Thursday, September 13, 2007

Conscious Parenting

Parenting is an intense and often unforgiving journey, especially when we choose to traverse a path less traveled. When we opt to do things differently we expose ourselves for unwarranted and definitely unwanted criticism. Last year Sixty Minutes aired a segment on ‘attachment parenting’ and in true ‘newstainment’ fashion, went for the sensationalised jugular. Those who saw it were truly appalled and outraged. I remember facilitating support group the morning after. There was a definite need for many women to purge and debrief as a consequence. The saddest thing for me about the whole sordid episode, was that the segment gave unsupportive friends, family and work colleagues, and indeed complete strangers in some cases, the perceived right to attack and condemn attachment parenters.

Over time I have resisted the label of ‘attachment parenting.’ It has felt confining rather than freeing, and I have come to resent the undercurrent of guilt that comes with it if you don’t follow every philosophy implicitly. Instead I have tended to identify with ‘conscious parenting’. For me conscious parenting has at its heart the philosophies of attachment parenting, but is flexible in the application of those philosphies so as to meet the needs of each individual family unit. When you parent consciously with your heart, your instincts and your children as your guide, you are liberated from the potentially damaging and limiting effects of dogma; you do what is right for you, your baby/children and your family.

When I was pregnant I read ‘The Continuum Concept’ and it turned the instinctive light bulb on in my head. Pregnancy had already become an epic journey from one set of beliefs into another, and Jean Liedloff’s seminal book was an important port of call on this journey. It seemed so common sense to want to hold your baby close, to breastfeed and to do so when the baby wanted it. I was however, challenged by the idea of having a baby in bed with us and of constantly carrying a baby around - such were my Western separatist beliefs on parenting at the time. I was willing to be open to the ideas though. I read and surfed the internet. I watched and I listened to the women at the HMA support group. My ideas began to change in regards to cosleeping and baby carrying. These experiences helped me to put the Continuum Concept into a format that I could relate to, something real, tangible and practical.

Dave and I decided before Dylan’s birth that we intended to baby carry, co-sleep, breastfeed, use cloth nappies and allow our baby to have a gentle and easy assimilation into life outside of the womb through a lotus birth and a baby moon. We knew that not all babies enjoyed co-sleeping (our midwife’s second son had been one of these) that there were exceptions to every rule. We also decided that we would follow our baby’s lead as to what he or she wanted, adjusting our parenting practices accordingly. We felt that trying to force our baby/child into an attachment parenting box and ‘making them fit it’ wasn’t that much different to forcing a baby/child into a mainstream parenting box. One size does not fit all!

Our first lesson in parenting consciously came at 36 hours. Dylan was crying and continued to cry. I was on the phone to Dylan’s Goddess mother, giving her our birth story. He didn’t want the breast and I was glad of that (my nipples were already bruised, blistered and grazed) Dave came and took him off me, to give me a chance to finish my story of Dylan’s birth – who knew when there would be another chance to share it so newly and vividly. Half an hour later I came out to a very quiet lounge room. Lying on the floor, happily kicking and flicking his arms around, was Dylan. He simply didn’t want to be held any more, he wanted his own space. This was a recurrent theme throughout his early months of babyhood. If we held him for too long, or if he was restrained in anyway for too long he would first get agitated, then cranky and then it was a torrent of unhappiness.

We were grateful for the early lesson. Had we been completely rigid in our beliefs about what was best, we may have spent weeks, or even months with our son in a sling, walking the halls with a screaming baby – just because we had been told that was best. My midwife agreed that it was counter intuitive for a small baby to want that. We’ve grown to understand, that Dylan is his own person. Even as a small baby he knew what was best for him. He was, and continues to be, the expert of his body, his emotions, his thoughts and his sovereignty. As parents its is not our job to force our ideals onto him, we are there to love, nurture, guide and support him on his journey.

Following Dylan’s needs as our guide, we decided to teach him baby sign language. It was an instinctive choice. We felt being able to communicate would be important to him. It has always seemed to me a terrible irony that toddlers are able to understand language long before they have the physical capacity to make themselves heard and understood. When we spoke to one friend about our desire to teach Dylan sign language she asked us, ‘How does it fit with the Continuum Concept?’ Both Dave and I were taken aback. We hadn’t seen the book as a blue print on exactly how to raise a child in a modern society, but a good basic philosophy from which to begin a thoughtful and respectful parenting journey. We thought it would work for our family and our situation, and that was all that really mattered.

Our punt paid off. We had a unique window into the important, the fascinating and the exciting aspects of the world according to our ‘Goobah’. It was a world full of hats, balloons, dogs and bikes .., buses, planes, biscuits and the list went on. Once Dylan could walk and sign, around his first birthday the terrible tantrums and general unhappiness he had been experiencing previously dis-appeared; he could get wherever he wanted under his own steam finally and he was able to communicate in a fairly coherent fashion. Isn’t this about what parenting is all about, to create a safe, supported and happy space for a child to be in?

