TBR List Declutter, Issue 43

Tangent: Attachment Parenting

My daughter is considering residential camps for this summer. She’s done day camps since she was five years old, but sleep-away camp is uncharted territory for us, and we’re all kind of feeling our way around with this one.

When we were expectant parents, my spouse and I made a conscious decision to embrace attachment parenting. There are a lot of different ideas attached to attachment parenting, but for us it meant ensuring that our daughter had a primary attachment figure in her life (I tacitly accepted the unspoken nomination to the position). Her father and I would both do our best to anticipate our daughter’s needs and either meet those needs or be there to support her if we couldn’t (or chose not to) meet them (i.e., it’s not our job to stop her from crying, but it is our job to be there with her while she does). As best we could, we viewed our family as a unit, an integrated whole greater than the sum of its disparate but complementary parts. The goal was and is balance, respect, and a base of support from which our daughter—and later our son, as well—can feel confident moving into adult life.

The data aren’t all in yet, but so far it seems to be working as advertised. When they were little-little kids, they would toddle away from me and do their own thing for a bit, but they always looked back to make sure I was there, always came back for that physical reassurance of my presence before venturing out again. As they’ve grown, it seems like our relationship has continued to be a variation on this theme. They test out their confidence, and I stay attentive to determine when they need a nudge, when they need reassurance, when they need a hug, and when they just need me to stay our of their way. I’m there to listen to their questions and sometimes to answer but mostly to ask questions back. And when they don’t need me, I’m still there, off-stage, but always ready.

Sleep-away camp feels like part of this progression, but it also seems different, more like a leap than a step. In my discomfort, I’m finding it necessary to be careful what I say. It’s important to me that I help my daughter identify her fears and find the answers she needs to feel comfortable—or comfortable enough—without projecting my own fears onto her. It’s important that I reflect back her feelings, not tell her my own. My experiences with sleeping away from home, whether positive or negative, are irrelevant to her experience. Moreover, my experience of her going to sleep-away camp for the first time is for me to work through, not something in which I should involve her. I am the one who supports; she is the one supported, and even then only to the degree that she needs/wants to be.

And there’s the dance: knowing when to step in and when to wait in the wings and watch her live out her experience. I hope I’m up to the challenge. I expect there’s much more of this sort of thing to come.

Visual Interest:

IMG_20180217_154746 (1)

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 571-590:

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Book Review: Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer

Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses
Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I almost stopped reading this book about 50 pages in. I was enjoying Dederer’s writing, with all of its pithy GenX-ness, but I found her perspective very critical. She seemed to have concluded, since she felt pressured by her peer group to practice attachment parenting and it didn’t work for her, that anyone who practiced attachment parenting was doing it because of social pressure. Attachment parenting devotees were some kind of Stepford Wives, blindly following the dictates of the masses. She ignored the idea that maybe attachment parenting works for some people and it didn’t work for her. And she described What to Expect When You’re Expecting as a left-wing book. I don’t know many of my peers who would describe any book that doesn’t list non-reclining positions for pushing as a left-wing book. We all hated that book. We gravitated towards Ina May Gaskin and Sheila Kitzinger and Penny Simkin and Henci Goer. Had we been less ecologically and free-speech inclined, we would have burned What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Basically, I took Dederer’s judgements personally, which is kind of ridiculous. I mean, she doesn’t know me. We gave birth to our first children five years and nearly 1000 miles from one another. We’re part of the same generation, but just barely.

Knowing this, I soldiered on through the rest of the book, and I’m glad I did because this book is all about personal growth. I felt a kinship to Dederer as she moved from being guarded and judgmental to being more open and accepting of other ways of raising children and even other ways of living. Although I was on the other side of the fence (e.g., my first child refused a binky so I became militantly opposed to them by my second child), I recognized her journey from traumatic birth experience through anxious early motherhood through gradual comfort with her chosen path separate from what her peers were doing.

