Letting go – a parenting revelation

I don’t write much about parenting and Isaac. This isn’t a parenting blog. But something has happened recently which has been quite monumental and I think it’s worth writing about.

Background

There’s a bit of background needed here.

The first thing is that we’ve taken an approach to parenting that fits a lot of the criteria of an approach called “Attachment Parenting”. Attachment parenting is more of a philosophy than a set of rules but is generally seen to include practical things such as breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, baby-led weaning and then in general giving your child a whole lot of respect and choice.

We’ve done a lot of these – some to more of a degree than others. Plus we’ve had the enormous privilege of Sally taking a long maternity and then working part time, and me taking half a day a week to look after Isaac, as well as working from home and so generally being around a lot.

Other practical out-workings of this approach for us have been things like:

  • Isaac doesn’t really have a comforter: he doesn’t have a dummy (we tried! he hated it), or suck his thumb. He’s had a cuddly toy dog which has worked quite well, and more recently has gone to sleep holding toy trains.
  • Isaac gets around under his own steam…a LOT! He’s not spent much time in a buggy at all. Isaac has mostly preferred walking or being carried in a sling, and we’ve all enjoyed that! (Of course, he loves going on a bike too! Hooray!)
  • We try hard not to use external motivations to get Isaac to do things. We don’t use rewards such as sticker charts, to the extent that when we took Isaac to the dentist and the dentist gave him a sticker for “being good”, he was totally baffled.

(I want, at this point, to point out that these are just statements of what we’ve done. I make no moral judgements. It’s the path we’ve chosen, it’s been flippin’ hard at times, and there are somethings that I wish we had done, or that had just been, different.  If you don’t subscribe to the attachment parenting philosophy then that’s fine, there have, in fact, been times when I’ve wanted to utterly reject it too! But it’s the path that we’ve chosen.)

And (and I’m not sure if this is related to parenting style or not) we’ve had real sleep issues.

And, more recently, Isaac has become more and more attached to and demanding of his mum at bedtime and first thing in the morning.  With any requests to “go to sleep with Daddy?”, or “go downstairs with Daddy?” met with quite fierce protestations and cries of “Want mummy. Want MUMMY!!  WANT HER!!!!”

Toddler says “NO”!

I’ve found this day-by-day rejection of my presence and involvement highly stressful and emotional.  I’d already conceded that I wasn’t wanted overnight and I was fairly determined not to give in over being involved at morning and bedtime.  And this led to mornings and bedtimes being emotional and stressful for all of us as Isaac and I had our little stand-off arguments about whether or not I was going to be involved, hoping that he would “learn” something eventually.

Letting Go

After one particularly traumatic bedtime which I suppose represented the peak of frustration for all of us, I gave in. I would ask if I could be involved, but if he wanted mummy, I wouldn’t fight, and mummy would just have to get involved and take over at that point.

I felt pretty rubbish about this. I felt like I’d lost a battle with my 2.5 year old son.  I felt incompetent. I felt like I’d let myself and Sally down, and I wondered what we’d done wrong to get into that situation.

Transformation

That was, what, two weeks ago?

Let me just tell you what happened tonight.  Sally went out for the evening and I put Isaac to sleep.  In fact, this is the third night in a row that I’ve put Isaac to sleep.

Let me tell you what else.  Isaac LOVES spending time with me.  He asks for me to be involved in things, requests my presence at or help with activities. Yes, he did these things before, but there has been a marked increase in his desire to spend time with his daddy. He even bashed his head today and rejected Sally’s comfort and requested mine.

It turns out that me fighting with him, trying to mould him to my own expectations and desires, trying to get him to spend time with me, was actually the cause of him rejecting me.

In hindsight, and from his point of view, this makes complete sense. I was making unnecessary demands of him, and blowing into something between a mild strop and a complete rage when he stated that he wanted something else. He didn’t want to spend time with me because, frankly, I was a grumpy bully.

It sounds bonkers, but the way to get Isaac to do what I wanted him to do, was to let him do the thing that he wanted to do.

Sleep

We’ll come back to our other big struggle – sleep – in a minute.  First a quick-but-relevant aside.

Sally follows and reads articles by lots of people who are proponents of the attachment parenting philosophy.  One of these people, who Sally raves about, is “Lulastic“.

