Sunday, October 08, 2006

Independence, Shmindependence

I've been thinking about this post for a long time. And it's kind of a controversial topic, so if you are offended by it I'm sorry - but hey, it's my blog.

One of the funny things about becoming a parent is that everyone and their mom will share their parenting philosophy with you, whether or not you asked for it. I had a pretty good idea of what kind of mom I wanted to be, but no idea how different my own parenting style would be from the majority of people I know. I think the central difference hinges on the concept of independence. When it comes to babies, our culture is obsessed with encouraging independence. We wean them early, put them in cribs in their own rooms as soon as possible, and shudder at the thought of letting them use a pacifier past the age of 2. After having lots of conversations with other moms and reading many (Eric would say too many) parenting books, I've found that I believe in what the baby book writers call "attachment parenting". The basic concept is that babies should be allowed to be babies; that they come wired with the ability to tell us what they need, both physically and emotionally; and that the most important thing they learn in the first years of life is that they can trust (i.e. be attached to) their caregivers. To me this is just common sense, but it is amazing how many people believe exactly the opposite. I had a friend who was concerned that her 6 week old baby was "still" waking up at night to eat. Another of our acquaintances told her, "Wow, it sounds like she's learned how to manipulate you!" I was dumbfounded. A baby who's been out of the womb for a month and a half? Manipulative? Was she serious? Yep, she was. It turns out that she is a big believer in the idea of scheduling feedings and naptimes from an early age and showing your baby who's boss - that the family doesn't revolve around him. Babies who are "trained" in this way (that's actually what they call it) usually sleep through the night at a much earlier age than those whose parents respond to them at night.

I can see why this strategy might be attractive to some. Waking up at night to feed a baby is tough, especially in those early weeks when you are already exhausted. The solution according to my friend (and the book she bases her ideas on) is to let the baby "cry it out" in order to learn that night is for sleeping. This becomes a very emotional issue for me, because the thought of leaving my baby to cry by himself makes me physically ill. And a lot of women I know who have used this method of sleep training say they felt the same way initially, but that they eventually got over that feeling and learned to ignore the crying. They say that it's OK that the baby is left crying for long periods of time because they know "he's fine" - meaning they know he has eaten, has a dry diaper, and is safe. My problem with this is, the baby clearly doesn't know he's "fine". And is it really a good thing to distance yourself from your child to the point where their crying doesn't really bother you anymore? I don't think so.

Eric and I have taken a totally different approach, and at first glance, a harder one. From day one Sawyer has slept in our room and often in our bed. I've breastfed him whenever he asked to at night, and never let him cry for longer than it took me to wake up. The bad news? He woke up A LOT and he didn't start sleeping through the night until he was almost a year old. But the good news - it didn't bother us one bit. Co-sleeping makes handling night wakings so painless, especially while breastfeeding. By the time he was a couple of months old and I was getting the hang of nursing while lying down, I wouldn't even wake up all the way to feed him, I'd just roll over and whip it out and we'd both fall back asleep. Sleeping next to our baby has been one of the most wonderful parenting experiences we've shared. The same went for the daytime: if he cried, I picked him up; if he wanted to eat, I fed him. Until he learned to sit up on his own he spent most of every day in my arms or in a sling. (By the way, babywearing is the single greatest thing I discovered in the early months of being a new mom. It totally saved my arms, back and sanity.) As a sidenote, around the age of 7 months we discovered that Sawyer had an allergy to the cow's milk I was drinking - the protein passes into breastmilk and it was giving him stomach pains. If I had let him "cry it out," I would have been leaving him in pain. He had no way to tell me this other than crying. I am so glad I didn't ignore his cries. Once I cut milk out of my diet he slept peacefully all night.

Eric and I don't go around broadcasting the fact that we co-sleep. I think it goes back to the whole independence thing. In our culture we think that if we don't push babies into being independent, they will never learn to do things on their own. To me that's really silly. If you've ever been around a 2 year old you know that they don't need much encouragement to be independent; it is hardwired into their brains. ("I can do it MYSELF!") It's just that the stage where they develop this on their own is later than a lot of Americans are comfortable with.

Take breastfeeding. Toddlers will naturally lose interest in nursing and wean themselves, but not usually until sometime between the ages of 3 and 5. Women in our society who breastfeed their babies that long are basically seen as freaks of nature. One year seems to be the maximum age that is considered acceptable when it comes to nursing. (I'm pretty sure this is only the case in the US - I remember when I lived in France seeing many women nursing older toddlers, and in public at that. Of course, they go to the beach topless too, so I guess you could argue that they are a bit freer with their bodies that we are. Maybe it's all in our Puritanical roots and seeing breasts primarily as sexual objects.) At 17 months, I'm still breastfeeding Sawyer a few times a day, and I don't plan to stop for a while. I enjoy it, he enjoys it, it's healthy for him physically and emotionally, so I don't see why, just because he's past the arbitrary 1 year milestone, he shouldn't be allowed to breastfeed anymore. Even my doctor seems to think I am really weird to keep nursing him. So obviously I don't go around telling everyone I meet that I'm still breastfeeding. Once in a while I'll meet someone who breastfeeds her babies past one year and I always feel like embracing her and never letting go!

The irony of our culture's obsession with teaching babies independence is that so many young adults seem to have problems with being on their own. They even have a name: "Boomerang Kids", those who live with their parents after college and into their mid to late twenties. They say that needs that aren't met early on will need to be met later, so it makes me wonder if part of the problem is that kids are not allowed to be dependent on their parents at a young age, and so they stretch out their dependence into adulthood in order to feel safe and secure.

I also wonder how the concept of independence applies to our spiritual wellbeing. Being a Christian hinges on the idea that you need to rely on someone else. Our drive to do it all on our own can be very damaging when it comes to a relationship with God and with others in our families and our community of faith. Healthy interdependence is something that is difficult to achieve when we are so bombarded with the ideals of a do-it-yourself mentality.

This may just be a lot of fancy footwork to convince myself that it's OK to hug and nurse and cuddle my little boy. And if that's the case, oh well. We all get screwed over by our parents in some way. I guess I'll be OK with that if my mistake is loving my baby too much.


  1. Good post, Chels. I'm reminded of Erikson's developmental stages, where from 0-2, the child (hopefully) develops trust over mistrust. I'm completely with you on the importance of children developing healthy attachments.

    Though I am curious - if you decide to have any more kids, do you think that would have an effect on your subsequent parenting style? I vaguely recall my mom being less...solicitous (though certainly no less loving) when she had more kids.

  2. I breast fed until I was 2 years old. I think it helped my bond to my Mom.
    While reading this, the word you had used, "manipulation," stuck in my head. I imagined old parents soiling themselves, begging their children not to put them in nursing homes. If there's love (w/o manipulation), there is no need to worry.
    You are a good mother and you don't have to explain yourself to anyone.

  3. Michelle, Good question, and definitely one I've thought about. I'm sure I will be more relaxed with other kids, partly from necessity (only having two hands) and partly because you learn as a parent what to worry about and what to let go. I'm definitely more relaxed with Sawyer than I was in the first few months. Given our reproductive shortcomings though, our kids (if we're lucky enough to have more!) will likely be spaced out far enough to be fairly involved with each one. Unless we end up with twins or triplets. GULP.

    Jeremy, Thank you!


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