Fourteen months ago I became a mother. Nothing in my life has been quite so scary – and I`ve been through some scary shit (that involves being exposed to idiots with firearms, but I`ll leave that to another post). Every day is a constant battle where I desperately try not to screw up. It became a bit of an obsession.
As soon as I became pregnant, most of my decisions were based on what I thought would be best for my son. I lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the time and a flawed public health system, an abandoned education sector and a great deal of crime and violence – illustrated by a guy being shot dead by police outside my home – convinced me it would be best if we moved to the UK. And so we did. But moving half way across the globe is not enough. How about my child`s health?
I was a vegetarian my entire life, but only because my parents were. Of course I read enough about nutrition to be able to deflect people`s comments about not eating enough protein and all the other typical misconceptions, but I hadn`t really studied about the health implications of diet. So I got myself another little obsession and bought myself all the books available on that subject. I read them and what I could find online, took a couple of online nutrition courses and voila: I became a vegan. Convinced it was the healthiest diet and following guidelines to make sure he was getting all the nutrition he deserves, I am now raising my son as a vegan.
Go ahead and crucify me. But make sure you read all the literature on it first, it might change your mind.
Now all I had to do was to love him unconditionally and he would be safe, healthy and emotionally stable. Right? Well, that`s where I began to really struggle. I found myself in situations where I didn`t know what to do or what advice to take and started to really question my ability of parenting. For starters, I realised my husband didn`t really want to be a father. We split up and he doesn`t see my son all that much. He often says he`s coming over to see him, but then gives up and gives me a last minute excuse. My son is only 14 months old, so I`m not sure he realises what`s going on just yet. Nevertheless, I made my peace with the fact his father has this incredible power to break his heart in a million pieces and that I have to be there to help him pick them up. I understand is out of my control, but my son might get very disappointed and carry this scar with him for the rest of his life. All I can do is damage control.
My role is not only to try to protect my son from external harm, but to help him cope with the harm I can`t prevent. All this responsibility made me anxious – it still does – and my anxiety has led me to make a number of mistakes.
Loving my son doesn`t mean I am providing the most caring, nurturing environment I could provide; and it doesn`t mean I am making the best choices for his emotional needs. This is something I am still learning every day, but listening to Suzanne Zeedyk (please visit www.suzannezeedyk.com to learn more about her) at a training day lecture provided by the company I work for made me put the pieces together. It`s all in the attachment theory.
Zeedyk explains it in very simple language with a story that involves sabre-toothed tigers and teddy bears. Imagine pre-historical human beings using their instincts to survive from predators. If a sabre-toothed tiger attacked the group, it would likely go for the weakest, easiest pray: the babies. The babies can`t protect themselves or run away, but their parents can do that for them. So while adults have the instinct of running for their lives, babies have the instinct of getting the adult`s attention so they don`t get left behind. Babies cry and scream because they don`t want to be left alone, they want to be held and kept close. This attachment is key to their survival, so it`s the most fundamental part of their nature. When they don`t have that, all it`s left is fear – which can mean trauma, anxiety and a range of emotional issues.
To make it clear, Zeedyk describes an internal teddy bear. A child uses a teddy for comfort, and little by little they develop their own internal teddy bears they turn to for comfort in moments of distress; that`s them building resilience. But this can only happen properly if they had this comfort in their early childhood provided by their parents (or whatever caring figures they had) in the form of attachment.
I was trying my hardest not to cry during the lecture, but at some point I couldn`t hold it anymore. It all made sense, but it was hard to digest. If I had this information before, my life as a parent would have been a lot easier. I remembered my attempts on weaning my son out of the breast and realised how silly I was. He wasn`t ready, and he showed that by desperately crying, asking for comfort. It felt completely against my instincts so I eventually gave up and gave him the breast. I decided not to force this on him and let him take his own pace; and that made my life easier even though it took some sacrifice on my part. He only sleeps while breastfeeding, and he wakes up twice for a feed during the night: about two hours after he went to bed and two hours before he gets up. That means I can`t go out at night, ask for somebody to babysit or sometimes even watch a movie. It also means that he sleeps on my bed.
He moves a lot during the night and at some point he started falling off the bed, even after I installed a bed guard. That freaked me out. I didn`t want him to hurt himself and the only solution I could think of was making him sleep on a cot by himself. A lot of friends and family tried to convince me to use cry-it-out methods to get him to sleep on his own. I often heard: “you have to do it”; and insinuations that I was being a pussy for not doing it already. I was convinced it was the only solution, but I felt physically ill thinking about it. I was so nervous and so anxious I nearly vomited.
The only other solution I came up with was to dismantle my whole bed and put the mattress on the ground so my son wouldn`t hurt himself if he fell out of bed. But it sounded like a radical idea. I was under the impression I had to discipline my son to conform and that making changes where I had to accommodate were signs of weakness, of spoiling my child. The nice parents of a Facebook group called “UK Breastfeeding and Parenting Support” were the ones who changed my mind. I posted asking for advice and once they told me putting a mattress on the ground wasn`t nearly as radical as letting a baby cry himself to sleep – for hours, at least three nights in a row, – I had to agree with them. So now we sleep on a Japanese style bed and my son still has the breast during the night as much as he needs. I stopped breastfeeding during the day as he wasn`t too bothered by it. So it`s not like I don`t have any control over it, I`m just adapting to my child`s needs and not pushing too hard towards something he`s not ready for.
The last few days, my son seems to have developed an awareness that water can be dangerous. Though he has always loved baths, he suddenly feared them, triggered by no particular event. I tried to get him to sit in his bathtub as he normally did and he cried, started shaking, his eyes were wide open – he was clearly in fear. The next day I tried giving him a shower and it was even worse. After today`s lecture, I decided a new approach. I sat in the bathtub and got him slowly in with me, keeping him close the whole time, as reassuring as I could. He was tense but didn`t cry, and was slowly feeling more comfortable, sitting down and playing with the bath time toys. I`m hoping I only have to do it a few more times before he feels safe in the water again, but he can take the time he needs.
Day by day I`m learning these little tricks to make my child feel safe, loved, connected. He needs to know I`m listening, I`m paying attention and I`m there for him. This is not about spoiling him, it`s about building resilience. As pointed out by Suzanne Zeedyk, the science says otherwise: children who have had good emotional attachments grow up to be more confident, loving adults. I want my son to be able to count on his own internal teddy bear when I`m not around.
I hope other parents (and everybody else, really) learn about attachment faster than I did. So please check out Zeedyk`s website and blog, they`re worth a visit: