Before I can get back to writing this post, I must confront the reasons I paused in writing it—just after having begun it.
I always wanted to be a parent, but I was not so certain about being a wife. I’d never seen a marriage I wanted to be in, though recently I’ve seen some that are a little closer to my ideal. Therefore, I backed my way into marriage and tolerated 16 years of abuse with the growing fear that if I lost my temper, he really would kill me, the occasional violence that proved I was too weak to protect myself, and the insidiousness of the cycle of abuse that makes a person increasingly blame themselves while feeling they need the abuser ever more. I have been unable to confront what this cycling toward greater conflict did to my children or to me or how I allowed emotional abuse and neglect of my children. I’ve always known that conflict between parents was devastating to children because I grew up in a home with conflict, and of course theory recognizes the problems in multiple ways. The argument that yelling was bad for children, however, never seemed to have an impact on my husband, yet I believed I could slowly change him—the arrogance of being a psychologist and an optimist—and in the process, I failed my children.
The result is that my oldest child has had significant difficulties. Perhaps she always would have had some difficulty because of being “different,” but her childhood was never what I would have wanted. It’s hard to not feel like a failure as parent when so much has gone wrong. Feeling ashamed and embarrassed, how could I go on to advise other parents?
In general, it is a problem: There is little forgiveness for imperfect parents—most of all from ourselves. “Mom blaming” was perhaps started by the Freudians, and in reaction, some people misinterpret efforts to improve children’s lives with better parenting as an impossible pressure on parents. For instance, I greatly respect what Gabor Mate has to say, but I have been startled by how people can hear “mother blaming” when I hear “society blaming.” We do not have a society that supports families, and too often a parent gives way to the pressures of life and fails their children, but as Gabor Mate makes clear, it should never be up to one parent to assure that a child is getting what they need. It is society that is failing our children. It is society that leaves couples to work out their problems on their own—no matter how devastating the “conflicts” might be. Children really need more than two “parents,” which was much easier when extended families still lived together and when we did not all disappear into the privacy of our homes where anything could be happening.
I am not naïve enough to argue that small towns or communal settings are better, though, because too often the controlling aspects of these communities can be equally damaging. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that we need connections more than Western Society and Capitalism would have us believe. We need to do better.
I have always wanted a sense of being connected to many adults and a community for my children and myself, but I found myself increasingly isolated by circumstance and an abusive husband, always thinking that after this crisis or the next, life would get easier. In the last two years I’ve gone through many stages of grieving the loss of my illusions of having a loving marriage and perfect children, and I suffered more than I could have anticipated. It has taken far longer than I would have guessed to begin feeling like I’m coming out the other side of this storm. In this, I have caused my children additional problems as they’ve witnessed their mother’s melt down.
All of these experiences are life, though, and I will not be ashamed any more. The theories and research that I know strengthens my ability to support my family, helping me understand the good and the bad in all that has happened over the last 18 years (I did not fail my children in all ways!), and becomes more meaningful as I accept the mistakes I have made as a parent. We are all doing the best that we can, and we should strive to do even better without shame. My understanding of theory is helping me move forward to help my children become beautiful, kind, faithful, and intelligent adults, who will always know that life’s obstacles do not need to destroy them. And finally, I am forced to be humble and thus might avoid falling into the trap of arrogance that an education can bring someone.
All the knowledge we’ve created about being good parents is contradictory and overwhelming in its volume. Some theories have been proven wrong, but mostly they contradict. I’ve spent far too much time thinking about a lot of these issues, so I hope that sharing these thoughts will be helpful to someone else even as it helps me to work through the contradictions. There is no such thing as being a perfect parent or having an easy life, but we can use our minds to strive for something better and create new ways of parenting and of being family.
The theory that has influenced my parenting the most is Attachment Theory as developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, and supplemented by a bunch of others. The book that influenced me most was written by Robert Karen, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love (1998). It is definitely worth the read for the details and so you can make up your own mind.
It convinced me that parents are vey important but that it’s sad that children had only two parents. In brief, an insecure attachment with the primary caregiver, who is traditionally the mother but could be the father, a grandmother, aunt, or nanny, can have irrevocable influence on children’s development. This one relationship influences all future relationships and has the power to give or permanently damage a child’s self-esteem. It’s harsh, but I am convinced.
You should be asking yourself why I’m convinced. It starts, for me, with Harry Harlow’s work with rhesus monkeys in which he found that baby monkeys, who have been removed from their mothers, care more for a wire shape covered in foam and cloth than a wire shape that gives milk. I find this to be powerful evidence that affection or love is in some ways more important than food—not for survival but for the fulfillment of psychological needs. Add to this that research with human children has found that death might be the result of having no affection (according to work by Rene Spitz as discussed in Karen, 1998) or may be linked to a range of other problems. Insecure attachments—those cases when for whatever reasons children do not show behaviors that indicate secure attachments—cause significant difficulties even in adulthood. A great deal of research supports this. We should not overreact because these problems are not one-sided, and we should be careful to NOT interpret this as saying mothers need to stay with their babies at all times . . .
