One great aspect of being a parent is that your self-confidence is constantly being challenged. As soon as you feel good about what you’re doing, something changes and knocks you off your proverbial high horse. It’s very humbling.
I’m usually pretty sure of myself, particularly where the care of my children is concerned. But late at night, when I lie in bed and mull over the day and evaluate how things are going, I sometimes wonder if I’m doing it right. Have I screwed them up already? I wonder this because my daughters seem to have this unnatural need for mama. They love everyone, and are pretty independent most of the time. But when they need me, they need me. Nothing and no one else will do.
DD1 sleeps through the night now, but that took a very large portion of her two-and-three-quarter years to achieve. She is just now starting to doze off without nursing. And she still nurses, albeit with less frequency. DD2 is one and still nurses for about 60% of her calories. Who could imagine? The best is that we all sleep together still. I don’t know anyone except anonymous people online who would admit to that. Everyone I know has babies who sleep through the night at three weeks, in cribs by themselves, and who are completely on cow-milk by one year. Of course, they aren’t nursing babies, and I really doubt they do all that without protesting, but that’s another post. The point is that it’s sometimes disheartening to be the only one doing things our way. And it’s even worse when you wonder if it’s even working.
As I contemplate our kids’ normal-but-not-in-America sleeping and nursing habits, I invariably begin to question myself. Have I created these “problems”? Is there something I did – or failed to do – that has put our family in this situation? Especially where DD1 was concerned, did I create a need for her to be so close to me all the time by “giving in” to her every demand?
DD1 has always been an intense little thing. She was very happy as a baby, but made her wants/needs known in no uncertain terms. What she wanted/needed, I came to learn, was Mama. My arms, my milk, my touch. Constantly. In the beginning, I didn’t care. She was my first baby, and I gave her every ounce of myself. I loved holding her, nursing her, cuddling up with her. So when she wouldn’t lie down on her back (we suspect reflux), I slept with her on my chest. When she wouldn’t sit in her bouncy chair, I held her on my hip and learned to do things one-handed. When she wanted to nurse, I nursed her. And nursed her. And nursed her. I think she was on the breast more than not that first year.
I felt good about this instinctive way of caring for my baby. It was intense, and the physical demands sometimes carried over to emotional moments where DH had to step in and let me “cry it out” for a bit. But I couldn’t imagine doing things any other way. Better me crying than her, I thought. I also thought, and many experts agreed, that giving DD immediate attention when she asked for it would teach her that she was loved and worthwhile, and that it would pay huge dividends for me down the road. People like Dr. Sears confirmed this, telling me that I should breastfeed on demand, for as often and as long as she wanted, and that co-sleeping was perfectly okay. Mothering made it sound like a necessity that you breastfeed, cosleep, and sling your baby. A slew of other resources agreed that we were doing it “right”: Natural Family, Attachment Parenting International, La Leche League, and many others. So I forged ahead. When DD2 came along, I just did things the same way for her without even thinking. She was in the sling when she was two days old, and never slept in the crib at all.
And, after a while, DD1 began exerting some independence. By three months she would sleep (alone) for several hours at a time, and by six months, she was crawling and beginning to play by herself. I could actually put her down for a few minutes here and there. When DD2 was born, she never even blinked about sharing me with her new sister. Now she is this wonderful, smart little thing with a mind of her own and a ton of self-confidence. But nursing is still a need. She doesn’t nurse as often, maybe a handful of times in a day, but when I say need, I mean NEED. And she’s still not quite ready to sleep alone in a room by herself. I know. We’ve tried.
So did I do this? Should I have taught her early on that she doesn’t need me all the time? Should I have forced her to sleep alone in a crib, or maybe night-weaned her so she could have learned to “self-soothe” herself to sleep? Should I have forced her to wean entirely? By constantly going to her when she cried, did I teach her not to be self-sufficient, but that she had to have Mama? Have I made her regress instead of progress?
Today, I lie in the quiet morning darkness between my two little beauties, and think these worrisome thoughts for just a moment. And then I realize that I haven’t created any needs. I’ve satisfied them. The needs just haven’t gone away yet. It’s very obvious when I look at how differently the two of them nursed, even from early on, that each child has a different moment when she is ready to move on to the next step. And, if I hadn’t answered my daughters’ cries for attention, then, yes- they might have learned at an earlier age to fall asleep on their own, or even weaned themselves. But, while it might have been a little easier in the short term, what would that have taught them in the long run? Those needs would still be there, unanswered, ready to manifest in some other fashion.
And really, just why is it so important that babies learn to sleep alone through the night so early? It’s not natural. Convenient, maybe, but definitely not normal, or even good for them. And why do we look forward to when they’re done with nursing? Why are we so darn obsessed with getting them out of our collective hair?
I actually like sleeping next to my kids. I like knowing they are breathing right and not having nightmares, and that they aren’t silently choking on puke or being snatched out of their cribs by some nightstalking weirdo. I sleep better with our heads on the same pillow. I don’t mind that they still nurse. I want them to grow up when they’re ready to, not when someone else thinks they’re ready to. And I am proud of the fact that they’re still nursing. Who the hell though it was a good idea for babies to stop drinking human milk and switch to cow’s milk, anyway? That’s ridiculous. A man must have come up with that one. A man with cows.
So I think about all those warnings from the bottle-wielding people, who told me I would end up as a human pacifier, and from those who admonished us to put our children in their own beds from the start to avoid “problems” down the road. I don’t know if I’m doing things right, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the naysayers are doing things wrong, but I do know one thing: my kids need me, and that’s not something I did to them. It’s how they’re made. And it’s part of being Mama. Which, incidentally, I’d better get back to doing.