It's not that I don't think my brother and his partner will be good parents. They are older than me, they are completely devoted to their roles as parents, they treasure their son and went through a lot to have him in their lives. They are well-read, well-adjusted and well-schooled. They have a wealth of life experiences that I can never hope to achieve. Their relationship with each other is already long and solid.
It's just that experience has shown me that even the most well-intentioned parents have a hard time committing to real attachment parenting after the baby-stage is over. My own experiences from 6 years of being a mother and my observations of mothers at La Leche League have taught me that the theories and practices that comprise the standard definition of 'attachment parenting' are much harder to keep in place as the baby becomes a toddler and a pre-schooler. In fact, one of the reasons why I resigned as a La Leche League leader last year was because I observed that many of the leaders (whose children were young like mine) were becoming more and more mainstream in their parenting practices as their children grew out of baby-hood.
When I was a new mother I thought I had a handle on the definition of attachment parenting. I had read the book by US paediatrician William Sears in which he set out a list of guidelines to describe attachment parenting. Generally speaking, his guidelines include:
- Gentle birth
- Breastfeeding on demand and child-led weaning
- Immediate response to crying
- Minimal separation of mother and baby
I followed these guidelines to a 'T' with Anna. In fact, there was no other way to care for Anna, as she cried whenever I put her down, she slept for no more than 45 minutes in the day before waking to nurse, and she would not stay with her dad for more than a few seconds if I left the room. I came to believe that attachment parenting meant having the child physically ON the mother, since even at 2 years old, Anna refused to be away from me for even a few minutes.
My understanding of attachment parenting began to change bit by bit when I started to ponder and research homeschooling. It was around Anna's 2nd birthday that I first began to think about homeschooling after a friend I had met at La Leche League told me that her husband was opposed to sending their daughter to school. I contacted the only person I knew at that time who was homeschooling, and she sent me the links to a variety of websites that she had found useful when she began homeschooling. I read through them, but nothing seemed to 'click' with me. Eventually, I ran across the term 'unschooling' and that eventually led me to the term 'authentic parenting'.
What I learned was that although I was following all the 'attachment parenting guidelines', I was doing it only for superficial reasons: I believed that by doing the things that Dr. Sears recommended (and La Leche League, also) I was a better mother than the cry-it-out, pro-daycare, pro-timeout crowd. Really, I had completely missed the point. I had been using a strategy but I had not fully committed to the essence of attachment which is the relationship.
I discovered unschooling through the website of Jan Hunt. It contains a wealth of articles by Hunt and others on parenting, health, learning and relationships. Jan Hunt's book is called The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart. She renames attachment parenting 'empathic parenting' and she describes it thus:
- We understand that all children are doing the very best they can at every given moment.
- We trust that though children may be small in size, they deserve to have their needs taken seriously.
- We know that it is unrealistic to expect a child to behave perfectly at all times.
- We recognize that "bad behaviour" is the child's attempt to communicate an important need in the best way she can.
- We learn to look beneath a child's outward behaviour to understand what he is thinking and feeling.
- We see that in a very beautiful way, our child teaches us what love is.
When reading through this list of 'guidelines' it is easy to see how they apply to children of any age. Unlike the list of guidelines from Dr. Sears, these principles focus on a way of being in a relationship with a child. Jan Hunt says in her book that people either 'get it' about children, or they don't. It is only recently that I have begun to 'get it'. Trusting and respecting the emotions and actions of children all the time is a completely new way of thinking for me. It involves letting go of my pre-conceived ideas and making myself vulnerable to the needs of my children. Hunt offers me a challenge as opposed to the Dr. Sears list which offered only a strategy.
Authentic Parenting is described and taught by Naomi Aldort in her book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. In the introduction she says
You will learn to nurture [your child] without shaping, like a gardener who
waters flowers, but doesn't help them open nor choose their shapes or
In this book you will learn to let go of your armour and let love flow
through you with no strings attached.
If we want our future as humanity to look different than how it looks now, we need to allow our children to create it out of who they are and not out of who we want them to be.
Parenting is a path of maturation and growth if we dare to learn more and teach less. When you have the courage to stop defending the way you are, or the way your parents raised you, you can open up to the possibility that you are much greater and more magnificent and capable than you thought you were. (excepts from pages xv, xvi and xvii)
Reading these words was a lightbulb-moment for me. It made sense. It explained what was missing from my strategy for attachment parenting. It opened my mind and my heart to what was wrong with me instead of focusing on what I perceived to be wrong with my child. It gave me the courage to change.
Once I began to focus more on my relationship with my children, and less on trying to achieve a particular result with them, I was finally able to take a deep breathe and relax into my mothering role. It was no longer a persona and I began to experience more joy and freedom. By the time Jasmine joined our family I had fully made the switch in my mind from attachment parenting as a strategy to attachment parenting as a relationship. In fact, I felt that Jasmine's birth was like a renewal for my relationships with Anna and Holly. I felt like I was getting a fresh start, and as I looked for and met Jasmine's needs I learned to look for and meet Anna and Holly's needs in the same authentic way.
And this is why I am skeptical about people who embrace the principals of attachment parenting with their infants but who have a vision of the future with their children that includes pre-school or daycare or sleep-training or punishments and rewards or public school or schedules or any other activities that require an otherwise dependent child to become prematurely independent. Quite frankly, it's not easy to offer trust and respect to children all day, everyday, especially when they are no longer tiny and helpless. A daughter who refuses to help clean up her dolls or another daughter who screams at her father for serving her food with the wrong sauce do not necessarily inspire consistent kindness and patience, trust and respect. It's hard.
But it's worth it. Focusing on the relationship instead of the behaviour removes the aspect of blame and maintains the equilibrium within the family. Attachment parenting is not a set of strategies. It is a way of life. It is a way of living with children. It is a way of loving that maximizes joy and freedom.
I'm learning. And I'm trying to share my experiences with anyone who wants to learn too.