There has been a friendly debate going on between Danielle Bean, one of my favorite Catholic mom bloggers/writers, and Dr. Greg Popcak, a pro-attachment parenting (AP) expert I respect, and I’ve decided to weigh in. You can read the running commentary/debate at both Danielle’s site and at Heart, Mind & Strength.
Although I am a strong supporter of the 8 principles of AP (as dictated by Attachment Parenting International), I have to say I stand by Danielle’s comments and thoughts. Here are some of the reasons why:
Before I became a mom, I scoured every book on AP for its pearls of wisdom. I was determined to be a model mom and to solidify a loving bond between my baby and me. However, in the trenches of motherhood, I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to parenting. Before I gave birth to my first child (naturally, I hesitate to add, as AP encourages), I had these envisions of carrying her in a sling all daylong and sleeping peacefully with her nestled by my side. But Madeline arrived into the world as a highly inquisitive, alert child who couldn’t stand being snuggled close to my chest. She was normally a happy, content baby, but the moment I attempted to put her into a sling, she’d start squirming and fussing. I tried several different models from a traditional sling to a front carrier. She wanted nothing to do with any of them until she was old enough to face the world outward or to be hitched on my hip (around 6 months or so). Even then, she grew tired of being too close to me for too long. She craved her own space and the freedom to explore her world.
As for sleeping, sharing a bed proved to be a nightmare. I was desperate to do this because Madeline wanted to nurse all night long and never napped well. (To this day, she doesn’t need much sleep.) But when I tried keeping her in bed with me, neither one of us got much shut-eye. She was born a wiggle worm and she slept much better away from Mommy. I did, however, nurse her on demand until she was almost 2 years old and would have continued nursing except I could not get pregnant (luteal phase was too short) while nursing. The month I weaned (gently, I might add) I conceived.
Rachel Marie, our second child, absolutely loves to snuggle close to me and to be carried chest to chest. She also sleeps peacefully still. However, she doesn’t use me as a human pacifier like Madeline did, so ecological breastfeeding isn’t working as well as it did with Madeline. She has reflux and starts to cry if I try to offer her the breast for comfort when she’s not hungry. My girls are very different, but I’ve learned to do what works for them as well as what works for me, not some other mom’s baby or what some book or expert says I ought to do. Admittedly, I remember initially feeling somewhat like a failure when I was trying to figure out sleep issues with Madeline and when I’d try to carry her close to me as a newborn. I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t my baby WANT to be close to her mom?” Then, I had a wise, wise veteran mom tell me that attachment parenting isn’t so much about following a set of rules, but it’s about being so in tune to your child that you anticipate their needs and meet them accordingly. After all, was I really encouraging a strong bond if I stuffed my infant into a sling and kept her there even as she wailed just because that’s what I was supposed to do if I wanted to be an “attached,” loving parent?
Knowing our children and what they need – from the time they’re infants to the time they’re young adults – is a hallmark of good parenting. (And nurturing souls for heaven is the hallmark of good Catholic parenting and Dr. Popcak’s comments that if parents don’t practice AP, they may still hit the target [of sainthood], but they’re not shooting straight saddened me greatly.)
Ultimately, how we go about discovering their inner workings and needs isn’t nearly as important. Case in point: Despite not co-sleeping or baby-wearing my oldest all of the time, Madeline is a happy, well-adjusted preschooler and we have a wonderful bond, and I’m happy to report that she loves snuggling these days and often ends up wedged between my husband and me in our bed. Like I just said in so many words, having a strong child-mother bond was my ultimate goal and I’ve realized how I arrived there isn’t what’s really important.
I also have to say one reason I am bothered by some AP zealots is the guilt it can trigger. Rachel Marie would probably be a great co-sleeper since she loves to snuggle, but we don’t have enough room in our bed for all of us to safely slumber and I don’t want to sleep away from my husband (putting our marriage first is best for our kids), so she sleeps alone in a crib now that she’s 7 months (although I do occasionally sleep with her after one of her night nursing sessions). She stayed in bed with me for the first half of her little life, and I savored those early months together. I also occasionally let her cry (for no more than a few minutes), something I never did with Madeline. She seems to whimper for a handful of minutes as a way of settling down. She’s often close to me when she does this. She refuses to take my breast unless she’s physically hungry.
Yet, when I read things like Dr. Popcak wrote, I start to second-guess my parenting and worry that if I let her cry at all at night, I’m forsaking her and she may turn to drugs, promiscuity, etc. later on because I didn’t (and couldn’t) meet all of her needs. I want to be open to life, but I am only human. I’ve found that Rachel Marie is a good self-soother and doesn’t get up at night as much since I’ve let her cry occasionally (please note: I am in no way “Ferberizing” her, and I am a huge supporter of Elizabeth Pantley’s book The No Cry Solution, but there are some noises our babies make that do not require our mothering or even our breasts). I am therefore getting a little more sleep (I still wake up a few times to nurse and often still wake up with my older child), which means I can be a more loving and patient mom to both girls. (When I was trying to be everything to everyone, I was often grumpy and short-fused yelling and crying more than I was laughing and gently disciplining.)
Furthermore, like Danielle mentioned in her response, it’s not in our natures, as loving Catholic moms, to ignore our children or to not be attuned to them. We desperately want to love them as completely as we can. We want to be there at every waking hour – if only we didn’t need any sleep ourselves. But sometimes what we want to do isn’t humanly possible. Some proponents of AP often don’t take into account the big picture. If our only task was to care for our kids – not to work on freelance deadlines, volunteer, prepare homeschool materials, to love and care for our husbands, or to keep ourselves healthy with nutritious meals, exercise and at least garner a little sleep, then it would be a lot easier.
I’ve also found my good friends who are great at practicing AP are also much more laid-back than me. I am working on being less Type A (as in anal, anxious, and antsy) and letting go of of my intrinsic perfectionism. But I’ll never be someone who can take naps when my kids nap every day or drift back to sleep easily between nursing sessions. I wish I was like that, but I can’t change who I am. I am what I am and there’s a reason God created me this way.
Finally, one of the strategies AP experts cite for giving mom a break is to have Dad occasionally help with nighttime parenting. Again, in theory, this is a great idea, but what if you have a husband, who despite being an amazing, hands-on dad, is a radiology resident who has people’s lives in hands every day? He needs his sleep and mental acuity in order to read CT scans or MRIs. While he can occasionally help out at night, he often has to work even on weekends or is on call working all night himself, and I admit I can’t answer my baby (and 3-year-old’s) every plaintive cry unless I want to function like a “mombie.” I don’t get a post-call day to catch up on sleep, after all.
At any rate, I’m sorry for the tome, but recently, I’ve been feeling really guilty about not being the AP I’d planned to be. I’ve been also worrying that I can’t possibly have a big brood if I don’t get more sleep (Madeline still wakes up frequently). Yet, I am encouraged by moms like Danielle who recognize that most of us moms love our kids with everything we’ve got and the last thing we need is a heap of guilt to burden us in our vocation.
Stay tuned… As a baby-wearing mommy to Rachel Marie, I plan on doing a review of baby slings since I happen to have about five of them (some have been hand-me-downs).