I like to imagine the wind that was blowing on that sparkling fall day, tousling my mom’s strawberry-blonde hair. In the photograph, she’s holding my older brother Jason, who was around 3 at the time. You can see he has his mother’s eyes — almond-shaped, dark brown eyes that are smiling. My mom’s arms draw him in, and they’re saying, “I love you and always will.”
A mother’s saving embrace.
I take the photograph off the shelf and examine it more closely, trying to see if I’ve missed something, if there are any clues, any hints to what lies ahead. But there’s nothing in Jason’s boyish grin that says anything about his future drug addiction, the lies, or the shame.
My mom has always kept that photograph prominently displayed in her kitchen. I once told her I loved the photograph’s innocence and its glittery gold happiness; the way the camera captured the sunlight shining in her soft hair and the way her unconditional love for Jason is almost palpable.
“That’s my favorite picture of us,” she once told me. “It offers me hope.”
Later, when I became a mother myself and had an innocent baby resting in my arms, a miraculous vessel of hopes and dreams, I winced at my mom’s hope. I’d finger my own treasured photographs of me embracing my firstborn and worry that one day these snapshots might also convey only hope and serve as a reminder of when things were better, happier, and a mother’s love was enough. I wanted my own old photographs to be what they were supposed to be: Merely nostalgic, sepia-toned glimpses into a happy past. I wanted more than hope for my own children. I wanted assurance that my love could and would save them.
As a new mom, I lived in fear that if I made one wrong move in the parenting game I would seal my daughter’s fate forever, because I knew what could happen. If I wasn’t a model parent, I worried my children would turn away from me and find their solace in drugs, promiscuity, or violence.
So like any good mother, I poured myself into loving my child, meeting her every need. I spent a lot of time reading about parenting theories while pregnant and when I discovered attachment parenting, it was like finding medicine for my worried soul. Here was the answer to forging a solid bond between my child and me. Here was the way to fill her up with enough love and worth and empathy so that she wouldn’t stray from me and from the values I passed on to her.
My sweet first baby proved to be a challenge, however. The child was nocturnal and seemed programmed to not need sleep. Despite having a soothing bedtime routine involving more steps than required to launch a nuclear attack, my one-year-old was still boycotting sleep and waking up frequently throughout the night. If she even whimpered, my entire body flinched and responded. My baby never cried, but I did; I was exhausted.
Seeing the deep circles under my eyes one sleep-deprived day, my dad asked why I was so afraid of letting her cry even just a little. I couldn’t tell him why. I couldn’t tell him that I was desperately, absurdly afraid that if I ignored even the briefest bleat, our mother-daughter bond would be broken, and it would be my fault if she ever had any inner demons to confront. But I knew what I was really afraid of was that if I didn’t do everything right, she might end up with a drug addiction, too.
After our conversation — stubborn, prideful woman that I am — I was even more determined to meet my child’s every need, to be the best attachment parent I could and to show her through my every action that she was loved.
As exhausted as I was, it was fairly straightforward to respond to my baby in an attentive manner. An infant’s needs and wants are one and the same, after all. But as she grew, the distinction between what she needed and what she wanted began to blur, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. My oldest proved to be a spirited child. At age 3, brilliant defiance emerged. She dug her heels into the ground; I dug mine in deeper. Nursing no longer pacified every cry. Our interactions were more complicated, and I started to realize that I might not have as much control over this willful human being as I once thought. And sometimes when I tried to wear her close to me in a sling, she pushed away. Sometimes her crying and refusal to take naps got to me. Sometimes I wasn’t the mom I wanted to be, and the guilt would take its claim on me.
When I first became a parent, I remember my parents giving me some wise counsel for raising kids. “Don’t take credit for the good,” they said. “That way you won’t have to take credit for the bad either.”
My parents knew something I had yet to learn: That children can be loved, disciplined, and even slightly shaped, but the end product is not a product of our hands — or our love.
