I’m not sure where I got the idea that “attachment parenting” was my maternal calling, but I know I had it in my head while my oldest girl and I were still in the hospital after she was born. That’s probably why I slept on the couch in the visitor’s lounge after they discharged me, while the baby was still under the lights for jaundice. I had asked the critical care nurse what I should do, since breastfeeding was not going very well, and the baby was drinking mostly pumped breast milk. Knowing I had had a c-section, and that I hadn’t slept in three days, she still thought I should stay near so I could nurse every three hours through the night. Then I could go back to the lounge, pump and bring a bottle back so the baby could actually eat what she wasn’t getting from breastfeeding. I could sleep in two-hour stretches. “I’m just thinking of the baby,” she said.
So I came home engorged, and thinking about the baby… When Baby cried, I jumped. When she squealed, I leapt. When she woke and stirred, I raced to her side. I had Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book by the bed. It was full of solutions for grooming our attachment in the face of “contemporary” obstacles like “two-income parenting,” busy-ness and colic. Basically, all of these solutions amounted to the same thing: wear your baby, rock your baby, coo and talk to your baby, sleep with your baby… Whatever you do, Mom, don’t walk away from that baby. And don’t let her cry!
In fact, by the time you come home from the hospital, according to this logic, the mother is supposed to be highly and hormonally attuned to “pre-crying cues:” “The early sounds of the cry have an attachment promoting quality, whereas the later sounds…may actually promote avoidance,” he writes.
And so blossomed my distorted Ideal of Endless Maternal Availability. In my mind, the equation was simple: If I responded to her needs quickly, as quickly as possible, Baby would feel safe and secure. Feeling safe and secure would mean that she would grow up to be a happy, well-adjusted adult, free of her mother’s insecurities. That might allow her to do all kinds of things I hadn’t done — play field hockey, say, or run for student council! She’d bake cookies for holidays and wear Halloween costumes! All the damage of my neurotic genes could be neutralized – if only I could keep this sweet little baby from crying. Ever.
Reader, I did it! My baby didn’t cry very often, or for very long. But I did. Constantly. By the time she was six months old, I was a complete wreck: I was 10 pounds below my pre-baby weight. My hair was falling out. My back and joints hurt from wearing her all day. (Dr. Sears said this was a great way to protect Baby and her attachment from the vagaries of modern life.) The only time I left her was for four hours, once a week, when I would race to the grocery store, the dry cleaner and the bank, and then race home.
My long-term freelance job had ended when I was too pregnant to travel, and now I couldn’t imagine how I was going to land another one. (For starters, I would have to leave the house without the baby. And I would have to admit that I wasn’t going to be at home and available 24 hours a day.) My warped vision was taking a huge toll, but as long as I was the one who was stressed and exhausted, I could write it off as collateral damage, or perhaps just the price an older mother had to pay in order to play this Good Mommy Game. If I wasn’t working, I reasoned, I should at least be available – always available.
And then a few other things became clear: Baby had no clue how to soothe herself. She was so used to a quick response that her own frustration and hunger were completely unnerving to her. She could have walked on her own at 12 months, but she was unwilling to venture off on her own. Falling was not an option for her, and she insisted on holding onto my hands—both of them—for three solid months. I was hunched over, mangled, and continually pissed. I felt terrible for my husband, who very likely had not realized that he’d married Medusa until it was too late.
Eventually, pregnant with Number Two and completely unable to cope, I had to make a change. I had to break up with Dr. Sears. I had to set up some boundaries, enforce them, and admit that I would not be able to absorb every single one of my kids’ frustrations.
I had to let my girl cry—and I had to listen to it.