Week 3 – Constant Vigilance!

This is part 3 (as in the third week of parenting) in a series I’m muddling through on my experience as a mother. This is just a conversation about my experience – what I did, and what I might do differently next time. It’s not meant as a guide for what I necessarily would think is right for you, so use your judgment because every baby and every mom is different. Please don’t construe any of this as medical advice and consult your doctor/pediatrician/local witch doctor before doing…anything ever.

You’ve got two solid weeks of motherhood under your belt and now your baby is entering his third week. Hopefully you’re starting to recover from the shock, both mental and physical, of childbirth. At three weeks, I was completely physically recovered but mentally a mess — the sleep deprivation had caught up to me and I was still scrambling to catch up and establish a new normal. It felt like the pace of life was going too fast, I was rushing just to maintain. I’m hoping things are easier on you, but if they aren’t yet, just keep reminding yourself that these chaotic first weeks do eventually end and you will find your bearings sooner than you think (but later than you would rather).

Odds are, the breastfeeding thing is still confusing, painful and tiresome, but if you’ve got some support and a good lactation consultant, you’re on your way and it will get easier. Or you’ve moved on to formula and are now able to focus on the baby. Do whatever works. Now let’s focus on that baby!

Your baby is a glorious example of evolution, tailored to manipulate you on an instinctual, emotional level. If you’re neuro-typical (I like to call you guys “Happy Puppies” after my mating partner’s demeanor), aka ‘Not Autistic,’ you can probably just relax and let your instincts kick in.

I find the natural abilities of the Happy Puppy magical and baffling. Did you know that if person A smiles, and person B sees it, person B feels happy not just on an intellectual level (because they enjoy when person A is pleased), but as an instinctual response to the visual of smile?

I don’t do that. Apparently that is what emotional empathy is, probably why I’ve always had a hard time telling the difference between empathy and sympathy. That isn’t to say that I don’t feel happy when I see someone smile, it just takes me a split-second longer to process it – I like person A, so I am happy that they are happy. Personally, I feel like my version of empathy is a little more genuine – it’s not just a primitive reaction. For the same reasons, I also don’t mimic others’ body language, facial expressions or unspoken (often illogical) social rituals.

This…complicated my interactions with my very primitive, possibly Happy Puppy new baby.

A baby is designed to communicate with you using cries, body language, and facial expressions. At birth, a newborn’s facial expressions are almost fully mature and functional (they have been found to display joy, sadness, fear, disgust, interest, surprise, anger and affection).

Since my knowledge of feelings as expressed by the body and the face is learned, not innate, I have to consciously figure out what the Sprout is trying to tell me – I don’t just feel sad when he feels sad, or angry when he feels angry.

Knowing this compounded my burden as a new mother – I was constantly anxious in his early months because I knew he could miss out on timely, appropriate responses from me when he was in distress. Knowing that he could be a Happy Puppy like his father, I worried that if I let the stresses of new motherhood show on my face, his feelings would instinctively mimic mine and he would in turn feel distress. I spent most of his early months with my face more or less permanently twisted into a rictus of a smile, trying to work all of my orbicular muscles just so to fully mimic an authentic ‘happy’ smile so he could reap the effects of reflected contentment. When he changed his face to an identifiable emotion, I would also copy it for a second, then move back into the smile in an attempt to relieve him, as I’ve read most happy puppies do without thinking. In sporadic, day-to-day interactions with adults, I am really good at this – so much so that most people don’t believe me when I tell them I’m autistic. Doing this every moment of the day is a little harder.

I worried that I was missing the early signs of discomfort, anger, and sadness on his little face, forcing him to resort to crying or screams to tell me what he needed. While Happy Puppy moms can instinctively read and then comfort their infants before a bad situation causes too much trauma, I probably missed many of his earlier subtle cues. To compensate, I spent what little power my sleep-deprived brain reserved to study every twitch of his facial muscles, running it through the mental legend I’ve developed over the years to translate the feelings of others.

It was, to say the least, exhausting.

All of that eye contact was probably great for him – newborns prefer the sight of a face (especially mom’s face) in those early weeks. In fact, in the first month of life, newborns are pretty blind – they can only focus about 8″ away, most of the world appearing as if through frosted glass. I know ‘they’ say you can’t spoil a newborn, but I have my suspicions. Maybe he was born in constant need of the kind of social stimulation that I find so exhausting. (From birth he only seemed happy in loud crowds with lots of eye contact and conversation, all of which I find draining.) But I suspect at least a little bit of his wonderful and yet exhausting personality might be from the over-vigilance I exercised in responding to his every need as soon as I possibly could, in keeping him literally (the real meaning of the word) attached to another human at all times of the day, and in staring, staring, staring at him with  that smile, doing my best impression of motherese (which also didn’t come naturally) for those first couple of months.

In addition to the vigilance, I also attempted to manufacture an understanding of his cries – I studied the Dunstan Baby Language and later found out the benefits of ‘The Pause‘ utilized by parents with more confidence than I can ever muster.

I’ve since learned both by study and trial and error that hungry cries tend to be rhythmic and repetitive, anger is demonstrated by a loud, prolonged wail, and pain starts suddenly, with gaps of held breath. After months of motherhood I’ve worked up a stronger hide to the Sprout’s anguished screaming (never whimpering, he always goes from 0 to 60 in seconds) but after too many attachment parenting books and a the months of nagging fear that I was starving him, I’ve become conditioned to jump if he so much as inhales as if to cry.