Although Dederer places a lot of value on staying in one’s hometown, this is a particular downside to staying put, at least from my perspective. I have never had a hometown. I moved every three years as a child. As a grown-up, the longest I’ve lived in any one place is six years. Until I joined Facebook, I didn’t even know what my elementary school friends thought of different parenting practices, much less what they thought of me for being a weirdo mommy. It is in some ways liberating to be a nomad, to lose touch with my past and trick myself into believing that because it’s not underfoot, it’s not always with me.

But by the end of the book I found myself jealous of Dederer. She finds the secret for her, which is to move away for a couple of years and then come “home”. I like this idea, but without a “home,” this is simply not an option for me. My whole life has been “away.” Even if I moved to where my dad is or where my mom is, I wouldn’t have a network of lifelong friends to tap into because the friends of my childhood are scattered across the country. I’m equally at home everywhere, and I’m equally a stranger everywhere. Dederer’s voluntary exodus from and then voluntary return to her home just highlighted for me how much I don’t have a home. It kind of pissed me off. I wanted a place to go home to, goshdarnit!

Even as it pissed me off, though, I delighted in watching Dederer’s journey. I could relate to the growth-through-yoga that she experienced. Many of her fears and realizations seemed very familiar to me. I especially appreciated her chapter about handstand. I first attempted handstand in yoga teacher training. There an Iyengar teacher described me as “beyond clumsy” in handstand. It was a caution to another student about me in front of me: “Be careful,” he said, “she’s beyond clumsy.” Meaning, “Watch it because she’s likely to fall on you while you’re trying to assist her.” I know it’s silly, but this teacher’s words have echoed in my mind at practically every yoga practice I’ve done since. I’ve gradually allowed it to become background noise rather than letting it take center stage, but I sure as heck haven’t tried handstand since then. (Well, once during a workshop, but I embarrassingly dissolved into tears, and I haven’t tried since then.)

As a clumsy, non-svelt yoga practitioner whose limited flexibility has been hard-won, I liked reading about yoga from the perspective of someone who isn’t a former gymnast or ballet dancer. Someone who doesn’t “float” from uttanasana into chaturanga. Someone with hips.

Some reviewers have complained that the links between Dederer’s personal reflections and the poses for each chapter are rather tenuous. I agree to a point. Some chapters did seem to be “yoga pose” + “everything else,” most notably the child’s pose chapters in which she recalled episodes from her childhood. But the chapters with the more forced connection between pose and narrative were the minority. For the most part, I found the link between yoga and her stories to be pretty close.

The part I loved best was watching Dederer accept her reality in a less judgmental way. Rather than comparing herself to everyone else and/or throwing out what she’d built and trying to start over again as her mother had, Dederer took what she had and made it something that worked better for her. I find this inspirational. Even if it does involve having a hometown and a greater skill at making friends than I have.

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Parenting Without a Map, Part 2

Continued from yesterday’s “Parenting Without a Map, Part 1”

We found a great, attachment parenting-minded psychologist who assured us that my daughter didn’t have any huge mental health problems. She worked with us as a family and helped us to find practical ways to deal with some of our everyday challenges and the interaction of our own unique personalities. She helped us to rediscover some of the joy in our relationship with our daughter. At the time, it seemed like it took a ridiculously long time to see results. I wanted immediate improvement. While I did experience an immediate improvement in my attitude towards the situation, the improvements in my daughter’s behavior were incremental over a period of months.

Every day we had “special play time,” 10-15 minutes when I would set aside all other responsibilities and distractions, get down on the floor, and let my daughter guide our play. It was excruciatingly boring. I felt awful that I didn’t enjoy playing with my own child. Hadn’t we spent the first five years of her life doing just that? Why was it so hard now? Our therapist assured us that this was a normal reaction and that it would get better. She was right.

