Saturday, February 5

parenting patterns

are a little bit like knitting patterns. When you are first learning to parent, the method is so complex, so inscrutably coded, the patterns are exclusive and elitist with their cryptic abbreviations. And then you learn, in bites and chunks, until a paragraph of instructions seems do-able. It begins to make sense, to take shape. You develop a style, an individual take on the norm that is obvious to onlookers. You start to make your own patterns, to make original decisions specifically customised for your particular project. You knit without looking at the rows, you begin to parent without counting the stitches, just by feel, able to do more than one thing at a time. Then weeks, months, years go by. More children perhaps, new projects that require slightly different methods, but you are still confidant. Then, as in any learned art, you falter. Perhaps not visibly, but you hesitate. You read something new, something challenging... you start to rethink how you parent. Should you start unravelling your previous work? Are mistakes at this stage memorable? Should you simply carry on with your head down, and try to forget that you heard a different way it could be done? Or respect the past mistakes as part of the unfolding drama, and just let the change happen gradually? Is parenting actually like knitting at all, like art in any major way? Process or result, process or result.... which drives you?

I have been reading some blogs, doing some thinking. The majority of so-called 'mummy' blogs are cringe-worthy; in pastel colours they paint unreal worlds, their mission seemingly to make every other 'mummy' feel second-rate. Their judgements are harsh, and so usually(being the anti-confrontationist that I am)(pacifist would be an easier word here I think) I avoid them like the plague. I am incredibly experienced at feeling guilty, and I learnt early on in my life as a mother to stop asking for people's opinions. But I starting reading again, some good, some bad, some embarrassingly so. And unfortunately I started falling for the parenting propoganda again. The trouble is that if something is well-written, and seemingly well-researched, I am a sucker. I fall for the prose of the thing. And I started thinking again, about how I could have done things differently.
Perhaps I should have breastfed Maddy for longer. I mean, 8 months is pretty good, especially when every single feed is still excruciatingly painful, but perhaps 8 months was a bad time to stop. Maybe at about one year, things would have gotten better. Now, straightaway this is a fallacy that I can toss over one shoulder, discard easily. It hurt, she chomped, it never ever felt right, and I needed a break. I was definitely a better mother for stopping. One point to me there.
Perhaps I should have waited longer after having Maddy to have Lewis. She was only 19 months when I became pregnant, only 28 months when I had him. Perhaps for her it was too soon, she was too little. And I had had prenatal and postnatal depression, both undiagnosed. It still hurts inside a little bit to think of all the professionals I was in touch with on this journey, the midwives, the gps, none of whom suggested gently that I needed a bit more help, that things were going on for too long. I didn't really know myself that things were bad, only in hindsight, but surely someone could have spotted the lethargy, the moroseness, the insomnia, the crying everyday, the nervous twitch that developed everytime I heard a baby, any baby, cry. But hey, you gotta put your past in your behind as Pumba says(alarming rate of Disney quotes on this blog), and whats done is done.
Hmm, this has been a bit of a detour... back to parenting: Josh and I read lots of books and did some research and gathered anecdotal evidence before having Maddy, like most new parents do, and we made decisions. One of them, and I guess these days the most controversial, was to feed by routine. It all went to plan, like the book said, which is why for me it still rings true. Little babies need routine, need a gentle swing to their day that gives milestones, allows time passing to be felt. After the first few days of feeding endlessly, but following the instructions, Maddy naturally started needing feeds approximately every 2 and a half hours, then every 3, just like the book said she would. She slept through the night first at 5 weeks, and by 7 weeks was sleeping about 8 hours every night. When she cried, which was rare, we checked the vitals and if all was in order, she just had to cry for a little bit. She became the best sleeper I have ever come across. She looooved her cot. She loved naptime. She loved being wrapped up tight like the little burrito that she was, and she loved the sound of the curtains whooshing shut. As she got older, she loved playing bedtime. She would climb in, tuck herself in the sheets and pretend to sleep, all her little toys learnt to love sleep too. She genuinely believed that sleeping was one of the best things to do. And she was still having 3 hour afternoon sleeps and 13 hour night-time sleeps at 2 and a half. Which is why I felt that we did the right thing. And even writing this down, reminds me how right it was.
