World Breastfeeding Week

According to Mothering Magazine it is World Breastfeeding Week.  So I need to take a little break from musical topics to wax lyrical on the joys and the benefits of breastfeeding.
Except surely by now you know the benefits of breastfeeding, right?  If you don’t, click here.  (And we lactivists, by the way, prefer to talk about the deficits of formula feeding, since we believe breastfeeding should be normative.)
So I think I’ll do something a little more personal and share with you some of my own adventures in breastfeeding.  And I have had a lot of them!
What do I think about breastfeeding in public?
If a woman has a right to be there, she has a right to feed her baby there.  Period.  Would I whip out a bare breast to make a point?  No.  Do I think babies need blankets or nursing aprons over their heads?  Absolutely not.  A nursing bra and a shirt that pulls up from the bottom will do just fine.  If anyone sees a nipple during the latch on process, they were staring.
Did I always feel that way?
No, it was a process.  I covered my first baby with a blanket, often left the room to nurse her, and stopped nursing her in public at six months.  Baby number five was nursed whenever, wherever, for at least two years.
How long should babies be breastfed?
Exclusively, for six months, or until you can no longer stop them grabbing food off your plate, whichever comes first!  After that, as long as both parties feel comfortable.  All my babies self-weaned, some with more encouragement than others, depending on my mood/needs at the time.   I nursed Emily for 26 months, Jake for 38, Teddy for 26, William for about 44 months, and Lorelei for about 50 months.  I have breastfed for over 13 years of my life–very well spent years!
Where should breastfed babies sleep?
In bed with their mothers.
Did I always do this?
Somewhat.  Emily had a cradle next to my bed.  I started nursing her in my bed, in my sleep.  I had never heard of co-sleeping, couldn’t believe this great secret I had discovered.  I was never tired!  It was wonderful.  With my first three babies I was always trying to get them to sleep through the night, so at some point I would be sitting up on the sofa in their bedrooms nursing in the middle of the night and falling asleep sitting up as often as not.  I gave all that up with four and five.  Lorelei never had a cradle or crib.  She has always slept with me and still usually does.
What are my favorite books on breastfeeding?
Nursing Your Baby by Karen Pryor.  I don’t mean the updated version, which I have never read.  I mean the original 1970s version, which is charmingly dated and yet full of good advice.  Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing by Sheila Kippley.  If you aren’t interested in child spacing you can ignore that part and concentrate on the theme of mother-baby togetherness.
What about schedules?
No.  When the nurse asks how often your baby is eating, make something up.  Don’t even look at a clock.  If your baby wants to eat every thirty minutes, so what?  This time will not last forever.  Maybe he isn’t hungry.  Maybe he just wants to be comforted.  That’s okay; breastfeeding is about more than just food.  And no, I did not always know this, and baby #1 ate every two hours like clockwork, and slept with a pacifier.
What about pumping and bottlefeeding?
I worked part-time when Emily was a baby, starting when she was four months old.  She flatly refused bottles, and learned to wait till I came home.  Jake got a few bottles (twelve ounces worth) ONCE when I went to the symphony when he was three weeks old and his godparents kept him.  I never pumped any more after that.  I don’t think Teddy ever had a bottle.  I never left him until he was about nine months old.  William never had a bottle.  Lorelei is a separate case–see breastfeeding challenges below.  I HATE pumping.  I am terrible at it.  I can’t get any more than four ounces out EVER, even with a double electric milking machine pump.  I am in awe of women who cannot breastfeed for whatever reason who then pump and feed breastmilk exclusively for a year.
What were my biggest breastfeeding challenges?
I can think of three big ones.  #1   A few days after William was born I was rehospitalized due to chest pains, shortness of breath, and a terrible headache. Turns out I just lost a lot of blood giving birth to him (he weighed 13 lbs. 5 oz. and was my first vaginal delivery).  But while they were figuring this out, I was subjected to a radioactive test and told I could not nurse my newborn baby for some undetermined amount of time.  My lactating sister (her baby was 17 months old), her baby, and my mother spent the night at the hospital so that she could nurse the baby for me.  My step-sister also donated pumped milk which my mother and I took turns feeding William by syringe.  The nurses thought I was crazy, but he never had a drop of formula.    #2   When William was about seven months old, and pretty much exclusively breastfed, I suffered through a terrible attack of thrush which lasted for weeks.  The pain was excruciating.  I tried every ointment available, stopped eating almost everything that can promote the growth of yeast (sugar, milk, bread), and finally had to pay $60 for one Diflucan pill.     #3  Lorelei did not gain any weight from two months to four months.  Although she was taking in enough milk to stay hydrated, she was not getting enough calories to grow.  I took every galactacgogue that existed–even got an online friend to mail me some domperidone.  We visited a lactation consultant regularly.  We had her medicated for reflux.  We rented ($100) a double electric breastpump so that I could build supply and feed her the extra via SNS (a royal PITA!).  Finally we had her hospitalized and tested for a variety of problems, eventually reaching the conclusion that a recessed chin was preventing her from effectively milking the breast.  Formula was prescribed by the doctor, and from four to eight months she had about 15 ounces each day.  I was fortunate to have a doctor who was 100% committed to breastfeeding and worked with me in every possible way until we were both convinced that this was a rare case in which a bottle was needed.  We kept nursing as well and the nursing continued long after the formula was discontinued!
Where is the strangest place I have ever breastfed?
When Lorelei was about nine months old, my Aunt Wilma died.  I had her with me at the funeral home, of couse, and I was getting ready to nurse her there in the chapel when my mother got all weird about it and wanted me to go find a private place (which annoyed me but it was hardly the time to have an argument about it).  So I asked the funeral director if he could direct me to a private room.  At which point he showed me into a vacant parlor, saying, “There’s no one in here but Mr. Smith.  And he won’t mind.”  Yes, I nursed my baby in a room with a STRANGER’S CORPSE.
How’s that for an adventure?

