Be warned that this post may make you feel uncomfortable. Writing it was actually very hard for me as it’s taken a long time for me to come to realise and recognise my own experience this way. I do not share it to laden you with guilt or to cast judgement on you or your family. I have written it because I feel it is important that I share some of the deep and dark ways society can and does influence us as parents. It’s important to start thinking and reflecting and it’s important that we can recognise some of the uglier choices we may have made or had thought we may make to help guide us in the future. If you feel something as a result of this post, do something with that feeling other than put a big wall up and shutdown. It’s okay to be fallible. It’s okay to feel let down. It’s okay to be perfectly imperfect. I have to tell myself this every day. So, if you aren’t feeling up to it, maybe give this a miss today but I sincerely hope you get around to reading it at one stage or another.
Strength, when it comes to parenting, is too often defined by society as existing only when a parent is ‘strong’ enough to withstand their urge to go to and comfort or help their baby or child. It’s as though there is a certain level of physical and mental ‘toughness’ in being able to conjure up the strength to ignore your inbuilt instincts and desire to nurture and this has become a character attribute that is not only highly desirable but also something we as parents must all strive for.
I struggled with this with my first baby. If you haven’t already read my backstory, then you can get read it here. It will help you understand more about how I came to where I am today and my questioning of modern, mainstream parenting in general.
While I tried to navigate my way through the early weeks and months of life as a first time mum of a baby who seemed to have been sleep resistant, I was told on many occasions that when I was strong enough, I would need to sleep train him. This came from all sorts of people- loving family members, well- meaning friends, strangers, Child Health Nurses, a Paediatrician, my GP (‘you know he’s not normal don’t you? You HAVE to teach him how to sleep, this is ridiculous. You’ll have to be strong but he needs to learn.’) and that’s not to mention the parenting books, the online forums, Facebook … you get the picture.
I was also assured that when it was time or whenever anyone got wind of me making an attempt at some form of sleep training, I would be surrounded by support.
And that I was.
‘Good on you! You really all need more sleep, stay strong.’
‘It’s so tough, but stay strong, it’ll be worth it.’
‘Some babies are harder or more stubborn than others, stay strong and don’t give in. The key is persistence and consistency.’
‘Who are you going to let win here? That baby needs to learn when it’s sleep time you mean it.’
‘Turn down the monitor and make yourself a cuppa. You can do this.’
‘He’s one tough nut to crack but you have to stay strong.’
‘If it get too much, go for a walk outside and try to resist the urge to run in, you’ll only prolong the process. Stay strong.’
All this and more came before, during and after sleep school.
I was surrounded by words of support. Words of encouragement. Messages of strength, hope and solidarity. I fed off their words, off their unwavering belief in the process and I kept at it. And at it. And at it.
But I ‘failed’. My baby ‘failed’. My husband ‘failed’.
Initially, this was crushing. I mistook my inability to make this work as a weakness on my part or a weakness on my baby’s. I wasn’t strong enough and I couldn’t measure up.
The sleepy ideal.
I actually wrote a post on my online mother’s forum saying that I felt like my baby deserved a better mother, one who was strong enough to help him the way he needed to be helped.
That tears me up still.
I was in the grip of PND. I had plummeted hard and fast as my sleep training efforts ramped up and grew more intense and I hit rock bottom after yet another 2 hour battle trying to get my baby to soothe out of my arms failed. I cried and rocked in a ball wondering what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t make this all work. What on earth was I doing so wrong and what on earth could I do now?
Thankfully, I spoke up and sought help.
I began my long road to recovery.
I picked my broken self up and started to put me back together piece by piece.
It’s been a long road and the realisations from what happened and the learning from that time still take me by surprise at times. It’s been more than two years since I came out of my fog and still, today was the day I fully realised that although the words ‘strong’, ‘strength’, ‘fight’ and ‘battle’ were all the rallying cries I frequently heard while sleep training, they didn’t reflect what was actually going on.
I wasn’t strong at that time, I was in fact at my weakest and most vulnerable.
It wasn’t a fight I needed to fight, I was a desperate first time mother desperately trying to get everything right for her baby.
Me feeling sick to my stomach, head pounding, heart racing, desperately fighting against every nerve in my body screaming at me to pick up my baby and comfort him … that wasn’t me showing strength. I wasn’t conquering my emotions, I wasn’t cutting the apron strings, I wasn’t teaching my baby a lesson he would need for life. I was a lost and severely sleep deprived soul, clutching at what I thought HAD to be done.
I was weak, vulnerable, desperate, scared and had placed my trust in those around me who so confidently said they knew better.
I was not strong.
Strength is exactly what I drew on and still draw upon today to mother my babies the way I do now-
To mother in a way that swims against the tide.
To mother through instinct and to follow my baby’s lead.
I have needed every ounce of strength I have to keep faith at times and as this is a long game not a short term fix, my strength is also my stamina.
There is great strength in honouring a baby’s ever cry in a world that tells you not to.
There is great strength in comforting a baby in arms or at my breast in a world that thinks these are bad habits.
There is great strength in unquestioningly tending to a baby’s every night time need in a world that sets time limits and rules around when, why and for how long a baby should wake and need help in the night.
There is great strength in simply trusting the natural progression of your baby’s sleep behaviour towards independence in a world who places arbitrary and unrealistic expectations on these behaviours and is quick to call them problematic.
It has taken immense strength to make sure I am okay, too and to learn to ask for and accept the help I need to be able to keep mothering the way my babies need to be mothered.
The overwhelming roar and battle cry issued by society as it rallies around new mothers to join the sleep training path is no less dangerous than the unchecked voices or actions of the cliquey, obnoxious groups in the school yard. The ridiculous expectations, the taunting, the encouraging to do something you are not comfortable with, the false promises, the rallying cries, the dire warnings of what to expect if you don’t do what you are told … all sound so familiar.
And then when you don’t meet their standards- it’s the pitying glances, the blame assigned, the ostracising and the judgement. I don’t know why, but this took me even more by surprise.
There is not one single time I have been able to share my experience and point of view as a sleep training, sleep school failure without at least one pro sleep training advocate commenting on their own success or calling me judgemental, dangerous and asking me stop shaming mothers who needed to sleep train or other from the experience. Not once.
When you think about it, we as a society are pretty screwed up if we can’t abide the thought that our completely dependent, voiceless and trusting babies may simply need more from us than we are taught to believe.
How dare their needs at night ask more of us than we were prepared to give.
A baby with intense needs by night deserves the respect and parenting they require.
If that thought horrifies you or instantly makes you cry, ‘but what about me!?! What about my need for sleep?!?’ I ask you try and find the strength you need to take the time and effort required to work out what you need to do to get the quality rest and sleep you need while still meeting the night time needs of your baby.
If you want to show real strength, meet your baby at their point of need while still meeting your own.
That’s the definition of strength in parenting I wish for the future.
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