Supporting Ourselves as Attached Parents

by Barbara Wishingrad

Even before I became a parent, I embraced the concepts of in-arms parenting and babywearing as well as the wider concepts that would later be known as attachment, natural or instinctive parenting, or continuum child-rearing. As many others have, I tried out these concepts with my own two children, Van, born in 1985, and Gabriel, born in 1987. The benefits were so immediate and the promise for the future so enticing that I soon thereafter felt compelled to share the joy, freedom, and connectedness of this way of parenting with others; The Rebozo Way Project was born in 1988 and continues to serve families all over the world to this day.

Although I had been a childbirth educator and an apprentice homebirth midwife before I became a parent, I was not used to being around babies much older than newborn, and as a new mother, I did feel some anxiety, and overwhelmed. Yet I was soon amazed how babywearing and breastfeeding made just about anything all right.

The immediate benefits of babywearing for us included a sense of feeling right and connected with the baby and each other; we weren't overly involved with baby equipment, juggling the little one, or focusing on the baby to the exclusion of each other. Getting around doing errands or socializing was easier, and our tiny one developed a close bond with both parents who supported this way of nurturing. I wore my babies for hours on end, longer than anyone else I had ever known. Often our fussy baby quieted down immediately when held in-arms; breastfeeding on demand also worked wonders. We co-slept with both babies which made nighttime nursing a quick and simple answer to a hungry infant.

With that level of commitment and results, I felt nothing could go wrong. Although I learned through trial-and-error that it was not optimal to do this in isolation (see Reflections on Constant Carrying), support was not always easily available nor did it come to me in a form that I necessarily appreciated. In my own journey as a parent, as well as in the lives of others I've related to over the years, the balance between following our vision and what we sincerely believe is best for our children, and finding a way to incorporate others' loving intentions and relationships is not always clear. I like the terms instinctive and intuitive parenting, which are sometimes considered interchangeable terms for this parenting style, but they also emphasize the benefit of tuning into what is right for us and our children/families and doing so again and again, as those needs often change over time. We use guidelines to create a pattern of how we want to parent, or how it feels right, and then adapt that to each situation and each individual child. The changes may be subtle so as to not swing far from the vision, but flexibility is key, I feel, in making this kind of parenting work.

Wonderful as this sounds (and is), and easy as it is at times to maintain these kind of relationships, at other times it may not be easy at all. In many AP households, the father actively chooses to be the sole breadwinner so that the mother can be there for and with the children and this can create separation and sometimes resentment between the couple. Or if both parents choose to share childcare and breadwinning during a child's early years, money issues may cause tension, even though the family is keeping expenses down by breastfeeding, using cloth diapers, recycling baby clothes and toys, making their own baby food, owning only one or no car, and so on. A conscious decision to wait on building financial equity until the children's needs in their early years have been met (one possible way that an AP family might operate) may still be a source of tension, shame or embarrassment when confronted with the greater culture, including in-laws and others who may not share the same philosophy. After all, isn't "getting ahead" what "everyone knows" is the best possible thing we can do for our children?

Now, remember, where did we want to go? What's the vision again? How do we see our daily interactions and priorities as well as those ten years from now, or even twenty? Are we willing to listen to older folks who may have different opinions or perspectives and see if there is some value in what they share? Can we acknowledge that they want the best for our children, just as we do, and see where holding that thought gets us? We don't have to change anything except to be open and hear the love that is being shared. And if later, maybe, we find a way to fit something that a loved one says into our lifestyles and it doesn't feel like a contradiction, and then we let them know that we appreciated the insight, we are gaining all that much more. If not, at least we were present and respectful at the time and took in the loving thoughts.

In my experience of working with many families over the last twenty years—families who are practising or interested in babywearing and mostly dedicated followers of AP or the Continuum Concept—I have noticed three things:
    as a group we tend to expect to be able to manifest our ideals in parenting and family life, especially constant carrying
    our extended families and community support don't look like what we think they should be
    we tend not to reach out for help even when it would make things better.
But wait—the tribe was the context in which the AP ideals were originally practiced. And the tribe offers the foundation of safety and security for our children, which is one of the basic premises of AP—a consistent, loving presence in the early years that will be internalized so that they grow to be emotionally secure and peaceful world citizens.

True, some of us may be avoiding old family patterns that we don't want to inflict on our precious little ones (although we'll pass some onto them no matter how hard we try not to) or people who push our buttons when what we need is support; people who insist that our vision is faulty, too hard, too unlike the mainstream, outdated; or those that may not even be able to notice the vision, only spouting their own shoulds and ought to's, which may come from loving concern or a blind repeating of where they came from, but in either case may be very hard to be around.

It is exciting to see that the AP and continuum childrearing movements have reached the stage where there are elders, like me, who have lived and worked in the arena as their children have grown, who are now available to listen, remind us to pay attention to our intuition and how to do so, turn us back towards our vision, and give advice based on these principles and experiences with this lifestyle. We have become more of a tribe as we have grown up, and we have reaped the benefits of our experiences.

AP families over the years have not been without problems. This philosophy is not an end-all to conflict, unexpected changes or emotional challenges; although some of us wish it were so! Children raised according to these principles may sometimes still deal with a variety of challenges—including families moving away from a familiar community, and outside challenges from misinformed or disapproving social agencies, groups, or school environments. Even a parental unit may disagree about the extent to which these principles should influence their family life; at other times, conflict may result in the extremes of violence in the home, separation, or divorce. Each family resolves these conflicts in a unique way, yet having a supportive ear who understands the underlying issues and principles of the AP way of life is invaluable. Children raised according to AP principles who are challenged with emotionally charged situations fare far better than other children in similar circumstances, simply because they have more of the inner security and self esteem that are the ideals of this lifestyle.

Not every outcome may be as we expect, and for some of us, that is a deep disappointment. In my case, although we practiced continuum childrearing to the best of our ability and had our older son at the younger one's birth, we still had to deal with sibling rivalry. It was also a big challenge for me as our in-arms babies became toddlers and then two-year olds with independent minds. The shift from responding promptly to the babies' needs ("babies under a year can't be spoiled") to setting clear limits when appropriate was a difficult one. That's the time I longed the most for the support of understanding elders as well as more moms in similar circumstances. At that time, I lived in a culture of extended families while my own family lived far away. Luckily, for most attached parents in the 21st century, support is more generally available, even when we're not sure where to turn.

Asking for and finding support is one of the keys to keeping balance as an attached parent. Any and all of the possible challenges of this lifestyle—finding the right ways to wear our babies, sleeping together or not, when and how, working inside and outside the home, bringing our children along or not, dealing with unsupportive or even hostile family members or friends, to name a few-every single challenge can be made easier when we have the support we need. Men and women both feel more balanced and competent as attached parents when they have peers or others with whom they can share their concerns, questions, and moments of joy. Try reaching out to someone else—it's the attached thing to do.

© Barbara Wishingrad (Santa Barbara, CA), November 2003. All rights reserved.