Saturday, February 23, 2013

Family Centered

I participated in an online survey once where I was asked the question, "Would you consider your life (as a parent) to be parent-centered or child-centered?"

The survey was pretty open-ended and I don't remember what its purpose was. However, I remember thinking at the time that the "right" answer was probably supposed to be child-centered. Parent-centered sounds old-fashioned, controlling, cold. Selfish even. Maybe it's just the part of the world I live in. But I think most of us know that if parenting revolves around the parent, things tend to fall apart. We want to love our children well. We want to love them better than we love ourselves.

But while parenting shouldn't be about the parent, I don't think it should be about the child, either. The child doesn't exist in a vacuum. The child exists in a family.

I've always been irrationally annoyed when people other than my child call me mama. I know that most of the time, the intent is empathetic at best and innocent at worst. But here's the deal--I am a lot more than just a mama. To Peregrine, sure, that's what I am. That's how he knows me. But to other people, I'm a wife, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a teacher, a friend. I'm Rachel. Not just one aspect of Rachel, one specific relationship Rachel occupies. And this is coming from a very maternal person. My parents frequently called me "little mama" as a child, because of my constant mothering: dolls, stuffed animals, little sisters, pet ducks, imaginary children, even pine branches and wood blocks (true story--the pine branch's name was Heidi and the block's was Baby Jesus). I have always had a thriving maternal instinct, and I absolutely love being a mama. But it's not the only thing I am.
Somewhere there exists a picture of me nursing "Baby Jesus." Let's just go with documentation of me interacting with a real child.

When you add a new person, irreversibly, to your family, you don't lose what you were before. You don't start with a blank slate. When you get married, you don't erase everything that came before him. You change it and grow it and add to it, sure. But you don't throw the old away. And when you become a mother, things change and grow and morph again. Sometimes the change is magical and exhilarating, sometimes it's messy and complicated. But it's a change, an addition; not a completely new start. The baby isn't suddenly the only thing that matters. The baby becomes a member of something bigger than just parenting. The baby becomes part of your family.

There's a lot of pressure on moms, particularly stay-at-home moms, to completely immerse themselves in mom-ness. It's kind of impossible not to. I am mama twenty-four solid hours a day, seven solid days a week. I can't separate myself from that role. Every shower I can't lose myself in, every errand I have to postpone because hungry monster can't wait one second longer, every Saturday I can't sleep in, reminds me of that. It would be so easy to sink into that role and let it become me, simply because it is so all-consuming.

I think assuming there are two options in life as a parent--parent-centered and child-centered--misses the point. It's not about Peregrine. It's not about me, or even Andrew and me. It's about all of us--the unique little family created by Andrew, Peregrine, and me together. And in about six months, it will all change again. We'll add another person to that mix, and it will be about that family, which will be very much the same in some ways, and very much different in others. We'll change. Our parenting will change. But we'll still be us. We'll still be family.

Andrew and I have talked about this a lot as since we've been parents. We don't always make decisions based on what's best for Peregrine. Something in me feels awful admitting that, and I think it shows how guilty we can feel stepping outside the role of mama mama mama all the time. Of course, he's the little dependent one, and his needs, when they are genuine needs, come first. When I am sick and he is sick, I take care of him. When we're both hungry, he eats first. When we're both tired, I put him to bed before going to bed myself. Regardless of how I feel or what I want, he is the child and I am the adult and it is my sacred responsibility to care for him, always. But sometimes it isn't black and white. Sometimes needs and wants and preferences are all mixed up. Sometimes my needs are bigger than his, in the moment. Sometimes our wants conflict. Sometimes Andrew and I need something together, or Andrew and Peregrine, or Peregrine and me. Sometimes we have to compromise on things.

When I finally came up with an answer to the survey question, I said I hoped my life was neither parent-centered nor child-centered, but family-centered. And that is what I hope. It's who I want to be as a parent and a person. I won't be raising Peregrine forever. I won't be mama-all-the-time forever. But, by God's grace, our family will still be there. Changed, yes. Grown, yes. But still us.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

I don't read parenting books very often. I don't necessarily have anything against them; I just tend to learn more from other peoples' stories and experiences. But every now and then, I come upon a resource that proves itself invaluable.

I first borrowed Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Childby Marc Weissbluth, from my sister-in-law, who had been singing its praises for months before Peregrine had any sleep issues. When I finally borrowed it from her, she warned me that I would be wanting my own copy before too long. She was right. I almost never buy books, because I almost never read the same book twice. But this one? I reference it constantly.

I recommend this book to so many of my friends, and not because I agree with everything in it. But it has helped me so much. I really wish I had read it before having a child (and that's something I rarely ever say!). Looking back, I'm not sure I would have done that much differently in terms of the way I handled Peregrine's sleep habits in his early infancy. But, had I read this book, I would have understood a lot more about baby sleep. There was just so much I didn't know. I truly thought Peregrine would just sleep when he was tired, and be awake when he wasn't. Little did I know my child. By simply understanding typical waking/sleeping cycles better, and tweaking my routines accordingly, I was able to help Peregrine sleep hours longer than he had been before. He is a much more peaceful child for being able to sleep well.

So here's my more-in-depth review of it. I'll focus less on my personal opinions/experiences with Weissbluth's methods and beliefs, and focus more and how it functions as a parenting tool on the whole.