Lewis was a different story, which I had been forewarned of. But I won't go into detail of my parenting patterns with him, because it was all over the show. I was severely clinically depressed from day one of his pregnancy, and that carried through.... by the time he was born I hadn't slept at night for months, so I was already exhausted. Up poop creek without a paddle, I floundered. When I was having a rare good day, when I felt slightly more upright, more confident, I let himself cry himself to sleep. I still fed him on schedule, but it was easier to do because he was formula-fed. Josh always let Lewis cry himself to sleep, because he was confidant it was the right thing to do. But on most days when i was alone at home, or when the respite nurses were there, boring holes into me as they watched me like vultures, I went to him. I would wrap him up, and he would be unwrapped by the time I'd laid him in bed. He would cry immediately, knotting his little legs up above his torso, and I would waver, and then shut the door, stand by it listening to him cry and then run in and pick him up. I would cuddle and smooch and sing, anything to stop the piercing cries that went right to my core. Then I would put him down again and sneak out. Then he would scream again. The respite nurses didn't all help. Some believed in crying it out, but most believed in feeding them till they burst at the seams and leaking milk out their ears slump back across your arm unconscious. And they all let me know their opinion. The general opinion was the feed-till-unconscious one. And they took notes, scribbling them down in the ministry of health folder. I read them afterwards.
One day it would read "Rachel seems cold and detached today. She feeds baby, then puts him to bed. Baby cries while Rachel hangs out washing or has a shower. She clearly doesn't hear the cries, isn't connecting. Has not bonded with baby. Seems oddly calm". The next day it would be "Rachel, although teary, is doing well today. Despite almost constant tears, she is bonding well with baby, responding to his needs appropriately, and holding him a lot. She is taking a lot of time to ensure baby is happy and well-fed. She cannot stop crying." I struggled to develop any sort of routine with him, not only due to my engulfing despair but also because I was busy with Maddy, trying to keep her happy and peaceful. She was showing lots of worrying signs of autism, and I was not getting any help with her. My depression climaxed awfully and then started gradually, slowly receding, after Lewis was about 5 months old(It has taken about 2 and a half years to get back to feeling 'normal' whatever that is). But I had no way of resetting my compass, my reserves were drained and I could not stand up for my own beliefs.
Almost 3 years later, he still cries when we put him to bed, sometimes for half an hour.
Another of my parenting 'patterns' was of Time Out.. it had worked for Maddy and when Lewis started being a 2 year old(at about 16 months), it worked mostly on him too. Our version of Time Out was where after a couple of warnings, the trouble-maker is lifted bodily into his or her room, whilst being told "Time Out! hitting your sister(for example) is not acceptable in this family/household. Stay here until you are ready to come out and behave nicely." Then we leave them there, often shutting the door, whilst they throw their bodies around and scream and howl, and we wait outside the door. After a couple of minutes, or as SOON as there is a moment of silence however brief, we burst in with a loving smile and ask "Hello darling, are you ready to come out and behave nicely now?" About half the time this is met with little hot arms being held up for a cuddle, and a rather grumpy but sheepish shuffle out of the time out. And half the time the trouble-maker yells "NO!" And we tell them again and shut the door. It can be over in a minute, sometimes it takes half an hour. And it's worked thus far.
But yes, I did some reading. It was mostly hippy stuff, which appeals to me because inside I sometimes accidentally think that being a feminist and being a hippy overlap, or that being a greenie leftie and being a hippy overlap. It was mostly pro-militant-breastfeeding and pro-baby-wearing, which is the more popular course amongst middle class whities. And also anti-crying-it-out. I read and read and read, the words flashing before my eyes, and the rhetoric making my head spin. I was stuck on a guilt-bender, on a hospital bed racing down corridors whilst the sickly lights passed over my head. I'll spare you most of it, but THE most guilt-inducing thing that I read was that babies who are left to cry it out stop crying eventually not because they are learning to self-soothe, but because they have GIVEN UP HOPE that ANYONE will ever come and help them. This phrase, this statement of seeming-truth, rung over and over in my miserable head. Everything I had done for my children was wrong. My children stopped crying because they had lost hope in me. So, despite having been in a really good 'space' for a month now(or better perhaps to say that I had a good 'space' inside me), I floundered, and I started to slip. Instead of putting Lewis in time out for screaming and hitting and other anti-social things, I held him. I spoke loving words over him and I rocked him while he hit and kicked and flailed. Instead of shutting the door firmly after putting him to bed, I stood at the doorway, and waited to see him start crying, and then went to him, cuddling and holding and bargaining and begging. I know you're sad, I said to him. I know you're angry about having to go to bed, but Mummy and Daddy think this is the best thing for you. I know, I know, there there. I got him drinks of water, I read him the same book over and over and over again. "stoory, more!" he said in an increasingly plaintive voice, whilst watching me with those tear-stained but oddly bright eyes, and I read more story. And every evening, Josh would eventually rescue me, he would march me out, and say to Lewis firmly "bedtime Louie, good night, see you in the morning" and he would shut the door. And Lewis would howl and throw himself at the door and sob, and kick the walls. And I would sit on the couch, unable to stop worrying, feeling ill inside, and would not relax until the crying stopped. And then I would rejoin society, but all the time with this sick feeling inside. He only stopped because he had lost hope.
