Have guilt? Find your parenting anchor point

pixabay-anchorGuilt seems to be inherent in parenting. It doesn’t really matter how you parent, it’s so tempting to compare ourselves to others and how they are relating to and raising up their children.

As a working mother in a conservative area, I feel this tug of parenting guilt from time to time. A common scenario in the small, farming community where my family lives is for a mother to stay at home with her children when they are young and then get a job at the school when her youngest child enters kindergarten. It sounds like a great gig!

But that is not my choice. I did work, both from home and outside the home some days, when my children were small and continue to work year-round now that my children are in school. I love what I do and feel that I make a meaningful impact through my career. I know my stay-at-home friends don’t mean to, but sometimes I hear — whether real or perceived — overtones that what’s best for children in general is for the mother to stay at home full time, without a paycheck-yielding job.

I suspect my guilty feelings are largely perceived than actual. I trust that even if other mothers don’t agree with my career-oriented lifestyle, that they are mature enough to allow me the freedom to parent my way. Unfortunately, like all of us, I am sometimes the target of others wanting to pressure me into their way of looking at the world.

I am a stalwart proponent of informed choice. While I do believe that every child deserves to be raised in a home with secure, healthy family attachments, I know that my own “brand” of attachment parenting is not the “be all, end all.” We, all of us parents, make the best decisions at any one time with the knowledge, support, and resources we have available. Every family is unique, and even among families with the same values and goals, mannerisms and lifestyle will vary — because just as every individual is different, so is every family.

All children, all parents, all families — everyone deserves healthy, secure attachment bonds within their social groups. For parent-child relationships, API’s Eight Principles of Parenting provide 8 areas of family life, with a variety of ideas within each, as to how to form and strengthen attachment bonds within families. But that doesn’t mean we all do things the same way.

Like with nurturing touch, I didn’t do much babywearing but holding my baby and cuddling with my children is definitely my thing! Or with childbirth, I had an epidural, a cesarean, and a VBAC, and while my unmedicated birth experience definitely made it easier to bond with my newborn, the high-intervention births didn’t hinder what has turned out to be a very secure attachment with those children. I also have experience with both breastfeeding and bottle-nursing, cosleeping and crib use, and all kinds of childcare situations.

pixabay-family-supportParenting, like everything else, has different seasons. We have to change, almost constantly sometimes, it seems, to keep up with our growing infants and children — in how to match their development with our guidance and passing down of our family values, as well as renew techniques of maintaining warm, sensitive, and appropriate ways of interacting with, relating to, and staying attached with our ever-changing little ones as they mature into adolescents and finally fledged on their own.

We are all on our own parenting journeys of exactly how we will do this in our individual family. But like all parents, since probably the beginning of history — since we are all unique and so are our children and our partners — are also learning “on the job.” There are no handbooks that apply to every situation.

My home library is full of books on family relationship theory, research, and advice. Yet, my personal approach to parenting is a mix that goes well beyond the bits and pieces of these books that I found helpful — among the bits and pieces that I feel don’t apply to my family but certainly they may apply to another family — and include bits and pieces of how I was raised, the lessons learned reflecting on years of parenting already behind me, thoughts from friends and family members, my instincts, the reality of unavoidable challenges, scientific studies, blogs and websites, parenting classes and support groups, teleseminars, conferences, and so much more.

We are all doing this: gathering information from the world within and around us to figure out the best way of parenting our children and nurturing our families. Because its learning-as-we-go, there are ample opportunities for doubt to creep in. When we are stumped by our child’s behavior, especially if we are trying something new — such as breastfeeding our baby rather than resort to formula — it’s easy to think that maybe we’re doing something wrong or not good enough.

Unresolved doubt can grow into guilt. “What if…?” may fill our heads, as we compare ourselves and our children and our families to others, when those other families are likely doing the same kind of comparison maybe even to yours.

I’d like to get away from the thought that guilt is somehow unnatural and shouldn’t be felt. There are whole books written on the topic of “mothering guilt,” and there is a lot of blame being thrown around toward specific parenting approaches. But guilt is a natural human emotion, something that comes out of normal social interaction. As social beings, we will naturally feel guilt if we engage in a behavior that we perceive to have compromised our own standards.

