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Friday, August 23, 2013

Detachment parenting

I worry about the extremes some mums will go to, in the belief that they're doing the right thing by their child. Every day I read of mums who've faithfully followed a 'method' of parenting, to the point where they've fallen over a cliff that wasn't meant to be there.

I could write this article about several 'methods' which have hidden pitfalls if people take things to extremes, but I'll start with the one that I see come up most frequently in my Facebook feed.

Attachment parenting is a method I'd never even heard of when I had my child, but having done a LOT of reading, I do get what it's about- or what it's meant to be about. It's meant to be about peacefully meeting your baby's needs so that baby feels secure.

Isn't that what most mums want? A secure, happy baby?

I practised some parts of attachment parenting unconsciously; it seemed natural and right to me, for example, to take my baby into my bed when he expressed the need to be with me at night, and to feed him whenever he asked, and to carry him pretty much whenever he asked.

Me with my best friend's baby. Carry
a child this size around all day? No
way- I would have ruined my back!
He was seriously heavy.
Within reason, that is. Not to the extent that I constantly compromised my own precious few hours of sleep, or offered the breast at every whimper, or hurt my back trying to carry a solid 18-month-old everywhere. I had to make sure I didn't ignore my own genuine needs whilst meeting my baby's. I knew that if I did, I would become a worse parent- not a better one.

And that seems to be something many mums find difficult. While I see how attachment parenting has great value for so many mums, I also worry about the mums who have fallen over the cliff. They're struggling with feelings of failure because they see themselves as not doing it right, because their own needs haven't magically disappeared. I worry about mums who are setting themselves up for future pain by ignoring their own needs completely.

That's where a little detachment parenting can be very, very useful in the attachment parent's work kit.

Detachment parenting doesn't mean ignoring your child, or not caring! Of course not!

It means taking a 'time out' for yourself from your parenting mission, stepping back and looking at the big picture. It means understanding that your child grows increasingly separate from you.

And so it must be, and so it should be.


Here are some signs that an attachment parent needed to practise a little detachment parenting along the way. (They're problems from real life. I didn't invent them.)

1. Their preschooler resolves every emotional conflict with his/her peers by suckling.

2. Their husband no longer sleeps with them and the relationship is falling apart, because there isn't room for him in the bed; there's no sex either, because there's no privacy.

3. They're in physical pain from carrying a heavy child everywhere.

Those are extreme cases- of course they are!- and I suspect that Dr Sears would be horrified to read about them. One of the tenets of his theory is that parents need to recognise stages of development in their child and have age-appropriate expectations- and certainly his method is NOT intended to cause marital disharmony or physical injury.

Well, it's easy for me to sit here and sound critical, isn't it? It's one thing to point out a problem with some people's interpretation of attachment parenting, and it's another thing altogether to try to fix it. So while some parents' problems make me shake my head in dismay, I feel like I have no right to do that unless I have something positive and useful to offer as well.

I've always found that understanding why people head for a cliff is the best way to change their course. Here is my theory of why attachment parenting ends in tears for some women (not all! Some!), and how to address the problem.


Many, many mothers have parenting or relationship 'war wounds'. There's no such thing as the perfect parent or the perfect partner, but some are so imperfect that they leave scars.

If our own childhood was torn apart by a lack of intimacy and care, if our current relationships are abusive or superficial and unsatisfying, then the arrival of a baby can be the most addictively wonderful thing that has ever happened to us. If all our life we've felt somewhat unimportant, then our life becomes meaningful in a flash with the birth of our child.

These are heady, intoxicating feelings. Combine them with the overdose of hormones pounding around our bodies when we give birth, and some overwhelmingly powerful emotions can come to the fore. We're meant to fall in love with our baby... but some vulnerable women may do so to extremes.

At that moment of finally being loved and needed unconditionally, perspective can fall by the wayside. When a baby becomes our entire reason for living, that is a worry. When the techniques designed to comfort and support a baby are extended past the point where they are developmentally appropriate- then Houston, we have a problem.

The example of the preschooler who uses suckling to avoid peer-related problem-solving is a perfect example. That is not developmentally appropriate. Children need to experience mild conflicts with their peers, learn how to negotiate their way through them, and learn that even if a problem is not solved the way they'd like it to be, they will survive.