This sick cycle went on for a couple of weeks. At some stage I suggested holding him until he fell asleep, I suggested that me and him would lie in our bed together, until all was quiet. Josh said No, and I hated him for being callous. Why didn't he care? Didn't he realise how broken-hearted our children were? So yes, it took me two weeks until I admitted to Josh what was going through my head, and in those two weeks my sanity had started to slip again. I started to cry at small things, I yelled at the kids and Josh, and increasingly spiralled out of control, consumed by Guilt. And when I told Josh, when I told him about the children losing hope, he said this. He said that I was being ridiculous, that the article I read was ridiculous. He said that we actually wanted them to lose hope that you would get cuddles when you were behaving abominably, that we wanted them to lose hope that yelling and screaming at our parents would have positive results, that we actually wanted them to lose hope that they were in control of the household, not their parents.
Light dawned. It sounded so callous, but it was so true. I started to consider it, in the meantime continuing my flibberty jibbert parenting patterns. I went out to a cafe with a good friend who had kids a while ago and knows the deal. She said the same thing. Rachel, she said, that's ridiculous. You want them to lose hope that behaving atrociously will result in cuddles, that acting out in a pre-meditated and intentionally Naughty(there, I used that word, eek!) way had no direct negative results. What you need to do Rachel, is place him or her firmly in Time Out and walk away. And I realised that she and Josh were right. It is such a fine line between their needs and our needs, but I honestly believe that the best thing for children to learn at this age, and keep with them, is that Mummy and Daddy are in control, we know what is best, and we are the boss. Otherwise, how can we keep them safe?
So I went on my little guilt-bender, I went all the way round the corner and then somehow found my way back. Mummy is the boss again. Mummy is no longer falling into tears and ripping her hair out and yelling and then crying again. Mummy does not take Naughty lying down. Thank you Josh and Stace for telling me the truth, and helping me believe that I actually do know what's best for my children.
I've been reading a new blog, it's called Her Bad Mother. It's about parenting as it really is, the nitty gritty, the short cuts and compromises we make, and how it's ok. The kids are fed and clothed and feel loved. We don't have to be organic or compost religiously or wear our babies till they're five, but if we want to, we can. We don't have to be perfect and patient and soothing, we can be strong and tough and in control, and still be a loving comforting mother.
And for all the angry hippies out there? I talked to our therapist on Friday. She's a professional, with degrees and stuff, and she helps me figure out my kids. She said to me, Rachel, you need to put him in Time Out more. Because that behaviour isn't acceptable.
She's right.


Blue Sarah said...

When your're going thru a situation you often can't see it as it really is. Sometimes it takes someone else to point out the truth.

And I'll bet your kids have the best parents they could ever have :-)

Iain said...

Wow. This was a really amazing post.

I thought so many things reading this.

One part annoyed me on your behalf when I read the observation notes from the nurses (I know what it's like to write notes like that in my job, sometimes I wonder whether feeling the need to write something - anything - creates a high possibility of writing something stupid just because you "have to" as a clinical worker).

Then I started to have my typical man-reaction of, "Oh I should tell her this or that and 'fix' it through my sagely advice instead of actually just listening" (and my keen interest in Behavioural Psych). But what do I know anyway?

And you know what? This post was really great, you're really great, and I think it sounds like you and Josh are both doing a bloody fantastic job.

Her Bad Mother said...

Thank you so much for being brave enough to put this all out there (and thank you, of course, for the shout out ;))

And thank you, too, for the term 'angry hippies.' I am totally going to borrow that ;)

Stacy said...

Rach, you are a wonderful mother. You have been to hell and back and still you keep going.... working through stuff..... being one of the most beautiful, honest, loving and generous people that I know. And you even keep laughing and keep me laughing in the midst of it all. I am so proud of you. Love you sooo much xxxx