Friday, July 30, 2010
It didn't occur to me until recently how unusual or counter-cultural my commitment to staying near my baby at all times might be. Even stay-at-home moms normally hire a babysitter at least sometimes. My mother didn't, not at this age. When Joseph was maybe six to nine months, she started leaving him with me (a very familiar and trusted person) for very short periods of time (generally an hour or less). That seemed pretty normal to me. After all, he didn't like being left, even under these relatively pleasant circumstances, so it made sense most of the time for him to go along with mom.
Some of us form our parenting ideas to be the opposite of how we were raised. Not me -- I really like the way I was raised; I think I turned out okay; and when I saw my mom raising my younger siblings, her choices made perfect sense to me. I'm a bit stricter on discipline, generally (though we'll see how I manage with my own kid), and there are a few other minor things I'm doing or plan to do differently, but 90% of my parenting philosophy is just like my mom's. I'm very grateful to her for exposing me to so much baby knowledge when I was growing up.
Anyway. I recently was offered a job, out of the blue, by the school I used to work for. It's just one class a day. But I absolutely refuse to leave my baby with a sitter (supposing I could afford one, which I can't) even for that short amount of time. But the school encouraged me to bring the baby along, and so I decided to accept. (Fingers crossed that he adapts well! I think he will, because it's not his first time in a classroom -- I spent most of my pregnancy with him in one!) Taking baby with me wherever I go, making him a part of whatever I do, is how I raise him and want to continue raising him.
However, some people might object to this method. I was prepared for people to say, "You need time to yourself. You and your husband need to 'get away' sometimes." The answers to that are fairly simple: baby has to sleep sometime. We're lucky in that he sleeps a lot. So I have "me" time during his naps, and we have "us" time after he goes to bed at night. Not to mention that I enjoy my time with him while he is awake, and we both love to play with him together. He comes with us to restaurants, to church, on walks, and almost always behaves well. I don't think a marriage will wither and fall apart if our "date nights" are spent in our own living room or at the dining room table. There's nothing magic about being out of the house with the baby nowhere around. And we're both happy with our current situation.
What I wasn't prepared for was the objection that my baby won't be independent if I never leave him. Partly, I'm just not that concerned about independence. Most people nowadays are too independent rather than not enough -- they know how to get by on their own, but they don't know how to form close relationships with others. But of course there could definitely be a problem if a child never developed any independence at all.
First off, we need to figure out how much independence is even appropriate for any given age. I think it's fair to say that a baby shouldn't be more emotionally independent than he is physically independent. That's a natural part of baby development anyway: at an age where a baby shouldn't be left alone, he is terrified of being left alone. If he can't feed himself, if he can't go to the bathroom by himself, if he can't climb into his crib and take a snooze when he's tired, naturally he doesn't want to be by himself. His instincts are telling him that he isn't safe on his own, he's safe with mom and dad who feed him, change his diaper, and put him to bed.
We know, as grownups, that Stacey the babysitter also knows how to feed, change, and put down the baby. But the baby doesn't know that. Stacey the babysitter could be an axe murderer for all he knows. He might even warm up to her while his parents are still there -- but the second they leave the room, he starts to scream. The people who provide for him are GONE. Instinct tells him to scream in the most heartrending tone he can, because this will bring his parents back and he will be safe again.
Until the second year, a baby does not understand the concept of "object permanence," that a thing or person still exists when not in sight. He can't call up a mental picture of the person. All he knows is that he has been abandoned. He also has no sense of time; in fact, he doesn't develop this until about the age of three. So to him, an hour-long "date night" might as well be forever. Mom and Dad can tell him, till they're blue in the face, "We'll be back in an hour," but they could be saying "We'll be back next year" for all he understands. He might be okay for five minutes or so, but when five minutes has passed, he suddenly realizes, "I've been waiting forever and they're still not back! They are never coming back!" So we ought to look on them with compassion when they do their brokenhearted separation anxiety cry: that's the cry of someone who's lost his parents and will never see them again. When the parents finally come into the room, he clings to them like glue and will not let them out of his sight for the rest of the day. He's afraid they'll sneak off again and do their disappearing act.
One would think that babies eventually would learn that when parents go away, they come back. But they don't figure this out until their brain is ready to learn this. The only thing that might make them okay with being left would be to make them love and trust the babysitter with the same sort of attachment they have to their parents. Sometimes babies replace their mom with a babysitter in their mind, especially when they are in daycare all day, and will cry on leaving the babysitter.
That's just horrible to me. If my baby needs someone he loves and trusts around, well, here I am! Made-to-order! I didn't have a child so that someone else could be my child's mother for me.
But what about when baby is neurologically ready for separation? Will the way I've raised him prevent him from making this step calmly? Here's Dr. Sears on the issue, from The Baby Book:
"In a classic study, called the strange-situations experiment, researchers studied two groups of infants (labeled "securely attached" and "insecurely attached") during an unfamiliar play situation. The most securely attached infants . . . actually showed less anxiety when separated from their mothers to explore toys in the same room. They periodically checked in with the mother for reassurance that it was OK to explore. The mother seemed to add energy to the infant's explorations. Since the infant did not need to waste effort worrying about whether she was there, he could use that energy for exploring.
"When going from oneness to separateness, the securely attached baby establishes a balance between his desire to explore and his continued need for the feeling of security provided by a trusted caregiver. When a novel toy or a stranger upsets the balance, or mother leaves and thus reduces baby's sense of security, baby feels compelled to reestablish the original equilibrium. The consistent availability of a trusted caregiver provides needed reassurance and promotes independence, confidence, and trust, leading to an important milestone by the end of the first year -- the ability to play alone."
So, keeping baby close ("attached" as Sears puts it) actually helps a baby develop independence. And that makes sense, if you understand how a baby's brain works. If he is assured of his own safety, he won't mind moving forward. But if he thinks Mom won't be around when he needs her -- well, it's no wonder he panics.
I didn't do a lot of science to make my own decision, though. I just knew that babies cry when their moms leave, so I won't leave. A baby's cry might seem like an attempt an manipulation, or a misguided notion that something's wrong when we, the grownups, know baby's fine. But in fact, babies cry because of deeply-ingrained instincts which tell them something's not right. The more we study about babies, the more we realize that each time they cry, it is for something that they actually need. If the cavemen had put their babies on a strict schedule and ignored them when they cried, our species would have died out a long time ago.
A note on inseparability and breastfeeding: It used to be easy to explain to people why I wouldn't leave the baby -- because I'm nursing him! No one else can feed him, so I have to be there. But nowadays, that's no longer true. I could, theoretically, use an uncomfortable and expensive pump to get the milk out, and then a plastic bottle to get the milk into the baby. Many do this. However, the less mother and baby are together, the more prolactin (the milk-producing and nurturing hormone) goes down. The nursing relationship goes so much better when mom and baby are together all the time, and touching much of the time. Yet another way that our biological systems expect us to do what is best for us anyway. (Also, Marko won't take a bottle anyway. I never really pushed it in the first place, but at this age he's unlikely to start now. That's fine with me -- it's much better for his teeth if he goes straight to cups when he's older.)
So -- any feedback? I'm curious to hear from parents with kids older than mine. At what age did you leave your baby with a sitter, and how did he take it?