This is a really personal post... Not much in the way of impartial arguments here, but my brain feels very busy and I wanted to get it all out!
Having spent parts of today debating on a certain sleep specialist's Facebook page, I feel a little bit despondent. Is parenting supposed to be easy? I don't mean that it's supposed to be free from hard work (there's a reason they call it 'labour', right??) but is it supposed to be such a battle?
I keep reading statements about making parents "happier" and helping them find it all "easier", which seems to be a smokescreen for making a child less dependent on parents from as young an age as possible. I can see the appeal to be honest!
Society seems to have decided that life should be hedonistic where possible, that indulging your own desires on a daily or more long term basis is an achievable and aspirational goal, and surrendering yourself to parenting doesn't really go hand in hand with that. It's no wonder there's such demand for books that seem to enable this and that practices like attachment parenting are more marginalised. It makes me sad that I feel like the way I've parented has been so much more labour-intensive for me than it could have been if I'd followed various experts' regimes instead although I feel happier and more relaxed than I suspect I would have done had I gone against what felt instinctual to me.
Occasionally, I get into discussions with people about things I've done on my parenting journey like breastfeeding, baby led weaning, bed-sharing etc and there's a handful of key phrases that seem to crop up again and again.. "rod for your own back", "clingy baby", "just doing it for your own benefit" and so on, so forth. It's quite hurtful actually...
Why did I breastfeed? Initially because my best friend's mum (midwife and strong breastfeeding advocate) promised to be a flea in my ear until I understood why it was important, and then later because I'd gone on to do breastfeeding support training myself and learned an incredible amount of stuff about the physiology of breastmilk and breastfeeding and thought the whole thing was just too amazing to miss out on. If you've never had children or breastfeeding wasn't on your radar, you would be astonished to know how complex the science behind it is. There's SO much to know - you can do an entire diploma in Breastfeeding Counselling and still have stuff to learn!
Why did I go with baby led weaning? I didn't with my first child. I went with what the jars in the supermarket said (suitable from 4 months), what I read on parenting forums and what I thought I knew from anecdotes handed down from peers. I spoonfed him mush from jars at first, then progressed to chunkier mush and eventually to smaller portions of my food. I HATED every moment of it. Messy, expensive, and eventually I started to read journal articles suggesting that it actually hadn't been the best decision for his health. Even worse, I'd made that decision without properly researching it. Cue the mummy guilt! With my second child, I felt a little better informed, was resolved to wait until he was six months old and then found that the little bugger wasn't interested in food anyway. One day, when he was almost 7 months old, he lunged at my plate of Sunday roast, grabbed a potato and scoffed the whole thing. From that point I just gave him bits and pieces that he could grab at himself and let him get on with it. A couple of years later, I found out that this is apparently called Baby Led Weaning. Ok, cool.
And then the doozy... Why did I share a bed with my babies?
This is the topic behind the controversy on Facebook today. I, along with a large number of parents, let my baby sleep in bed with me habitually, deliberately and for a long time (about a year on average). Why?? Because I like to sleep. I really, really like to sleep. And babies don't sleep a lot. Tiny babies have no concept of day or night. Me pleading with my 2 week old son that "it's night time, LOOK (turns towards window to show him the black of night!), why won't you SLEEEEEEP??" was completely pointless, very demoralising. Breastfeeding releases all sorts of hormones, and at night it releases hormones that make me and the baby sleepy. BRILLIANT. Unless you're sitting up in bed to feed, or on a sofa. I will confess now that I dozed off during one of these feeds and baby L slipped out of my arms and into my lap. I awoke in a split second but it absolutely terrified me. So what did I do? Well I got OUT of the bed of course, and I woke myself up, got myself a hot drink, put the tv on and made sure I couldn't fall asleep again. But I LIKE SLEEP. At 2am, my body wants me to be sleeping. A couple of days later, my friend's mum came to visit and I broke down about how tired I was. She then proceeded to show me something that changed my life and saved my sanity - how to breastfeed whilst lying down. She gave me a leaflet about how to make my bed a safe place for the baby, things I must avoid doing in order to keep it safe and how to get comfy and get him fed. He and I both nodded off and that night I had the most incredible night's sleep of my whole life. It was magical. I slept, he slept, I fed him dreamily throughout the night and 5 months later we were still doing the same thing. So when my second son was born, there was no question about how I'd handle the nights, and away we went. When my daughter was born, the same thing applied. Seven years and 3 children later, I can thankfully look back and say I have very limited first hand experience of the 'being up all night with the baby' or the 'dreaded night feeds'.
Has it been easy, any of this stuff? I suppose it depends on how you define 'easy'... It's been a challenge to get comfy at night sometimes with 3 people snoozing in one double bed. If I want to buy new tops I have to make sure I can breastfeed in them comfortably. I get a little too anxious about the idea of anyone criticising me for breastfeeding in public. I gave up asking my doctor for advice about breastfeeding related problems when it became evident that I knew far more about the physiology of breasts than any of them did. I've been on the receiving end of some pretty sharp insults and derogatory comments because I am outspoken about my love of breastfeeding - which apparently makes me "militant". I've had to justify why I didn't want to give my babies a bottle of formula at night "to make them sleep longer" and then field remarks about making a rod for my own back, or how I'm just breastfeeding because it makes ME feel good.
BUT... everything I've done has gone along with my instinct on what approach to parenting would make me happier, what felt closest to my biological imperative as a mammalian mother rearing her offspring. I tell myself to imagine what I would do if I was stranded on an island with just my baby. No television, media, peer pressure, employment concerns, or self-proclaimed baby experts to invade my parenting. If my baby cried, would I leave him to learn to settle himself without my reassurance? Doubtful. If he was hungry, would I deny him food until he had completed an acceptable length of time since his last feed? I can't imagine why... When it came to bedtime, would I put him in a separate bit of the cave (my island is quite accommodating!) or snuggle him up to me to keep warm? Using that analogy, I feel confident that the choices I've made have been the right ones for me and my children, and using the journal articles I've read, I also feel confident that I haven't done anything detrimental to their health in the short or long term. That's satisfactory to me, and yet society persists in telling me I could have made it easier for myself. Funny eh.
At some point soon, I want to write a post about parenting and babies from an anthropological perspective and look at how we've culturally constructed the whole concept. I promise that one will be less of a personal ramble and more of a balanced, evidence-based piece!