Letting Go of Attachment Parenting

February 29, 2012

I remember thinking at some point in my mid-20s that I was too selfish to have kids. It was my understanding that when people have kids they have to give up their own lives. Your life is no longer yours: it belongs to your children. This notion was reinforced by most people with whom I spoke, and it is currently supported by a culture focused on “self” and individual achievement in children. (I suspect that being a product of this culture was the very reason I felt too selfish to have children in the first place.) In my opinion, there is a common attitude in America that being a good parent means sacrificing everything (your health, your looks, your time, your energy, your relationships, sometimes even your marriage) for the sake of your children. If you want your child to be successful in life, then you must give her every possible opportunity and advantage, at whatever cost. I have seen many, many people fall into this mindset, spurred by the guilt they feel for not being a “good” mother or father. It happened to me.

When I found out I was pregnant, I started reading about different approaches to parenting: philosophies, techniques, whatever you’d like to call them. I ruled out Ferber right away because it was “unnecessary and potentially damaging” according to some. I didn’t want to set up my child for a lifetime of therapy to deal with her abandonment issues before she was even born. (In all fairness to Dr. Ferber, I didn’t research his method. I made a quick judgment based on limited information and chose not to explore further.) I then stumbled upon attachment parenting. Now, that seemed to make sense. You just respond to your baby’s cries and cues because it’s your natural instinct. You don’t want to let your baby cry, so you shouldn’t. Because you give your baby 100% of your time and attention, she naturally will evolve into an independent child, unafraid of the world, because of the security she feels at home. Yes! I said. That sounded like good common sense. I set out to learn all I could about attachment parenting and decided I would breastfeed on demand and co-sleep. I was determined to give up my self-perceived selfishness for the sake of my daughter because if I chose to bring her into the world it was my responsibility to ensure she receive the best possible start in life.

It is not uncommon to hear a new mother say, “I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since before he was born.” In fact, most people are suspicious of anyone whose baby does sleep through the night, or they simply believe that the gods have smiled graciously upon that family. I didn’t sleep for the first four months after Scarlett was born. The first month was the hardest. I suspect that she was colicky because she cried pretty much nonstop, 24 hours a day. Nothing seemed to calm her down except nursing. We were co-sleeping, so every time she woke up, I woke up. I’d then nurse her because, again, that was the only thing that calmed her down, and frankly, I wanted to go back to sleep as quickly as possible. What I didn’t realize was that I wasn’t helping her or myself by doing this. Babies’ sleep cycles are about two hours long. So, every two hours they wake up and fuss. Rather than let Scarlett learn to go back to sleep on her own in between cycles, I was teaching her that she needed to nurse to go back to sleep. I thought that I was cleverly getting more sleep when I was creating quite the opposite outcome for myself. But I felt too guilty about letting her cry for even a few minutes alone in her crib, so I continued trying to make co-sleeping work.

When I was so tired that I unexpectedly started crying at completely inappropriate moments, even in public, I knew something had to change. Now, I am a highly emotional person, but this was extreme. If I wasn’t crying, I was angry and on edge. I snapped and yelled at people. I had no patience for anyone or anything, including Scarlett.  I thought, “How can this possibly be good parenting?” Feeling slightly guilty, I decided that for me to be a good parent I had to take care of myself and my needs first, like putting the oxygen mask on yourself before helping anyone else in the event of a crash. I saw no other option because I was in a nose dive toward a nervous breakdown. We altered our sleeping arrangement first. We stopped co-sleeping and moved Scarlett into her own room and crib. Yes, there was a period of adjustment. When she woke up, we’d let her cry for 5 or 10 minutes, and if she didn’t calm herself down, we’d hold her or rock her. If that didn’t work, I’d nurse her. Slowly, she started sleeping for longer periods of time until she was sleeping through the night. And then we were sleeping. I was beginning to feel human again.

Breastfeeding also proved more difficult for me than I had imagined in my earth-mother dreams. I was determined to breastfeed for an entire year because that’s the minimum recommendation set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, with two years as an ideal. I determined that I was not going to supplement with formula because “breast is best,” and I was going to breastfeed for a year, come hell or high water. The problem for me was that I couldn’t really pump. I would spend an hour pumping and maybe, maybe get four ounces of milk. (This is about one serving for an infant.) It was absolutely miserable. And because I was so stubborn and attached to the idea of exclusively breastfeeding, I didn’t supplement with formula when it would have made my life infinitely more comfortable. I never really left the house because I was Scarlett’s food source. Because I was nursing on demand and without a supply of pumped milk, I was always on call; I couldn’t make plans. If I did leave, Scarlett had to come with me. It became incredible stressful, which was not what I wanted for her, Brian, or me. We started supplementing with formula at nine months, and I stopped breastfeeding after one year.

The difficulty for me with attachment parenting was that there was no room for me in it. It seemed to be based entirely on putting my child’s needs well above my own. Yes, this was absolutely necessary for a period of time, especially in the first several months. However, I don’t believe that level of self-sacrifice is sustainable. All the parenting books will tell you to take time for yourself, but this advice is usually tucked into a sidebar somewhere, or maybe it’s tiny, little parenthetical sentence in a book six inches thick. It’s more of an afterthought than legitimate advice. However, the biggest lesson I learned in my first year as a new mom is that taking care of myself is the single best thing that I can do for my child. If I am my daughter’s most influential role model, then I should set an example of a healthy and well-balanced woman, not the sleep-deprived, crazed, strung-out beast I had become. By making sure that I get enough sleep to function, exercising, leaving the house or spending time by myself, I am not only a better mom to Scarlett but a better partner to Brian as well. We’re all happier now.

I am a firm believer that every parent and child have to find the right approach to their relationship. I believe that attachment parenting can work very well for some people. It just didn’t work for me. And if you are practicing attachment parenting and feel that it may not be working for you either, I encourage to reevaluate your choice and try something else. A parenting philosophy in its own right will not make you a good parent or a bad parent: it’s  about discovering ways to build a relationship of love and trust with you child. For me, the “selfishness” that I thought would prevent me from being a good parent is the very thing that made me a better one.

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