In the early years of raising our family, when we had two very young ones in our care, I remember realizing how often I was overriding my need for rest, among other needs. I remember thinking, “Wow, it took me years to figure out what I really need and want, and now I disregard the majority of my body’s cues.”
I would watch as the very obvious signals of tiredness, then exhaustion, would move through my awareness with no response from me. Over and over I prioritized my children’s need to nurse, be comforted, held, sung to, engaged with, put to sleep, changed, eat, connect, and be cared for over my own need to eat, pee, shower, exercise, or just sit my ass down.
And I don’t think there is anything wrong with this picture. In fact, I think there is a lot right about it. I immersed myself in mothering. I was compelled by instincts, as well as knowledge of the attachment process, to prioritize meeting their needs as soon and as effectively as I could.
Attachment parenting is something a lot of parents are into these days. But creating a secure attachment goes way beyond co-sleeping, baby wearing, and nursing on demand. Creating a secure attachment means being able to attune to the inner life of our child, and when we do that consistently and sensitively, our children feel secure and safe in our care and in the world, over time.
In order to parent that way, we must be attuned to ourselves AND our child, expand our emotional capacities and empathy, maintain a sense of curiosity about who our emerging child is, and learn to respond sensitively and in an attuned way to our child’s needs.
THIS IS AN ENORMOUS UNDERTAKING.
I repeat, enormous.
For the mothers who are exhausted, you have every right to be. Its a huge task to create a secure relationship with your child. On a biological level, attunement and creating security require high quality neurotransmitters and hormones, as well as new neural pathways and pruning. A lot of us didn’t fully experience the benefits of secure attachment with our parents, partly because our parents were instructed to parent us totally differently than what the latest human development research has indicated is necessary for a secure attachment bond. We are doing this as best we can with whatever we received from them. In addition to whatever our parents missed, we tend to think that there is no room for our own needs in the process of creating security. Thus, we establish few if any boundaries, limits, or structure to protect ourselves from getting totally spent.
If we aren’t careful, it’s easy to dig a deep hole of depletion for ourselves while trying to parent in an attachment-informed way.
In reality, we can choose to meet our child’s needs first, but our own needs can’t wait much longer. Ideally, everyone’s needs in the family are getting met—yes, even the parents’—in an ongoing way. In order to make sure everyone’s needs are getting met, we have to be extremely informed about our values, limitations, boundaries, and needs, so that we can navigate modern life AND attachment parenting well—and not come out of it like we just got put through a physical, emotional, and endocrine meat grinder.
In order to free up our internal resources so that we can stay with the demanding and ongoing attachment process, it can help to ask ourselves: What can I let go of—in the service of prioritizing my relationship with my child while also preserving my own and my family’s wellness, too?
Yes, it takes some serious creativity to answer this question. If I truly consider my own, my child’s, and my partner’s needs when it comes to establishing our family values, rhythms, and overall wellness, this is no simple task. And this question will need to be revisited over and over again as my family grows and evolves and everyone’s needs evolve and change. Personally, I love this kind of intra and interpersonal complexity, I find it fascinating and enlivening, but that’s just me.
However, there is one thing many new mothers let go of that actually does more harm than good when it comes to their own well being and energy for mothering: their partnership.
Letting the relationship “go” could mean not working conflicts out in the moment (even the “little” ones), not seeking each other out when your hands are free for a moment, not continuing to rely on and express your gratitude for each other, or building up resentments without ever addressing them. All of this actually creates more stress, less security, less mental and energetic space to parent with, than any momentary relief that avoiding these issues seems to provide.
Sometimes mothers feel so spent—emotionally, physically, and energetically—from mothering they don’t feel they have the bandwidth to show up for their partner, also. They don’t want to be needed in any way, or even touched, at the end of the day. If you are someone who looks at your primary relationship as another obligation, threat, or demand, instead of as a place to receive nourishment, care, and love (much like what you are giving all day long), then it’s time for a relationship overhaul.
So, if attachment parenting is draining you, try this…
Invest in your partnership.
That’s right. The post partum life phase is a great time to evolve your relationship (and to me post partum is an indefinite time period, a way to mark life from here on out after giving birth, so that window of opportunity doesn’t close), because things have changed—drastically—and you may as well go through that open door.
My feelings of exhaustion (and at times overwhelm) have been dramatically helped by deepening my relationship with my husband. Getting comfortable (and grateful) with how much we depend on each other, going to each other for nourishing connection and support, being creative about how to keep collaborating as parents and partners, generating sensitive and loving care for each other, and not letting any resentments build up, have all been restorative actions for my energy and health than anything else I can do. I know this because when I don’t take care of my relationship in this way, I feel the impact (and so does he). And it’s not good.
If you are fortunate to have a partner, and are with someone who is invested in their relationship with you, then you have everything to gain from attending to that connection. Since I started studying couple relationships through the lens of attachment, neuroscience, and affect regulation four years ago with Stan Tatkin, PsyD, I now understand the science behind my own experience of why the partnership is so important to a mother’s physical, emotional, and mental health. Just like your relationship with your baby is so primary to your baby’s overall development and wellbeing, much the same is true for our adult partnership, too.
While a couple may feel like they are in the passenger seat when a baby comes into the family, and the kids are driving the whole thing, think of it this way instead: The couple’s relationship is the vehicle through which the family lives and grows.
We cannot simply rely on the well intended advice of taking time alone, getting regular sleep, consistent exercise, and all the other recommendations that make total sense but are at times impossible to count on amidst the demands of mothering. So, if the traditional self care approach feels out of reach, fear not. Moving towards your partner may work just as well for restoring your energy, your wellbeing, your resilience, if not more. In fact, having that option would cover a lot of bases: a secure and loving partnership greatly enhances your overall energy, brings vitality to your marriage, deepens your attachment relationships within your family, and cultivates an internal sense of well being.
While it isn’t easy to prioritize your partnership, given how full your hands are, it is an efficient way to meet a lot of your own and your family’s needs at once. And if you’re a woman with a full life already, that you’re now fitting motherhood into, this “relationship care” approach to dealing with the intense demands of modern motherhood will help sustain you for years to come.