Proponents of the attachment parenting movement try to tell us that cries are an alarm for a need and no cries should be ignored – that these needs should be met consistently, every time, and as soon as possible. After months of attempting this, I’m not so sure I agree.

For one thing, it just doesn’t feel right. I know it’s supposed to feel natural to want to hold your baby all of the time and to respond immediately to every cry, but if I hadn’t had such a dysfunctional milk issue, I wouldn’t have assumed that every cry meant hunger the way I did for the first six months. If I had gotten out to a normal start, I probably would have let him fuss for twenty seconds so I could stop to spit out my toothpaste, wipe my ass or sigh and collect myself before another few hours of acrobatic baby squats – the only thing that would guarantee a temporary respite from the screaming.

If I had given myself some slack, the Sprout would be better at self-soothing – something that gets harder and harder to teach him as he gets older. After interrogating the mothers of babies who put themselves to sleep – the ones who didn’t have to resort to crying it out methods, they all used some form of ‘the pause‘ such as the one detailed in ‘Bringing Up Bebe‘ by Pamela Druckerman. I wish (ahh, retrospect!) someone had told me about this concept before he turned four months old, when I finally realized I was a little over zealous in my attentions. At nine months old, the Sprout is finally on a regular and somewhat reasonable sleep schedule. But it took a lot longer than it needed to. As it is, he could be much better at linking his sleep cycles (his father is up every couple of hours or so to soothe him back to sleep or re-insert a pacifier) and I think knowing how to pause early on would have helped.

Which brings us to the concept of independence. Self-soothing is a part of that, giving your baby a moment to collect himself, offering him some time to learn to deal with things himself. In this, I also agree that you can spoil an infant. A few moments alone, especially at this young age when he won’t really register your absence, could be beneficial. As a new mom, I was terrified to leave the Sprout alone, even for thirty seconds. I went to the bathroom alone once (once!) in his first month, leaving him in his bassinet five feet from the bathroom, positive that he would be dead of SIDS by the time I got back. He was fine, obviously. At the time, I thought he needed me, he demanded my attention. Keep in mind how little sleep I was getting (less than five 20-minute naps a day) so it was hard to separate my fears from his actual requests. In ‘Montessori From the Start,‘ Lillard and Jessen detail the benefits of starting to train infants in autonomy and independence early. It makes sense to start what I like to call ‘independent study’ early. I want the Sprout to know that being alone isn’t a state to be feared, but to be savored. Time to focus on a task, to daydream, to rest, to participate in unstructured, creative play, even to be bored – it’s sparse in our culture and I hope to give him lots of these opportunities as he grows up.

The Principles of Montessori are a stark contrast to the popular Attachment Parenting movement. To be an ‘attached’ parent, according to proponents such as Dr. William Sears Family Empire, involves lots of hands-on contact – the baby spends most of his time in his parents arms or a sling, co-sleeping and breastfeeding are encouraged. Fostering a baby’s trust in his parents through touch and responsiveness, in theory, will make for a more confident, comfortable individual later on.

I think there are a lot of good ideas in the movement, but there are also many opportunities to take things overboard, and that’s where I have an issue. Other than telling parents (specifically, mothers) that burnout is a risk and to be avoided, there is no suggestion for how to determine how much is too much, no ideas on how to balance your own needs with your child’s, no allowance for the idea that maybe babies just cry for no reason and it’s not your fault. Sure, they point out that if you are burning out, they offer not-so-helpful vague suggestions like ‘burnout means its time to make a change’ or ‘get outside help’ or even to take a few days and rest up – as if any of these are options for most families. To the best of my knowledge, most parents are just scrambling to get through – if they believe they are doing everything in their power to get by, what exactly should they change? If ‘outside help’ was a possibility, wouldn’t they already be using it? And if spending a couple of days resting up were an option, I wouldn’t have been drunk from sleep deprivation like I was in the first six months of the Sprout’s life. The principles of attachment parenting are like communism – they are great theories, but they don’t work in real life where parents don’t have extended family with free time for babysitting, unlimited maternity leave, a nanny, and the core-muscles of an acrobat. Sure, there are some people for whom the principles work, but those people have calmer, healthier babies from the start, seemingly unlimited patience, and a serene temperament that doesn’t come naturally to me, and I suspect, to most of us.

If I had it to do over again (which I hope to, as I’d love to have a multi-kid household), I’d pick something more balanced, something between the Montessori independence and the attachment parenting coddling. I would love to spend some time stimulating her vestibular system in a sling – but this time I’m investing in a nice bouncy chair to give my arms a break. I’ll probably co-sleep for the first four months like I did with the Sprout so I can get some sleep between feedings and to reduce the risk of SIDS, but I’ll attempt naps in a crib, instead of in my lap, to give me enough time to perform basic life functions. I’ll give her some time alone, in a safe place, where she can ponder the lines of a mobile and think her thoughts without interruption. And the smiling? Well, that’s what big brothers are for.

Have you been through week three? Tell me your thoughts, your tips for getting through it, and your take on the autonomy vs. attachment debate.

One thought on “Week 3 – Constant Vigilance!

  1. It sounds like you came way from your research with a different perspective on attachment parenting than I did. I consider my approach to be attachment parenty, but giving them lots of freedom to bang themselves up is part of it. The difference I would say is between forced and voluntary independence.

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