Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Means to an End

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.


Anonymous said...

This is so beautiful, from your heart. Thank you for writing this. I guess I understand what you mean when you say parenting is not the point, that it is a means to the end. But it made me think about God's mercy and goodness, that He desires for us to find WITHIN our most binding commitments the taste of joy and unity and peace and beauty. I have a brother (six actually) who said once, You know, God didn't have to make sex! What he meant and what stays with me is how much pleasure and good we receive--once we get beyond the pain large or small of the sacrifical part--from love. So breastfeeding can be a pain and convenient but not for a million dollars would I give up those moments of real unity with my children that I have found there, nor with my husband in our love. It doesn't always happen, it's not always easy, but the reward along the way--not only at the end--can astonish us. I hope that makes sense. I am writing from my heart.

"H" said...

What a beautiful post! I really love how the 6 authors of this blog stay away from self-righteous dogmatism about parenting methods and focus on what really matters in raising saints.

Practical question: this is the third time in a week I've heard/seen a plug for the Ergo carrier. What makes it special? I watched the how-to video on their website and it looks tricky, particularly the back carry. And it doesn't look like it provides a cover-up for nursing either. So what are its special advantages over, say, a Baby Bjorn?

Right Said Red said...


Amen. So eloquent and well said. God bless you for taking to the time to type up your thoughts and share them with all of us!

Mary Alice said...

I am a big fan of the ergo. Red and I joke because the instructional DVD is all about how it supports the attachment parenting lifestyle, to which neither of us subscribe -- this is why we use it for our crunchy cred!

So, you can use the ergo for front, back or side carry. You can carry a pretty heavy child on your back (or front), I have done it with a two year old, my bjorn only got me up to a few months (I have larger children). The ergo has good back support and a hip strap, so it is like carrying camping equipment in a good backpack with the weight well distributed. You can get your baby onto your back safely by yourself, something I was not able to do easily with my Kelty backpack.

On the video, they show a nursing cover position, but this would not be discreet enough for me, so it might not be as good as a sling for that, but nursing while grocery shopping was not on my list of needs, so I can't say much about that aspect.

Also, vs. a frame backpack, I like that you can throw the Ergo into your bag or under your stroller to have when you need it.

I am obsessed with baby gear, as I had four children under 4 and lived in New York City so I needed lots of transport options. I recently had my youngest in the ergo all day long, while doing errands in the city, and it worked out really well and did not exhaust me, which is saying alot because I was also hauling around the other 4. Oh, and it was raining, and the Ergo head cover helped with that, one more advantage to the bjorn.

Mine is in brown and tan organic cotton, and I love it!

BTW, I am looking for a really simple sling for side carrying that would fit well for a tall woman, Lion is teething and wants to be held all the time, and my arms are getting tired, if anyone has suggestions.

texas mommy said...

The first time that I reconnected with Mary Alice after Princeton was when Right Said Red put me in touch with her as I was struggling with guilt issues over not being able to nurse. This post is like an extended version of what she emailed me at the time, something for which I am still grateful! Her perspective (being a bit past the first-time postpartum mom stage) helped me to see taking care of my baby as part of the bigger picture..trying to raise a happy, holy family! Thank you!

k said...

Beautiful. This post echoes within me the conversation that you and I have had many a time about mothering guilt and pressure.

You have eloquently stated what our purpose as parents is here and I think it relates to our purpose as fellow mothers. Our jobs to each other is to offer support, advice when it is asked for, and love, understanding, laughter, and shoulders to cry on.

It is easy when faced with so many parenting choices to become immersed in the rightness of one dogma, to need to justify it over all other philosophies. But our role as fellow mothers is to support without judgment of each other, to allow for differences of philosophy.

You guys are doing a great job here, what a wonderful place to showcase this mothering bond that we have with each other.

Joanne said...

I bought a Moby with this last baby of mine and I used it when she was tiny, but not since. It might be good for a taller person, though, because it's so flexible.

I loved this post. I have been really really struggling with being a good mother lately, I have a newborn and my three year old has just been found to be on the autism spectrum, which we long suspected but are still freaked out about. I feel so complainy and sad so often, I had to just do something about it. I had an epiphany of sorts the other week and I thought - this is my vocation - it's God's idea that I am a wife and mother, so I better start acting like it. I figure it was Mother Teresa's vocation to serve the sick and hungry and I never saw her saying "BOY these people are poor! I didn't sign up for THIS!" It has really helped my attitude, as does finding blogs like this and reading posts like this in particular. I want to make a family here on earth and I want to be with them in the next world and that is bigger than any complaints I have about my baby napping badly or my son freaking me out about one thing or another. So thanks, this is really beautiful and so helpful for me to read at this time.

