By Tamara Parnay
**Originally published in the Winter 2006-07 Balance issue of The Journal of API
Many attachment parents say that the API Principle, Striving for Personal and Family Balance, is the cornerstone of Attachment Parenting (AP). We tend to be less emotionally responsive when we are struggling to achieve balance in our families, and this lack of responsiveness may impact the quality of attachment between us and our children. We may need help when our family life is out of balance, but the wide range of parenting advice can be confusing, even overwhelming.
The topic of parenting contains a wide spectrum of theories, values, ideals, opinions, and experiences. So much mainstream parenting advice seems to contradict the very essence of AP that we may sometimes feel as though we are swimming upstream against a very strong current.
We are told that extended breastfeeding is unhealthy or abnormal; that co-sleeping is dangerous; that being emotionally responsive to our children’s physical and emotional needs spoils them and fosters their dependence on us; that we need to fill our lives with activities and things rather than with each other; and so on.
Essentially the mainstream model of parenting is telling us we need to be more parent-centered: Put our own needs first while training our children to become independent from birth. At its most extreme, this model encourages parents to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed before they had children. How big a price must children pay when they get in their parents’ way?
As opposed to the parent-centered model, which aims to keep the parents content, the child-centered model favors children’s happiness. It calls for parents to completely set aside their own needs in order to meet their children’s needs, but at what cost to parents?
Seven of API’s Eight Principles of Parenting are geared to the needs of children. The eighth principle, Striving for Personal and Family Balance, is the one principle that emphasizes the needs of all family members individually and in combination. This is not a parent-centered model nor a child-centered model. Rather, it is a family-centered way to parent.
True, children’s needs must be a priority and the younger our children, the more this is true. Yet, our children are one piece of the picture. In addition, the parents each have their own needs and their needs as a couple, children each have their own needs and their needs as siblings; and the family has needs, as a whole. It is important to remember that children are dependent on the health and well-being of their parents.
The principle of Balance is so important that, like the principle of Responding with Sensitivity, it must be applied to all other API principles for any situation. Whatever parenting decisions we make, we strive to be as emotionally responsive as we can be with our children. To best meet our family’s needs in an emotionally responsive way, we must balance the needs of each and every one of us.
Fortunately there are many ways to remain attached to our children. If a mother can’t breastfeed, she can provide as much nurturing touch as possible such as through bottle-feeding using breastfeeding behaviors, babywearing, massage, and/or co-sleeping. If both parents must work to pay the bills and put food on the table, they can find loving and consistent care for their child and spend as much quality time with their child as they are able.
If a parent cannot wear his baby, he can find ways to hold him often, and if possible, he can co-sleep with him. If neither parent can sleep with their baby or child, then they can have him sleep in proximity so that they can have him in their arms the instant he needs them. If a mother cannot continue to breastfeed her child and must wean him before either or both of them are ready, then she can do it gradually and sensitively while depending more and more on other nurturing behaviors.
It is challenging enough to maintain family balance without others telling us how to parent. Unfortunately, many societal pressures originate from parent-centered and child-centered sources and converge to cloud our options. This can prevent us from making informed and unfettered decisions about how to best balance our family’s needs.
We can only consistently make the best decisions if we peacefully and mindfully consider any options available to us and our family. To give full consideration to all options, we must shut out the pressure so we can access our rational thought processes and, more importantly, our intuitive powers.
It may be helpful to create a “mindful place,” a contemplative state in which:
- Thoughts and feelings aren’t clouded by externally imposed ideals and values;
- Options available to us are validated supported and accepted by those around us;
- We do not feel pressured to choose one option over another;
- We do not feel inadequate or guilty about choices we make and have made;
- We are free to explore and reflect on our options.
Identifying a Good Listener
Finding a good listener can help create a mindful place. This person might be a counselor a friend or family member, an API Leader or API Support Group members, or participants of another parent support group. To recognize a good listener, keep these listening traits in mind when talking with someone:
- Sets aside her biases and ideals;
- Listens carefully and with empathy;
- Validates feelings of exhaustion, frustration, resentment, etc ;
- Asks thoughtful questions that help us find our own answers;
- Offers unbiased information and suggestions if we ask for them;
- Respects our intelligence and trusts that we are capable of finding a balance that is best for our family;
- Trusts that we want what is best for our family.
A good listener enables us to listen to ourselves. He realizes we know our situation better than anyone. He does not impose his ideals on our situation; if he did, he would be putting his principles before our needs. He doesn’t want to create or aggravate an imbalance in our family life, which could strain the bond of attachment between us and our children.
Seek Unbiased Answers
When a good listener isn’t available, we may glean information elsewhere. When people offer advice that works for them but may not work for us, follow the proverbial “take what you want and leave the rest.” Consider focusing on solutions that balance each family member’s needs and combine ideas from different sources to address everyone’s needs.
Here are two scenarios:
To co sleep or not to co sleep? Parents-to-be Beth and Bryan cannot decide whether or not they will share a bed with their newborn, and they want to explore their options.
Parent-centered influences are causing them concern about the safety of co-sleeping, even though the parents don’t fall into any high-risk categories for co-sleeping. They are warned that co-sleeping with their baby will start a bad habit that will be hard to break. Moreover, they wonder if they will get better sleep if their baby is not sleeping in the same room with them. At the other end of the information spectrum, child-centered influences are touting the advantages of co-sleeping while putting down the parent-centered advice.
Beth and Bryan want to talk to someone who will take the time to learn about their unique family situation listen to their concerns and objectively present them with the benefits and challenges of co sleeping. This person would not advocate co-sleeping nor advocate putting the baby in a separate room. She would advocate the couple’s freedom to investigate options.
Beth and Bryan need to understand that their family’s sleeping needs may change and they aren’t stuck with their decision to co-sleep or not. They might want to experiment with different arrangements to balance everyone’s needs. Regardless of their decision, they need to be informed of the importance of prompt emotionally responsive nighttime parenting.
To wean or not to wean? Hanna needs support and advice because she has been having difficulty with nursing due to resentment, fatigue, and health issues, and is considering weaning her young child.
Parent-centered influences tell her to wean so she can look after her own needs. Child-centered influences tell her to continue breastfeeding for the sake of the child but without regard for her own needs.
Hanna needs unbiased impartial information about her options. She needs help from someone who does not advocate weaning nor continued breastfeeding. The helper would defend Hanna’s freedom to look into any options available to her. Hanna needs to weigh the effects weaning will have on her child on herself and on the mother-child relationship. She needs to consider the effects continued breastfeeding will have on her child on herself and on the mother-child relationship.
She must take into consideration the age of her child and how that impacts weaning and continued breastfeeding. She needs to know that there are compromises such as partial weaning, as in breastfeeding restricted to certain times of day or night, which could help her maintain a breastfeeding relationship with her child if that is what she wants. She also needs to know that total weaning is an option.
Hanna needs to follow her heart and get in touch with the best solution for her family in order to balance everyone’s needs. Regardless of what she decides, she needs to be informed of the importance of weaning as gradually and sensitively as possible.
Every Family is Unique
Attachment parents are united in their goal to raise securely attached children. Everyone of our families is otherwise unique in its needs and circumstances. Fortunately, for all of us, there are many ways to promote attachment, because the truth is circumstances may prohibit breastfeeding, staying home, wearing babies, co-sleeping, or other AP options.
Choices may not always include those that some parents maintain are ideal for all children. However, what is ideal for your family or mine may simply not be ideal for anyone else given our unique situations.
Our family relationships thrive when we are family-centered, emotionally responsive, and when we relate to each other with love and respect. Striving for balance is not always easy, but it is the key to raising securely attached children.