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A Mother's Needs: The Downside of Attachment Parenting

02/03/2014 09:38 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014
Lynn Shattuck

I'd heard whisperings about attachment parenting before I had kids. Even the name was appealing -- who doesn't want to be an "attached" parent? Doesn't the very name imply that if you're not doing it, you're practicing detachment parenting?

Attachment parenting, or AP as many call it, sounded so cozy, like a carefully knit sweater. And I was pretty crunchy; I'd planned to breastfeed, cloth diaper and pass my vegetarianism on to our son until he could decide for himself whether to eat meat or not. I found an online mothering community devoted to attachment parenting. I perused the forums daily, while my son, curled against my body atop a Boppy, nursed.

The philosophy of attachment parenting, a term created by Dr. William Sears, promotes fostering a secure attachment between parents and their children. Sears suggests breastfeeding, sleeping close to the baby and babywearing as important tools to nurture the parent/child connection. Spending skin-to-skin time and breastfeeding immediately after birth, as well as responding to a baby's cries swiftly are among other suggestions of Sears.

My son, a colicky, high needs baby, seemed amenable to AP. Because breastfeeding every 20 minutes was one of the few things that soothed him, I nursed "on-demand" (as opposed to on a schedule). We became accidental co-sleepers when Max roused every time we placed him in the bassinet next to our bed. And I wore Max in an Ergo carrier for hours each day; he was content to be snuggled in close enough to feel my heartbeat, and I was able to toss together a quick lunch, chuck some laundry into the washer or take a walk.

Parts of attachment parenting were working for Max and I both; if he was calmer, I was calmer.

Other parts were not working so well.

I never opened the bag of second-hand cloth diapers a friend had given us. I was past overwhelmed, and the idea of adding extra laundry to the mix was too much to face.

And my 20 years of vegetarianism ended when I went on an elimination diet because I thought my son was reacting to something in my breast milk. I needed protein, and that protein came in the form of bacon, the gateway meat.

But mostly, after months and months of Max waking up every hour or two all night long, I was unraveling. I was anxious, depressed and exhausted. I tried the book the online forum touted: The No Cry Sleep Solution. I tried gripe water and homeopathy. I tried sliding Max into his crib after he'd fallen asleep, then slinking away like a bedtime ninja. I tried pacifiers and white noise, music and loveys.

We even tried a $200 "baby sleep hammock."

Nothing worked.

As a highly empathic person, I hated the idea of abandoning my son to cry himself to sleep. But as a human being who needed more than an hour or two of sleep strung together, we began to consider the controversial idea of sleep training.

The forum at the online mom community had a thread for night-time parenting. I had spent hours there, looking for answers. Other exhausted moms posted there to commiserate and share methods similar to what I had tried, and there was comfort knowing I wasn't the only mom who couldn't piece together more than three hours of sleep. The forum also bulged with articles about the negative emotional effects of using the "cry it out" method of sleep training with babies or toddlers. In fact, users were banned from even talking about using the "cry it out" technique on the forum.

I was torn. The community which I had relied on for empathy, support and advice, left me feeling like a leper -- or worse, a child abuser -- for trying this last resort of getting some sleep.

Because I was a new mom, a neurotic and anxious mom, and an exhausted mom, I tortured myself with the decision. I talked to friends who had used variations of the "cry it out" method with a positive outcome. In fact, the absolute crunchiest people I knew -- the ones who had passed on their cloth diapers to us -- had successfully sleep-trained their daughter a few years before. My friends had used the most hard-ass style of sleep-training, the "extinction" method. This method has the parents leave their babies to cry themselves to sleep without going intermittently to comfort them.

I agonized over the options with my therapist, who'd been trying to convince me for months that my son needed a sane mom, and that he would not be emotionally broken if we taught him to fall asleep on his own.

AP, at least on the online forum I frequented, promotes meeting baby's every need as quickly and naturally as possible.

But there is some invisible line between babyhood and toddlerhood where many of these needs -- nursing to sleep, co-sleeping, baby-wearing and constant contact -- become wants. Habits. Comforts. But not, necessarily, needs.

Meanwhile, I had some very real needs of my own. I needed to get some sleep. I needed to not go to bed with Max at 7:00 p.m. every night, my boobs on pacifier duty until morning. I needed to have some time with my husband.

Should my almost-toddler's wants outweigh my needs? Didn't Max need and deserve a mom who didn't feel like a wrung out washcloth? One who wasn't so battered by sleep deprivation that she shouldn't be driving?

And wouldn't it be good for him to get a decent night's sleep?

When Max was about 10-months-old, we started sleep training. First, we tried what the AP-friendly pediatrician we had visited for a sleep consult recommended: we stayed in the same room with Max while he "fussed" -- her terminology -- himself to sleep. For three nights, my husband and I laid, stiff and silent, in our bed beside Max's crib while he howled like a trapped animal. Tears welled in my eyes and my chest ached as he cruised the perimeter of his crib. I could feel his hot, angry gaze on us as he made his laps of rage.

After 90 minutes of torture for all three of us, Max passed out, making those little crying hiccups that you make when you've cried yourself silly.

After three nights of this, he started falling asleep with minimal crying. But he continued to wake up frequently throughout the night.

Later, we tried sleep training him without us in the room. We used the method where parents make timed visits to briefly let their baby know they're there, but will not pick him up. Max started sleeping for longer than four hours at a time when he was about 16-months-old.

I stopped visiting the online forum for mothers. I am sure there are many people who are better able to live in the grey area -- people who know that they can take what they need and leave the rest.

But not me.

I was too anxious, too vulnerable, and too exhausted. The stakes of parenting felt impossibly high, and I was petrified of breaking my child.

Slowly, I assembled my own tribe of moms. Moms who do some things differently than I, and some things similar. Moms who don't judge my parenting -- or if they do, they do it silently.

Parts of AP worked well for us: Though my youngest child is 2-years-old, I still can't bring myself to get rid of the baby carrier my kids spent so much time in. It hangs on a hook in the entryway, and every time I see it, it reminds me of all the hours spent with the straps sinking into my shoulders, my babies snuggled close to my heart.

Breastfeeding supported my babies and gave me new respect for my body; I could make food! With my boobs! Amazing.

Co-sleeping, at least in the haze of those earliest months, meant I could doze off while nursing my children, and at least string an hour or two of sleep together at a time. The memory of falling asleep inhaling the new-skin smell of my babies' foreheads is beyond sweet.

On his website, Dr. Sears shares that "AP is an approach, rather than a strict set of rules." He also encourages parents to care for themselves as well as their children. Attachment parenting offers many great tools. Like any movement, there are purists and extremists, and they can be found touting their ideas on the interwebs.

I imagine many people feel strong and confident in their parenting choices. And many probably operate on instinct and don't get distracted by other peoples' opinions. But if you're like me? If early parenting blindsides you, challenges everything you think you know? If it leaves you floundering and feeling like every decision is a labyrinth, it is easy to get caught up in an illusion of perfect parenting. In the idea that there is one way to parent, and other ways are wrong.

If I could go back to my son's first year knowing what I know now, I would do some things differently. I would ask for more help with caring for him while I took more breaks. I would sometimes use formula so I didn't have to pump four times to make enough milk to fill one bottle. I would factor my needs into parenting and not completely disappear while trying to meet my son's needs. I wouldn't try to make one parenting style my religion. I would mother in the middle, like so many moms I respect do. I would be saner, possibly better rested, and yet still, so very attached.

This essay first appeared on the elephant journal.

Visit Lynn at her blog at http://thelightwillfindyou.com or on Facebook.