My brother was married this weekend, and naturally this got me thinking about family and relationships. As parenting is never far from my mind these days, I was also thinking about the attachment parenting and breastfeeding discussions we have been having here, and I was surprised to find some important lessons for my own parenting.
I come from a remarkably close knit family. As young adults, my brothers continue to be one another’s best friends, and though they are living a hip life in the city and I am a mom in the burbs they are often happy to hop a train to little league game or bring over a picnic lunch on the weekends. We each speak with our parents frequently, respect and honor them, look to them for advice. In winter and summer, we often spend weekends and vacation times relaxing together. Both my husband and my brand new sister-in-law were carefully vetted and then lovingly welcomed into the fold. My parents are neither over-bearing nor interfering but they want what is best for us and they work, hope and pray for our futures. Our parents have raised us in faith and love to be the adults we are becoming, but they understand that much of the refining now is up to God, up to us, and up to other people who God has placed in our lives, so they fill a wonderful role of unconditional love.
This is as much as I could hope for my husband and I in our relationship with our children, and this weekend I came to understand that “attachment” and “bonding” have a large role to play. I have been lucky to be able to breastfeed each of my children for some length of time. Breastfeeding is a means to an end, it is a way to get the healthiest food (mothers milk) to the baby, to comfort the baby with suckling and closeness, and to form a strong bond between mother and baby. Breastfeeding is, in many ways, a transition from the womb environment, when mother and child were one, to the outside world, where both mother and child will gradually understand their separateness. There are many reasons why mothers might be unable to breastfeed, but looking at the end goals, this disappointment can quickly be overcome. Mother can pump so that baby can still have breastmilk, or when necessary we can use the best available infant formula. Intentional parenting can also replace the bonding aspects of nursing with other close physical contact, something that fathers can also share, such as skin to skin time during feedings, cozy bathtimes and infant massage, dancing baby to sleep on your shoulder.
When breastfeeding can be established, this sort of intentional parenting is still important, but much of the bonding happens without a second thought. With bottle feeding, it is more of a temptation to check out or let others take over too often.
Because I am still exclusively nursing, this weekend, during the course of the wedding festivities, I had to bring along my baby wherever I went. Sometimes (during the ceremony, for example) I also brought a helper (=sitter) to hold the baby when I could not be available. Once, during the rehearsal dinner, when I snuck off to nurse in a bathroom, I found myself a bit resentful of the baby’s dependency on me, and me alone, for food. However, I had taken to heart Red’s advice the day before to try to turn any difficulties of the weekend to prayer, so there I sat, in a bathroom stall of a conference room, nursing a baby and offering some Hail Marys. What grace flowed from that small sacrifice. Our Lady opened my heart to several truths. First, not much in my life is hard, I live in plenty and have few sacrifices forced on me, so this small means of mortification is a blessing for my soul. Secondly, this is a very little life and he deserves this undivided attention from his mother every few hours, even during this busy and important weekend. Third, by being with him here, and dragging along his siblings, you are laying the rails for those future relationships, so make sure that the older ones, no longer breastfed, are still getting special attention, time from mom and dad, physical affection and skin contact.
Let me repeat that last part: special attention, time from mom and dad, physical affection and skin contact.
All weekend, it was a complicated blessing to have five kids running around at a number of upscale parties in homes of people I did not know. It took a week (and months before hand) to organize their wardrobes for this big trip. I danced only one dance (though it was a great dance) at the wedding, because most of my time was spent trying to find kids in a crowd, and on two consecutive nights I took them back to the hotel to bed after dinner only to return to the party exactly as the bar was closed.
If I keep in mind the end goal of my parenting, however, raising loving adults with close relationships, none of these small sacrifices counts as anything. My three year old twins took over the dance floor during cocktails, waltzing together and delighting young and old. My six year old son talked baseball and made three beautiful friendships, with his 12 year old cousin, our 29 year old friend and a Yankees fan in his 50s, all of whom were big hearted enough to give him their time. My little boy slept on my shoulder after dancing the night away. My baby Lion got to be held by the bride and photographed so that he will always know he was there. My five year old daughter chased fire flies in the twilight on a beautiful Southern evening. We were all welcomed into a new family with great warmth and hospitality. Several young couples confessed to us that they are eager to start their families. My children spent time with my brothers and me, with aunts, cousins and grandparents and with my grandmother and her sister, both in their eighties, and saw that sibling relationships can last a lifetime. My brother and his bride cut the cake early so that the children could taste it before they went off to bed.
We do not co-sleep, because for me it is a means to exhaustion, I just don’t sleep well that way. We do work towards a flexible schedule because for me it is a means to exclusive and extended breastfeeding. We use an Ergo and a crib and a stroller, but when possible our favorite place to rest our baby is in the a pair of loving arms, from 8 to 80. There are beautiful and loving families using an attachment parenting model and beautiful and loving parents using other models, and I just don’t want to lose sight of the fact that parenting is not the point, in and of itself, parenting is a means to an end, but just choosing the means that have worked for someone else is no guarantee of your own success or results.
If you asked what my parents have done to have such a close knit family, I would say that we skied together every weekend at an unglamorous Catskill resort and that Saturday nights after Vigil Mass we always ate spaghetti with homemade meatballs. Impossible, you may say, I do not ski, we live in Arizona, and anyway I much prefer Risotto, I can’t do this! Perhaps this is not the means God has planned for your family, and all the spaghetti in the world is not going to change that. Again, however, skiing and spaghetti, like baby wearing and co-sleeping, were tools my parents used to create an atmosphere of intentional family time, doing things together, listening to one another, being present. The means have changed over the years, there was a long, beautiful period of Sunday night mass followed by take out Chinese food with my Aunt and cousins. There were bets placed about when my brothers would pass my dad in height, there were driveway basketball games, countless stories read aloud, rosaries whispered at sick beds, slightly intoxicated college boys walking into a hospital room at midnight to meet their brand new nephew, there was a summer book club, there are email exchanges about current events, my parents have used so many means over the years to promote attachment, to them, to one another, to our family heritage, and even though I now have five chocolate covered, over tired children, I hope that as they grow I will be able to remember not only that the path is the goal, but that though we are often surrounded by examples of broken relationships, the time we share when the children are young is a stepping stone along the way to their development into adults who are able to form and keep close bonds, with one another and with the other people who will come into their life, including their own spouses and children.