We practiced labeled praise, and I got into the habit of finding things that my daughter could do to help out so she could get some sense of control in her life. No matter how I felt, when she came into my room while the baby and I still slept, I would look at her and smile and hug her and tell her how happy I was to see her (in a very enthusiastic voice). It felt fake at first. Most days I was lying outright. I didn’t want to see her. I wanted her to sleep for another hour and let me and the baby sleep, too. I wanted to make some coffee before being on duty for the day. But after a few weeks of faking it, I found that I actually was happy to see her in the morning. It gave us a positive start to our day. Now my son and I both greet Big Sister with joy.

The therapist also gave us a modified “time out” routine. I am very, very leery of time-outs. It’s way too easy, in my opinion, to turn a time-out into punishing a child by withholding love. The message becomes, if you don’t do what I tell you to, I will put you by yourself and I will withhold my love from you until you obey me. That feels like a very scary place for me.

The kind of time-out I like is the kind that teaches a child how to calm down when she’s overwhelmed. This is the kind I want for myself, to keep me from boiling over. This is the kind of time-out the therapist offered us.

The time-out we practiced involved a calm-down chair, which was within our line of sight, and a calm-down room, which was my daughter’s bedroom. Throughout the entire process, we (the parents) were calm, used a minimum of words, and didn’t engage in debate.

At the end when we were all calm and quiet again, we agreed upon a remedy for the initial behavior. The focus throughout the process was on how she had not listened to mom/dad rather than on her behavior. So we would ask, for example, “Are you ready to listen to what Mommy/Daddy said and make things right with your brother?” If she had hurt her brother, say, she could choose to give him a hug or a kiss or to give him one of his favorite toys to make things right with their relationship. I don’t agree with forcing a child to apologize, so that was never a remedy unless she suggested it (which she sometimes did).

Then once we were all done and all calm, we would say, “Thank you for listening to me when I asked you to be gentle with your brother.”

All past wrongs were forgiven. And we moved on with our lives.

The therapist stressed that if, after the first couple of days, we were using this technique more than once a day, we were overusing it. It was strictly for when she couldn’t calm down without this type of intervention.

For the first few days, it was tough. Sometimes it took us 30 minutes or an hour for her to be calm for three minutes (we never used a timer. The therapist said the focus should be on the parents not on the clock). We used the technique multiple times in a day. I had visions of SuperNanny (a show I despise). And even when things between my daughter and I had improved, she had to go through the same process with my husband. (It really seemed like the work one of us did ought to transfer to the other, but that wasn’t how it worked.) It was awful, and my husband and I had serious doubts about the technique.

But after a week, we needed to use the technique maybe twice a week. Then it was every couple of weeks. Now we haven’t used it in months and the calm-down chair gathers dust in a corner. (That’s not true. The kids actually play on it quite a lot. I just thought it was more dramatic to say it was gathering dust.)

I’m still not 100% sure that this time-out technique follows totally with our parenting philosophy, but it did help us to keep from yelling, to intervene when a situation was getting dangerous, and it gave both my husband and I a consistent action to use (we’d been trying all different things before we agreed to try just the time-out technique). It also helped set the stage for teaching our daughter a less interventional means of calming down. Now when she starts to get worked up, I can say (if I remember), “OK, take a deep breath,” and she and I breathe together until we are both calm. Then we address the situation. (The therapist also gave us a progressive-relaxation technique to practice together that has helped defuse altercations, too.)

Along with finding techniques to work with my kids, I had to address my own needs, too. Some of that is included in this Happiness Project. I’ve blogged about it before, and I’ll likely blog about it again. For now, I’m just going to leave it at this: if I’m running on fumes, I can’t be present and patient with my children. Finding ways to meet my needs, while it felt (and still feels at times) selfish, has helped me to be a better mother.

We still have challenges every day. And now with my son getting further into toddlerhood, we’ve got that dynamic to challenge us, too. But I feel much more capable than I used to, and I feel much more joy in my interactions with my children than I used to.

Parenting Without a Map, Part 1

My friends and I have this conversation often. The gist is something like this:

I want to parent differently from the way I was parented, but I don’t know how. I know what I don’t want to do, but I don’t always know what I want to do. Even when I know what to do, I find myself slipping back into the patterns of behavior that I observed growing up.