What I love:

1.) Lots of information on typical baby sleep patterns, and how to use these natural patterns to guide a baby's routine. I'll admit, this book has a lot of words to plow through. Although there is plenty of practical advice, you have to wade through a fair amount of facts and information as well. Perhaps, as a more experienced parent, I would have found this frustrating. But, as a new parent, there was so much I didn't know. And I found half the information reassuring (it's normal for a young infant's nap patterns to be sporadic!), and the other half very eye-opening (you mean crying is a late sign of tiredness?) Just having this store of knowledge was immensely helpful to me. And putting a baby to sleep is so, so very much easier when you are following their natural patterns and know how to recognize signs of readiness for sleep.

2.) Emphasis on sleep cycles instead of rigid schedules. While Weissbluth does advocate scheduling babies' sleep, he gives general ideas and guidelines instead of specific clock-times. And he does a good job of outlining a parent-directed nap and bedtime schedule, while still taking babies' needs and day-to-day quirks into consideration. He will provide a general daytime-schedule idea for, say, a six-month-old, and then explain how you might adapt the schedule if the baby seems unusually tired, or refuses to sleep, or takes a catnap in the car at an odd time. He places a lot of emphasis on understanding a baby's natural rhythms and finding the right "window" in which to encourage sleep. The schedule examples he gives are not blueprints to be followed, but ideas of when most babies of a certain age have these "windows" open.

3.) Understanding that different families have different needs and preferences. For the most part, Weissbluth grasps extremely well the concept that families are very diverse. His suggestions often include adaptations for breast vs. bottle fed babies, or babies in a crib vs. babies in a family bed. Also, while Weissbluth definitely approves of (and advocates) "crying it out" as part of sleep training, he fully acknowledges that not all parents, and not all babies, are okay with that. He gives alternative approaches, and lists the advantages and disadvantages of each. And on the whole, he is immensely respectful of the variety of choices parents make surrounding baby sleep.

4.) A generally gentle, well-explained argument for actively promoting healthy sleep habits, while still understanding the needs and biology of infants. Weissbluth is pro-sleep-training, and there is no way to read this book and not read that. But, for the most part, it is very graciously presented. I've read a lot of baby-scheduling and sleep-training advice where I find the arguments caustic and just plain untrue (seriously? I'm setting my kid up to "run the house" someday because his nap times are flexible?), but Weissbluth's arguments make sense and are, on the whole, very compassionate and well-thought-out. He speaks to both extremes of the baby-sleep-philosophy continuum, reminding parents both that good sleep is a need and it's okay to actively manage our babies' sleep habits, and also that babies have unique needs and personalities and we can't expect them to simply adapt to a prearranged rigid schedule.

Cautions/what I didn't love:

1.) The obvious dogmatism of a parenting book, with some (I think) odd emphases. Any time you read a parenting book, you have to read it with a grain of salt. People write because they're passionate about topics. Although this book is less dogmatic than others I've read, it still has its moments. And although Weissbluth is quite good at adapting his general principles for different situations, there are a few he doesn't budge on, and I'm not sure why. Early bedtimes, for instance. I get that children need a lot of sleep. And that if your child will wake up at 6 every morning, no matter what, you should prioritize getting her to bed early. But he's adamantly against late bedtimes, even when they also correspond with late wakeup times. Even with his explanations, I still find it hard to believe that a child who sleeps 9-9 is sleeping far less healthily than a child who sleeps 7-7.

2.) A bit of a sarcastic/dismissive attitude toward attachment parenting. While Weissbluth generally handles most attachment-parenting-type concerns (i.e. will allowing my child to cry during the night cause him not to trust me?) with a lot of gentleness, he can seem a bit rude about the philosophy in general. I get it, he's writing a sleep training book, and attachment parenting philosophy is typically against sleep training. The debate is nothing new. But, I can imagine that some of his comments could be very off-putting to people who follow attachment parenting philosophy and are looking for sleep answers. However, for the record, my sister-in-law loves this book. And she is a pretty diehard attachment parent. You take what works for you, and leave the rest.

3.) An assumption that your life can, and should, revolve around your child's naps and bedtimes. Obviously, any parent's life does, to an extent. But I think Weissbluth carries it a bit far. Sleep is extremely important for anyone's well-being (child or adult!) and it is worth making it a priority. But I think he runs the risk of setting people up for unnecessary guilt because they have to get out of the house sometimes, or because they have older children who want to be involved in sports or other activities. Balance and health are always good things. (And what balance and health look like will of course be dependent on the family in question).

I would recommend this book to:

Pretty much every new parent I know. Or anyone whose baby, toddler, or older child is struggling with sleeping well. It's easy to read, it's immensely practical, and it has so many adaptations for so many different situations. There's not many books I give almost-blanket recommendation to. But this is one of them.

I would not recommend this book to: 

I had to think long and hard about this one. Basically, there are two categories of people I wouldn't recommend this to. If you already have a child who sleeps very well, I can see this book just causing unnecessary stress (my kid sleeps 9 to 9 and always has and all of a sudden this is a problem!). No need to read this book (or any sleep book, for that matter!) if your child sleeps well and you are happy with the sleep system your family has in place. Also, if you really can't stomach reading about cry-it-out at all (and some people can't, and that's totally fine) and are adamantly against the idea of sleep training, honestly, it probably isn't worth it. There are other books that address specific sleep issues (always needing to nurse to sleep, for instance) and advocate a never-let-cry approach. Probably better to read one of those.

Happy sleeping, everyone! Because, in any sleep arrangement, schedule, or lack thereof, the most important thing, as Weissbluth would say, is a well-rested family.