One of the things that truly surprised me as a soon-to-be parent was that people had very strong opinions about where a baby should sleep. There also seemed to be lots of options: in cribs in their own rooms, first in bassinets or cradles in their own rooms and then cribs, first in bassinets or cradles in their mothers’ rooms and then in a crib in their own rooms, first in basinets or cradles in their mothers’ rooms and then in cribs in their mothers’ rooms . . . or simply in their mothers’ beds. Well, the US government now actively discourages parents from having their babies sleep with them because it is too easy for parents to turn over and crush or smother their infants, but I would argue that this depends a great deal on how parents sleep. In fact, the whole debate should revolve primarily around parent’s sleeping needs and styles and, of course, the financial situation. Nevertheless, cultures introduce a number of strong opinions–often viewed as mandates.
The mainstream US culture (if we can pretend momentarily that this is an actual reality) has pressed for a long time to make infants as independent as possible. This probably has its roots in the experiences of pioneers who tended to lose more infants than they safely saw to childhood. Believing that infants should from birth be raised to be independent may have had more to do with parents’ protecting themselves from caring too much for their infants than the needs of the infants. Erik Erikson has some compelling insights into this in his book Childhood and Society. The idea, however, of infants having their own room was largely an impossibility until the housing boom of the 1950s. Living in New York City has made this very real for me because my family members in Ohio simply cannot understand why I live in an apartment with only one bathroom or why my children must be forced to share a bedroom. Giving you children a “nursery” is in large part a question of status: I am rich enough to have nursery, and this is obviously superior to any other arrangement that they cannot afford. Compare this idea creating an independent child just be giving them their own room or not allowing them to sleep with their parents sometimes when they are older to the Greek and Italian habit of having their children never leaving home; they often will move into the apartment upstairs or next door instead. Similarly, Mexicans have brought their habit of living with extended family to the US, reportedly occupying whole blocks upon occasion. The tendency is for us to accept how we see most people doing things as “natural” or “better.” So what does psychological theory have to say on this?
Psychology in fact rarely has anything specific to say about anything–except for when that specific study has been done. And in fact it exists at http://cosleeping.nd.edu and other places. If you don’t know already, you need to think critically about research because it takes a lot of research before you can be even moderately certain of anything. This is part of the reason that “official advice” keeps changing: new research. I’ll devote a blog to the problem of depending on a few research studies or depending on the research of only a single individual or laboratory, but the National Institute of Health now recommend sharing a room but not a bed with infants (https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sts/Pages/default.aspx). The research largely attempts to isolate variables so that policy can be made based on correlations. The difficulty is that one cannot reliably infer causation from a correlation. And it can be entirely without theory. Theory, I would argue, is often a better guide because it describes the nature of relationships between variables (or better yet, in my opinion, does not divide the world into discrete variables, but I will make an effort to discuss that more elsewhere). There are really two theoretical approaches that offer guidance.
The first is the idea of evolution. It is a very imperfect approach because we are extremely limited in our ability to test hypotheses drawn from this approach, but the idea of evolution offers a way of theorizing how we might have evolved to function. We do not know much about how humans lived half a million years ago when our species seems to have become distinct. Nor do we know the details about how we lived when civilization emerged about 10,000 years ago. Nevertheless, due to the necessity of breastfeeding and the simple accommodations that were available, it does not seem too careless to assume that infants slept within close proximity to their mothers. The difficulty of keeping them warm enough to survive suggests that body warmth was essential. Therefore, believing that we evolved while sleeping in our mothers’ arms seems to make sense, thus one argument is that infants evolved to “expect” or be predisposed to thriving when they have skin-to-skin contact routinely with another person. This theory suggests that babies sleeping with their mothers.
But as I indicated, it is hard to find much evidence for or against evolutionary theories. One theory that has a great deal of evidence, though is in need a lot of refinement still in my opinion, is attachment theory. Briefly, attachment theory argues that infants need a secure attachment to become healthy adults and that any attachment is better than none because the complete absence of attachment may result in the infant’s death. As psychologists learn more about what makes a secure attachment and how influential it is, we should be trying to use common sense about how to assure security. I do not believe that sleeping with an infant assures a secure attachment nor that it is necessary for a secure attachment, but forcing a child from your bed is quite likely to result in feeling like a rejection. Appropriate intimacy with an infant can only be a good thing, and determining what is appropriate can best be determines by paying attention to how the infant reacts. I know for certain that my babies were very content when they slept in my arms.
Practicality still places demands above and beyond theory however. I was worried that my husband would turn over on the baby and crush her and terrified that she might fall out of bed, so I my babies fell asleep in my arms but slept nearby in a safe crib or playpen. As they aged, I never refused to have them in my bed, though did work toward one child sleeping on the floor next to me as my career became more demanding. If a parent knows they are more likely to start screaming at the child if their sleep is often interrupted, that is far more important than the comfort babies might take from sleeping with a parent. So, in short, think about it and decide what makes the most sense for your living arrangements, sleep needs, and infant needs. I wish I had know about the cribs that can be attached to beds, giving the infant protection from being crushed or falling out of bed while keeping the baby within reach of a parent. When a mother is breastfeeding, this seems an obvious solution!