By Tracy G. Cassels
“The plural of anecdote is not data.”
As most of you will know, I’m a firm believer in providing evidence to back any statement. When I witness campaigns based on anecdotal evidence, it drives me mad. Hearing people say, “If my story helps change things…” drives me mad, especially when it contradicts the research (anti-co-sleeping campaigns, I’m looking at you). And yet, here I am about to share with you an anecdote. Not because I think it informs in the way research does, but because it offers the chance look at the issues around parenting in a way that hasn’t been done in the research already. You see, most of the time we talk about the repercussions around things like bottle-feeding, crying-it-out, putting a baby in their own room from birth, lack of touch, etc. as if they were be-all and end-alls, despite the fact that we all know deep down it’s a gradient scale in which we won’t cause our children to be useless, dysfunctional messes if we use a stroller or leave a baby to cry if we can’t attend to them right away because we’re suffering from PND. There will be some repercussions, no doubt, but we tend to catastrophize things and part of me acknowledges that it makes it hard for people to look to changing the way in which they parent if they feel they’ve already done so much damage they’ll never overcome it. And while we’re always going to need to admit that some damage may be done that our children will need to overcome, as was written about by Dr. Darcia Narvaez, there are also stories like this by Eileen Joy of the Live With Purpose who talks about coming around to Attachment Parenting well beyond the years we would expect it. Was it a fruitless change? Not at all. Because her children will reap the benefits of her change in parenting as opposed to years more of behaviours and practices we know to have deleterious effects. But if someone doesn’t jump on the bandwagon wholeheartedly, many of us tend to focus on the aspects they aren’t doing instead of focusing on what they are doing. I get it too, because we want to see babies being raised in a manner that helps them thrive, but I also believe that the smallest of changes can make a difference, even if that difference isn’t completely apparent. And so here is a personal story about how taking these changes to parenting one step at a time can do more good than we may give credit for…
My mother was born in New Jersey in 1951. My grandmother was big into listening what the doctors told her to do with respect to parenting which meant that she was out cold for the delivery and my mother was truly left to her own devices starting as a newborn. My grandmother never held her if she could avoid it (being told it would only promote clinginess and dependence), formula-fed her on a schedule, and left her to cry endlessly with no comfort in order to help her learn self-soothing. And 18 years later, my grandmother probably would have praised the doctors and boasted what great parenting it was. After all, my mother was a straight-A student, beautiful (she was a model in her teens), and gave up modeling in order to go to Princeton University as a female in the first full class containing women. Not too shabby.
What this glossy overview ignores is the damage that wasn’t as apparent. My mother suffered bouts of anorexia as a teen and anxiety, depression, and other problems throughout her adult life. My uncle, raised the same way, was an alcoholic prior to his death in 1992 and most likely suffered the same anxiety and depression, but I was too young to know too much about his life. My mother has also avoided touch as much as was possible, most likely because she never learned how to accept and give touch as an infant and child. I remember when I was 17 and a friend from high school died and the most I got from her was a very quick one armed hug and pat on the back—that was really all she could give and I think even that made her uncomfortable. The damage was there and it would have been easy to write her off as never being able to overcome these early experiences, and I think it’s fair to say it would be a near miracle for her to completely overcome them, but people can change, even if it’s slowly and only taking one step at a time.
While she would hardly be called an evolutionary parent today, my mother’s dislike of the medical system (based on her experiences as a child and young adult) meant she wanted nothing to do with it when it came to the birth of her child. So she found a family doctor willing to oversee a midwife and I was born, naturally, at home in 1979. By being brought into this world of natural childbirth, my mother was made aware of other aspects of evolutionary parenting she found empowering, such as full-term breastfeeding (and it really was the evolutionary aspect of it all that made it appeal to her). So I came into this world in a beautiful, healthy, and comfortable way and was at the boob until I self-weaned sometime between the ages of 3 and 4. The same can be said for my brother who was born in 1987 in the same room as I was born and also breastfed for over three years. For both of us though my mother was also fighting her demons and we had little touch outside of breastfeeding. We were stroller babies, left in our own cribs in our own rooms, and spent a lot of time sitting in bouncy chairs or jolly jumpers or anything that held the baby for my mother. And we bear the scars from it. While I can’t speak for my brother, I can say that it wasn’t until my husband that I had anything remotely close to a healthy relationship. (There are certainly other factors in my life affecting that, but I know that some of my issues surrounding intimacy had to do with not knowing how to allow someone to be close.)
With time though, my mother was able to overcome a bit more and by the time my sister was born in 1993 (also in the same room as my brother and I), she was not only breastfed until she self-weaned just after three years of age, but she also got to co-sleep with my mom. My mom moved out of my parents’ bedroom and slept on a sofabed outside what would be my sister’s room and my sister religiously co-slept for the first few years and occasionally until she was around eight. My sister had other factors to contend with growing up, and she had some wild child years, but she is so far in a way more mature than me when it comes to relationships, it’s remarkable. My husband has noticed this as well so I know it’s not just me glorifying her. I admit I’m a bit jealous because while I spent my years playing mind games and sabotaging every relationship I had, my sister has been with the same guy for over three years and while she has her moments of “crazy” (like most teenage girls), she owns them and has already learned the power of saying you’re sorry and of forgiveness—lessons I assumed had to be learned years later. She’s also the most comfortable in her skin, something I’ve always struggled with. Was this all due to the addition of co-sleeping? Of course not, but I firmly believe it played a role and a big one.
So what about me? Not to sound too self-centered, but was I to be a write off? Able to only do what I was given as a child? No. And this is where I see the immense importance of taking whatever steps are possible when it comes to positive parenting. Because of my mother’s huge strides—something I am constantly in awe of given her upbringing—I saw my sister’s development and some of my own strengths and that allowed me to approach parenting my own daughter with the amount of love and consideration I have. My daughter enjoys the benefits of the family bed, full-term breastfeeding (she’s still going), babywearing, baby-led weaning, and immediate responsiveness all because I had enough of a foundation to work with. If my mother had followed in her mother’s footsteps and assumed no change could be made, would I be the parent I am? While I can’t say for certain, I’m 99% sure I wouldn’t be. But she took the hardest steps to start our family down the path that will allow my daughter the chance to grow up with the best I can give her. I guess you could say that if she turns out as happy and secure and independent as research and history would suggest she should, she’ll have my mother to thank for it, for although she wasn’t the “perfect” attachment or evolutionary parent, she was willing to learn and grow and change. That should never be underestimated and should probably be celebrated more than it is because these are the baby steps that will lead to a happier and healthier society. If every family had someone as brave as my mother, who could step outside the destructive patterns we’ve set up in our society, I firmly believe we would start to see positive changes all around us pretty darn quickly. And it wouldn’t be too long before we’d reshaped society into a more caring, loving, and happy place. But we need to be able to celebrate the first steps people take instead of only focusing on what steps are left, because this is a marathon after all and we’ll only get there one step at a time.
Are you taking the first steps for your family or continuing on in the way you were raised?