Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cry-It-Out and Trusting Each Other

Last week I read a post by Annie at PhD in Parenting that led me to a post about leaving babies to cry-it-out (CIO) to sleep. It got me thinking further about the way we mothers communicate with one another, why, what the consequences are, and whether I can do better.

What has turned into this post was initially a comment on Annie's post.  Here goes!

I think there is a lot of dishonesty from parent to parent, and even more from parents to non-parents.  I admit I am dishonest - I sugarcoat or lie by omission or degree about things like my temper and impatience and how HARD parenting really is sometimes.  I am trying to be better about it, because we (parents and future parents) deserve better.  We deserve to know what we're getting ourselves into before we have children, we deserve to know what the range of normal is for children (in sleep, eating, behavior, etc) and parental reactions to them - I think the dishonesty breeds guilt and animosity and self-doubt.

(I know, what the heck does this have to do with CIO?  I swear I'm getting there!)

Actually, when I think of CIO and the debate around it, I think specifically of another PhD in Parenting post that I have given a lot of thought to since it was posted.

There are a lot of cultural myths involved in parenting and, oddly, the myths are often completely contradictory to one another.  (A humorous illustration can be found here.)  They are upheld partly by the lack of firsthand knowledge-by-observation that a society not particularly keen on babies and children in public places seems to result in. Many of us go into our own birth-giving without ever witnessing a birth, and then go into parenting without having witnessed nitty-gritty parenting --- or having witnessed it at the grocery store and deemed it "bad parenting" when it's really just parenting out of context.  And again, the dishonesty - when we parent around other people (the babysitter, the fellow shoppers, etc) we are on our best behavior, and sometimes so are our kids!  Parenting thus seems so very black and white before you have kids!

I found the post about not asking why someone didn't breastfeed deepened my understanding of my own knee-jerk reactions to formula-feeding.  I realized that I have a level of distrust when someone says their supply disappeared or their baby self-weaned or any number of other things that are supposed to be so rare - and that I was completely undermining other mothers' confidence, not allowing myself to learn and grow in knowing them, and simply not helping when I let myself assume anything about them and what led to their choices.  I also started taking note that I distrusted what some moms told me about their children's sleep - specifically those that told me their child "just fussed" (while sounding sort of defensive or guilty about it - probably because they knew it referenced the black and white debate about CIO), and those who said their baby just went to sleep in a crib all night at x WEEKS old (or anything close to this statement, because my baby sure wasn't doing any of the above...and at almost 3 years old is still just the same - day and night - and often claims he "can't be alone.")

It seems to me now, on the topic of crying to sleep specifically, that there is a VERY broad range of what is meant by that - just like there is a really broad range of what could be meant by "I lost my supply" or "my baby weaned."  Essentially, I think there is often more to the story than "we CIO" or "we don't CIO."

I think there is very little (or maybe nothing) about parenting and all the specific parenting practices that is black and white.  It's all very nuanced.  And one decision leads to another, or one factor influences certain choices.  I always try to give parents the benefit of the doubt;  we're doing the best we can with what we've got and what we know.  And some parents do believe they "know" that their child "has" to CIO, but more because that's what society has told them than because that's what their gut says.  This is something the author of the maybe/sort-of pro-CIO post said - she was very specifically not in favor of "required" CIO.

It seemed to me in the comments I was able to read before my tired brain couldn't digest anymore that there was mainly an advocacy for following their instincts.  I would take this one step further and say that the problem isn't whether or not to let your baby cry - it's the advice that it's one or the other, black or white.  And you must subscribe to one camp or other in every situation.  What amount of crying constitutes CIO?  As a first-time mom, I was so entrenched in "not letting my baby cry" (because that was the commitment I made!) that I had a very hard time walking away even when I really should have - when I no longer had the energy or patience to comfort and parent my baby anyway!  Yes, my gut said not to let my baby cry, but it was compounded by the "crying causes brain damage" rhetoric that I am currently very uneasy about (and I'm wondering if it is the same unease that comes with the conversation about using the phrase "risks of formula" instead of the "benefits of breastfeeding").

The other issue is that some families do not have the support/set-up/resources to make work whatever their gut is telling them.  A family not getting enough sleep, no one who can facilitate a nap for the parent(s), full-time job(s), not enough space or adults to get some sleep without baby, etc, may well have to go against their instincts. 

To which I would like to use Annie's own words words from the comments because she said it so well:

"On the issue of guilt and judgment (separate comment for separate issue), we have done things as parents in some instances that we know is not the best. When we do that, we accept our limitations and know that we cannot be perfect all of the time.

"We do not, however, feel guilty because other people can and do make better choices. We also do not feel guilty when people post opinions or evidence that points to the fact that a different approach is better. If we can change for the better, we do. If we can’t we accept that."

I don't think an anecdote is really going to illustrate my thoughts any better, but I feel compelled to share it anyway!  I do happen to know a toddler who was parented to sleep for many months, and was parented back to sleep many times a night for those months.  His mother and I were zombies together!  And one night his mother left him to cry while she took a break and got a glass of water.  He fell asleep and she discovered that, that whole time, he really wanted her to leave him alone.  I think he may have done a little crying the next couple of nights - but he had slept so much better after putting himself to sleep, and my friend was having a kind of "aha" moment about her baby.  He's now almost 3 and is the same way - he doesn't really like to be touched/hugged/snuggled.  He says himself, "I no really love people..."

She continued to support me through numerous family members and even my son's pediatrician telling me my son "had" to CIO (we changed pediatricians - recommended vomiting was just too much for me).  My friend continued to advocate that I do what passed my gut check.

Beyond the gut check, if I hear someone contemplating CIO or otherwise struggling with sleep-deprivation, I might make some suggestions and see if they can find a way to get the sleep they need while also meeting what they say are their baby's nighttime needs.  But unless I am willing to step in and stay up with their baby (no thanks, I've got my own baby and toddler!), I have to respect if they decide CIO-against-the-gut-check is what they need to do.

And, of course, it is endlessly frustrating to me that we don’t have the sort of society or culture that supports parents, babies, and children in many ways – including getting adequate sleep.  Again, we do so much parenting in private.  Many of us do not feel comfortable asking for help in a situation like nighttime parenting – or, if we do, we don’t have anyone to ask unless we can pay them (like a night nurse or a postpartum doula), and then it seems decadent (don't we criticize celebrities for that?).  Most of us simply do not have a village raising our children.  In fact, for the most part, I think we're distrustful of the other potential villagers!  Someone told me once, "if you want something done right, do it yourself."  Well, parenting my kids is certainly something I want done right!

Photo Credit:  Dave Q on Flickr

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