objects who come to life; girls crafted from snow, and of course a famous literary boy carved from a piece of wood.
In our Czech story, however, things go a little differently. The mother rushes to feed the hungry baby, but he cannot be sated. He eats, and eats, and finally eats her. Then, dad comes home, and the wooden baby eats him. He goes out into the world and eats other people and flocks of animals. Finally, an old woman tending her cabbage patch slices him wide open with her hoe. Of course, everyone who had been swallowed earlier in the story emerges from his giant belly unharmed. The poor couple go home together arm in arm, and we are told that they never again wish for a baby!
There are several different ways to understand this story. For one, it is a snapshot picture of a commonplace experience in parenthood. What mother hasn’t felt devoured by her child? When she is up every ninety minutes nursing a colicky baby who can seemingly never be made to feel happy, she can feel devoured. When her teenage daughter rails against everything the mother does, no matter how well-intentioned and loving the action, the mother can feel eaten up. We have all had our moments when the needs of our child overwhelmed or even frightened us.
On a larger level, the tale explores the psychology of attachment between a parent and a child, and how that process can be damaged by emotional or actual poverty. At the start of the story, the parents have barely enough for themselves, and are told by neighbors that they are lucky they don’t have another mouth to feed. The parents reply that they have managed to feed themselves. Surely, they could also manage to feed a tiny baby. This shows a kind of arrogance. They do not have a sober assessment of the tremendous resources required to raise a child – and we can understand these resources to be both material and psychological. We have all likely known someone who blithely moved forward with having a child even though they seemed in no way able to handle the challenge. Many times, parents who look unprepared for child rearing rise to the occasion, often quite stunningly. But there are times when parents, like those in the tale, naively bring a child into the world amidst poverty, mental illness, addiction, or other factors, and are predictably overwhelmed.
The experience of parental competence is the factor that sets in motion the maternal attachment system. Feelings of panic, fear, dread, and overwhelm are common among new mothers (and not so new mothers at times as well). When she is able to calm her child, to confidently read his cues and provide the needed balm, is when connection starts to solidify. A mother’s experience of her own competence is the foundation of love and attachment for her baby. Without this, the baby only means frustration, fear, and inadequacy.
Psychologists and neuroscientists Jonathan Baylin and Daniel Hughes have written about the neurobiological basis of attachment in parenting. When things are going well between a mother and child, both experience being capable of eliciting joy in the other. This is a powerful experience that helps our brain connect with our heart, lungs, voice, facial muscles, and even hearing so that we may stay exquisitely attuned to our child. The positive reaction that we are likely to get from our child as a result of these attuned interactions helps sustain and strengthen this loving experience of each other.
Neuroscientists are getting a clearer picture of what happens when things aren’t going so well. When a mother has inadequate mothering herself or when she is under stress, her brain’s “threat detection” system is likely to be activated by her child’s distress or perceived anger. This shuts down the brain systems required for connection and attunement, resulting in what Baylin and Hughes call “blocked care.”
When we are struggling with “blocked care” as a parent, our child may indeed appear to us as “wooden.” His suffering fails to mobilize our empathy, and we feel only anger, revulsion, or resentment. The Wooden Baby in this tale is how a child might appear to us when we are in a state of “blocked care.” It is notable that he begins life by complaining of how hungry he is, and even after being fed, is not satisfied. When a parent is unable to soothe a child, and a negative interaction ensues, the mother’s dopamine system may crash, leading to feelings of rejection, anger and frustration. If the mother cannot regulate these emotions in herself, a state of blocked care can occur.
One of my favorite filmic fairy tales addresses itself to this psychological territory. The mother in Steven Spielberg’s AI cannot access her care system toward David, her adopted AI son, once her biological child has been returned to her. Though David is all innocence and love, she cannot see him that way. Like any parent with blocked care, she incorrectly perceives maliciousness, anger, and danger in David’s actions. These perceptions in turn cause her to shut down further toward David, until she abandons him in the wood. Importantly, David is not actually a threat, he just appears to be. When our threat-detection system is activated by a negative interaction with our child, he or she may appear to us momentarily as monstrous. AI, of course, is Spielberg’s retelling of the most famous wooden baby story – that of Pinocchio.
The end of the fairy tale provides us with some clues about how to resolve this difficult parental impasse. It is an old woman tending her cabbage patch who dispatches the overgrown baby with her hoe. Some seasoned bit of feminine wisdom, receptive and connected to the earth, uses her powers of discernment and separation to split open this psychic content that is carrying too much power. She reveals him to be merely an overstuffed tree stump, really no threat at all, restoring psychic equilibrium.
This tale echoes a key scene in the Miyazaki film Spirited Away. No Face begins devouring everyone, terrifying the bath house. It is Sen who knows how to restore him to his rightful size, who can see through the monstrosity he has become and reconnect with his true nature. When our child appears monstrous and devouring to us – devouring of our time, our identity, our energy – it takes a certain earthy, humble wisdom to face our frightening feelings, cut them down to size, and restore our sense of connection.
There is a recent film adaptation of The Wooden Baby by Czech film director Jan Svankmajer. It looks delightfully creepy, and is currently in my Netflix cue.