Friday, November 4, 2016

Separate. Connect. Separate. Connect.

If you've ever gone through my posts and decided that I sound like a sanctimonious mommy blogger, you're probably right. I have one daughter and I'm dispensing potty training advice?

The intent isn't to dish out spoons full of self-aggrandisement. This website is one of the many ways for me to say that I was a harried mother. That I tried. And failed. Many times. But I kept trying until something worked.

Can Attachment Theory Explain All Our Relationships? is writer Bethany Saltman's essay in the New York Magazine, in which she analyses and compares her attachment to her mother with her attachment to her daughter who is now 11-years old. Ms. Saltman writes of feeling lonely and overwhelmed in the early days of motherhood and making scary faces and muttering angrily at her nonplussed baby. Words that mothers are terrified to confess to one another.

The article made me think about the evolving nature of my attachment to 2-and-a-half-year old E.

Before she was born, all my ideas on parental attachment were the Sears' ideas that I'd read from Sears on pregnancy, which led me to their book on attachment parenting. I was grateful for the book's list of things to do to get a jumpstart on attachment. I was sceptical of the concept of attachment parenting or AP but skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding seemed like logical things to do. Humans have been doing it for millennia and it's worked so there's no reason why it shouldn't anymore. Right?

I was militant AP for the first three months of E's life, responding to every cry, breastfeeding on demand, and baby-wearing for as much as E and I could bear in the hot summer of her newbornness. Still, my baby cried every evening, punctually from 6 to 9 PM. By which time, I was a hot mess of tears and sore nipples.

In the darkness we worried she was crying because of the artificial lighting with Vedic Chants by Ravi Shankar droning ominously in the background we worried she missed the music she used to listen to when in utero, I remember jiggling her around in the wrap, feeling guilty that I didn't wear her as much as I did in her first month because of the heat. I let the Sears book convince me that that's why she was crying. I hadn't read Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child at that time so I didn't know that colic or inexplicable fussiness peaked at 8-weeks. Because Sears didn't think this scientifically-verified fact matched with his ideas on attachment. Because he warned be to beware "the baby trainer".

Self-portrait on stolen phone - #1

At 10-weeks, the colic began to subside as has been scientifically proved, and E began to consolidate her sleep. She was awake for longer, batting at her toys, and really looking at things - often staring at me watch the TV while she was supposed to be napping in her rocking car seat. That's how we did afternoon naps back in the day - her in a rocking car seat on the coffee table with me watching TV and rocking the car seat back and forth with my foot. Was it stupid? Incredibly so. Did it work? For exactly 3 weeks.

She was forcing herself to stay awake and I was slowly coming to the realisation that babies won't fall asleep by themselves every hour forever. So then the question was, how often do they sleep? Which then led to the question, how often should they sleep? The Sears book just said snuggle down with your baby if she looks sleepy. What does a sleepy baby look like? I had no idea.

Sears had solid advice when it came to playing with and feeding your baby but nothing on sleep. Except for don't ever, ever train your baby to sleep. So I hit up Google and found a lot of AP mothers gasping at CIO or Cry It Out. Leaving a months old baby alone in a darkened room to cry to sleep sounded horrible. It also seemed unlikely that the father of CIO, Marc Weissbluth, would devote an entire book that could be summed up in that one sentence from mommy hell.

Intrigued, I decided to read his book. I was running on no sleep, and I didn't want my baby to as well. And that's how I found my golden guru of sleep, Weissbluth.

Now I had two gurus, Sears and Weissbluth, who hated each other and had seemingly opposite ideas on childrearing. I decided to read further into Attachment Theory - a florid school of thought, contributed to by sociologists, psychologists and even neurologists, that had nothing to do with Sears and everything to do with profound insight into why we are the way we are.

Over the last two years, I've realised that children exist to test us, to identify in us, that which can be better. I've had my moments with E when I didn't recognise myself. Like Ms. Saltman, as a sleep-deprived first-time mother to a newborn, I have made my own scariest animal face at my baby. I have wanted to smash her against a wall only to wake up in the morning terrified of the real consequences of long-term, sustained sleep deprivation. And I couldn't wallow in it. There was no time to analyse the behaviour to change it. I just had to forgive myself quickly and move on.

A baby has no time for your self-pity. Every need is as of 10-minutes ago. And the only need is you. Your body, your attention, your hands, your inexplicable ability to make every game insanely fun. On a good day, I love it. I love how good I've gotten at multitasking; I love how my body rivals the best jungle gyms; I think it's adorable that E prefers the fuzzball's salivary toys over her own countless toys.

But it wasn't always like this. In the beginning, as a new mother still getting used to this onslaught on my life as I knew it, I resented her for making me lock away my needs. I resented myself for feeling guilty when I did take time off to take care of myself. I resented the husband for impregnating me. I resented the fuzzball for stealing every diaper. I resented my parents for abandoning me in a forest in India and their foreign eudaemonia. I watched sadly as my freedom receded into a faraway shore. And it may have come out as a scary face in the middle of the night.

Then the morning comes, as mornings do, and all the solitary tears of feeling completely overwhelmed are dry. I resolved to do better, be better, and respond appropriately. Feed the hungry child; play with the well-rested child; and put the sleepy child to bed.

Self-portrait on stolen phone - #2

As babies, their needs are simple - a cuddle, a feed, and finding disgusting things to put into their mouths. As they get older, their needs get varied, more inscrutable, unintelligible at times. They have big emotions that they don't understand. And they learn to be snotty-nosed little autocrats. Because they're so besotted by their almost coherent thoughts and coordinated body movements that they're just looking for boundaries to test.