A few days ago Lulastic posted an article about Parenting and Mental Health. I was intrigued by it, probably mostly because I desperately need to be better at looking after myself, which the article talks about. But also because it referenced something that was termed “co-parenting”, described as “ensuring a fair split between two parents”.

Now, my experience has mostly been that attachment parenting in the early years leads to the child being very attached to the mother.  So I struggled to see how attachment parenting and co-parenting could fit: how can you share the work if the child is more attached to one parent?  You can see how that worked out in the comments on that post.  I still don’t think I have an answer, but everyone was very nice about my struggles anyway.

Anyway, what happened next was Lulastic wrote a post about treating children as equals.  Something I’ve been realising more and more is needed in my parenting. It really resonated with me.

She then wrote this follow-up day-in-the-life-of article showing how she tries to, and sometimes struggles to, treat her children as she would any adult.  And I was both surprised and proud as I read to be nodding my head thinking “we do that”, and “Isaac does that” a lot. It would seem we’re doing pretty well.

And then I hit the bit about 8pm: “Ramona has always just asked to go to bed when she is tired – is it possibly because we have never enforced bed time? Funnily enough it is nearly always around 7:30pm these days – classic bed time!”

And I swore to myself, in my head. And then I think I welled up and nearly cried.

You see, bedtime is one of Isaac’s most vulnerable times: He’s tired;  he’s not very good at sleeping; and I don’t think he likes being left alone really.

And yet, despite it being a time of great vulnerability, it’s been a “battle” of one form or another for as long as I can remember. It’s been a time of parent-enforced routine:

  • “We do bath, and then teeth, and then stories, and then prayers, and then bed.”
  • “You MUST clean your teeth!”
  • “You can have THREE books. We only have three books before bed.”
  • “We don’t take trains to bed now do we Isaac?”

I don’t swear an awful lot – this will sort of be the second time in a single blog post  – but… WHAT THE **** ARE WE DOING?!?!

The idea that Isaac might want his own bedtime routine has never really occurred to me. Yes, when he was younger and understood less and could communicate less, a routine was helpful in getting him to bed. But he’s his own man now. He’s a little person in a big world and he wants to learn to do things himself, and make his own choices.  I’d never tell Sally what order to do things in, or how many books to read before bed. Why should I determine those things for Sally? And why should I determine them for Isaac?

Perhaps, the whole sleep problem, is because, actually, Isaac hates going to sleep and being asleep, because sleep is a parent-enforced thing – a time of day when he has relatively little choice about what happens.

Perhaps, if we let go of our own pre/misconceptions about bedtime, and sleeping and let him choose what he does and when, he’ll just get on with it himself because he knows how to sleep and he knows when he’s tired and he just doesn’t want to fight us.

“Letting go” has, for me personally, been a revelation. Sally says, almost with a tear in her eye, that it’s transformed my relationship with Isaac. I don’t know what the rules are any more. Or if there are any. I’ve thrown them out and started again.

I don’t know what bedtime looks like any more.

But I’m actually hopeful that in the near future it’ll look a whole lot nicer than it does now!

  • Andy_in_Germany

    Thanks for your honesty in this post. It is sad, but a lot of parents seem to want to project a ‘perfect’ image so it is refreshing to see someone being vulnerable.

    We decided for various reasons to go the ‘other way’ in a sense, and put for various reasons we put our boys on a flexible routine from week one, and bedtime was a part of that. The sad thing is that people do react in funny ways, and it was actually one reason we were booted out from being staff of the bible college we worked in at the time.

    A flexible routine worked for us, but it isn’t for everyone, and there are all kinds of things that I’d have done differently and now we’ve just discovered that we are due #4 small person in December, which was a bombshell in our settled existence, but it means I get to have another go, which makes me very happy.

    It is sad though, that this decision resulted in a lot of broken relationships.

    One other thought: we found our boys went through attachment to one parent or the other and it came in waves. I think you did exactly the right thing in backing off and from our experience it will happen again. That’s the great thing about more kids: probably one of them will want Daddy at any given time.

    Your thoughts on the bedtime routine are interesting though so I’ll be thinking about that in the next few months…

  • Lulastic

    Wow, what a fascinating post and how INCREDIBLE that letting go has restored a bit of brokenness. I love what you say “I don’t know what bedtime looks like anymore” – it is a little bit how I felt when I began this journey “EEEEP NO REFERENCE POINTS NOW!” But our kids know :) We can just trust them.
    Intrigued to see how else you get one. You and Sally should start a joint parent blog :)