The one size fits all approach to parenting, seems to be the standard official approach from our Government. While Mr Costello wants us to even out the negative population growth, he’s certainly not interested in the logistics of raising kind, compassionate, respectful, responsible and empathetic individuals. It’s very easy for our Treasurer to encourage Australian families to have ‘one for the country’, to tack on $4000 (which as homebirthers, brings us back to zero once we’ve paid our birthing bills!) as a baby bonus and then promise expansions in childcare without really ‘getting it’. He is apparently divorced from the turmoil in many families, when women are needed at home by their children, when childcare just doesn’t salve the wound of separation or financial distress. What happens if childcare, even with a caring and empathetic family daycare provider is not the right option for your child – that they want to be with you! I know full well that Dylan would not have coped, let alone thrived in any sort of childcare arrangement. He needs to be with me, his Mum, and while I wrestle with that at times, I know that won’t always be the case.

Over the years of working with children and teenagers, I’ve seen a definite trend towards a trade off of ‘rights and responsibilities.’ Both primary school and high school children will passionately vocalise their ‘rights’ to certain things, but fail to acknowledge, let alone accept, that with these rights come responsibilities. This applies to us as parents. While we all believe that we have the ‘right’ to children, the growing majority of parents no longer believe that the responsibility of raising their children is theirs. Instead they are handing over this responsibility to ‘professionals’ and for profit organisation. Perhaps this is a hangover effect of handing over the responsibility of birthing to a ‘professional’ rather than accepting the responsibility of birthing our babies ourselves?

If we want to raise children who are balanced in their relation-ships with rights and responsibilities we have to walk our talk – we have to show our children that we have accepted the responsbility to care and nuture them through their formative years, as part and parcel of exercising our rights to become parents. And this needs to be supported as a politic-al and social imperative by all levels of Govern-ment.'

The following articles are not an ex-haustive exploration of the issues confronting parents who wish to parent consciously, or a hard and fast ‘how to’. They are instead an interesting starting point to explore further. There are several articles that also explore the darker side of parenting; when a baby does not sleep, you are forced to parent in isolation or have a sick child.
Conscious parenting is not the easy road. It is often hard work, as it demands a redrawing of our personal boundaries. It also requires previously untested reserves of physical and emotional stamina. I believe though that the rewards in the long term far out weigh the perceived short term hardships. Yes! It is the road less traveled but I swear it ensures a constant challenge to be present, empathetic, imperfect and true to yourself. Who could argue that as a better role model for our children?

Published as the Editorial of Down to Births 2007 Winter edition
Photo: Peter and Sabriyya Kennedy (my little brother and goddess daughter) - taken by Karen van Harskamp (my soul sister). She also took the photo used on my profile.


danae sinclair said...

I hadn't looked at it that way - as 'conscious parenting' but I think this is closest to what I've been doing for the past 14 years. I'd say that's one of the reason why I'm always reluctant to offer advice to other parents, although I'm always ready to offer support where needed.

another great read!

thanks, also, for your comments on my blog about my birth story - I have to admit I'm not happy with it and keep going back and trying to figure out why. It may just be that its such a private thing to me.. I may have to remove it!

Jodi Cleghorn said...

May I offer one piece of advice - having read and edited more than 30 birth stories in the last few years and heard countless others. The one thing that I noticed from Edie's birth story is that you haven't recorded how you felt about the birth. You spoke about the frustration leading up to the labour, losing faith in your body ... but how did you feel about bringing her into the world? someone once said that the inclusion of emotions, is what changes a birth story from a list of facts/events and into a true birth story. Is this the missing piece that would make you happy with it? It may also be that you need to spend some more time reflecting on it.

It took me many weeks to write Dylan's birth story ... because part of the process of writing it was really understanding why I had chosed to birth at home - the deep down understanding. And over the course of weeks, and a huge falling out with my best friend, which I think helped to free up my feeling about everything, I realised I had birthed at home to reclaim my birth. From there the words and tears flowed out and I hand wrote his story in just under two hours. But I am pretty sure, that I avoided some of the emotions going on, when I retold my story. I was still feeling a bit cagey about some things, especially those leading up to the birth (processed those on Dylan's first birthday!)

These are my experiences

My other thought is the birth hits a difficult part - bcause it is intensely private but it is also traditionally a social event as well (not that we send out our invites and book the caterer type of social event) We've made birth ultra private (while at the same time making it a totally public event whereby most women will not know those who will attend and support them in birth - less than 2% have continiuity of care with a known midwife!) and forgotten that its also a social one, to be shared with others ... even if they are just those closet to us. It's a tricky double edged sword. Sorry if I have made you uncomfortable!

Sentient Marrow said...

I don't like the idea of labels as well. And, since my oldest is almost 17, the label of attachment parenting didn't even exist when I had him. I'd say we have followed our on own path in terms of parenting which has included the family bed, homeschooling for part of the time, wearing our babies, etc. But, each child has been different. Some of my kids spent very little time in the sling while others adored it. My oldest never would've lasted in school in his primary years because he would probably have been labeled with ADD even though I felt his actions and personality were perfectly fine. All that to say, I agree with you. The idea of conscious parenting is a good one and it does have to agree with all family members. What I have found now, many years later, is that my husband has gone along with many of ideas even though he didn't believe in them 100%. So, I think the best advice I could ever give anyone is to make sure you communicate and make decisions together. It sounds like you and your husband went about things the right way. My husband and I were so, so young (21) and still in college so we relied heavily on our intuition and luckily I read Sheila Kitzinger's, "Complete Book of Pregnancy" which is my favorite book on childbirth.