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Monday, 14 May 2012

The Liberation of Mothering Instinctively


A Yequana woman with her infant
From http://www.continuum-concept.org/YequanaPhotos.html
Although, as you will see, it arguably saved my life, I don't like the term 'attachment parenting.' With all due respect to Dr. Sears, I think it's not only an easily misunderstood title, but additionally, why should we categorise parenting into styles?

Five years ago, if you'd told me I'd one day be breastfeeding a four-year-old, I probably would have fallen over from shock and shame. What? Breastfeed a four-year-old? Isn't that ... weird? Isn't that inappropriately indulgent? Isn't that just...wrong?

But it doesn't stop there. Tell me that I'd also be sleeping with this child, I think I would have headed straight to the GP to book in my preemptive tubal-ligation.

Before I had a child of my own, my views on pregnancy, birth and motherhood were those of the majority of our western culture: That pregnancy and birth are a delicate, dangerous, and revoltingly undignified medical condition; that breastfeeding was "best, but hard, and so formula is fine"; that mothers should not let their babies 'change' them, that they should ensure their lives get back to normal as quickly as possible (including returning to paid work outside the home - after all, children need the socialisation of day care). And that, under no circumstances, should she let that baby into her bed.

So how, then, did it come to this? Where my almost five-year-old still has the occasional brief breastfeed, and sleeps right alongside me in our family bed, along with her home-born two-year-old brother (who is also 'still' breastfeeding)... and I am not working?

Well, it happened like this:

By the time my first baby was merely a few weeks old, I was contemplating ending my own life. Although I like to think that I wouldn't have gone through with it, the truth is, at the time, I couldn't see any other way out. All this child seemed to need was me. My body. My every breath – all day, and all night. I was so confronted by her intense need for me. Don't babies just eat and sleep? Everywhere I turned, people were either going about their lives, without a child clinging bodily like a leech, or with so said child sitting quietly in a pram. No one seemed to have a crying, constantly breastfeeding, constantly awake baby. Except me.

People told me to 'put her on the bottle' – so I could get 'space' from her. 
People told me to 'put her in a routine' – so my days could be 'predictable'. 
People told me to 'leave her to cry' – so she would sleep alone, or for longer periods.
People told me to 'put her in child care' – so I could achieve, potentially, all of the above.

It seemed, my choices were these: 1) Emotionally and physically detach from my baby. OR 2) Somehow, stop existing.

The incredibly tragic thing is, although I managed to find a way out of the fog by giving myself permission to mother instinctively, many mothers believe their only options are these –  1) Disconnect or 2) Death.

It goes without saying, that's just not good enough.

Here's an example of the common line of thinking in our culture today:

In an introduction to yet another book on sleep training an infant, Mia Freedman writes:
"Night feeds were almost a novelty. I felt womanly and invincible, filled with love for my little girl and the world. I willingly slept on a crappy mattress on the floor of her room so my beloved husband could sleep undisturbed in our giant bed. I was so grateful to him for helping create this beautiful creature, it was the least I could do.  I was a happy martyr. And hey, since I was breast-feeding and he didn’t have breasts, what was the point of him getting up at 2 am? Let alone 3, 4 and 5 am."
There is so much wrong with this statement, I almost don't know where to begin. Notice how, in the beginning, she feels "womanly and invincible, filled with love"? Isn't that wonderful? So what happened? How come she came crashing down, so much so, that the baby was the one who, inevitably, had to suffer through the harsh consequences?

Lets pull it apart a little.
"I willingly slept on a crappy mattress on the floor..."
What? Why on earth is a woman who has just given birth to the next generation sleeping on a crappy mattress on the floor?
"...so my beloved husband could sleep undisturbed in our giant bed."
Oh. Because her husband needs sleep, too? Right. Well, considering he's an adult, and has not just given birth, perhaps he wouldn't mind scooting over a bit? After all, it's a "giant" bed – surely there's enough room for the two of them and the long-anticipated baby they've lovingly produced? 
"I was so grateful to him for helping create this beautiful creature, it was the least I could do."
While I'm sure it wasn't a huge hassle for him to donate that illustrious sperm, how come she doesn't see herself worthy of the same sacrifices from him? 
"And hey, since I was breast-feeding and he didn’t have breasts, what was the point of him getting up at 2 am? Let alone 3, 4 and 5 am."
He may not have breasts, but he does have a brain, and arms, and the ability to give love, support, comfort, nurturance - in the form of fetching the baby or rocking an unsettled baby, fetching drinks or snacks for his beloved, cleaning the house, cooking food, and providing the mother with love and nurturance, encouragement and support, so that she may actually have the capacity to provide the nurturance her normal human baby needs. 