Whose Judgment?

Here’s a column reprint from 2003, which I was inspired to run today by a Facebook post by my friend Amy (you can see her here) whom I have known since first grade.  She said:  “The difference between a flower and a weed is judgment.”

It was a rare sunny day, and 9-year-old Jake, 2-year-old William, and I were going for a walk.  As we passed our neighbor’s house, I warned Jake to stay out of her grass because shortly before I had seen it being sprayed with herbicide.

“Why did she do that?” Jake asked me.  “There aren’t any weeds in her grass.”

I pointed to the white clover flowers.  “Those are weeds, Jake.  So are dandelions and buttercups and violets.”

Jake was indignant.  “Those aren’t weeds, Mom!  Those are flowers.”

Since I have been known to mow around the buttercups and violets in my own yard and vividly remember crying inconsolably as a child when my uncle sprayed all the dandelions in his yard, I tend to agree with Jake.

I started thinking about what makes a weed a weed and a flower a flower.  Isn’t it all about choice?  I have put buttercups in vases and transplanted violets into my border.  I leave the dandelions in my yard alone, but I pull them up when they appear in the rose garden.  To others, like my neighbor, only cultivated flowers are pretty.

Aren’t unplanned babies a little like weeds, springing up unwished for, disturbing the symmetry of the garden we have planned in our minds?  Some people choose to let the “weed” grow, to see what it blooms into, to see how it alters the pattern of the garden with its unique beauty.  Others remove it quickly–before they have a chance to see how beautiful it can be.

With literal weeds, though, at least we have a consensus.  Even if I choose not to poison them, I know which flowers are supposed to be weeds and which are not.  Under our laws, any unborn baby is a weed unless his mother decides he is a flower.

I recently read about a couple’s experience of expecting a baby with Down Syndrome.  Everyone encouraged them to abort their baby because he wasn’t a perfect specimen,  I don’t use chemicals in my garden, so my roses always get blackspot and most of the leaves fall off.  But the flowers are still pretty, even if they won’t win any prizes.

Like most people, I have been shocked and saddened by the terrible tragedy of Laci and Conner Peterson.  Even though Baby Conner never drew a breath, he has been given the dignity of a name and is mourned throughout the country.  He was Laci’s baby, and we all know that she wanted him.  Conner’s murderer will be charged with homicide, yet women pay physicians to legally kill babies every day.
We must fight to change a culture that says the lives of babies are valuable only on the say-so of their mothers.  We must encourage women to take the chance of allowing “unwelcome weeds” to take root and grow.

