Parenting Without The Labels

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Here’s an understatement: first-time parenting can be daunting. The overwhelming responsibility many of us feel to “get it right” motivates us to seek child care information and advice.  The good news is that we’ve already proven we have the basic requirement for good parenting – we care enough to ask questions.

Then we discover the work of child care experts or methodologies like Attachment Parenting and the RIE approach that intrigue and inspire us. Or, maybe we’re influenced by friends and family who convince us that certain child care practices are “the way”.  Regardless, the advice we receive should support our instincts and intuition, while also being practical. It has to work for us and our baby, make our lives easier or at least less complicated.  Never is child-rearing advice meant to be adhered to so rigidly that it binds and blinds us, causes self-judgment and guilt (as if parents needed more reasons to feel those things). Nor should it interfere with the most valuable child care practice of all – tuning in to and understanding our babies in order to provide the individualized care they need.

I recently received a note from a mom who feels like a failure. Yet all I saw when I read this was that she is doing the most important thing — listening to her baby. I share her story because it illustrates some affirming lessons, primarily: ditch the guilt!

Dear Janet,

I came across your blog today, and I just wanted to say that I love it! As a new mom (my baby is now 1) there hasn’t been a day where I did not experience guilt at least once each day. I am one of those parents that attempted to follow the Attachment Parenting theories, but have pretty much failed miserably. I really appreciate what you have said about parents not feeling guilty.

I suppose my first failure was in babywearing. I tried to babywear with my daughter, but she just wasn’t interested in being confined like that. She liked me to hold her a lot, but she wanted to be able to get down and move at the drop of a hat. I’ve since given up on babywearing, but not without feeling like a failure.

Though I breastfeed, I also don’t immediately pick her up when she falls or bumps her head and let her nurse. I generally don’t help her up either, because she gets it! And when she gets it, she looks so proud! She’s very independent. She’s so curious. And she doesn’t mind being put in the playpen for awhile. She’ll stay in there and play by herself for a good hour at a time. I am able to get lots done during that time. But I still feel so guilty. Don’t the good Attachment parents entertain and play with their babies all the time? I just don’t see how that can be done. She seems to like to explore and do things by herself.

As for “crying it out” (I read a few articles that mentioned that) — I really hate that. I tried out those “no cry” sleep books. But I have allowed my baby to cry at bedtime a few times and feel like a failure as an Attachment parent. Every day that goes by, I just realize that I am not that kind of parent at all. Yet, I am not mainstream, either. (And why does “mainstream” have to be a dirty word?) Every day I just wish, “Why can’t I just be? Why can’t I just be….a parent?”

I have noticed that crying hasn’t really bothered her, and she generally doesn’t do it for very long. In the past few months, we’ve tried the wait and see approach. I’ll admit, it’s so hard and drives me bonkers most of the time. But we’ve been doing it.

I really just appreciate how you talk about parenting without guilt. I really wish I could do that! I don’t want to try to be an Attachment parent anymore. I don’t want to be mainstream. I don’t want to be instinctual, crunchy or (insert word here.) I just want to be a mom to my baby.

Thank you for your words. And if you take the time to read this, thank you for listening to me vent!

Best wishes in all of your future endeavors.

Kristi K.

Here’s my advice to you, dear Kristi: Shake these trees of child care advice, research and wisdom. Gather what works and happily leave the rest.  Be your authentic self — the unique, evolving, imperfect human being your child needs to know, learn from, grow with, and may have even chosen (if you believe in those things as I do).  And keep following your excellent instincts to pay attention, to observe, wait, listen, and honor your daughter’s abilities. The one label none of us can lose is “instinctual,” and that’s a good thing.

Please share your impressions and experiences…

Photo by Perfecto Insecto on Flickr.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Brandi-Lee says:

    This article hit so close to home!! I am so glad there are so many other moms out there just being moms and not trying to fit into some predetermined \”perfect parent model.\” Thank you for encouraging us to be us and reminding us that our babies are their own amazing little people when we let them just be!

    1. Thanks, Brandi-Lee! Yes, I know there are parents who feel guilty because they don’t follow the RIE Approach exactly. Magda Gerber certainly did not believe in perfect parents and causing a parent’s guilt would have been the last thing in the world she wanted to do. I’m sure Dr. Sears feels the same way.

  2. Love this article and love this comment “Shake these trees of child care advice, research and wisdom. Gather what works and happily leave the rest”

  3. “Shake these trees of child care advice, research and wisdom. Gather what works and happily leave the rest.” Can we please paint that in giant letters on the bedroom wall of every new parent? More people need this message.

  4. Wow, this is such an awesome writing! I am from Parent eSource and we have this goal which is to deliver useful insights, parent to parent tips, shared learning experiences, all the while removing the fear and uncertainty by providing parents with the information and support to make the decision making process a guilt and worry free one.

  5. Ah… this illustrates perfectly why I hate rigid ‘methods’. Children are different! One method will never suit every child- but the first step of any ‘method’ surely has to be KNOW YOUR CHILD.

    I also like the following definition, by Albert Einstein… “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results…” … if it’s not working for your child, stop doing it! No guilt required!

  6. Thank you for posting this! I have felt, many, many times like Kristi did. My son is 8 months old and as he gets older, I see myself getting further, and further away from being a “crunchy” mom or an “attachment” parent. I belong to a crunchy group on facebook and many times I feel judged for the ways that I parent my child. I have started to just stay away from topics that may start or a debate or ask a question that may cause me to be judged or lashed out at.

