When Joe and I were expecting our first baby we were convinced that I would have a natural birth and that our baby would sleep like an angel in her white bassinette that we had painstakingly prepared. Looking back on it I’m glad that at least the bassinette was prepared because we sure as heck weren’t.
It was May 19th, 1999 when my husband and I made our way to the hospital to have our first baby. I didn’t have the natural birth I dreamed about, instead I had an emergency c-section when the doctors discovered that my baby was sunny side up after three hours of pushing. Did my sweet baby sleep like an angel? Not a chance. Keily Ellen started screaming the very first night and didn’t stop for three months. I remember clearly the angry nurse who handed me my baby at 2’o clock in the morning saying sternly “She can’t be in the nursery. Every time we get her there she starts yelling. She won’t stop this excessive crying and it upsets all the other babies. Wait ’till you get this one home.”
Well, my husband and I did get her home. I can see us sitting on the couch, the crickets chirping outside the open window, the night air soft as it blew the curtains back and forth. All these things the same and yet our life was incredibly different. Nothing could have prepared my husband, Joe, and I for the three months of colic that lay ahead of us. For the first 4 weeks nothing we did stopped our baby from screaming. Then we read Dr Sears’ book. Not only did he describe our child in detail without ever seeing her- but his advice worked. Keily stopped screaming all the time- she was a happier baby-she slept in our relief and joy at finding an “expert” who identified with our baby and helped our family. My husband and I jumped wholeheartedly on to the attachment parenting bandwagon.
Keily was quiet and delightful after her first 3 months. She thrived and held her own in the 100th percentile. Strangers commented that she was the happiest baby that they had every seen. I never spent more than half an hour away from her a day. When I went to the bathroom she went with me. When I went to bed at night she was with me. I ate holding her. My husband and I couldn’t go anywhere without her because she wouldn’t take a bottle and if I left her she started to scream and wouldn’t stop until I came back. She could only sleep in bed with me after nursing herself into a milk induced slumber. And so our lives went as one year slipped into two.
I didn’t dare rock the boat. After all-Dr. Sears seemed to understand Keily so well without even meeting her; it was uncanny; and he got her to stop screaming. Heck, not only did his advice get her to be quiet it made her bloom. It didn’t matter that I was so tired and worn out that I spent almost five months battling mastitis-it didn’t matter that I had no privacy or that my husband and I had no life outside my daughter. Keily was doing fantastic.
I was terrified of messing up and harming my precious baby. I wouldn’t listen to anyone that said anything contrary to the rules of attachment parenting. I shut my mind to anything else and I never asked myself why. And then I became pregnant for the second time.
When Max came home from the hospital in June the Keily my husband and I knew disappeared. In three months she started having panic attacks and would start vomiting if I tried to leave her for any space of time. By October we had to withdraw her from preschool. In November the whole family found themselves in the office of a play therapist trying to put Keily back together.
Max hated all my attachment parenting techniques. Max wanted no part of slings or leisurely nursing times or being held close, and just looking at Keily it was painfully obvious that attachment parenting was of no comfort to her now. I was without Dr. Sear’s guiding light and was swinging in the breeze on my own.
The therapist, Heidi, told us that Keily was an amazingly bright and wonderful child. She was also depressed. She told us that she felt that Keily needed to start to make healthy separations from us that she should have made in toddlerhood. She needed to stop nursing. She needed her own bed. She needed our encouragement and belief in her that she could do it. Without healthy separation she wouldn’t have the self esteem and self reliance to be capable of starting Kindergarten in the fall.
I was heartbroken. I was grief stricken. The door I had shut on anything that deviated from the advice of Dr. Sears began to crack open- such was my pain that my child was suffering.
I remember crying on my front porch swing when I told my friend Margaret that I had to wean Keily and I wasn’t sure she could survive it. She was kind and reflective as we watched our daughters play in the tubby pool. She said “I don’t know. She seems pretty solid to me. I think you are underestimating her. I don’t see why she couldn’t handle it.” I was floored. I had never thought of it that way- that I was minimizing Keily’s own power.
We had a weaning party- complete with a cake and a kitten for Keily, whom she named Hotdog. The first week she needed to talk about how sad she was that her nursing days were over-but that was it. She didn’t withdraw and curl into a fetal position forever. She didn’t start screaming and never stop. She dealt with it.
We got her bunk beds and a soft stuffed rabbit that she referred to as “squishy bunny” and wonder of wonders she happily slept away from us. She slumbered high above us in her lofty top bunk. As I lay in bed for the first time in four and a half years without her warm body next to mine I was shocked that I felt bereft. I felt cold. I realized that maybe I hadn’t been co- sleeping only for her needs. I reached out and grasped my sleeping husband’s hand and the door opened a little more.
Spring began to warm the earth and with it hatched a vibrant self confident Keily. My husband and I were thrilled at how far Keily had come as she neared her 5th birthday. But what about the rest of our family? I wish I could say that we were all doing so well but unfortunately we were falling apart.