AR's & J's mama said...


Look up www.slinglings.com. They have many many sizes of slings, and they give you instruction on how to measure as well as have a guide for you to input you height, weight, bra size, shoulder to hip measurement, etc to ensure proper fit. It has videos of the different positions, and the fabrics are beautiful! I have a 3 month old, and I love it. I did not use a sling with my first, and I wish I had. Good luck!


Right Said Red said...

Love the Ergo, great support! I also own a baby Bjourn and the Ergo is much more comfortable on my back and shoulders. It is pricey, but worth it!

"H" said...

Thanks for the info on the Ergo. I'm just wondering, after reading the info on their website that is adamently opposed to outward-facing carriers: what if your baby LIKES facing out and seeing the world? Doesn't the baby get bored staring at your chest? My mom tells me all the time how, as a baby, I constantly wanted to see and experience new things and would get fussy if I didn't have a lot of visual stimulation. I would think babies like that would hate the Ergo. Maybe I need to wait to find out what kind of personality my baby has before choosing what type of carrier to invest in?

Right Said Red said...

Tx Mommy,

First, I would like to just call you Tex ;-)

Second, someday you should type up a post about your post-partum experience and attempts at nursing Dash and Jack-Jack. I think a lot of women could relate to your struggles.

And BTW, I'm always impressed with how you pump and give your kiddos breastmilk for so long! But then again, I find a lot of things about your mothering impressive ;-)

Right Said Red said...

They can't face out at first, but once they can hold their head up they look to the side and can see everything. I had this concern too...and it is no longer an issue now that my baby is a bit older. All of my children have enjoyed facing out with my old carrier...it was one of my favorite features of my old carrier. The Ergo, however, is so much more comfortable, and the baby is able to see a lot just by turning his/her head to the side.

texas mommy said...

"I am looking for a really simple sling for side carrying that would fit well for a tall woman"

I use the basic
maya wrap sling
which is easy to use for a side carry with once Lion can sit with support. It comes sized for different heights...I'm *not* tall so I got the small and there was still a ton of extra fabric. When used with the shoulder cap, it was much easier on my back than a bjorn.

Also, the birth centers in our area sell locally made slings, which I wish I had known 3 years ago. They are cheaper and cuter than the one I have! You may look into that...

"H" said...

Thanks for all the baby carrier advice -- very helpful!

Anonymous said...

Mary Alice - check out kangarookorner.com, and get a pouch, not a sling. They're great for side carrying for a long, long time, and don't have all the extra fabric of a Moby (which I've owned) or a regular sling. I'm almost 6 feet tall and have used mine with two kids all the time. Love it.

Lovely post; I really get a lot out of this blog.

B-Mama said...

Wonderful thoughts, Mary Alice. I wish I had a tape recorder of your thoughts on hand throughout the day for reference. You are such a wise mother and woman! Thank you!

Christine Meyer said...

Hello everyone,

I have two kids with severe developmental disabilities caused by a very rare genetic disorder. When my 8-year old was born, he had feeding difficulties: my husband spent the first six weeks of George's life feeding him with a syringe and feeding tube, while I used the breast pump every two hours. We were never able to successfully breastfeed, and he still has feeding issues. (He takes 80% of his nutrition from Pediasure from a bottle.) By the time he switched to cow's milk at ten months, I had four extra months worth of breast milk in our freezer. I still say that my two greatest accomplishments were graduate school and producing 14 months worth of breast milk in 10 months.

When George's sister was born three years later, she was diagnosed with the same disorder. (He wasn't fully diagnosed until six weeks before she was born.) My husband followed the same feeding procedure with her for the first six weeks as well. Anna doesn't have the same difficulties as George, and I was able to breastfeed her. I was so thankful for the experience, and that I didn't have to pump so much. (I hated the stupid thing.)

What made the difference was a woman in the pediatrician's office who happened to mention to me, "Did you know that many babies with Down's Syndrome can successfully breastfeed even after they've been on the bottle?" (I think that woman must have been one of God's angels; I never saw her again. She'll be richly rewarded for that comment, I'm sure.) It never occured to me that you could do that, reintroduce a baby to the breast after being on the bottle. I also figured that since George's disorder caused him to learn things 20 times slower than normal, it stood to reason that it take at least that long to teach Anna to breastfeed. Well, it didn't, and we were able to figure it out in about one month.

Of course, it doesn't mean that I wasn't able to bond with George. In some ways, I'm closer to him. He's a snuggler, which I love, while his sister is more over-the-top about her affection. I do wish, though, that I knew as much with him as I did with her.

Just goes to show what a difference a little bit of tenacity and a well-placed angel will do.