Guilt can be helpful in that it motivates us to do better — though if unchecked, guilt can definitely be unhealthy and lead to anxiety conditions. The absence of guilt in a person, however, can be just as unhealthy: A lack of this emotion is implicated in individuals with a high degree of psychopathy.

Regardless, guilt is an uncomfortable feeling and one that no one wants to be immersed in for long. Being emotionally uncomfortable, such as with guilt, can keep us from being free to parent how we want to, bogging us down into doubt and even despair, and preventing us from the joy we seek in our parent-child relationships.

The idea that certain parenting approaches create more guilt in parents than others is, I believe, unfounded. Rather, from what I have found in my experience of providing parent support in a variety of settings for more than a decade is that what creates guilt is fear — namely, fear for their child’s well-being. I have seen this in many parents, no matter their child-rearing approach — attachment parenting or no — and most often in new parents or in parents trying something new that they hope will create better results but, they realize, stepping out from the familiar carries risk and with that risk comes fear. So where does fear come from? From what I find, it’s often a lack of parent support.

Regardless of what child-rearing approach parents choose, its incredibly — crucially — important that they find support. API offers both online and local, in-person support through a variety of resources, though research finds that the most valuable support for parents is through in-person support groups — of which API has across the United States and around the world.

It’s so important to find like-minded parents who can offer their “been there, done that” stories, emotional scaffolding, and specific suggestions for when you feel confused as to what to do about your child’s behavior, or when you question whether this new thing you’re trying, like positive discipline instead of spanking, for example, is going to work out in the long term, or how exactly to keep those family attachment bonds strong as your children grow, or how to move forward when your family encounters challenging life circumstances.

pixabay-apples-and-orangesAttempting to find support among parents who do not share the same approach to child-raising is like comparing apples to oranges, and the advice you receive is likely to deepen the sense of doubt being felt, and therefore create guilt — not to mention conflict with your personal values system, which creates its own set of uncomfortable emotions.

All parents want to feel validated in their decisions, and even if they do not intentionally seek out support, unsolicited advice will come their way — from family, friends, pediatricians, teachers, strangers, and others. But without having that anchor in a group of like-minded parents to act as your sounding board, to help guide you to make parenting choices that are in line with your values, you may find yourself swaying with the advice like a bottle cork in the ocean tide.

It’s very difficult to get grounded in your self-confidence as a parent without an anchor point. I cannot overemphasize the value of parent support.

My dark first weeks of motherhood

julia hargerI can hardly believe I survived all the chaos of early new motherhood. At the beginning, I didn’t think I would — at least not with my sanity intact.

For nine months, I mentally prepared to share my life unconditionally with a new being. I also did my best to get ready for one of the most anticipated — and what I thought would be the hardest — moments of my life: labor. Looking back, the physical pain from delivering a baby feels insignificant compared to the hardship of early motherhood, especially the first 6 weeks.

I wondered what I could have done to be better prepared for early motherhood with my first baby. But nothing can really prepare you for this.

Editor’s note: Adjusting to parenthood can be challenging, and the emotions of early motherhood can be difficult to navigate. In-person support is especially critical. Attachment Parenting International (API) encourages all mothers to consider hiring a doula, to be in frequent contact with a breastfeeding specialist and to connect with their local API Leaders and API Support Groups. Additional considerations for a smooth transition to new parenthood are included in the first of API’s Eight Principles of Parenting: Prepare for Pregnancy, Childbirth and Parenting.

For the first weeks, I wondered what would happen to me. I am certain I am not alone here, moms. Not even all I have learned from yoga in the past years were very helpful, I must admit. The beginning of motherhood was a time when I felt completely taken up by my emotions.

I became moody due to the lack of sleep. I felt pain from my body healing itself. I cried when she cried. I thought “Not again!” when, after 10 minutes from falling asleep, I heard that tiny cry all over again. I found myself stripped of any patience, way beyond what I imagined. Indeed, I thought “What did I get myself into?”

I skipped showers because of lack of time. I looked really bad. I had my legs hairy all summer, and I had to get used to my new body. I cried out of frustration, “I don’t know what you want!”