Max was almost a year and you won’t believe it, but he was still sleeping in bed with Joe and I. Not only that but he was still nursing to sleep and waking every two hours kicking and squirming until he would nurse back to sleep again. I was exhausted and after co-sleeping and nursing on demand for almost 5 years I was nearing the end of my emotional and physical strength.
As I was browsing in the library one day I happened upon a stack of magazines that someone had left on a particularly cozy looking couch. The first magazine I picked up was Parenting magazine that had an article on someone called “The Sleep Lady”. I was captivated by the beauty of the sleeping baby depicted in the article. That baby looked happy in a crib! To be able to put your baby in a cozy crib- say ‘night night’ and leave and still better yet-to have the baby sleep all night seemed like an unobtainable fantasy. I felt it was more likely that I would wake up the next day looking like Christie Brinkley and having a bank account to match!
The next magazine in the pile had a bold caption that read “Attachment Anxiety”. Oh. Now that was too freaky. I looked quickly around half expecting to see God himself sneaking away behind a book shelf. I quickly flipped to the article. It told of millions of followers of Dr Sears that had been basically “Dr. Spocked” into submission as children, and as a result flocked in relief to the kinder, gentler philosophy of attachment parenting. The only drawback was that some of these folks had become so overzealous that they allowed no middle ground or deviations from the rules of attachment parenting. Imagine! They called cribs “baby jails” and anyone who even supplemented with bottles was kicked out of the ranks. I saw myself in that article. Do you know what really got me? Dr. Sears was even worried about these parents. He was worried enough that he rewrote The Baby Book! The rules and principles of attachment parenting had been downgraded to merely guidelines and he softened his advice. Holy cow! I had become a zealot and even my mentor feared me!
I started therapy. I remember my mom so lovingly trying to protect me from the world, telling me at 20 years of age that I wasn’t able yet to make big decisions and that I always needed to consult her. I remember the Christmas that she was so sick from undergoing a heart transplant that she said to me “I can’t do all the things that I used to so you need to be my arms and my legs”. Painfully, I recalled holding her when she died and feeling dead and cold myself – feeling that my life’s purpose was over, even though I was a newlywed- only married one month.
In August while Kindergarten was looming large in our family’s future I got the call that the Sleep Lady had a cancellation and we could start Max’s sleep training in three days. Suddenly breathing seemed like a chore. Part of me wanted to say we weren’t interested but a stronger part knew I couldn’t underestimate Max. I said we’d be delighted to take the appointment. After I hung up the phone I noticed that my hands were shaking.
That afternoon Keily and I went to see Heidi for the last appointment before Keily started Kindergarten. With school only two weeks away as well as our sleep training unexpectedly being pushed up, I felt jumpy and sick to my stomach on the ride over. As we sat on the couch Keily told Heidi all of the things that worried her about Kindergarten and my hands got clammy as I silently added to my own list. What if Keily got scared on the bus? What if she freaked out again and vomited on her new teacher? What if I put Max in his crib all night and he won’t stop screaming? What if the trauma was too much and I found him the next morning unresponsive? Or maybe he’d become autistic overnight from some weird abandonment trigger? Then Heidi told Keily the most remarkable thing. Heidi sat down next to Keily and calmly said “Keily, school may be boring or annoying or maybe sometimes you might feel scared or sad- but that’s it-it’s not dangerous”. Wow. It’s not dangerous. It was like the whole world shifted when I heard that. It was so simple but in that moment I realized that I had been holding on so tightly because I was flat out convinced that life was dangerous. But only guess what? It wasn’t.
It was a hot summer afternoon in late August when I spoke to Kim , The Sleep Lady, on the telephone for the first time. Joe and Keily were reading inside and I was sitting on the back step watching Max sleep in the car which was running with the air conditioning on- the only way I could get him to nap. Kim listened to me- listened to my fear that I’d emotionally damage my son if I let him cry in his crib even for 5 minutes- listened to me feel sad that I didn’t have the energy to keep nursing all night – sad that I couldn’t make things work out the way I’d thought was right. And then as the sun grew a deep red and crept a little further down in the sky, Kim listened to my hopes that I could find my way out and bring my family to secure ground-that I could help Max feel ok sleeping in his crib without crying alone and that I could help him feel secure in himself.
Last night we had out first frost. I could tell because our pumpkin on the front porch glistened with it when I peeked out on my way to the coffeepot. The Tooth Fairy also made her first appearance at our house last night- taking away Keily’s first baby tooth. She can’t wait to tell all of her friends in Kindergarten. And Max? He started walking last week- waltzing across the room like an old pro during his first Music Together class. He’s been sleeping soundly in his crib all night long for a month now. He never became anxious or unresponsive- he is well-rested, happy and secure in our love for him. Mom is sleeping a lot more peacefully too.
I have learned that each child is different. What works for one may not work for another. I am coming to learn that perhaps creating a secure attachment doesn’t mean I have to co-sleep and nurse on demand for years. It is more based on being an available, loving parent who sets healthy and appropriate limits, who teaches their child that they are capable and whole- that Mom and Dad are there for them but that they don’t have to be “my arms and legs”.
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