Which brings me to what I feel is the crux of this issue. Natural, instinctive mothering isn't seen as valuable - it's not something that should be protected – because women aren't valued. And therefore, if a woman is struggling with her baby's needs (as they often do in our culture, but not in others), the answer is, inexplicably, to make it a problem of the most vulnerable and least mature person in the household – the infant. 

If this is what motherhood invokes in so many of us, how has the human race not only survived for half a million years - but actually thrived?

Here in Australia, we consider ourselves a developed, first world, 'lucky' nation – but what is happening to our mothers? With an epidemic of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, bullying in schools and an increasing list of behavioural and personality disorders – what is happening to us?

For a moment, I want to talk to you about a psychological construct known as cognitive dissonance.

When we are presented with a situation that goes against our intrinsic beliefs or values, it can create a real feeling of inner turmoil. You know, that feeling of "this is wrong, but I have to do it?" Psychologists have argued that US soldiers who partook in horrific torture of prisoners were suffering from cognitive dissonance - knowing it was wrong, but feeling compelled for whatever reason to do it. On a less extreme scale, perhaps you decide to speed a little because you're late for work - you know it's wrong, but you have to do it. How do you feel? Probably a little tense, at the least.

So when people told me that my wakeful, crying baby was a result of my inadequate breasts, my inadequate mothering, and that if I didn't do something - and soon – I was going to be ruined forever – I felt pretty damn awful.

Why? Because: breastfeeding her whenever she cried felt right, and holding her, and keeping her close all day and night, felt right. I tried spacing out her breastfeeds – but she just screamed more. I tried placing her in her cot, but walking away from her cries - even for 10 seconds - made me feel physically sick. How many parents have you heard say: "controlled crying was hard, but I had to persist..." or "I sat outside her door crying, while she cried..."

Doesn't seem right, does it? 

While I am the first to acknowledge that sleep deprivation from a wakeful infant can be incredibly difficult, and that the intense needs of a young infant can be beyond exhausting, and that breastfeeding an older child, or staying at home, or choosing to validate and respond to my three-year-olds tantrums is not all beer and skittles – I can say that acceptance and self-love are the key to coping. And support. The right support. 

The answer to our parenting woes should not become the issue of the helpless infant or young child. We are the adults who chose to bring them into the world.

Imagine a world where mothers were held in high esteem, valued and respected for their wisdom? Imagine a world where infants were brought peacefully from the womb, embraced lovingly in their early days of dependence, guided gently into society with compassion and reverence? 

Cognitive dissonance. It shouldn't happen to our mothers.

We need to value women, value the art of motherhood. Attachment parenting isn't about martyrdom - it's about liberating women to do what biology has gifted us with. And doing so, we liberate ourselves to love the fact that we are women.
That can only make for a better world.

54 comments:

  1. So sane, so sensible, so right. Thank you Kim for a clear lens on what's going on in western society. Cognitive dissonance is exactly what's happening. Your post needs to be read by everyone. So glad you wrote this and so glad you came to make sense of what was happening for you so that you stayed around rather than ending your life. When we go against our instincts it hurts us. Thanks for showing us how severely it can hurt and what the remedy is for that hurt.

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    1. Thank you Carolyn, I really appreciate your kind response. Kim xo

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  3. What a fantastic post. So honest, and as Carolyn said, so sane. Instinctive mothering <3

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  4. Dear Kim,
    You are a wonderful, honest and gifted writer.
    x Ange

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    1. Thank you Ange, you are a wonderful friend xo

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  6. Thanks for validating what I've done with 3/4 children. The one child I had PND with was the one baby I resisted parenting. The other 3 I have gone with our "flow". And it is at these times when I've felt most whole as a person.

    I'm now a grandmother and I hope I validate the choices that my daughter makes with her son. She's a beautiful young woman, who, from her child's conception has moved through motherhood with ease, listening to her needs and her baby's.... And I've never seen her so happy.

