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Attachment Parenting My Baby Was Unhealthy and a Mistake

Now that my daughter is 4, it feels like an eternity since I first decided I would be a die-hard attachment parent. Here's what I see now in my AP preschooler: a loving little girl with a comedic streak, whose fits and tantrums are far outnumbered by her moments of quiet curiosity. She's perceptive and smart, reading a little bit on her own, but she's no prodigy. I also see a little girl hesitant to bond with new people, but devotedly attached to the ones who have been there from the beginning—though she is a little leery of men.

When I became pregnant five years ago, I was thin and athletic, newly married and ready to do my life "by the books." My mother stayed at home with me, and I was certain I would follow a similar path. I believed that the best mothers were those who fostered a tight bond. Anything that stood in the way of that, like daycare or crib rails or bottle-feeding, would damage my child and render me a failure.

I found these sentiments reflected back at me in the first AP book I picked up, and also in "The Business of Being Born," the documentary that convinced me I should have a home birth. Almost overnight, I was sold on the whole attachment parenting paradigm.

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I had nine months to obsess about this and, having bipolar to contend with, I believe I obsessed more than healthy women typically did. I deluded myself into believing I had the power to make the anticipated pain of childbirth go away, if I could just arrive at the right mindset or mantra. I cried over every sweet treat I consumed, dreading the backlash from my midwife who had me on a protein-heavy diet. The way I understood it, as an AP parent-to-be, every little slip-up was a potential death sentence to my child. Moving my pregnant belly in an awkward way would kill her. A box of movie theater chocolate meant a neonatal sugar addiction.

I regularly woke up in the night feeling suicidal.

On the flip side, anything that I did well, like quilting or cooking or going for long walks, made me believe I was the best fucking mother in the universe.

Ironically, in the middle of all of my nitpicking and second-guessing, my mental illness was not something I addressed during pregnancy. In fact, I attributed my extreme emotions to the fluctuating hormones of carrying a baby in my body.

My home birth was successful, although it wasn't the warm fuzzy hydroponic Ricki Lake version I'd expected. The early weeks with my daughter were like being on a two-week drug bender. I became a recluse. I developed a permanent crick in my neck from staring at her at all times. I developed the delusion that setting Evelyn down, if even for a moment, was as abusive as throwing her across the room.

I can't help but wonder if she would be better adjusted now if she'd spent more time around other caretakers in her infancy, if she had learned how to soothe herself earlier on.

I assumed any sadness or isolation was the baby blues, and that everything would feel fine after the hormones leveled out. I was completely wrong.

By the time she was 6 months old, I had developed such a deep bond with my daughter that I was certain it was impossible for her to experience any kind of peace or comfort in my absence. AP purports that the level of stress hormones in a baby's system are higher when she is not with her mother, so how could I actively put my daughter through that by leaving her in the care of another human?

As a result, I disconnected from everything. Months of solitude turned into an entire year. Evelyn was a frequent eater, so she was nursing every few hours, well beyond her first birthday. She napped almost every time after nursing, so she would often fall asleep on me while I sat idly in front of the TV. I nursed her any time something was wrong. I never let her cry, since that supposedly skyrocketed her stress levels, too.

We never slept apart.

This all-encompassing obsession with succeeding as an AP parent did something to my mental state that is very difficult to explain without sounding overly dramatic. Lots of people talk about perfectionism, as if it's a mostly positive trait with only a few minor drawbacks. Even terminal perfectionists seem to understand, deep down, that actual perfection isn't really achievable—especially in endeavors that depend on someone else, like relationships or parenthood.

Not me. I wasn't just aiming for perfect: bipolar had tricked me into wholeheartedly believing I could be perfect. If I could do everything right, from conception onward, I believed I would be the best at this, and my child will be the happiest, healthiest, most worldly and most emotionally mature. All I needed to do was follow the rules. Go through each day with a fine-toothed comb.

It seemed to be working. Evelyn was healthy, happy, smart and beautiful. But me? I was completely gone.

The former me—the athletic, clean, manically creative, novel-writing social butterfly—was gone. She was replaced by someone who rarely changed out of sweatpants, whose only regular interactions were with the characters on daytime TV, and who could barely sleep at night for fear of suffocating her baby.

I have advice for soon-to-be mothers who are mentally ill and leaning toward attachment parenting. AP can feel very intuitive, especially in a child's infancy. Co-sleeping was convenient in the early weeks, when Evelyn woke up every couple of hours in need of a diaper change. There were also times that breastfeeding was blissful, times when I felt my nerves and stress melting away. So I don't deny that AP may have contributed to my daughter's good nature.

It is most certainly not a mother's duty to forfeit her personhood for the sake of her children.

But the cost was colossal. I was so far gone after her first year that when I finally started taking small steps toward mental health, like getting a job, I actually did damage to my relationship with my daughter by pulling away. She never had to rely on anyone else but me until she was over 1 year old, so the separation was insanely stressful for both of us. I also felt a backlash from my traditional family when I made this shift.

The cost was colossal for my daughter, too. She is still learning how to trust anyone but me. She has a significant fear of the dark and of sleeping alone. Up until her 3rd birthday, she wasn't able to spend more than a couple of hours in the company of her dad without crying and begging for me. I can't help but wonder if she would be better adjusted now if she'd spent more time around other caretakers in her infancy, if she had learned how to soothe herself earlier on.

Whether you're a die-hard AP parent or not, my advice is this: Reject the aspects of AP culture that tell you a mother is the most important person in a child's life. Being a female is amazing, in that we get the bizarre, intimate experience of carrying a growing human life in our bodies. For this reason, our role is unique.

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But it is not the mother's sole responsibility to shape every nook and cranny of her child's personality. It is most certainly not a mother's duty to forfeit her personhood for the sake of her children. What does that teach children, especially daughters? That as they grow up they should forfeit their personhood, too? That the only humans who may live to their full potential are men and childfree women?

Having a mental illness compounds this problem of giving yourself up. Had I been more mindful of my own mental state in that first year of her life, I would have recognized my need for separation and started setting boundaries. I would have returned to work sooner. I would have trusted the capable hands of my support system to care for Evelyn, so I could be a human, out in the world, or alone in bed with a book. I have these boundaries now, and we are both better for it.

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