    I listen to my son. I understand what each cry is telling me. I respect him as a person…but yes, I use strollers and cribs and we CIO on occasion. I use my instincts and do things that work best for our family. Because what works best for our family is what is going to make us a happy family.

  7. Thanks for these reassuring thoughts. As new parents we really try to do it ‘right’ but really we are learning as we go what’s right for us and our little ones. I’m sure as days and months turn into years it’s not going to get any easier either to decide how to approach each new challenge. I just try to remember that’s there’s no right or wrong answer and not to freak because everyone seems to have an opinion!
    I also salute my parents! Wow, I never realised until now how involved (emotionally and physically) being a parent is!

  8. The doctor knows better, the grandmother knows better, the sister in law with two kids knows better…what about me? I followed ‘rules’ out of books, like put your child to sleep at 19 in a dark room with the door closed. I don’t feel guilty about that, i was doing my very best, and that can never be wrong. But I do smile about me (now), taking confidence in parenting is like taking confidence in life, in yourself. Having your first child is the most beautiful challenge to see life 200% different as you have ever done before. It makes you shift to let go of control.
    Thanks dear janet for this post!

  9. Thank you. Really, thank you. I found myself in the same boat and feeling the guilt of being pulled to one “right” style of parenting over the other. Janet, your advice to a first-time mama, has helped me so much. This post brought me a much-needed, “I’m not alone” breath of relief and quite a few “maybe I can do this” tears to my cheeks. Thank you, Janet.

  10. I think as a new mother (I have a 4MO) guilt is the one thing I struggle with the most! Guilt for a lot of the same resons…. I had a really hard time trying to figure out how to entertain my new daughter as we were home all day together and when she would fall asleep I would rush to do house work or eat or any number of things I felt like I couldn’t do when she was awake because I needed to be entertaining her some how! Recently I have had to take a step back and do what I need to do when I need to do it and she happily plays by herself (amazing!) and slowly my guilt has started to fade 🙂

  11. So well said! I’m doing a pick-and-choose from both “Attachment” and RIE. After 9 months being as a mother, I tell my expectant friends the best advice is follow your instincts and keep an open mind. You might have your heart set on something, you’ll have strict do and don’t rules for yourself.. but if it is not working ditch it!
    I loved “wearing” my baby and still occasionally do. BUT as soon as she turned 6 months and wanted to look around, I had to switch to a stroller!
    I breastfeed, co-sleep and I love both but I don’t entertain her or play with her all day. I let her cry when it is a frustration or complaint cry, but not when it is real anguish. I tell family and friends who rush to stop her from crying, “no, she is allowed to cry, she is allowed to be sad”. This is the best piece of advice I read here. We are allowed all sorts of feelings.

    1. Thank you, Kay! If I believed in perfect mothers, you sound pretty close to what I’d imagine one to be.

    2. Hmm… AP is NOT about entertaining a child 24/7, on the contrary. Actually, it would be more AP to have been doing the household while your daughter was awake, carrying her in a sling.

  12. I heard about RIE approach 5 years ago during my training and it made sense to me, so I followed it at work even when my colleagues didn’t. I decided that RIE approach was for us because as older parents(we’re both in our 40s), we really can’t afford to have a clingy toddler who demands to be picked up every time she takes a tumble. I like that RIE approach allows me to have a rest whilst at the same time still enjoys my baby’s company through observation.
    I absolutely agree with what Janet says – gather what works and happily leave the rest. So far so good, my baby is thriving and a delight to be with, and we don’t always have to entertain her.

  13. Perfect timing! I love this post. I try to always just be the parent my kids need (and they each need someone different!) and be the parent I need to be.

    It is easy to get caught up still in the labels. Thanks for the encouragement.

    I just wrote a post about this topic:

  14. Labels should be tools that help us learn and feel confident about our decisions as parents. If they don’t do that, they aren’t worth anything.

    Using “attachment” is a deliberate appropriation of a psychological term which has nothing to do with, slings, co-sleeping, breastfeeding or baby-led weaning. People can be raised in many different ways and develop strong attachments to their caregivers.

    I am attracted to RIE, but I struggle to implement its tenants. It is so hard to be consistent. But I feel it suits our outlook and my son’s needs. If I had wanted to be an attachment parent, I would have felt like a failure. I’m very glad I didn’t know anything about attachment parenting until after I became a mother. My son didn’t seem to need or want any of those AP holy grails of motherhood. (Except I enjoyed breastfeeding and am very glad everything worked out with that.)

    We’re not always consistent or perfect RIE parents. But, RIE gave me confidence to abandon tummy time. I hated putting my baby in a position where he was clearly uncomfortable and unhappy. RIE helped bolster my confidence that my son would do what he was ready to do when he was ready to do it. When he didn’t want to be sat up, I drew from RIE again. My family told us to “help” him practice as a part of our daily routine. It seemed pointless and little mean. So I stopped trying and we were all happier. He eventually sat up after he crawled.

    I still find my son is just happier when we wait for him to let us into his play rather than leading it. He’ll quickly abandon any kind of play we begin, but will engage himself for ages if we don’t interfere. I hope that continues. I love watching him play.

    RIE and specifically the advice here helps me work towards the kind of parent I want to be – a happy, confident parent.

    1. DeeDee, this is eloquent and true: “Labels should be tools that help us learn and feel confident about our decisions as parents. If they don’t do that, they aren’t worth anything.”

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and perspective.

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