4am this morning. Lydia starts crying, not the kind of crying you can hope just quiets on its own. I mean screaming crying, calling our names, “I’m 100% awake” kind of crying. For the third night in a row, I somehow managed to remove myself from our bed to go in there. And, I wasn’t happy about it.
I wanted her to stop. crying.
“Want Mama’s bed, want Daddy’s bed. No crib.”
I just didn’t want to do it. I knew bringing her into our bed would make her fall right back asleep and quit the crying that somehow seems like it’s a 12 on a scale of 1 to 10 when it breaks 4am silence. It worked all the other nights, pulling her into our bed with us. But, I just didn’t want to do it. again. and then again and again. I changed her, held for a few seconds, gave her a little warm bottle, and put her back in her crib crying. Then, I left her in there while I went back to bed.
A few minutes later, she was quiet.
But, my thoughts were so loud.
Did I do the right thing? If she’s crying to be with us, should I just have let her? What kind of message am I sending? Should I have laid on the floor next to her for a while until she was quiet? Did I mess this up?
Those were my words in 2012. Lydia had been home 2 years. Things were good. We had worked hard to build our connection. It hadn’t been easy for her or me. I learned a lot about myself. I learned to ask for help. I learned that I didn’t like to ask for help but that I needed to and was a better mom for all my kids, a better wife, and a better person when I did.
Now, two years in, things really were good. I used the word attached when I described her as if it was complete.
“Oh yeah. She’s totally adjusted now. She’s attached to all of us.”
Those voices of insecurity could so easily overwhelm me. I longed for when I’d be able to just mother without the filter of attachment on every decision I made. Part of me feared that day would never come and that I had many nights ahead when I’d lay awake and ask myself those same questions.
A few months ago, I sent a message to check in with a local mom. She had three children already and had just opened her home to foster a baby for the first time, a baby they expected would permanently be their son. She had immersed herself in books and baby wearing. She was responding immediately to every fuss. For the three weeks he had been in her home thus far, she was pouring in and he was taking it in. He was comforted by her, enjoying her. Things seemed good.
And yet. She asked me questions not all that unlike the ones I had asked myself a little after 4am when I successfully led Lydia to settle back to sleep years ago.
How long do I have to do all of this? I mean, I want to do what he needs and am willing to, but it’s really hard. How do I know when he’s attached, and I can let up on some of this? What kind of time frame am I looking at?
All the rules and tools — the baby-wearing, the skin-to-skin contact, the commitment to be the only one to meet our child’s every need, the keeping our child within several feet at all times, the pulling your crying little one close at 4am — they are not the end all. Thinking of them that way, giving them that much significance, could lead us to see attachment as a mathematical equation (a + b + c = d or baby-wearing + co-sleeping + exclusivity in meeting physical needs = attachment). We are too complex for linear equations.
Attachment isn’t like that. All our attachment tools only matter because we matter. A hammer or a wrench are only effective to build because of the hands gripping them. A paintbrush is only an effective tool to create because of the hand that glides it across the canvas. All the strategies we learn are best for kids with hard starts are not powerful in and of themselves.
They are healing and connecting because there are two people involved, giving and receiving, responding to each other, changing each other with every response.
Work on attachment those first three weeks. Practice your strategies. Work hard to connect. Work on attachment those first two years. Practice some of the same strategies and maybe some different ones too as you and your child change. Work hard to connect. Work on it for 5 years. 10 years. 20 years.
Don’t look for the day you can say, “Now, we have arrived. Attachment is complete. Our relationship is good; therefore, I no longer have to work at it.” We can never stop working hard to connect because we never stop being our child’s mother. Never.
I acknowledged how hard it is and applauded that mom for all the good stuff she had been doing. I encouraged her by magnifying the progress she had shared with me. I told her I couldn’t give her a definitive time frame or a definitive prescription for all these efforts in order to have successful attachment.
Intentional efforts to build attachment don’t end. But, I promised the intentional efforts would change as her son changed and as she changed. And maybe, just maybe, as that happens, attachment won’t feel so overwhelming and she’ll find that the filter gradually falls off so that she doesn’t find herself striving so hard to build attachment but simply pouring in as mom to connect with her son. That’s what good moms do. They don’t just respond quickly to a cry; they respond, they stay close, they send the message “you matter” for life.
I hope my response gave her something she needed. I wonder if it was more what I had needed, what I had hoped a voice would have told me when I lay awake that night and other nights…
Did I do the right thing at 4am that night when I offered comfort to my daughter and then put her back in her crib instead of keeping her with me? Will a day ever come when I can just mother without always overthinking attachment?
Your daughter has received the messages you have been sending: There is hope. You are capable. I am for you. My love for you is never shaken. I believe she received them still at 4am that night. But even if she didn’t, it is okay; you didn’t and aren’t messing this up. You care. She’ll get that. She’ll get that tomorrow and the next day and the next day after that.
Expect to have more nights when sleep eludes you as you wonder if you’re on the right track. Being a good mom isn’t easy. Don’t let those times overwhelm you so that you feel stuck. Keep going.
Don’t be afraid to take a look inside of your own heart and be changed. As you do, it won’t just make you better able to keep the momentum of attachment going, it’ll make you a better mom and a better woman.