I know, I know…attunement parenting…yet another style of parenting.
Another label to throw on top of attachment parenting, gentle parenting, respectful parenting, peaceful parenting, positive parenting, and more.
Pretty soon, there will be more parenting styles than fad diets.
But hear me out. It’s not really a new style, process, or fad.
It’s just the art of tuning into to your child, paying attention to how they’re feeling.
It’s the art of paying very, very close attention and responding with love, maturity, and a degree of wisdom (that’s my hope, anyway).
Here’s an example:
I’m writing this on a Thursday.
LAST Thursday, I was unbelievably, mind-numbingly exhausted for various reasons, one being that Dahlia hadn’t slept well for days. She’d had a mild cough that was keeping her up and she was suffering some teething pain. At the end of it all, she threw a tantrum (which was lovely and necessary, by the way) and then she was back to her joyous, happy self.
Then I had this brilliant idea. (I’m being sarcastic. Brilliant ideas NEVER come to me when I’m in the throes of exhaustion.)
It was time to begin the night-weaning process.
Gently, of course, and slowly…but it was time, nonetheless.
So last Friday, before bed, I started talking to her about how “the milks” needed to rest, and how they would be “closed” at nighttime after she falls asleep and they wouldn’t “open” until daytime when the sun came up.
She sort of got the gist. We played a game just before bed where she pulled my shirt open (daytime!) and then she would “close” my shirt (nighttime!) over and over again. It was a good way of processing, and I was feeling optimistic.
We had similar conversations Friday and Saturday nights. I told her it would happen soon. I didn’t know when, exactly. I was holding off as I tried to gauge whether she was emotionally, psychologically, and developmentally ready to night-wean or not.
By Sunday, she seemed excessively fussy. She was a little more clingy than usual, and she wasn’t comfortable playing without me close by.
I wondered if she was still teething.
Other than our conversations at night, she didn’t say anything about the milks closing and opening so I wasn’t super clear if that was bothering her or not.
When I brought it up again Sunday night, I asked more questions and tried to probe more deeply into her feelings about it. She seemed fine. She sounded fine. I thought, “a few more days and we might be able to really do this!”
And then Monday came, and I had to work.
She clung even harder. She refused her diaper. She refused to go outside. She would only play in my office with Papa, and even then she frequently wanted to lay on my lap and nurse while I was working…which is a little (but not completely) unusual.
Something was going on. She wasn’t sick anymore. She was fine over the weekend. No new foods. No new experiences other than our talks about night-weaning. That must be it. That had to be it.
So Monday night I stopped. I dropped it. I didn’t bring it up.
She didn’t bring it up either. And she clung to me all night, nursing like a newborn.
Sadly, since I hadn’t yet been able to recover from the exhaustion from the previous week, this all-night-nursing left me unbearably cranky Tuesday.
On Tuesday, I was out-of-my-mind tired.
Which is the only excuse I have for breaking one of my cardinal rules of parenting.
Never, ever threaten (even casually, jokingly, or subtly) a child with their deepest, deepest fears.
And what is a young child’s deepest fear? It’s the same for many of us adults; it just takes on a different face and name (and a different response) when we get older.
It’s abandonment. It’s the fear of being alone.
For babies and young children who know both consciously and subconsciously that they are incapable of caring for themselves, abandonment equates to an inability to eat, sleep, or keep themselves safe.
Abandonment = death.
Yes, it’s THAT scary. That’s one reason why babies hate to be left alone, why they cry to be held all the time.
No, I don’t believe they’re laying there thinking, “I could die!” when they’re not picked up right away. But they are responding to their bodies’ cues, and their bodies are telling them they NEED cuddles and hugs and affection in order to help them breathe more easily and regulate their heart rates. Intuitively, they know how much they need us.
Just like newborns evolved to cling to their caregivers and wake frequently in the night to facilitate this need for constant closeness, toddlers often experience through a phase of separation anxiety.
As the world gets bigger, they come to realize their parents could go and never come back again. They could just disappear from the world at any moment in time, something they have absolutely no control over.
I think about what that would feel like as an adult.
Sure, as adults we know other adults (and really any other living being) can come and go as they please, but what about the things we depend on for our survival? What if those things were unpredictable?
