Thursday, July 15, 2010

Parenting as Path

There's an interesting discussion about attachment parenting (commonly known by the acronym AP) on Erin Manning's blog, with a lot going on in the combox.  When my son was born I joined a hard-core group of AP moms in New York City (everything undertaken by New Yorkers ends up being hardcore), but I became disenchanted when the group leaders began insisting that the only true AP was UP -- i.e., Unconditional Parenting, the vague and somewhat kooky parenting philosophy promulgated by non-doctor, non-psychologist, non-scientist, and non-teacher Alfie Kohn -- and that to say no to one's child was an act of aggression.  There was a prevailing ideology in the group that by AP-ing your baby, you would create kind, compassionate, loving, empathetic children, and would thus change society, but I began to question that premise.  And then there was this guy who joined the group and would complain on our email listserv about how he believed firmly in AP, but his wife did not, and why weren't we all just hooking up with each other anyway?  Although I met my best friend, Really Rosie, in that group, the whole thing was over for me before very long.

I also used to go to La Leche League meetings in the Bronx, and that was the group I really preferred.  The LLL meetings on the Upper West Side that many of my AP confrères attended were full of the subtle judgment and oneupmanship that are endemic to every style of parenting in New York City, but submerged, here, in the crunchy ethos of groovy, conscious mothering.  My Bronx meetings, on the other hand, were full of relaxed, funky Orthodox Jewish moms of many children from Riverdale who would tell the new black and Latina moms not to worry if they had to supplement with formula, that even trying to breastfeed once in a while counted -- rather unorthodox advice, pun intended, for La Leche League, but suited to the reality of very low breastfeeding rates in the nation's poorest urban county.     

My own sister is becoming something of a Buddhist parenting guru.  She writes articles on parenthood for a Buddhist publication, and has started a blog about parenting as a tool toward enlightenment. 

As for me, in the end, however, I suppose that all parenting philosophies, like all ideologies, are bids that we put our faith in in the hope of not completely breaking down and flying off into a million pieces in the face of the entropy that is both parenting and life.  Back where I come from, there is a very strong and compelling illusion that hangs over everything and permeates the very atmosphere like a sort of noxious gas, which encourages us to believe we can make things happen, that we can do it, that we can get it -- in short, that we are in control of our lives (this may not be a notion peculiar to New Yorkers, but I suspect it's more pronounced there than elsewhere, because of the concentration of highly capable people in the city siphoned off from other locales).  It seemed to me when I was in my AP-NYC group that attachment parenting was being wielded as a kind of talisman in the face of chaos, with the devoutly-believed-in premise that if a mother AP-ed, her kids would be okay.  When other people's kids were not okay, it was because they were not attachment parents.  And when Really Rosie's son started to exhibit challenging behavior consistent with neurological difference, her own commitment to attachment parenting was questioned by her friends:  did she really baby-wear?  Because if she did, surely her son would be kind and gentle, not difficult and challenging (and, in fact, a fellow AP group member had seen Rosie on her way to an audition pushing her child in a stroller, and had shunned her, admitting later that she just couldn't talk to those moms who used strollers).

Now my own son has been classified as a preschool child with a disability, though the nature of that disability has not been clearly defined.  He's going to see a developmental pediatrician in October; we have to go more than a hundred miles away because there are none in our area, and we couldn't get an appointment any sooner.  My son is smart, happy, and deeply empathetic, with a prodigious memory and some striking musical gifts which, I believe, go beyond the genetic and are probably neurological in basis; he is also difficult, challenging, deflective, avoidant, hyperactive, and displays repetitive motor movements when he's excited or happy, which is a lot of the time.  He seemed to be developing fairly typically until we moved here just before his third birthday, and now I torment myself, wondering if his problems are the result of toxic chemical residue in the environment, left over from the time when this town was a manufacturing center (in fact, I found out that my area is a "hotspot" for autism spectrum disorders; one in 55 boys here are diagnosed on the spectrum, as opposed to one in 70 nationwide).  Perhaps moving here was a mistake.  But how can we know?  How can one ever know?

