Friday, April 19, 2013

Attachment, and why we all have it: part 1

I live in an area of the country where attachment parenting is highly popular, and, dare I say it, almost mainstream. It's not unusual to run across mothers carrying babies and toddlers in slings, or breastfeeding in public. Home birth is pretty normal, and no one thinks it's dangerous. You're far more likely to find Dr. Sears than Ezzo in a used bookstore. Co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, baby-led weaning--we do it all here in the Pacific Northwest. It isn't counter-culture. It just is.

And, given that I have some seriously hippie tendencies, I find myself surrounded by attachment parenting philosophy everywhere I turn. I like flowing skirts and flowing baby slings and making my own kale-based baby food and saving landfill waste with cloth diapers. I like alternative schooling ideas and playing in the mud and letting my son play with baby dolls. I am sensitive and spontaneous and like my rules and my routines to be flexible and easily changeable. Apparently, I share values with a lot of attachment parents and we tend to run in the same circles on the internet.

And yet? I've sleep trained Peregrine, I have zero regrets, and I will do it again with Sylvia if needed. I frequently told Peregrine "no" or "later" when he wanted to nurse. I've used the word "no" in plenty of other contexts, too, and I thoroughly believe in teaching obedience, even at a very young age. I work outside the home and I love it, and I frequently leave Peregrine with babysitters or in the church nursery. I've kept Peregrine waiting when he cries, and not only in emergencies. I think pacifiers were a wonderful invention and can't imagine always nursing in place of using them. 

Note the toddler-wearing. And the bottle of formula.

Pretty recently, I read a blog post by a woman who was officially leaving the attachment parenting community because of all the hurt it had caused her. She felt constant judgment, not only for her own less-approved parenting choices, but for the parenting choices of the women around her that didn't pass attachment-parent muster. She was fed up, she said, with feeling like she had to measure up, in so many countless ways.

Her article spawned a bunch of other articles on this topic, and I found it very interesting, because I hadn't seen it so publicly talked about before. These articles were all over the map--some commiserating with the author, some disagreeing with her, some defending the perceived judgment and others apologizing for it. And I resonated with all (okay, most) of them, and with the issue at hand.

Because there is hurt, and there is judgment. They're real; they've affected me. The crunchier-than-thou attitude. The implication that I am wounding my baby's spirit and destroying his innocent trust simply by straying away from a specific path. The blanket judgments. The language used. They're as real as and as hurtful as anything I've ever dealt with in church.

It's not these things that frustrate me most, though. There will always be judgment, and the internet will always be a hostile place. Women, unfortunately, will always fight over things. But here's the thing--I understand both worlds. I belong to both worlds. And you know what? They're not all that different from each other. They really, truly aren't. Whatever the ends of the spectrum are--attachment parenting and what? detachment parenting?--they're not that different. In the end, we're all mothers. We all love our children. We all want, desperately, to do right by their bodies and their souls. 

This is a post I've been wanting to write for awhile, and I've written and re-written it, in my head and on paper, not quite knowing how to frame it. I don't want to sound bitter, us vs. them. Because I'm us and them. Because, in a way, we all are. I honestly could not tell you whether I'm an attachment parent or not. I really don't know. I could write so much both for and against the movement (not being attached to your child, but the whole industry in general). 

And then I read a comment, somewhere in one of these articles, that I've read many times before. Attachment parenting, it said, is all about being responsive and meeting your children's needs. The tools are secondary; if you're responding to needs, then you're an attachment parent. 

That comment gave me my framework, because, friends, it's so much more complicated than that. So here's what I have, as of now. Here's what we all share, no matter where on that very gray spectrum we lie. Here's the mess that parenting is, and why we can't boil it down to anything too simple. Here's why we have to make peace with each other. Here are the things we have in common. And personally? I think they're far weightier than the things we differ on.