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    1. Thank you for sharing Rebekah. All the best to you and your daughter :)

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  7. I will point to this when I explain to friends that I am both an at-home mother by choice AND a feminist.

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  8. I went through something similar when my first baby was born. Listening to all the advice and the overwhelming lack of support for my need to mother my baby was what really exhausted me.

    Thanks so much for this very liberating and supportive post. I'm honestly refreshed after reading - and my first born is now 17!

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    1. You're so right Suzanne, I've counselled so many mothers who describe the overwhelming amounts of contradictory advice as the catalyst for their exhaustion.

      I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for your comment :)

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  9. I love this post, and I want to add that my husband was the kind of nurturing, supportive husband and new father that you described. He was so sweet that my own mother who was visiting from out of state "to help" with my newborn, felt comfortable enough to go home two weeks early. Having that support and encouragement even through nipple pain and a few other minor-in-hindsight issues, was invaluable.

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    1. Absolutely Robyn, the right support and nurturance makes all the difference, hey? How wonderful that you have that in your husband - it's something that all women deserve but sadly, don't often have. Thank you xo

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  10. Awesome, I love this and I have to check out more of your blog. My goodness I feel like you are a sister already - just scrolled to the top and saw your tagline,"World peace, one thought at a time". I teach Hypnobabies and made my motto, "Peaceful births, peaceful parenting, peaceful world"

    Right now I'm on this huge kick of how our words/thoughts are so important in creating our reality and impacting the world.

    It's so nice to find other people who "get it". Did you just start blogging? I'm relatively new too, and have spent a lot of time trying to set things up so I don't "hurt" people with my opinions thoughts. I'm slowly moving past that. I look forward to following you.

    I write here: www.togetherwalking.weebly.com

    Susan

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    1. Thank you Susan for your lovely response :) Yes, my blog is quite new! I'm a little technically challenged so still getting used to the whole blog 'thing' ;) I will most definitely check out your site when I have a spare moment! It sounds like we have a lot in common. Kim xoxo

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    2. I just had to let you know - I wrote more about this today and I think I'm pretty happy with how it came out: http://togetherwalking.weebly.com/1/post/2012/05/no-more-mrs-wishy-washy.html

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  11. Your observance about cognitive dissonance and blaming the infant would have soothed many fears/worries with my 1st born, 11 years ago. I did better with my 2nd, fortunately, but decided (surgically) against having anymore babies for the discomfort of being "bound" to my them. I regret it now.

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    1. Thank you for sharing Jennifer. Wishing you peace as you work through your feelings xo

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  12. Beautifully written I suffered with depression with my first baby because I listened to others pressuring me to stop breastfeeding,get her into a routine,put her in her own room etc I have just had my 6th child and am parenting him as I have with the next 4 as my instinct tells me to....co-sleeping,breastfeeding and attached. I have not suffered with depression since and all I had to do was open up and listen to my maternal instinct!

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    1. Thank you Keeley. I'm so pleased you found your mama instincts and in doing so, found your power :)

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  13. "He may not have breasts, but he does have a brain, and arms, and the ability to give love, support, comfort, nurturance - in the form of fetching the baby or rocking an unsettled baby, fetching drinks or snacks for his beloved, cleaning the house, cooking food, and providing the mother with love and nurturance, encouragement and support, so that she may actually have the capacity to provide the nurturance her normal human baby needs" this paragraph is in reference to the mother sleeping in another room so her husband can sleep. many nights i went into the nursery with the baby &fed , rocked her ,, yes so my husband who works 70 hours a week so i can stay home with my baby can sleep. thats not saying that he didnt also, help me clean, help with grocerys, cook dinner when he came home, and at the same time renovate our house ,, i can see why the divorce rate is so high in this country, i dont see anything wrong with giving a little more than getting, but todays women , all they want is to take

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    1. Thanks Lilly, I'm glad you felt supported by your husband, who worked long hours outside the home. But don't forget that mothering is also work - an unpaid, 168 hour week ;) I'm not suggesting that mothers should be ungrateful for the support that they DO receive - but that sadly, in a lot of cases, they're not getting even close to what they SHOULD receive. And I must disagree - I think what today's women want (need) is equality - "all they want is take" doesn't even come close to what's actually happening.