While it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in feeling a bit lost (sometimes completely lost) in my parenting, it doesn’t really supply me with practical solutions for the everyday parenting issues that arise.

My friends and I agree: we know what we don’t want to do. No spanking, no hitting, no yelling, no guilt, no punishments, no rewards, no bribes, no ignoring our children’s emotional needs, no coercion.

But most of us we were raised with one or more of these methods as the cornerstone of our parents’ style. How do we find models for what we want to do?

Among my friends, we look to books and we look to each other.

Visit my Gentle Parenting Bibliography for some of the parenting books the parents in my circle have found enlightening.

Each of these books holds a tiny piece of the puzzle. When I read one, I think, “Yes! This is what I want to do! This is how I want to parent!” I usually do my reading at night when the children are asleep. I go to bed excited to try out the new techniques the next morning. Inevitably, using the new techniques feels clumsy and false. My kids look at me like I’m nuts, and I just want to say, “Hey, guys. Please cut me some slack. I’m trying to be a better mom here.” Sometimes I do say that. It never works.

I’ve found lots of families with similar parenting philosophies through La Leche League. While nursing isn’t imperative to attachment parenting, I think it helps set the stage for the kind of close and loving bond that goes along with a gentle style of parenting. Being in a circle of moms committed to gentle parenting helps normalize the behavior and helps us feel supported when problems arise. I also found a great deal of support through the parent education portion of the co-op preschool my daughter and I were in in Palo Alto, the second year especially. I still speak about once a week with a friend from that class as we navigate the rocky terrain of school-aged parenting. This is also one of the few places I’ve found where dads can go to talk about gentle parenting. (On a  related topic, what on earth do stay-at-home dads do for support? It’s hard enough as a stay-at-home mom, but at least there’s some amount of infrastructure for us.)

I have, over time, made a list of things I want to do. I want to help my children become aware of their own emotions. I want to be empathetic towards them and teach them to be empathetic towards others. I want to show by my example that while we’re always going to make mistakes, we can also always learn from our mistakes. I want them to feel safe and comfortable coming to me and my husband with anything, even (or perhaps especially) things that go against my values. I want our family to be a cooperative group, not a dictatorship or a hierarchy, with parents reigning supreme and the kids down at the bottom with no say in any of the matters in their lives. I want them to have close relationships with other loving adults

If you notice, the things I don’t want to do are quite a bit more specific than the things I do want to do.

When my daughter was born, I was surprised by just how difficult the parenting thing was. She was colicky and had multiple food sensitivities. She didn’t sleep longer than a 4-hour stretch until she was two years old. She cried. A lot. Inconsolably. Every step along the way, I would think, “Things will be better when…” When we get breastfeeding down, when she starts solid foods, when she starts walking, when she turns one, when she finishes getting in all of her baby teeth, when she turns three.

I was shocked to discover that, at every stage, while some things do get easier, others get much, much harder. I didn’t realize how easy a newborn was to care for until I had a five-year-old. A five-year-old and an infant at the same time just about broke me, or so I felt at the time.

After her brother was born, my daughter turned into someone I couldn’t recognize. She was physically aggressive with her brother and other children and actively defiant with me and my husband. She had never been a big tantrum-thrower, but she started throwing some epic, screaming, 45-minute-long in-public tantrums. “I just look at her and think, ‘this is not my daughter,'” I told my friend, bursting into tears.

I needed more help than my friends and my books could offer. I started seeking professionals.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of Parenting Without a Map

Defensive Parenting

The Young Mother by Charles West Cope (Attribution: Valerie McGlinchey [CC BY-SA 2.0 uk (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/uk/deed.en)%5D)

This probably doesn’t come as any surprise to those who’ve been reading my last several posts about “happy marriage” books I’ve encountered recently, but I’m finding I get very defensive when someone gives me advice about marriage or about taking care of myself vis-à-vis my role as a mother.