I recently read a blog post by an attachment parenting guru whose son suffered from a drug addiction (tragically, he has since passed away). I wonder how this story would have affected me when I was first pregnant and thought I had stumbled upon a near surefire way to keep my kids safe, well-adjusted, and happy. Some attachment parenting naysayers exploit this mother’s pain, using it to challenge the ethos of the parenting philosophy, and saying it’s proof that this style of mothering doesn’t work.
I agree with Rod Dreher’s commentary in response to these accusations when he writes, “The real lesson here is that there are no guarantees in anything you do as a parent.” To me, the only thing her son’s sickness might begin to prove is that no parent can save her child. There is no saving embrace – except that of God’s. Her tragedy may suggest that “attached” might mean “close and available,” but it doesn’t mean a child should become a natural extension of our expectations for her and for us as her parents.
Attachment parenting is supposed to teach empathy and be a conduit of grace; it’s not supposed to produce parents who live and move and have their being in their children instead of in God.
Now with three little ones, I continue to find beauty and virtue in what many would call the principles of “attachment parenting,” and use it as my personal parenting ideal — although like most ideals, I fall short of it all of the time. I prefer gentle birthing and nurse my children into toddlerhood. My babies are my most-worn accessories and are often tucked into a baby carrier. On my husband and in my bed, you’ll often find a tangle of little girl limbs and hair and a menagerie of stuffed animals. I try to use more positive discipline rather than doling out punitive charges. I implement “time-ins,” where I sooth a tearful child, more than time-outs. I make an effort to be available to my young children — both physically and emotionally. Above all, I pray for the grace to treat them with compassion and empathy because I know that beneath their skin is a delicate spirit that can be easily crushed with too many harsh words.
Yet, what I’m learning to also put into practice is a new set of principles. Today I embrace detachment parenting, and it’s proving to be the most challenging form of parenting because what it requires of us is to relinquish our efforts to control or save our child. Detachment parenting requires us to release ourselves from thinking we have sole custody of our child and to come to the realization that the children we love so much are creations of God who are loved by God and belong to God. Detachment parenting requires us to accept our child for who she is and let her face the consequences of her actions. We are to serve them but not in a way that enslaves or controls them or impairs our own ability to see God’s will in our own and our children’s lives. In the end, our children were created to fulfill not our own will but God’s.
With detachment parenting, when faced with addiction or worse, we don’t give up on our children, but sometimes we do have to give them up to God. My parents will tell you that the letting go is terrifying. But it’s liberating, too. It frees you from a sense of guilt and responsibility over your child’s every choice and action. It allows your child to choose God for herself. And that is what my brother did. Today my mom’s hope is not a false hope or illusory. My brother is a real life prodigal son. After several years of sobriety, he is now being receptive to a call to the priesthood. My mom has said it was when she finally released my brother to God’s care that his healing finally began.
At the crux of detachment parenting is the ability to detach ourselves from our children and their behavior — good or bad — and instead to attach ourselves to Christ. This explains why when asked about my brother’s recovery, my parents stick to their parenting adage and take no credit for the good or the bad but give all the credit, as well as the glory, to God.
Now when I look at the photograph of my older brother and my mom, I finally understand why she couldn’t help but hold onto the hope that he would one day get better, that he would return to the one who carried him in her womb and bore him into the world with the fervor of future dreams and hopes all wrapped up in her beloved firstborn. I know now, too, that her maternal love was far more mature than my own new-mother, naïve-attached-or-not one. It was a love that acknowledged where her responsibility to her child ended and where her responsibility to God began.
Today I have three energetic little girls who offer me their wet kisses freely; who plaintively call for their mama when they are sick, scared, or hungry; who laugh at all my silly antics, who quickly forgive my shortcomings and at times look at me like I am their god. But I’m beginning to recognize that I’m not anywhere close to fulfilling them in the way that God can. And although I pray my motherly love will always be enough, if it’s someday not, then I should like to be like my own mom — the strongest, bravest woman I know — and cast any blame aside, hold onto hope but detach myself from thinking I can save my child, and do what’s best for my daughter — even if it means losing her so that she may be found.