We have lived in our house only a year and a half, and I haven’t done much gardening yet.  I’ve been waiting to see what would develop.  Last spring a green vine started growing up the side of my porch.  I still don’t know what it’s called, but, like a baby, it grows fast.  I began winding it through and around and under the porch railings.  By midsummer it was like a hedge.  I kept wondering whether I was making a fool of myself, letting some weed grow all over my porch, but my faith was finally rewarded.  In July the vine blossomed with thousands of small, sweet-smelling white flowers.  I would have missed that if I had mercilessly cut it down to the ground.

not mine–uncredited internet photo

Jake’s last word to me on weeds was, “Those are flowers, and flowers can’t be ugly.  All flowers are beautiful.”

As are all babies.

I now know that the vine in question was Sweet Autumn Clematis, and it continued to delight us every summer.

Got baby?

Because I’m on vacation (where I envisioned I would have uninterrupted to hours to blog, but that isn’t happening) here is another column reprint for you:

Billboards. They are everywhere in our town and in our state. Their unsightliness mars the beauty of rural roadsides, and adds to the ugliness of already overdeveloped commercial strips.

The particular billboard I’m writing about is more attractive than most, though, because its subject is a baby, a winsome, chubby little thing with head slightly tilted and tiny hands clasped together, almost as if in prayer. Perhaps you might expect it to be an ad for baby products, or for an agency that helps children. I hope you’ll be as shocked as I was to learn that the baby itself was the product this sign was selling.

“Want one?” the sign asks. Catchy, isn’t it? A bit like the “Got milk?” campaign. Maybe it’s cute and catchy so we won’t think about what is really going on here. The name and the web address of a fertility clinic complete the legend on the sign. Its message is clear: Babies are something we have a right to. Babies are something we can buy.

Many years ago another ad moved me to write a letter to The University of Tennessee’s student publication, The Daily Beacon. That time it was an ad for a local abortion clinic. Bracketed by Visa and MasterCard logos, its slogan read: “No one believes in abortion until they [sic] need one.” Once again, they treat human life like a matter of economics. In this case, babies are things we have a right to be free from. And we can be rid of them, for a price.

One ad promises us sex without babies, another promises us babies without sex. Neither is right, and both are related. Separate sex from procreation, and funny things start to happen. Pretty soon, and people start to forget why we have babies in the first place. Having five kids, my husband and I have gotten more than our share of teasing, for example: “Haven’t you figured out what causes that yet?” about 500 times. It’s good for a chuckle, but the fact is that many people haven’t figured it out, or else they’ve forgotten. Babies are caused–or they are supposed to be caused–by the physical expression of love between a man and a woman. An important corollary is that sex isn’t supposed to be a recreational sport.

I’m sure you are familiar with point/counterpoint columns, where self-proclaimed experts take on some controversial issue and argue opposing sides, usually divided straight down predictable liberal/conservative lines. I cut out one of these some months ago, planning to discuss it here later. This one discussed yet another side of assisted reproductive technology: is it a good idea for single women to become pregnant via sperm donors?

The “liberal” columnist predictably embraced the idea, with comments like, “Women who want children shouldn’t be barred from motherhood just because they never fell in love or don’t want to marry.” The only reason, she claims, that studies find two parents to be better than one is that two parents usually have more money than one.

The “conservative” columnist responded that it’s wrong to deprive children of fathers, and that there are plenty of parentless children in need of adoption already for someone with motherly love to spare; one parent is indubitably better than none! And I agree with her, as far as she goes. But it’s not far enough.

Both columnists spent a lot of time talking about the rights of women to become mothers, but neither mentioned in any way that children are supposed to be–that they have the right to be–generated by an act of love between their parents. Just like the concept of sex without consequences, the concept of babies without sex is already entrenched in our culture.