I recognize that I’ve chosen a parenting path that’s pretty intense. I embrace what’s referred to as “Attachment Parenting.” That is something of a misleading moniker. I think it conjures images of a child permanently physically attached to her mother. While this is kind of what it looks like for the first year, after that it just means devoting oneself to being the primary attachment figure in your child’s life. It implies a non-violent, non-authoritarian, respectful parenting style that focuses on the value of the relationship between the parent and her child rather than on trying to get a child to do whatever it is we want them to do.

In practice, this means I spend a lot of time with my kids. My husband and I talk things out with them rather than issuing commands. I make every effort to speak to them respectfully and lovingly, even when I’m telling them something they don’t want to hear (sometimes I actually succeed at this). I’m relatively strict, compared to a lot of attachment parents I know, but my daughter and I seem to have less trouble with power struggles than some of her peers and their mothers seem to have (compared to both the attachment parents and the more authoritarian parents, too). That’s not always been the case—we had some really big trouble after my son was born—and it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point.

Maybe this is why I get defensive. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am and to basically build a parenting relationship from the ground up. This is not how I was raised, and while I wholeheartedly embrace my style of parenting, it does not come naturally to me.

I can get a little hinky when people who don’t know me suggest that I need to spend less time with my kids because I need to hang out with my friends more or that I need to lock my kids out of the bedroom I share with my husband because our marriage is more important than the kids are.

In our family, it isn’t “kids” versus “grownups.” We try our best to run our family cooperatively and to value everyone’s needs equally. The grownups have the final say, but that’s not because our needs are more important. It’s because we’ve been around longer and we have a better ability to see the long-term ramifications of our decisions. It’s also because I think young kids need to feel protected by someone more powerful than they are. As our kids get older, they’ll gradually get to have more say in how things go.

It’s annoying to me that so many marriage and parenting books are set up in this adversarial “us or them” manner. I agree with the basic premise: I can’t provide for my children’s needs if I’ve not provided for my own first. But so many of the books I’ve read and the advice I’ve heard give rigid suggestions (like the weekly schedule I mentioned in my post the other day) for how to meet one’s needs. They don’t take into account that each individual’s needs are different from everyone else’s and that one’s needs today might be different from one’s needs tomorrow.

For example, in the book I’m reading now (Raising Happiness by Christine Carter, which is very good, by the way), the author talks about how it’s of the utmost importance to take ample time to hang out with your friends and strengthen those friendships, even if that means you don’t get to spend time with your kids.

Two things I don’t like about this. One, kids sleep. I can hang out with my friends while my children sleep and not lose out on time spent with my kids. Two, I don’t need that much time with my friends. I’m an introvert, for crying out loud. If I’m going to forgo spending time with my kids, I’m going to shut myself in a room by myself before I’m going to go out to a restaurant with the gals.

And this is how I react to a book I like. Other books are much, much worse.

They ignore the fact that some needs, like those of an infant, are more immediate than those of the grownups. If my baby needs to nurse more often than some expert says he ought to, I’m going to listen to my baby and meet his needs, even if that means trading a trip to the gym for a walk around the park (with the baby in the carrier nursing the whole time). I’m an adult. If I can’t compromise on how and when I meet my needs, I probably shouldn’t have gotten into this parenthood biz.

Even as I write this, though, I wonder if I’ve gotten the wrong impression. Before my first child was born, I was worried about postpartum depression, and I wanted to do everything I could to avoid trouble with it. A friend who’d been there said, “The most important thing for me was to get out of bed and get dressed every morning, even if I wasn’t planning to go anywhere.”

So, every morning of the first week of my daughter’s life, I got out of bed and got dressed in my now-baggy maternity clothes. When I mentioned this to my friend a few weeks later and said how hard it had been for me, she said quietly, contritely, “Oh. I didn’t mean to do it the first week. Later. You do that later. The first week you stay in bed.”

I wonder if I’m reading books that say they’re geared towards “parents” in general when they’re actually geared towards parents of school-aged children. Maybe they’re not speaking to me at all, and here I am getting all up-in-arms.

Wouldn’t that be embarrassing.