The Myth of Needing to Get Away

Many people are surprised to hear me talk about the “myth” of needing to get away. Everyone seems to ask new moms if they’re getting away and taking care of themselves. Once and for all, I’d like to dispel this myth, because it’s a great hindrance to many who are practicing attachment parenting and who are tired of answering this question posed by everyone they encounter. I refer to this idea as a “myth”, because it would not be heard of in any other time or in any other culture. It’s purely a creation of Modern Western Culture.

In advancing the “myth”….many of mothers’ real needs have fallen by the wayside.

Late in the 19th and early in the 20th centuries, Behavioral Psychologists turned their attention to babies. Touting themselves as “experts”, they stepped into the realm of instructing mothers.  Not mothers themselves, they lacked the emotional bond that exists between mother and child and believed that anything that couldn’t be measured, like the baby’s needs, was irrelevant.

Mothers were, therefore, instructed to ignore a baby’s cries and to put the baby on a strict schedule that did not vary. Even though this was difficult for mothers, they did what the experts told them to do. Mothers were also instructed to get away from their babies and to continue their own lives without concern for the new lives that had been entrusted to them.

Mothers and fathers do have needs… [and] these needs do not need to go unmet in an attachment parenting dynamic.

Mothers and fathers do have needs — individually and for their marriage. It apparently does not occur to these “experts” that adults have the ability to delay their needs, unlike babies, and that these needs do not have to go unmet in an attachment parenting dynamic. Unfortunately, in advancing the myth that mothers need to get away from their babies, many of mothers’ real needs have fallen by the wayside and have gone unmet.

Baby’s Development

Separation from mother’s warmth, smell, heartbeat and voice can create fear and insecurity in many babies.

There is no formula for parenting – all children and all temperaments are different.  However, there are some developmental changes that occur prior to 18 months that require mother to be available.

When babies are born, they move from an environment where all of their needs are met before they are even felt into an environment where they begin to feel these impulses — needs for food, drink, comfort, dryness, warmth, etc. One tenet/belief of attachment parenting is that it is the parents’, primarily the mother’s, responsibility to meet these needs.   The quicker the needs are met, the more the child will learn to trust. It is this foundation of trust that creates an environment of cooperation and a desire within the child to meet the parents’ needs when they begin to become aware of them.

At birth the baby is (also) disconnected from the mother by the cutting of the umbilical cord. The mother is instantly aware of the disconnection, but the infant is not fully aware that he/she is a separate entity from the mother until about 18 months old. This awareness grows gradually but is not present at all in very young infants who still believe themselves one with their mother. Separation from mother’s warmth, smell, heartbeat and voice can create fear and insecurity in many babies.

Many infants accept some degree of separation, though others, especially in the beginning, do not. And others, if the separation is too great, stop searching. Still many others cry until their mother is again present. This is not a phenomenon of attachment parenting. It is the reality of the child.    The different ways babies respond are determined by the frequency of separation from the mother combined with the child’s temperament.

Many women complain of feeling “trapped” by the breastfeeding relationship, because it means they must be present to feed the baby. At the same time, many other women have switched to formula in order to “get away” only to find that their babies will only accept a bottle from them as well.

Every child is different and most are happy spending time with Daddy while Mommy showers or finishes dinner. Older brothers and sisters can be helpful when they are willing to play with the baby so that Mom can get a moment to herself or get something done. And while swings and bouncy chairs are far overused in our culture and often serve to foster detachment, used as a tool to occasionally give her the freedom to do tasks around the home, they can have a place – especially if there are older children in the home who need Mom too. Slings are another lifesaver in this regard as they allow mom to meet the needs of her baby while also meeting the needs of other children, the home, and herself.

Mom’s Real Needs

Mom does have needs and these do need to be met. How can this be done if she’s not “getting away” from the baby? A better question might be “What are Mom’s real needs?”

Undeniably, food and water are definitely needs. It is beneficial if Dad is willing and able to help meet these needs in the early weeks and months, at least when he is home. Taking over finishing dinner while Mom stops to nurse means everyone gets to eat and have their need for food met. Taking baby for a walk in the sling while Mom cooks will also meet this need. Crock pots are great; many women also find it helpful to get together with others and do once a month cooking so that all their meals for the month are prepared in advance and only require defrosting (this can be done for the week, two weeks, etc., as well).

Water is fairly easy to keep on hand and is necessary while breastfeeding, so that mom doesn’t become dehydrated. This is also one area where friends and family can help. Bringing gifts of meals to a new mother and making sure she has water as she sits down to nurse will be a blessing.

