Mothering my children, healing myself

July 28, 2010 at 8:08 pm

The way I mother my children is unusual in mainstream American culture (but common among my readers).  I share my bed with my babies, I could never endure “cry-it-out” (even for a few minutes), I breastfeed on-demand for an extended period of time, I practice “nighttime parenting” by soothing or nursing my babies and toddlers back to sleep every time they awaken, I hold and carry my wee ones as much as possible (often in slings/wraps), I respond as quickly as possible to their cries of distress, and I rarely leave them with anyone besides my husband.  Some might say I take Attachment Parenting to an extreme.  There are probably those who would even say I take it to an unhealthy extreme.  I certainly haven’t had a decent night of sleep for, well… years, and date nights with my husband are very rare.  Some might assume I am driven to these extremes because I believe other parenting styles to be unethical (or evil), because I’m trying to be better than everyone else, or because I’m pursuing an unrealistic vision of “perfect” motherhood.  But they would be wrong.  Understandably…. because they don’t know my history (or my gene pool).

This is the only photo I have of my entire family intact… (I’m the tiny baby):

The next family photo I have is this one…

Two or three years had passed between those photos.  You might notice that someone is missing in the second.  I won’t go into all the trials and agonizing heartbreak that led to my mother’s decision to leave the family, but around the time I was 18 months old my parents took us all to see E.T. in the movie theater (I fell asleep) and then told us they were getting a divorce.  Soon afterward, my five older siblings and I packed into our family car with my dad and drove away from the most important source of security and love I had ever known–my mother.

I spent the next several months (or was it years?) of my life traumatized… crying myself to sleep nearly every night… “I want my mommy… I want my mommy… I want my mommy…” I believed everything would be OK if I could just have my mother back.  The only things that made my pain bearable were the constant presence and mothering of my older sister and the loving efforts of my paternal grandmother who took our wounded souls into her home and heart.  Grandma became my “mother.”

One of my earliest memories is of a stormy night after the divorce.  I can remember lying in a crib next to my sister’s bed.  The rain was pouring down, whipping against the house and windows.  The wind was howling like ghosts.  There was lightning and thunder.  As a two-year-old toddler, I honestly and completely believed that the house was going to be shred to pieces, and we were all going to die.  So, as any frightened child would, I cried as loudly as possible for someone to save me.  I remember feeling shocked that my family wasn’t frantically gathering us together to protect us from the storm.  And I was frustrated that I did not have the words to express what I was feeling.  All I could do was scream. Eventually, my grandmother came to my crib-side.  I can’t remember what happened next, but the memory ends with me waking up calmly in the morning in my grandmother’s bed.  She saved me that night, and her constant, unconditional love has saved me every day ever since.

As I’ve said, losing my mother at such a young age was extremely traumatizing.  As a result, I have struggled with abandonment issues my entire life.  Healing has come bit by bit over time, but I still have a long way to go.  Fortunately, many wonderful women stepped-in to help raise and “mother” me–including my own mother with whom I lived from age eight until age eleven.  Despite my childhood’s rough start, I managed to grow into adulthood relatively healthy emotionally and able to recognize the many ways my early traumas brought future blessings into my life.

I have also come to better understand, over time, some of the roots of my mother’s personal struggle with mothering, and her mother’s, and my great-grandmother’s as well.  My sister, also, who shares more genetic material with me than any other woman on the planet, has suffered from postpartum depression and struggled to enjoy motherhood.  I suspect there is something in the genetic wiring of several generations of women in my family that interferes with bonding and feeling the joy of mothering–perhaps faulty oxytocin systems?  And I suspect that life experiences, traumas, and perhaps birth interventions have exacerbated some of those genetic predispositions.

So when I gave birth to my firstborn and waited to love her… and waited… and waited… I was understandably nervous.  What if I’m broken?  What if I can’t love my babies?  What if I’m like my mother and grandmother? Days, perhaps weeks, passed.  I can’t remember how much time. I prayed my heart out.  God told me the love would come.  Then one day I was playing with my daughter, smiling and gazing at her, and “I love you” fell from lips so effortlessly that I hadn’t even realized what I had said.  And then I said it again with tears streaming down my face.

And when that precious high-needs baby cried when I put her down, a voice inside my heart and soul told me to hold her.  And when she woke up distressed in the middle of the night, that voice told me to bring her into my bed where she could feel my heart beating.  And when she seemed to want to nurse again (even though she had eaten only moments before), that voice told me to nurse her again and as many times as she wanted to.

I think that little voice inside was multifaceted. Part of it was a little abandoned 2-year-old girl inside of me crying “I want my mommy…” and I had to mother her.  I could not let her cry.  I had to tell her (and all of my children) with my every touch, every breath, every word: “I will never leave you. Never.”  Another part of that voice was God.  God knew I needed that high-needs baby as much as she needed me.  God knew mothering her so responsively would help me heal and overcome some of the trials inherent in the deck of mother-genes I was dealt. Perhaps that voice also included the pleadings of my deceased matriarchs… my grandmother and great-grandmother whose earthly maternal heartaches were never healed… who were determined to ensure that another generation of children would not grow up “motherless” and in pain.  Perhaps their spirits, too, whispered, “Hold her!” And so I did.  And will always do.

There is almost nothing more important to me than doing whatever I possibly can to increase the potential joy and love I feel in that moment when I first meet my babies and solidifying the bond that develops afterward.  I may not be wired to immediately bond with my babies, but I’m still darn well going to try.  (Thankfully, that loving bond has come more quickly and intensely with each subsequent child.)  I may not have ever experienced a secure and constant mother-daughter attachment with my own mother, but I am darn well going to make sure my children do.  My subconscious is driven to ensure that my children never know the pain of abandonment, even for a short period of time, especially when they’re babies.  So I’m a little bit obsessed with bonding and attachment.  So I spend a great deal of time studying and researching ways to maximize and intensify the initial bond with my babies.  So I take my mothering style to a possibly unhealthy extreme.  I really can’t help it.  Blame it on my history.  Mainstream America would say my 15-month-old toddler should have been sleeping through the night ages ago.  I say that every time I nurse him back to sleep I have another opportunity to say, “I’m here.  I will always be here.  I will never abandon you. No matter what.” And each time I am able to communicate that message it adds another layer to the healing balm accumulating in my soul.

I did not choose “Attachment Parenting” because I thought it was superior to other parenting styles or because I was trying to be a “perfect” mother.  I fell unexpectedly into “Attachment Parenting” because I literally could not mother in any other way. And it is my hope that my children will grow into parents who aren’t compelled to go to extremes… because they don’t have old wounds to heal… because they grew up with a mother who was always there.  Oh how I hope.

No better sight to wake up to