There were days when my face did not manifest a single smile. I hated my husband, because he could do anything whenever he wanted — shower, sleep, go for a jog — while I had to plan a whole schedule just to brush my teeth, or do it in 10 seconds. I also resented the fact that he could get back to his normal life straight away, and I was stuck at home.

I felt this extreme guilt of not responding properly to what everyone expected of me as a mother or what I idealized of myself as a mother: that, at the time I held the baby for the first time, a magic would happen and my own needs and desires would simply vanish…that I would be complete and happy straight away, only for being a mom…as if this dark part of questioning, frustrations and pains simply don’t exist.

But slowly, the rewards came. As the days went by, I started to feel happier with tiny feats: when she smiled, when she stopped crying, when she finally slept. I was so thrilled when we could go through a diaper change without a single tear, or when I could put her in the stroller and go for a 10-minute walk to pick up some groceries. I was deeply grateful when my sweet and calm words could soothe her, even if she was screaming her lungs out and could barely hear me.

I also rediscovered joy in the most trivial things: drinking water, having a shower, a tight hug, a quick chat with a friend, sleeping, my mom cooking for me, my daughter’s smile, her smell. I love and value these things so much more now!

Oh motherhood! The contrast between devoutness and empowerment at the same time! My vulnerabilities gave way to strength and resilience as I realized I was capable of all this. I did not know my body was capable of producing something to nourish her so perfectly. My embrace, my arms and my words can transform the loudest scream into a timid smile. My smell, hinting she is safe, changes her face completely.

And, all of a sudden, me again! A couple of weeks ago, I wondered how quickly this phase would pass, but now I hope it does not go so fast. I am anxiously aware that this dependency will someday be gone, and I will miss the time when all she needed was me.

Control or the lack thereof

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Sept. 24, 2008, but it puts into perspective why new motherhood can sometimes be hard to adjust to.

lady---childrens-art-2-1422726-mI’ve always liked to feel in control of my life. In my pre-baby days — back in the mists of time — I used to work full time in various office environments. My desk was always tidy, my in-tray cleared by every evening, my out-tray filed away neatly. Any outstanding work issues were jotted down in my diary at 16:45 so that my head was clear of work details, and when I walked out that door every evening, I left work behind me!

And then I became a stay-at-home mammy.

This job is 24/7. My desk is a mess and covered in unmatched baby socks — don’t ask!. There’s no in-tray, which I suppose that’s a good thing, as it would be overflowing. There is no out-tray, although also no need for one as no task ever gets completed. My work diary has been replaced by a meal planner and a wall calendar.

My new boss is…how can I put this…quite changeable in her outlook on life. I never know, each morning, whether we will be continuing the project we started yesterday — covering the patio in chalk drawings — or liaising with other bosses and their employees — toddlers & their mums — or lunching in exotic locations — the garden, the porch, the stairs — or indeed whether I will be given the opportunity to sit down for lunch at all.

Yes, this new job is much more complex than my previous positions, and it is almost impossible to feel as if I am in control day-to-day, because truth be told, I’m not!

It’s been a huge change for me, and to be honest, it’s been a bit hard to get my head around at times. One minute I’m managing projects, organizing schedules, socializing with workmates and in control of my life. The next, I’m holding this tiny helpless bundle who I love so completely yet have no idea how to communicate with.

It’s been a huge learning experience for me and coming up to Littlepixie’s second birthday, I only now feel that I’m starting to catch up with myself.

But I’m learning to accept that I don’t need to be in control of everything. Littlepixie has taught me that.

I am slowly learning to stop sweating the small stuff. There are some things I like to keep control of: For example, we have a sit-down dinner every evening. And there are some things I let go of: For example, our sit-down dinner may involve sitting on the floor at Littlepixie’s kitchen table.

I know many of our friends and family think our parenting style is too intensive, that long-term breastfeeding is too much work, that cosleeping robs myself & my husband of our marital bed, that carrying Littlepixie will make her clingy and break my back, that having our dinner at a child’s table is pandering to her needs and spoiling her, and so on.

But I think the fact that all of this feels so right to us has made this new job easier. We haven’t had to fight against our instincts. We are letting them lead the way.

So I suppose while my head is only just now starting to catch up, my heart has been in control the whole time!

Half Pint Pixie

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