(Okay, addendum: I wrote out the list, it's going to make this post ridiculously long. And I'm not finished with it, and I have clothes to fold and dinner to make and a diaper to change and a kid who's going to get very tired of me sitting here. So, the list is to come.)

Monday, April 15, 2013


We went to our 20-week ultrasound excited to see our little one for the first time. To see a head, and tiny hands and feet, a profile of a face, a beating heart. To peek between the little legs and see if we were expecting another son or a daughter.

Okay, I don't think Andrew cares as much to know that last part now. But I do. Every minute of my life I share with this little one. I get to know habits and quirks. But it's kind of maddening sometimes, spending so much time with someone about whom you know so little. I want to know as much as I can. I love the solidity of being able to address my baby as "he" or "she." I love having just that one anchor that allows me to visualize who they are and what life with them might be like.

But Creature 2 was uncooperative. Tiny legs kicked, kicked, kicked, never stopping (I knew that!). Tiny body flitted around my womb, changing position constantly, exploring every crevice and corner (I knew that, too, and what a difference from Peregrine!). But tiny legs remained firmly crossed. And, despite a nearly hour-long ultrasound, we left the hospital with no news about the gender of our child.

I couldn't wait. So I went to one of those places that Andrew calls "vanity ultrasounds" and my midwife calls "recreational." They had a service called Gender Check, so I booked that. And laid down on another ultrasound table and saw my little one again on a screen. And, though tiny legs still remained crossed, my recreational ultrasound tech had a more vested interest in checking between them. In fact, she saw it right away. And assured me that the little one inside me is 100% a girl.

I was overjoyed in that moment and can't imagine it any other way. I remember that moment from Peregrine, too. There's something about it that's like giving birth, in a way. All of a sudden you know something about that little person that you didn't know before. All of a sudden, a piece of your family takes shape.

I can't say I wanted one or the other. I think a lot of people assumed I really wanted a daughter because I already had a son, but it wasn't that way. I adore my little boy, and I would be happy with many more of them. Of course I want to buy fluffy pink things and do hair, but that's a really small want, all things considered. I really, truly would have been equally happy with either.

However, I'm terrified, and more than a little, of having a daughter. I don't really know why. Maybe some of it is all the consoling things people told me when I found out Peregrine was a boy. I didn't need consoling, but I got a fair bit of it. Boys are so much easier, mother/daughter relationships are so complicated, that sort of thing.

But here's the thing. Boys are so much easier. I connect well with little girls, so I teach girls well, but boys are easier to manage. Sure, they misbehave more, but there's no drama. They don't misread your words, and it's a lot harder to inadvertently hurt their feelings.

And there's so much more to being a girl. It's hard being a girl. Making the strange and awkward transition from girl to woman is so very complicated. Mother/daughter relationships are complicated. I don't worry much about Peregrine hating me someday. I'm terrified that my daughter will hate me someday.

I guess what it boils down to is this: I can love a child well. I can feed and clothe and play with and guide and teach. I feel pretty well equipped to do that. But this new little one in my womb? For her, I have to be a woman. I am the first, and most consistent, example of womanhood she will have. And it goes far deeper than sexuality (although that in itself is a terrifying topic). My daughter, my baby girl, will be a woman someday. And she will be looking at me to see what that means.

Friends, that's a deep calling. And one I don't know if I'm up to. I'm not sure if I've figured it out myself. How on earth will I teach it to another vulnerable, precious little human being?

So God give me grace and strength like I've never had before. God give me grace to love this new little one, this new female little one, in the way she needs to be loved. God give me grace to be her mother, with all the beauty and sorrow and unknowns and complication that entails.

Here's to you, my little Sylvia to be. God give us grace to walk this road together.

Peregrine quotes

I love that I have a child old enough to be actually quotable. Here are his latest gems.

I told him once or twice that he had had a really good nap. It was an offhand comment, but now he has become oddly preoccupied with making sure I think his nap was good. Anyhow, one day recently he had a not-so-good nap, and, after waking up from it, he asked me, as usual, "Good nap?" I said no, it hadn't been a very good nap. To which he responded, confused, "Dirty nap?"

