By Celeste Land
Vienna VA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 2 March-April 2000 pp. 53-54
"Your daughter is simply amazing!" remarked the gymnastics instructor, watching four-year-old Leila walk confidently across the high balance beam. "She has absolutely no fear whatsoever."
No fear? Really? My daughter? As I watched Leila proudly jump off the high beam, my mind went back in time.
While I entered motherhood strongly committed to natural childbirth and exclusive breastfeeding, most of my other ideas about parenting were pretty traditional. I envisioned my baby sleeping long stretches or playing quietly (in her crib, of course!) while mother and father did grown-up projects and activities. There would be plenty of babysitters, and I planned to go back to work or back to school if staying at home proved to be "too boring." In short, life would be pretty much business as usual.
Leila arrived with a completely different agenda. I found myself with a fussy, colicky, high-need baby right out of one of Dr. Sears' worst-case-scenarios. Leila was one of those babies who required constant nursing, constant carrying, constant stimulation - and still seemed to cry non-stop during her first four months. She rarely slept more than a few minutes at a time during the day, and then only while in someone's arms. To further complicate the picture, Leila figured out early on that mother was the only one who could meet her strong needs. Her father and grandfather (who lived with us) were unacceptable to her; she wouldn't even let them hold her during the early months unless she was sound asleep.
In the months that followed, I went to many LLL meetings and learned how best to meet my baby's needs. Yet, even as I became adept at non-stop nursing, babywearing, the family bed, and living with a constant companion, I still envied my mainstream friends and neighbors with same-aged babies who spoke of going back to work, dates with their husbands, and activities outside the home. Their babies seemed more sociable, happier, and more independent. "I'm doing all this because I have to, because my baby is different," I told myself. "If I had a baby like theirs, I'd do things differently, too."
As the months went along, Leila's colic subsided, but her high needs continued. My active, alert baby needed constant entertainment and constant company. Leila was frightened and distrustful of so much: strange people (especially men), strange settings, strange situations, and separation from mother for even a second. It was a year before she felt comfortable spending even a few minutes with her father or grandfather without me in the room. She was an early walker and an exceptionally early talker, but often refused to do either when strangers were present. She was also physically timid compared to her peers, reluctant to explore, climb, or take risks of any sort.
Nevertheless, as Leila entered her spirited toddler years, I began to appreciate the long-term benefits of being so very sensitive to her needs. My friends with more traditional parenting styles watched in horror as their "easy" babies became "difficult" toddlers. They had not had to invest thousands of hours in getting to know their babies, and now they didn't have a clue as to why their children were suddenly misbehaving or throwing tantrums. It wasn't that Leila didn't have her share of tantrums and limit-testing, but I knew my baby so intimately that I could easily provide appropriate discipline. Also, I had a secret weapon that my friends lacked. I could still nurse my child whenever she fell down, threw a tantrum, or just got frustrated with the world.
By the end of Leila's second year, I had become so convinced of the value of breastfeeding and meeting children's emotional needs that I became an LLL Leader. Yet there were still some secret doubts in my mind as to whether we were on the right track. Even compared to the other toddlers in our LLL Group, Leila's behavior sometimes seemed extreme to me. Other Group members with almost-two-year-olds were seemingly well into the weaning process; but my daughter had just taken her first real helping of solid foods at the ripe old age of 20 months and still nursed with the frequency and intensity of a newborn. Other Group members could go to the bathroom or walk across the room or around a corner without their children getting totally upset. Babysitters, dates, preschool . . . all those things seemed as far away as the moon.
At that time, I didn't know many mothers or Leaders with high-need children. I got most of my support through reading such books as Dr. Sears' THE FUSSY BABY and Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's Raising Your Spirited Child, both available through the LLLI Catalogue. LEARNING A LOVING WAY OF LIFE, the anthology of stories from LLL members, was especially helpful because it had many stories about fearful, clingy babies who received lots of responsive parenting and went on to be brave, confident older children and adults. These stories kept me going on days when I doubted myself the most.
The next two years were a time of slow, steady social growth for Leila. Around her second birthday, she finally felt comfortable enough with her father to go on a two-hour outing without me. By her third birthday, she was able to play happily with friends while we went out on a date. As Leila's comfort with new people and places slowly increased, her need to nurse slowly decreased. By her third birthday, she had started sleeping through the night and had cut back to "only" nursing six or seven times a day. Four months later, she weaned herself completely.
Oddly enough, while Leila matured socially, many of her "independent" friends went through a period of social regression. Their mothers complained about separation anxieties and difficulties adapting to new situations. Meanwhile, my daughter was learning to take such matters in stride.
Shortly after Leila's fourth birthday, she and I (along with newborn baby brother Adam in a sling) signed up for a "Mom and Me" gymnastics class at the local recreation center. Leila learned about gymnastics that fall, while I learned about how much my little girl had grown up. My physically timid, apprehensive, clingy little baby had grown into a brave, poised, self-confident, outgoing little gymnast, a "big girl" who didn't really need her mother in class at all. Her maturity and independence in contrast to the other four-year-olds were stunning, especially considering that she was the only child in the class who had not gone to preschool. And now, here was the gymnastics teacher saying that my daughter had "no fear."
Today, Leila is six years old, and I am a "gymnastics mom." I watch her perform at the recreation center, while two-year-old Adam thoughtfully watches the gymnasts and tries to copy their moves.
Adam is his sister's opposite in so many ways-calm, laid-back, cheerful, adaptable, more willing to explore, more willing to separate. If Adam had been my first child, I probably would not have become an advocate of attachment parenting. I probably would have gone back to work when he was a few months old. I probably would not have learned the joys of extended breastfeeding, baby wearing, or shared sleeping. Adam probably wouldn't have objected too strongly. But we would have missed out on so much closeness together. Thank goodness for that screaming little baby Leila who taught me so much about being a mother.
Adam at two years is currently
going through a phase of separation anxiety. He needs to nurse frequently,
he suddenly acts bashful with strangers, and he gets hysterical if I
try to leave the room without him. Will he outgrow this phase? Oh yes,
of that I have no fear. Absolutely no fear whatsoever.
Reprinted from the August 1997 issue of Visions, Area Leaders' Letter for LLL of Virginia.