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  14. As a person who struggled with my first(and only) baby and hired a sleep consultant to "train her to sleep", as well as returned back to work after a few months I was surprised to actually find this article brilliant! You are so right with what you have said however I do think that the pressures of living in the "Western" world are very much to blame for mothers feeling forced to go against their instincts. Staying at home with the children is a luxury in some societies purely because it is impossible to have a decent standard of living (and by this I certainly dont mean luxurious!) on only one salary. This is yet more proof that the "Western" way of life is not ideal and it is no wonder the children have so many issues when they grow up.

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  15. I find it horribly, even hilariously out-of-touch that there is even a NEED for this kind of reasonable, well-worded argument, to convince people to subscribe to what is natural as opposed to 'rules' constructed by a patriarchal modern society. Media has made such cognitive sheep of us that I bet a lot of people don't stop to wonder if following the herd is the best thing for them, until they read something like this; we're essentially taught that we DON'T have instincts. It's only since women have become more present and outspoken in social politics that we see this encouraging shift back to what is natural. A lot of scaremongering goes on with childbirth, and the fact that the mother can be caused to panic can be a serious factor in experiencing complications. Breastfeeding a child out of infancy would only be unnatural if the milk supply had a set point at which to dry up, and the mother had to actively take hormones to sustain lactation. Also, I don't think the human race remains on this Earth because our ancestor mothers slept apart from their babies and weaned them young. Unlike driving cars, parenting is something we've been doing for hundreds of thousands of years - mothers need support but I don't think they should feel like they have to learn how to 'do it right'!

    Well done, Kim; I hope this encourages a lot of people to have a think about how they arrived at their opinions on these issues, at the very least.

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  16. Thank you so much Kim! I am so grateful to you for writing this post. May respect for mothers prevail on our beloved planet. This way we all will heal. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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  17. The best advice I ever got as a new mom was while I was still in the hospital. My doctor delivered the baby and then left for vacation so I had his associate. I was concerned about nursing and would the baby get enough and how often. He put all of my concerns aside when he told me to not pay attention to what everyone tells me. That in many cultures babies nurse for a few minutes take a break and nurse again. That our culture is too caught up in what is right and routines. He told me to let my instincts as a mother take over and let the baby decide when to nurse and how long and how often and when to sleep. That is was ok to have the baby in bed beside me, that some infants wake up and nurse for a few minutes in their sleep and go right back to bed, that if the baby was there with me, I would get better sleep by nursing in bed.

    This doctor unknowingly made me so comfortable as a first time mom that I didn't really care about what people told me about having my kids on schedules. And they are all healthy, happy and well adjusted. (19,15,8)

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  18. Absolutely lovely post. I've raised my youngest 4 (I have 5) this way and wished I would've my first. When people told me, "You should do this and don't do that!" I politely ignored their advice and did what I thought was best. That included nursing until my kids weaned themselves. It was anywhere from 12 months to 3.5yrs old. We are given an innate sense on what to do with our children. I don't see the point in going against what our bodies and hearts are telling us to do with and for our kids!

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  19. I love this concept. Unfortunately I think it serves to make women feel inadequate if things don't work out and you can't achieve this perfect state of mothering and a also believe there are plenty of us women who would love to have had your experience. I persisted with breastfeeding for 10 months when my son flat out refused the breast any more. I have another on the way and my dreams of utopia persist but I refuse to give into the desperate feelings feelings of inadequacy I felt when my son was born. Breast feeding is difficult for some women - very difficult. More emphasis should be placed on providing women with more support instead of ramming home that breast is best and letting women flounder if they aren't coping. We all want the best for our children, is the nature of mothering.

