One Step At A Time

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“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?

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  1. Jespren says

    My dad broke the cycle of abuse. He was abused as a kid, both his parents suffered physical abuse, and grandparents, and, you get the point. But he made the choice to leave that behind and raise us free of physical abuse. Was he perfect? No, the scars of his own abuse were much in evidence and caused some less-than perfect outcomes. But most he owned up to, asked forgiveness for, and did his best to work past. On a whole, I had a great childhood (despite a lot), while he had a miserable childhood. It was a great step to take.

  2. janie says

    Lovely story. My mother was raised quite the same as yours. I was brought into this world under an epidural and fomula feed immediately. I had my daughter in my early 20’s (1997) and I knew that I wanted to do things differently. I had a natural childbirth with a midwife. We cloth diapered, coslept, extended breastfed, and homeschooled. I followed my instincts. I got tons of support from my inlaws, but no support from my side of the family.

  3. Jade says

    I knew that I wanted to parent completely differently to my mum, what I didn’t realize is that it would happen from birth onwards. I didnt think about parenting a new born, because they just eat, poop and sleep right. And then my daughter arrived at 31 weeks, and knowing the impact that this traumatic birth could have I freaked. In the end I feel into attachment/evolutionary parenting simply by always listening/responding to my daughters cues. Then I started to find the research that backed up what I was doing -co sleeping, breastfeeding, baby wearing (which wasn’t really optional in my daughters opinion) – and breathed a giant sigh of relief. It also helped me develop the way in which I parent differently, though I still struggle with my own damage, parenting this way has the surprising benefit of gradually healing me also. I’m not sure I wouldve taken the same path if my daughter hadn’t been a preemie, but I look at her now and see a strong, capable, affectionate, loving, intelligent 21 month old and am so grateful.

  4. Coral says

    I do believe that the way we were raised affects us , i was never kissed or hugged as a child and i remember feeling deeply unhappy as a result , I have hugged and kissed my boys to pieces , until they beg me to stop !! , I can only say that the best way to fight abuse is to refuse to allow the cycle to continue , my kids are wonderful , and I could never do to them what was done to me as a small child , I craved attention but rarely got it and even remember looking at other small children when i was young and wondering what made them so different to me , i always thought it was me , never realised that mum had the issues

  5. Maria says

    This is what evolution is! Growing and changing and adapting… I love it. I was raised the old fashioned way, and similarly have had to work hard to maintain my marriage and intimacy. Bring in a child and I have had to let down my walls entirely. I’m seeing the beautiful ability of AP to heal the parents, not just the children. Some of my childhood wounds are beginning to heal because of the intense closeness we have with our 2.5yo son who is still breastfeeding and co-sleeping. It has been an intense and difficult journey, and at times I have wanted to run from everything – motherhood and marriage. But I’m learning that its ok to need and be needed. Thanks for sharing this story :-) xx

  6. Vanessa says

    I love this. I struggle to parent positively. I yell a lot, and I get caught up in ‘controlling’ my kids. It is hard to change the only knowledge I have, and to own the knowledge I gain through reading. But I am taking steps. It is good to hear that it is not wasted. That it is the right thing to do, with however many ways I fail, I am planting a seed. And hopefully, it won’t be so hard for my sons…. I will continue to try, to improve. I will continue to learn and read, and I will continue to take steps. Small as they may be. <3

  7. Carly says

    As usual, a great article.

    My mum was a mix between medical thinking and evolutionary thinking (eg both children breastfed until 15ish months when we both self weaned, but CC and absolutely NO, under ANY circumstances including illness and bad dreams, would co-sleeping occur…) and I have found it hard to break that mold of routine/timing/crying with my own daughter because I have had no support with it. It’s this website that spurs me to keep going.

  8. Lana says

    I am a young mother of two (22yrs old with a 4yr old and a 19m old) and i definitely parent differently than how i was raised. I was born in 1990 when parents were pushed into formula feeding on a schedule, using pacifiers immediately after birth, CIO etc. My mother was much a disciplinarian – we had rules and consequences for EVERYTHING. we got the ‘stand in the corner’, go to bed early, constant groundings, taking away privileges etc. I dont remember her ever being very tactile when i was young (and as a result i shunned any physical contact from her in my preteen/teen years). I have a much better relationship with her now than i ever did as a child. Now, as a parent myself, I can see her reasoning and am more understandig of the circumstances she was in. With my first baby, i knew very little of the ‘anti-mainstream’ concepts (BLW, EBF, ERF etc) and blindly followed my idiot OB who i assumed knew best… i did stick to my guns and knew breastfeeding was best for me and my girl. But other than breastfeeding on cue, and never letting her CIO, i was pretty mainstream. By the time i was pregnant with my second daughter, i was much better informed and opted for a brilliant midwife to help bring her into the world. With her, i breastfed (still going at 19.5m), bedshared until she was 15m (wouldve gone longer if it didnt disrupt daddy so much at night when he has to work at 5am), and still babywear :) i am happy to say my husband is also breaking the chain, working hard on gentle parenting techniques and trying to avoid spanking and punishments (how he was raised). <3 thank you for this post. it gives all moms struggling with breaking that chain a sense of peace, knowing they are not alone in going against the grain

  9. says

    I’m in tears. Reading this is so inspiring. I had an abusive up bringing and I believe the reason I’m having infertility issues is because a part of me is so scared of the parent I would be. I do not want to repeat a single thing my mother has done to me, and I’m slowly learning to become the person I was born to be and become the patent I want to be. I will be a mother one day and this has inspired me so very deeply!

  10. Saskia says

    It’s good to read this as a parent who has done a fair bit of “evolving” over my children’s lifetimes; when my eldest was born 13 years ago I knew nothing of attachment parenting, very little about gentle/positive discipline, and was woefully unprepared for the reality of raising a child. My own parents weren’t bad, I grew up feeling loved but they weren’t overly expressive of affection (though compared to my husband I was positively showered with it!!) and there was a lot of shouting & occasional hitting, so my model for parenting wasn’t exactly “perfect” & I started out being a similar kind of parent, blended with the mainstream parenting practices at the time such as timeout, reward charts etc. When my older children were little I studied for a psychology degree and that started planting seeds of change in my mind but I still didn’t have the practical tools for converting theory into practice. It was only around the time of the birth of my youngest child, 2 & a half years ago, that I discovered attachment parenting and all the associated approaches and finally realised where I’d been going wrong & how to change what I’d been doing. It’s been a hard uphill struggle applying this new knowledge to my older kids, as there are a lot of bridges to rebuild & a lot of ingrained patterns of behaviour to overcome, but it does feel like our family dynamics are finally changing! At the very least I know that, as was the case with you observing the changes in your own mother’s parenting, my older kids now have a better model of parenting to emulate when they have children of their own, even if I have “missed the boat” a bit with them.


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