Erin Manning suggests that humility is the most necessary parenting tool, one that trumps ideology.  I believe she is right.  I don't know what I'm doing, as a mother or in any other area of my life.  Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and don't know where I am, both literally and figuratively.  But I keep asking -- no, demanding of, shouting and raging at -- God to at least give me one tiny little clue each day to let me know what I'm supposed to do next.


Anonymous said...

One of my biggest frustrations when my children were babies and toddlers was not knowing exactly what was wrong. "Maybe he's teething, maybe his ear hurts, maybe he has gas..." and so on. Even when they began to communicate well, there was still high should I let the fever go before I call the it OK that at four years old he still can't sleep through the night without climbing into bed with us at least once...
These memories lead me to offer a couple of ideas which likely echo what you have already considered.
One is that perhaps the move was difficult for your son, and these are the ways he is manifesting that fact. Another is that these issues have become apparent at the age he is at, not as the result of toxicity, but because the inner clock of his development set the timetable.
It sounds like you have a very gifted child, and sometimes exceptional gifts have a unique UPC code on the tag. That you might receive all the graces necessary to read that code, I enfold you in the loving care of the Holy Family.

Enbrethiliel said...


I once got involved in one of those "Parenting that way will ruin the child" controversies--and I'm afraid I wasn't on the charitable side.

But while it is true that some parents have hurt their children with their choices, which could have so easily been avoided, we also have many cases of wonderful people with terrible families and awful cases from the best backgrounds. The lack of control parents have over how their children will ultimately turn out is the scariest thing of all, I think.

Grace is such a huge factor--and second to it is the child's own free will. Parents are powerless against both--which is sometimes a curse and sometimes a blessing.

But these are just the thoughts of one who has never parented, although she has been parented by another woman who tried her best but fell a lot.

Pentimento said...

Thank you so much, Anonymous, really.

The truth is that taking care of vulnerable little people is the scariest thing I've ever done. And now that we're in the process of adopting, I have the idea that my capacity for love will make me a natural as an adoptive mom, and I have the nagging feeling that I'm wrong, oh so wrong.

R. is gifted, as I suspect many if not most developmentally delayed children are in certain ways. I've come to believe that every gift comes with the cross, or that maybe the cross *is* the gift.

God bless you.

Pentimento said...

Enbrethiliel, I think you are quite right.

Rodak said...

My wife and I arranged our lives, first in NYC and then here in Dogpatch, so that one of us always was with our two daughters. Actually, that was true in NYC. Here, they had my parents added to the mix. Neither of them was outside of the care of family until the year before they were to enter kindergarten, when each of them spent a half-day at pre-school to begin being "socialized." This involved considerable economic sacrifice, but I would do it all again in a New York minute, if that were possible.
When we lived in NYC, I had them from 3:30 p.m. until they went to bed. Here, I had them from the time they woke up in the morning until 3:30 p.m. I loved it all.
I think that what kids need most (other than love) is simply to be treated like people. I don't think that making a "project" of them is a good thing. Honesty, encouragement and access seemed to work pretty well.

GretchenJoanna said...

I had been praying for you about the adoption, and am happy to hear mention of it progressing. I will add your son and your parenting angst to my prayers now.

That word about humility is really true, and fits in with the Bible verse, I think in James, that God gives grace to the humble. Our own skills and ideology are always inadequate; who could hope to accomplish anything without God's grace?

I also believe that praying for our children is the most important thing we do for them, way beyond any other of the many ways we show our love. Only their Heavenly Father is the perfect parent who can carry them through every eventuality.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your prayers. They mean much more to me than I can say.

I think the worst part is that you really can't keep your children safe from harm.

Dorian Speed said...

I like to read parenting books from time to time, but I usually don't enjoy groups formed for the purpose of discussing How To Parent. It just stresses me out. Books don't follow up with you to see if you implemented their suggestions. And you can close a book if you don't like what it's saying.

Having said that, I will now be uncharitable and recount a story from a moms' group in which a toddler was screaming about having to share a toy with my daughter. Her mom kept saying, "Give with joy! With joy!" and I really wanted to quote The Princess Bride ("you keep on using that word...").

Pentimento said...

I am truly laughing out loud. That is hilarious, DS!

If you want to feel like a bad parent in a whole host of new ways, you will do what I am doing right now, which is reading a sheaf of Waldorf parenting books. They have the appeal for me that reading cookbooks and fairy tales do -- setting forth the notion that if you do certain prescribed things, everything will be magical and pretty for your children and in your home. I *want* to believe it, really I do . . .