Apparently dirty is the opposite of good. At least when it comes to naps.

Andrew brought home from his parents' house a little bag of old matchbox cars, and Peregrine has fallen in love. He hardly ever plays with any other toy now. He knows all these cars by name, and greets them every morning as if they were old friends. It's kind of wonderful, because he plays with them, independently, for a pretty long time. I don't get the attraction, or why my incredibly-short-attention-spanned child will play with the same toy for hours on end. He just drives them around, commenting on their various characteristics, looking for a "park place," and bringing them "home," which is pretty much any wall or ledge he can put them up against. And the other day, he was off in a corner, playing with them, and he picked one up and licked the bottom of it. Totally to himself, he then commented, "Hmm...yummy! Yummy yellow car!"

And finally, he has quit calling himself Mama. He's replaced it with Puma, which is infinitely cuter, and which Andrew and I now call him as well. Just imagine a little baby cougar. It's adorable. But any time he wants something, or wants to do something, he prefaces it with "Puma's." Puma's car? Puma's outside? Puma's boodey? My personal favorite is when he wants an avocado.

Puma's atado?

What a wonderful phrase.

It means no worries, for the rest of your days....

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Being Whole

I belong to a local mom forum on Facebook, and every few months or so, someone will ask the question, "What is one thing you are doing as a parent that you swore you would never do?"

Reading the answers feels like sociology research, and I find it fascinating. First off, it's always a nice reminder that parenting as a reality is so much different from parenting in theory. Parenting an actual, real child (or several of them!) with an actual, real personality means doing things differently than you had once thought they ought to be done. It's always nice to know that everyone's been through this.

And I love seeing what answers come up. They run the gamut of parenting choices. Co-sleeping, sleep training, babywearing, breastfeeding, extended breastfeeding, supplementing with formula, not breastfeeding at all, epidural, out-of-hospital birth, different discipline styles, staying at work, quitting work. You name it, someone thought they would never do it and ended up doing it anyway. Either out of necessity, or change in beliefs. And sometimes they love the change, sometimes they hate it, sometimes they just accept it for what it is. Such is parenting. Such is life.

But there are always two that stand out and blow the rest out of the water: allowing junk food, and allowing television. To differing degrees of course. For some people, it's allowing these things at all. For others, it's allowing their worse versions (non-organic, for instance, or non-PBS). For still others, it's the frequency--weekly Pizza Hut night or daily TV--or the way they've become used as bribes for potty training or good behavior. But once someone admits they use these things, regularly or not, everyone else starts admitting it, too.

Which takes courage, in the parenting world. It's one thing to say you thought breastfeeding was gross until you first nursed your precious little one. It's another entirely to say that sometimes, you just want to shower alone so badly that you let your kids watch whatever cartoon keeps them out of the bathroom. It's easy to say your standards have changed for the better. It's harder to say that sometimes, you let your kids do things that don't quite sync with your standards.

But seeing these confessions is an important reminder that almost no one is the perfect parent we're all told we should be. Sure, some are more protective than others. I know families that don't own a TV at all and who cook most of their food from scratch. I know a lot of parents with extremely high standards when it comes to what their children consume; I know kids who have never had fast food, ever, even kids who have never had juice. But no matter whether we feed Annie's Organic Homegrown Bunny Snacks or plain old Costco fruit snacks, most of us have compromised with less-than-ideal food from time to time. No matter whether it's educational YouTube clips or run-of-the-mill Disney channel, video makes a darn good babysitter. And most of us have used it, in one way or the other. Also, no matter how sheltered any child is from media junk or food junk, they will run into it someday. I'm willing to bet there are very, very few adults (at least in the Western world) who have never consumed anything televised or processed in their entire lives. It's okay, as a parent, to let these things go, once in a blue moon, once in a while, or even regularly.