I don't make scary animal faces anymore but my daughter isn't a wakeful baby either. She's 2 and a half and, like any child, she has her moments when she feels so overwhelmed by life that she needs to lie down on the floor of a public bathroom or a crowded supermarket. And, like any mother, I have my moments when I feel that prickling, skin-burning anger that makes me clench my teeth and mutter evilly at my daughter. What I want is lie down with her, bawl just like her. But I can't because I know better and she can't because I'm her mother and I know better.

Until I read this article, I was terrified that every time I yelled or lost my cool, I was forcing my child away from me, demanding compliance under threat of mama totally losing it and that I'd lose all the attachment I worked so hard to get over the last two years. But this attachment shifts, like a desert's dunes. A few months ago, attachment lay in breastfeeding and snuggling before bedtime. Today, we don't get that time everyday to reconnect. Instead, attachment is found in toy boxes and art supplies.

Saltman's article, helped me see that it's okay for E to see her mother preoccupied, for her to learn that it's not okay to interrupt me when I've explained to her that I need to use my laptop for a few minutes because I have some work and can she please feed plush chocolate ice-cream to her starving teddy while mama finishes up. That sometimes, mama is worried about the fuzzball peeing blood again and will respond snappily.

"Attachment is a simple, elegant articulation of the fact that, yes, what we do in relation to each other matters. And yet, we don't have to get it right all the time, or even most of the time," writes Ms. Saltman. She quotes Steele and his wife Miriam from an essay in their book What is Parenthood?:

"Even sensitive caregivers get it right only about 50% of the time. There are times when parents feel tired or distracted. The telephone rings or there is breakfast to prepare. In other words, attuned interactions rupture quite frequently. But the hallmark of a sensitive caregiver is that the ruptures are managed and repaired."

Since the end of breastfeeding, I realised that a lot of my yelling and snapping was because I didn't know how to connect with my child outside of breastfeeding. Sure playing and painting were fun but I missed having her undivided attention. As each day wore on, I realised that I may never have her undivided attention again. It took me a while to put my finger on it. It sounds ridiculous; I spend all day with my baby and yet, I miss her. I miss her in a way I'll never stop missing her.

But attachment is so much more than breastfeeding despite what Sears says. It's so varied and nuanced that it has its own complicated scale of measurement. It's chief conclusion being: 
Your attachment to your caregiver determines your attachment to your child and her attachment to you informs the attachment she feels for your grandchild. 

The thread of attachment weaves humanity together, determining whether we feel safe and secure in the knowledge that if ever we're in trouble, someone will help us out.

But it's so slippery, this thread. It doesn't care that you have an office and a house to run. It doesn't care that you spent all weekend with your child hunting for feathers to paint with. It hinges on that moment when your kid has put on her shoes all by herself for the first time and is looking at you proudly. But you're looking at your phone, frowning because the idiot didn't send the email on time to the pissed off client.

She's too young for this to have happened enough to her that she just gives up and storms sullenly to her room. So she forgives you and settles for a delayed yet outsize response of I'm-so-proud-of-you. Or, sadly, she says it to herself prompting you to repeat it. And she smiles. And you've fixed it. For now.

So you put the phone away, pull out the plastic toys, and spend the next hour giving them funny voices and making them do outlandish things and saying hilarious words like poop and pee. And your kid loves you again. Does she love you as much as she did before she put on her shoes for the first time? You'll never know. But you will get a chance to fix it.

Self-portrait on stolen phone - #3

It's easy to manage and repair our frequent ruptures now. She doesn't hold on to grudges and all she wants is to play with me. I worry about the time when the toys are donated, and the secrets begin. Will I have spent enough time on our attachment today for her to come to me when things are wrong? Will I ever react inappropriately when she does come to me with a problem? Will that force her to bottle up her problems forever?

It's my greatest fear, and the one thing that I'm most watchful for. I am her oasis of calm. I am her flashing light in a blizzard. I am the constant in her variable life. This is the standard I hold myself to when she's melting and saying scary things and hitting. What's wrong, my baby? Use your words. Tell me how to help you. Tell me how to fix it. Are you tired? Do you need to go potty? Are you upset? Tell me. Teach me to be a better mother.

I think back to how my mother loved me through my worst and boy, have I been a rotten child and how it's my life's endeavour to see myself as my mother sees me. It's not like she's never lost her temper with me, but despite that, I know that I can talk to her no matter what.

It's okay to lose your temper with your child. Because the love for offspring is animal, it's an unmatched intensity of emotion - good and bad. Do I want to just hit her and get it over with? Of course. But will I? Never. Because if she doesn't have me, she has no one.

When the parent understands a child's primitive signals, the child learns to communicate better. As the child communicates better, the parent signals to the child that someone will always understand you even before you do.

This is no small task we've undertaken. We endeavour to raise human beings who can see that life is good and that happiness is a choice you make. Good luck to us.



4 comments:

  1. This is such a beautifully written piece! And with such genuine concern for the child! Well done! But I still had to look up eudaemonia :)

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    1. Thank you, ma, for your comments on my posts. I eagerly await them after I publish each post.
      Also, thank you for your dedicated readership :)

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  2. I am so happy you found the piece helpful! Keep up the good work : ) Bethany

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    1. Thank you, Bethany, for your kind words and your article. I keep going back to read it when I've had a bad day with E.

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