What if the sun appeared in the sky randomly, suddenly, with no warning and no movement? What if it was there for weeks, then disappeared for a day, came back for two hours, then gone for two weeks?
What if gravity appeared and disappeared randomly, with no warning?
What if swallowing or breathing was sporadic, unpredictable, and completely out of our control?
I can barely imagine the terror.
Think I’m being melodramatic? Well, I have to be…we, as adults, know how to deal with “normal” drama.
Toddlers and babies do not.
Anything even slightly out of the ordinary can feel “overly” dramatic to them, get it? So if you want to truly empathize with children, understand that what adults no longer feel is scary because we’ve gotten used to it (or we’ve developed the tools to cope) is TERRIFYING to children for whom these experiences are new.
Now, back to my story. Abandonment. And my Momma-fail in the midst of my frustrated exhaustion.
After a long night of nursing, Dahlia was more defiant than usual. In my experience, when she feels like the world is out of control (things are changing too much too fast) she works to exert control over what little she can.
NO diaper! NO clothes! NO, don’t put me down!
That was Tuesday morning.
So I said, fine, it’s going to be one of those mornings.
At one point, when she wanted to wash her hands I helped her. Then she wanted to wash her feet, so I helped her. Then she wanted to keep her feet in the partially filled sink and leave the water running.
I let her for a moment, and then told her the water had been running for a long time and that we should turn it off.
NO! Leave it on!
“Sweetie, I’m so hungry and I need to go eat breakfast. You can stay here by yourself if you want, but I need to go to the kitchen.
“No, Momma! Don’t leave me ALOOOOOOONE!”
My heart broke.
I swore to myself when I became a parent that I would never be the one that would try to get their kid to leave the grocery store by saying, “I’m leaving now! I’m leaving you! You better come! Momma’s gonna leave!”
Yet here I was, threatening to leave her alone. Less dramatic than abandoning her at a store, but still. It was too soon. I’d already cracked open her insecurities with the suggestion of night-weaning. Of course she was panicking like this. It made total sense.
You know what she said next in between sobs and tears?
So I stood beside the sink and wrapped my arms around her while she rested her feet under a slow trickle of water and nursed and nursed and nursed.
I told her I was sorry, and that I wasn’t going to leave her.
I told her the milks weren’t leaving either. They wouldn’t close at night.
I told her I’d always be there with her, for her, and even when I’m not with her she can always feel me in her heart. She cried and cried, then felt a little better but still carried her sadness with her.
Tuesday night she slept better, but Wednesday morning when Papa finally got her into the car to run an errand she didn’t make it off the driveway before screaming at Papa, asking Papa to go back to pick up Mama.
He knew I desperately needed to work so he didn’t turn around. Instead, he called me on the phone and Dahlia and I FaceTimed…which didn’t help.
She cried the full 20-minute drive to the store. She cried and screamed at the top of her lungs in fear and fury and yelled at her Papa to go back over and over again and through a spotty internet connection, I watched.
She cried in the car. She cried when we hung up. She cried in the store. She cried all the way home even as she stuffed her mouth fresh strawberries.
When she finally got home she clung to me, and I let her.
Because that’s what attunement is.
It’s tuning into a person and feeling your way into their life with your heart.
It’s trying to understand what they’re going through even if, and especially when, they can’t articulate it.
It’s listening to what they don’t say, paying attention to how they say things, and watching their body language all the while.
And then responding with as much empathy as possible.
It’s what many of us do with our spouses and significant others. It’s what I believe we need to do even more with young children. Their limited life experience and their intense emotions require it of us.
But it’s exhausting.
When there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of change going on, it’s beyond draining. It can feel like life is constantly getting disrupted and derailed.
For people uncomfortable with emotion, it can be too much to bear. HOWEVER…
It’s also how the best relationships are built, and that makes it worth it.
It’s Thursday night now. She’s doing much better. The clinginess is subsiding and there’s been no crying since the epic screaming car ride of 2017 (so far). She even put on her diaper willingly today, AND she got in the car to go to the park. Things are looking up.
Now, please, for the love of all that’s holy, can we have some peace and quiet in this house? Just for a little while?
(HA! With a toddler around?! Now that’s just crazy talk!)