Dorian Speed said...

Another thing about parenting groups, in my limited experience, is that they seem to frequently turn into either husband-bashing or complaining about one's own parents and what a bad job they did. There was a good post at Darwin Catholic a while back on this topic. I know that not everyone comes from perfect childhoods, but I feel like there's something a little disloyal about airing out all of one's grievances and how you'll be sure not to make the same mistakes. ("you" generic, obviously)

I know I probably don't need to over-clarify, but I am not talking about actually abusive or damaging childhoods but rather "my mom let me drink CapriSuns and now I have a weight problem, thirty-five years later. What a bad mom she was."

Honeybee said...

It's one of the peculiarities of today's milieu that everything thing must be diagnosed and, of course, medicated.

Sometimes this is certainly indicated and appropriate. Other times most emphatically not.

No matter what the "experts" say or don't say, trust your instincts as your son's mother.

Consider putting aside the books for a season to clear you head and let the Spirit minister to you and comfort you.

As always, keeping you in prayer!

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Honeybee, for your prayers and advice. I will take it.

Enbrethiliel said...


I imagine that reading mommy blogs would be enough to make any mother feel as if she's doing everything wrong. I can think of a couple kept by women who are straight out of a fairytale. One of them even paints her own pretty murals on the walls so that her children's bedrooms and the homeschool classroom looks like a picture book! And she's really good! And there are lots of kids, and pets, and homemade everything, and now that you mention it, Waldorf stuff. And I'll shut up now because I see she's on your sidebar . . .

After I found that enchanted blog, I came across another that was a little different. This mother's children played with store-bought plastic toys and the whole family liked watching videos together. I remember being really surprised when I read about the videos. ("But the really *good* Catholic mothers don't allow that sort of thing!") I eventually managed to shake myself down to earth.

Pentimento, I have my own "wistful literature" that makes me believe that if I only do certain things in the prescribed manner, my life will be better--or at least I will get the promised results. And then nothing happens.

But sometimes I get a golden moment, and without even thinking about what I should do, I wing it . . . and I find myself actually being magical for once.

Which is all easy for me to say, yes, because I am not responsible for another little life.

Anonymous said...

Ideology, Russell Kirk taught, is not simply a philosophy, but an inverted religion which promises to bring paradise on earth. Just about anything can become an ideology when is becomes an "ism."

Love your kids! Learn everything you can by studying the successes and failures of others. Pray. Prayer does not just prepare us for greater work, prayer is the greater work." (Oswald Chambers)

Everybody has a theory. Love your kids!

Pentimento said...

E, some of those Catholic mommy-blogs are like porn for me -- they appear to show a perfect fantasy world that fills me with wonder and longing, and leaving me with the feeling that actual porn probably leaves with the people who use it -- a sense of alienation, a feeling that I could never be a part of such a wonderful world.

TQ, is love enough? I often wonder about that. Perhaps it's different if you have a typically developing child; also, some of the adoption literature I've been reading seems to question that.

But I agree with you and Russell Kirk about ideology. And I wonder if my prayers are getting anywhere, or are just, as Enbrethiliel said in another context, like so many socks thrown over my shoulder.

Mac said...

My wife and I recently saw our youngest (of four) graduate from college, and have had at least our share of difficulties along the way. I don't know any parents who have not had at least their share of difficulties. The only thing I feel confident in saying about raising children is that nothing you can do is *guaranteed* to produce the result you want. The fact is that our control is really fairly limited. I used to think genes & environment were about 50-50 in their determination of how one's adult nature turns out. Now I think it's more like 70-30. Or maybe let's say 60-30 with the other 10% being random. Or 60-20-10-10 with the other 10 being the grace of get the idea.

New Yorkers may be more intense in turning a theory into a parenting ideology, but the tendency can be seen wherever Catholic home-schoolers gather together. And anybody who's been around that world long enough to see a generation grow up has seen some massive disasters. Looking back, you can always see things that you should have done differently, but, as with any might-have-been, you'll never know what difference that would have made. It might have been worse. You Will Never Know. Just try to do your best and pray, and realize you don't have the last word.