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    1. Thank you for your response, Chimera. It's so common for women/mothers to feel inadequate, huh? I'm pleased that you see my experience as having been something of an achievement, but honestly - I wouldn't wish the struggles that I've had on anyone. Feeling so disconnected between culture and nature to the point of suicide is pretty awful. I'm sorry you didn't have the right support to continue breastfeeding as you would have liked to do. The support is definitely out there - it's just not always easy to find. In Australia we have the Australian Breastfeeding Association, in the US there's the Le Leche League...etc. I agree with you that "ramming home that breast is best and then letting them flounder" is far from optimum :( Instead, what we need to do is let mothers be mothers as their biology tells them. I'd encourage you to read my other post about guilt (Not Guilty: When Judgement is in the Eye of the Beholder), it explains my feelings on speaking the truth to parents and their subsequent emotional responses. All the best. xo

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    2. I'm completely confused by your comment Chimera. Kim is explaining her road to biological/instinctive parenting, including a terrible battle with Postnatal Depression. I don't find her ramming anything home except her desire to nurture her child which in turn helped to alleviate some of her worst feelings. I'm quite sure Kim isn't touting a "perfect state of mothering".

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  20. I love this post! I'm pregnant with my first child and I am loving reading up on other's experiences as this is all new to me, I cannot wait until I can experience all this (the good and the bad) in just 8 weeks time! I like you once thought that breastfeeding past 1 yr and sharing a bed were things I would never do - but I feel as though just being pregnant has already changed my mind on these issues so who knows how I will feel when I finally have my little one...breast feeding a toddler and sharing a bed now seem something that I will consider! We will just have to see how things go! Thanks again for your very interesting and entertaining post!
    However....can I just add that the background on this page makes the text pretty hard to read, sorry! I persevered and it was worth it!

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    1. Thank you Katy, all the best for your pregnancy, birth and motherhood journey! How exciting! (And re. the text on the background – thanks for the heads up! Are you reading it from a phone? Because on PC it's just grey text on a white background...!)

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  21. Yea! Loud, long applause and cheering!! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Sanity exists, somehwere! Well said, and again, thank you!

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  22. I have been pregnant 9 times, miscarriage 3 times and was blessed by bringing 6 children into the world, the last four at home. I am also an RN and I have always had the goal of working to live, NOT living to work. It breaks my heart when I see that selfishness in parenting is both encouraged and lauded from conception even through the child's adulthood. I am still nursing my 21 month old daughter and when people raise their eyebrows at me I calmly inform them that the world health organization encourages breastfeeding until at LEAST the age of two. That usually shuts them up.

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    1. YES - Why is selfishness lauded? because it suits adults I guess.

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  23. FUCK YEAH! Oddly I just wrote exactly on the subject and published my post less than an hour ago. We share similar sentiments making you also awesome.

    http://fabulousmamachronicles.blogspot.ca/2012/05/does-being-sahm-make-us-anti-feminist.html

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  24. What a lovely blog really enjoyed the read , iam a mum in the uk breastfeeding 9 months never been in his cot iam in a constant battle with people every day telling me i should do this and that but my baby seems so content , i enjoy being with him all the time it makes me feel so sad i have to go back to work and get torn away from him and that i should start to wean him onto cows milk at 1 and start putting him in cot to get my own life back i have a life my children are my life this is what i had them for to love and look after them ! Such a hard sociaty we live in :(

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  25. I've just read half a dozen of your posts and absolutely LOVE your blog. I think I'm going to really enjoy following you :-)

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  26. Well said, great post thoroughly enjoyed it

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  27. This is so true - I never had a sniff of PND with my son until I met my partner (when my son was 6mo), who was supportive at first then slowly began a "divide and conquer" approach in an effort to get more attention. I was persuaded to stop co-sleeping, go to sleep-school and eventually even to stop breastfeeding, before my son was ready. I started to feel depressed and was ridiculed for suggesting there was such a thing as 'late-onset' PND. We left the relationship and my son and I reconnected, co-sleeping and bfing again and I immediately felt happier and like a better mother. The relationship was toxic all round but the division between my son and I was the worst symptom and nearly resulted in full-blown PND.

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  28. Yep - very true. As soon as I did what my baby needed and not what society or maternal health nurses expected, I felt normal and under far less pressure!

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  29. Great post. I have been aware of the cognitive dissonance aspect but hadn't really thought about the fact that instinctive mothering is not valued, but it's true.

    I don't believe that the majority of mothers see the choice as disconnect or death, however. This might be true for some mothers suffering PND but I really doubt it's true for the majority. I certainly felt very conflicted owing to pressure from husband to practice a more 'traditional' style of parenting, as well as my own preconceived ideas (ie I will never co-sleep!) and society's messages, but the idea of death never came into it.

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