When my oldest three were babies and toddlers, for like my first five or six years as a parent, I knew everything. I could have written a book. Sure I had to adjust to becoming a parent. I read some books which resonated with me, I learned some theories which aligned with my natural parenting instincts and I gained confidence at putting it all into practice. And it all worked! We had some ups and downs but mostly ups. My theories and ideas were awesome, my babies and toddlers were awesome, and it all just worked! I could have written a book.
And I should have written it back then, because fast forward ten years, and exponential amounts more of parenting experience, and now I know nothing. Some things still work. But these little people grow up and (shocker) become guided by their own personalities, interactions with the outside world, and (for lack of a better word) their own destiny. And I can’t always find a parenting tactic or theory that will help. Some things are too complex for a tactic or theory, and we just have to flail around trying this and trying that and sometimes just being there, hoping it will be enough.
One of my great theories (not MY theory, but one I was guided by) was attachment parenting. That giving them a solid foundation, a good base of attachment and safety during their early years, would help them be better prepared for whatever the world might throw at them later. But did it? Maybe. Maybe the challenges now would be even more challenging without that foundation. But they feel pretty massive and challenging some days anyway, and then I feel like all the pretty theories don’t mean anything, not when all I can do is LOVE with all my heart and hope it’s enough.
We don’t have a control setup to see where we’d be if we’d done things differently. An alternate universe we can step into and see how things would be going if we’d done otherwise. Maybe without that focus on attachment the situations now would be worse, we’d have weaker coping mechanisms, our stress and anxiety reactions would be more extreme. Maybe. Who knows really, but all that pretty theoretical waxing on about the solid foundation of attachment feels so ephemeral and distant when trying to help older kids navigate the losses and confusion and heartbreak of this world. I want to pull them back in time and just hold them, back to when when our attachment was literal. Physical. When my presence, my arms, could physically comfort and hold away the hurt. And that was enough, or at least it felt that way then.
My kids aren’t here to be molded into proof that my theories work. Most people will nod and agree. “Yes, mine aren’t either.” “No, of course not.” But then I hear it over and over in various forms “I do this that or another thing and look, my kids are so harmonious and well-adjusted. So clearly this is a good way to parent.” Or encouragement to follow a parenting theory such as “kids with a secure attachment in the early years will be more independent and smarter and just awesomer in general later.”
Ok, your kids are harmonious. Mine are too, sometimes. That’s awesome, it feels good, it is good. Or your kids are displaying independence and cleverness and general awesomeness. And that’s really cool too. But what about the more difficult phases that even the most independent harmonious ones go through? What about the shy ones, the nervous ones, the ones with social anxiety. (Ah don’t get me started on the stress caused by a society that values extroversion and tries to “fix” introversion, that’s a whole topic for another day). What about the ones who never quite fit in at school, academically or socially. What about the ones who get into difficulties, who need counselling, who need help from other sources outside the family. Did something go wrong, what about all that attachment, why aren’t they harmonious and why aren’t things perfect? Is it the theory’s fault? Yours? Mine? Big bad society’s?
We have to be careful about not having goals that our theories will result in our children being a certain way. Because when they’re not it will feel like failure. Of course if something’s not working right we should change it. We shouldn’t stick to a theory because it looked pretty in a book, but we also shouldn’t just discard a theory which aligns with our instincts because the “result” isn’t what we expected, or what the outside world would dictate upon us.
We don’t like uncertainty, we don’t like to accept that the world’s chaos can and will enter our lives and just following a pretty parenting theory won’t always keep it at bay. We want a theory and techniques to fix things and create a shield against pain and worry. If we tried so hard and focused so much on attachment, why are things still so difficult and confusing later? And there we are again with the alternate universe thing, we don’t get to know how things would be if we’d done it all differently. Maybe attachment parenting doesn’t fix and prevent these things, but instead lessens the scope of the issues. Maybe in general, the challenges faced would be more daunting, even insurmountable, and the attachment has helped keep things more manageable. Maybe. Parenting teens is the era of Maybe.
Right now I’m still parenting a toddler, and I still focus on attachment with her, using classic tools like extended breastfeeding, carrying, co-sleeping, gentle parenting, and so on. But I have teens and older kids too, and with them there’s no easy “toolbox” of techniques to turn to. I have to stretch and grow and work to find ways to keep our connection strong, and I don’t always know if I’m succeeding.
Over the years a single concept has filtered down through all the theories and techniques I’ve read and tried, and that concept is trust. Just trust. I want my kids to trust me, and in turn I have to trust them. Not just straightforward trust in terms of doing right or wrong, but also trust that we’re moving in the right direction. Trust that their development is moving forward in the best way for them, and trust to let them make choices (bigger and scarier ones!) which turn their paths in new directions. Trust looks different at different stages. Trust might not always look right to an outsider, who interprets the world and my child based on their own designs and desires for who we should be. But holding on to the bond of trust with my child is more important than creating a pleasing image for the outside world. Sometimes trust looks like attachment, sometimes it looks like letting go. And sometimes it means holding out and projecting love while a swirling storm of change and hopelessness sweeps through our lives. And trusting, TRUSTING, that the foundation we laid will hold, that somehow we’ll both land on it again, connected in spirit even as our physical lives diverge. Trust in our connection and trust the adults my babies are becoming.
But oh, I wish I could just hold them, and it would all be better. Just one more time.