And yet, I struggle sometimes, because shouldn't we strive for excellence in parenting, just as we would in any line of work? "Everyone does it" is a pretty shoddy excuse for doing a poor job. Television is addictive. Junk food is gross. We are stewards of our children's bodies and minds, and we have an immense amount of power when it comes to choosing what we allow them to consume. Shouldn't we do it responsibly?

Plus, there seems to be a trend, albeit a very minor one, in some parenting communities, towards being proud of your parenting imperfections, sometimes oddly so. Hey, guess what my kids did all day? Ate chips and drank soda--in the living room--and watched trashy pre-teen TV! And then they fought and bickered and I yelled at them and then I let them play video games just so I could drink wine and watch my own trashy reality shows in peace! Take that, farmers' market shoppers who design crafts for your children! I get the confessional aspect, I really do. And I get being annoyed with the (much greater) trend toward an often-judgmental perfectionism in parenting. But shouldn't we want good for our children? Shouldn't that be our goal, even if it isn't always our reality?

But as I was thinking about this tension between standards and daily life, between staying realistic and honest and still striving for excellence, I had a thought. Maybe excellence is the wrong goal. Maybe what we should be working toward is wholeness.

Because when it comes down to it, TV and junk food, even in organic, educational form, are not necessarily good. But stress and strife and burnout are far less good. And I don't mean that at all flippantly. Choosing a to let your kids watch TV because you need a moment's peace is far better than insisting on doing organic crafts and snapping at your kids the whole time you're doing them. (It's also better than beating yourself up because you can't be patient and do the organic craft like That One Creative Perfect Mama.)  Going to McDonald's as a family because you need to get out of the house is far better than staying in the house and being angry at each other. Choosing to take care of yourself--by showering, getting dressed, cooking good meals, relaxing, whatever it is you need to stay sane and healthy--is important, even if an hour of TV is what allows that to happen.

Not that working toward wholeness means neglecting health entirely. If I want a happy, healthy family, I won't choose fast food for every meal simply because it's convenient. I won't just consume large portions of chocolate every time I find myself alone (ahem...still working on that one). I won't just turn on YouTube all the time because it's a guaranteed attention-getter that doesn't require my actually playing with my child. But I'll keep things in perspective, too. Some days I will turn on the TV and snuggle with my baby because quality time is important, and that's the only quality time I have the mental energy for. Some days I'll eat that extra piece of chocolate, because that's what it takes to be patient instead of annoyed during unexplained nap-resistance. Some days I'll desperately want a long, hot shower, or the freedom to cook a meal alone, or even something stupid like a new nail color or another chapter of a book. And I'll choose those things, along with whatever TV or computer game that entails for Peregrine, because choosing them will mean that I will be more present, more patient, more kind, more whole. I don't ever want to rely on these things to make me a good person, a good parent. But they are tools, and I will use them when they help.

And sometimes, I'll throw it all to the wind. Sometimes we'll have ice-cream dates (surprise ice cream dates) because they're fun, and they communicate love. Sometimes we'll throw parties, and there will be junk food (lots of it!) involved, and there will be memories made, memories that I hope will be just as treasured as the memories of berry picking and nature walks and other wholesome hippie ways to kill time and celebrate life.

Because, if I may paraphrase Saint Paul, all the organic food and imaginative play and brain-enhancing activities are useless without love. If I don't love my kids well, these other things profit me nothing.  Sometimes, Monster Trucks on YouTube, snuggled up with a blanket and a mommy and a bottle of juice, is truly good in a way that simply not consuming media and sugar could never be. Sometimes, a special date to Dairy Queen is better than a home-cooked meal of organic kale. In different ways, but better, nonetheless.

So let's do good for our children and ourselves. Let's take care of our bodies and minds, and the bodies and minds that have been entrusted to us. But let's remember that sometimes, it's not black and white. Sometimes, being whole is so much more important than being right.
Outside a greasy diner with a very beloved great-grandmother. Guess which one matters infinitely much more?