My son was fiercely independent from a very young
age. He liked to move away from me, then return. That didn't
make me feel less loved and needed, or him less attached to me.
A baby is a very small human being who will need to learn to stand alone one day. Every day she becomes more capable, more able to express her individuality. The idea is to help him become less dependent, not to strive to keep him dependent. If a woman invests her whole sense of self in her child, either she will be shattered each time that child grows away from her, no matter that it's in a developmentally appropriate way- or she will actively (though not intentionally) cripple her child's ability to cope alone.

Broken parent, or broken child? Not a great choice.

And of course, the spin-off from that- when a woman is completely wound up in her child's every need- is that other relationships wither, including her relationship with herself. When the child grows away from her, that woman has nothing left. The day the last child goes to school, or moves away to go to college, is a tragedy. Menopause feels like death. She's not invested in her own growth, either; she has nothing to fall back on. Her partner- sidelined for all those years- has lost interest, strayed, found other means of entertainment.

What is needed here, before the love story ends in disaster?

The first casualty of being too close to something- in this case, to one's own child- is perspective. Hold your finger too close to your eye and try to focus on it, and everything else becomes a blur; you can't even see your finger properly.

Do you recognise yourself in what I said? Pull back a little. Breathe. Detach, just for a short time, so you can focus on the big picture.
Yes, a 2-year-old operating an
electric vacuum cleaner. Children
are capable. Be present and aware,
but try not to be too fearful.

Learn about child development. What should your baby be doing for himself at this age? What skills should she be learning? Think about whether you're actually getting in your child's way by being too helpful, too present, too fearful.

Ask for help to see yourself and your child clearly. Plenty of people want to tell us how to fix things- don't we just love unsolicited advice?!!- but that doesn't help, does it? We have to want to know.

And we need to choose who we ask for advice very carefully. Remember that not everyone who replies on a Facebook thread has sound knowledge or experience. Brainstorming can be useful, sure, but it's human nature to cling to the advice that tells us to go on doing exactly what we are already doing.

Not helpful.

The bottom line, as ever, is for us all to recognise the need to work on ourselves, even if we're currently convinced we're parenting really well. Time spent addressing our own emotional needs is never wasted. Time spent healing old wounds is precious and necessary. Time spent establishing personal support systems? Priceless.

Never let anyone make you feel bad for seeking professional help for your hurts. Never feel like a failure for asking for help for YOU, because sometimes that is the single most wonderful thing you can do as a parent.

If you know your relationship with your partner is in disrepair, try not to use your child as a way to ignore the problem. Your child's job is to grow away from you. That will hurt like crazy if you've given them a role they're not designed to fill.

Detach from your child for long enough to address the issue of your relationship. Do you want to stay and work on it, or leave?

If you know your relationship with your parents left massive scars of anger and pain, you can bet that it's messed with your own parenting skills in some way. Even I can trace mistakes I made all the way back to my own parents, despite the fact that I was very lucky on that score.

Deal with the wounds. Find help- an understanding friend, or better still, a professional to talk to.


If the idea of detaching from your child for even a moment makes you angry or afraid, maybe this is striking close to the bone. Look away from your own relationship with your child, because that's what makes you feel sensitive. It's a touchy subject.

Instead, try to reflect on your separateness from your own parents.

You were not part of them, were you? At first you were dependent on them for everything, but then you became aware of your own thoughts and feelings and cares. You needed to grow away from them, to lead your own life. If they clung to you, it was uncomfortable or irritating. If they got in your way as you tried to become independent, it was frustrating.

You don't want your growing child to feel frustrated, irritated, smothered by YOU. Do you?

Honour your baby's need to discover their independence. Educate yourself about stages of development. Allow that you can't protect your growing child from everything- nor should you. Let them find out who they are, away from you. Understand that the pain of letting go is a necessary part of parenting, and that nothing lasts forever.

Above all, remember that the woman in the mirror is just as loveable and just as deserving of tender care as her child. She, also, needs her independence. She needs to let her child go for longer and longer periods, so she can see who she is when she's not being a mother.

That addictive moment of being everything to our baby is ephemeral. We need to let it go, or it sours and ruins everything.