Showering and keeping clean are another high-priority need. Mom feels better and acts better when she’s clean. In the early weeks, Dad can hold the baby while mom takes a quick shower or stays in the bath until she’s needed. Eventually, baby can sleep in a bouncy chair or another safe place while Mom showers. It’s often helpful to have a see-through shower curtain so Mom and baby can see each other. Mom can simply take the baby into the bath or shower with her. There’s no reason this need should go unmet.

When these methods of “teaching” a baby not to cry result in a baby no longer crying and “learning” to sleep, they have actually entered a state known as “infant depression”.

Sleep is yet another undeniable need. It should be expected, regardless of the parenting style, that sleep will be interrupted in the beginning. With our son this meant two years, while our daughter slept a straight six hours a night from birth (except when she was teething). Every child is different and be wary of methods claiming they will have your child sleeping through the night by a certain age. Most often these methods employ allowing the child to cry it out until they learn to stop crying.

There are many dangers to these methods and some of its greatest proponents have since come out against it. Ferber, whose method is the most well-known and still used, has rejected his own teachings in this area because of the damage it can do to the child. Science has shown that when a child is left to cry unattended for 20 minutes, the child’s vitals are comparable to someone suffering a stroke.

When these methods of “teaching” a baby not to cry result in a baby no longer crying and “learning” to sleep, they have actually entered a state known as “infant depression”. Specifically, they have given up attempting to have their needs met. They have learned very early that their cries are ineffectual and have given up. Other babies only cry harder and longer and this method will not even “work” for getting them to sleep.

Instead, even the mother of the most wakeful child can get sleep by keeping her baby close and quickly meeting his needs. Most babies are settling into their own pattern of sleep by around 6 weeks. Babies who are still struggling to sleep likely suffer from special issues like allergies or undetected illness. It’s also common for babies to have interrupted sleep at times of teething, growth and/or developmental leaps (crawling, walking, talking, etc.).

Time alone does not have to mean leaving your baby.

Time to recharge is also a need present in varying degrees in different women. Extraverts need time around other people and baby can go along. Introverts need time alone. This need can be met without “getting away” from the baby, especially if mom is willing to be creative and challenge her ideas about what she needs to recharge.

Many women see the time that a baby is sleeping as an opportunity to clean the house. What about painting your toenails, soaking in the tub, fixing your hair, reading a book? If your baby sleeps in the car, then why not go for a long car ride and think about things? If your baby is okay with Daddy for a while, then have a cup of coffee on the patio.

Another idea many women employ is to hire a mother’s helper. This is a neighborhood teenager or the daughter of a friend of the family who can come to your home and play with your child to give you some time alone. Many women use this time to nap, exercise, clean, whatever they need to do. They are always in the house and accessible, but can move about freely while a trusted person plays with their baby.

Time alone does not have to mean leaving your baby. There will be plenty of time for that when your baby is older.

Agreeing to meet your needs at a later time is not neglect — it’s impulse control.

Last, but certainly not least, there are the very real needs of the marriage. Again, while babies sleep there is plenty of time to meet the needs of the adults who should be able to let their needs wait. Agreeing to meet your needs at a later time is not neglect — it’s impulse control. We have had many years to learn to wait for an appropriate time to act.

There is also something romantic and mature about knowing that you are in a new season of your life together. Where once romance meant whisking away for the weekend or a dinner and night on the town, now it can mean smiling and winking at each other during the evening because you know what awaits you after the baby falls asleep. This can be more difficult if your baby still doesn’t sleep well, but then you get to experience the thrill of spontaneity.

It is also important to remember that the sexual and intimacy needs of a marriage do not belong solely to the husband and are not met solely by the wife. This is when support and assistance in all areas of parenting and homemaking will enable more opportunities for intimacy of all kinds. If Dad washes the dishes while Mom gets the baby to sleep, then time alone can begin earlier in the evening. If Dad straightens up or gets the older children to bed, then he doesn’t have to wait for his wife to do everything and she doesn’t grow to resent doing everything.

Children are not the reason that intimacy dies in a marriage. It is caused by one or both spouses failing to see the new ways required to nurture a relationship after the babies are born. It is definitely important to have your needs met, whether you are one month or thirty years old. The sign of maturity is the ability to delay your needs while you meet another’s.

It helps to remember that the moment you make the choice to become a parent you trade in your rights as an adult for the responsibilities of raising a child. Instead of trying so hard to “get away”, all family members would benefit by an effort to “run towards” what it means to be a family.