New Life

Congratulations to my friend Katie and her husband Jon on the birth of Georgia Allison Hickman, who has brought a gigantic dose of joy to a family sorely in need of it after the loss of the big brother she will never meet in this life.  Georgia arrived a month early and is a tiny little girl–barely five pounds at this moment–but she’s home from the hospital and eating well and will no doubt start packing on the pounds in no time.

It’s a baby, stupid: Why personhood is moot in the abortion debate

Time for another reprint from the ETC–yes, and I know, time for some NEW life issues writing; I have ideas, and I promise a new one is germinating.  This column appeared, I believe, in 2007.

Anyone who has been really involved in the abortion debate for a long time has got to have realized that the arguments have changed. Back in the day, pro-lifers said, “It’s a baby!” Pro-choicers responded, “It’s a clump of cells.” It was as simple as that.

Enter ultrasound, fetal surgery, survival of micro-premies. It’s hard to argue that those human-looking although tiny little creatures sucking their thumbs aren’t babies. Or what about the widely-disseminated photo of the tiny hand slipping out of the womb and touching the surgeon operating on him? And how about those miracle babies born just barely halfway through the length of a normal pregnancy who with the help of technology manage to make it?

It’s a baby, stupid!” At one time I, and I suspect most other pro-lifers, thought it was going to be just that easy: once the pro-abortion forces saw it really was a baby, of course they weren’t going to say it was okay to kill it anymore. Finally pro-choice women could relax, and admit the tension involved in saying “fetus” when you want to abort it, but “my baby,” when you’ve planned to keep it.

But it hasn’t been that easy. They call it spin: changing the rules of engagement when the facts go against your original position. Yes, there are still people out there on both sides waging the “is it life or isn’t it” argument” but anyone seriously involved in this debate knows that’s a moot point. We’ve moved into a new world, less brave than twisted.
In this new world we have abortion clinics (sponsored by a group called “The November Gang,”) with pink hearts all over the walls, where parents there to abort their babies write apologies and explanations, justifying their choice by saying it’s for the good of the child, promising that they’ll meet again in heaven one day.

In this new world we have an uproar at a hospital in England, where the fact that aborted babies are disposed of in the hospital incinerator with other “medical waste” recently came to light. Said one woman in an online article in the Daily Mail: “I am furious . . . imagine my horror when I discovered my baby was incinerated in the same furnace as the hospital rubbish.” To add to the insanity, the hospital that performs abortions (and ought to, therefore, believe there is nothing wrong in so doing) burns the fetal remains alone, with a white sheet in front of the incinerator, and two witnesses from bereavement care staff.

In this new world, a woman can publish an article in Salon proclaiming, “I had a second-trimester abortion . . . This was . . . not a “clump of cells” . . . He was my baby, and I chose to end his life.” She goes on to say, “Everyone knows now how early a fetus becomes a baby . . . there is a terrible truth to those horrific pictures the anti-choice fanatics hold up in front of abortion clinics . . . my doctor told me that he would make sure my baby felt no pain . . . contemporary women know the truth about abortion.”

They know the truth. They know the truth. And yet they choose to kill.

Once upon a time we thought that knowing the truth–that an unborn baby is a life–would be enough. It turns out it’s not. The problem, you see, is our new world, our fear-filled new world that values perfection (“I wanted a genetically perfect baby, and because that was something I could control, I chose to end his life,” says the author in Salon.), that champions the illusions of choice and control, that craves instant gratification and repudiates the possibility of transformation through suffering, that equates success in life with the acquisition of material things.

We thought there was an easy answer, but it turns out that to end abortion we have to transform the world. “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). Only when the hearts of those who would seek abortions or coerce others into seeking them are changed by love will abortion end. How do we do this? You won’t get an easy answer from me. But we have to keep trying.

The Circle of Life

Here’s a column I wrote in August 2007, that seems especially appropriate today.
The circle of life” isn’t just an idea dreamed up by Disney. Every day we are confronted with its reality–births, deaths, and every stage and milestone in between. Rarely, though, has it hit me so hard as this past weekend.
On Friday morning, I remembered that a dear friend, with whom I have kept in touch since high school, would be in the hospital having her first baby that day. Kris and her husband, Colin, live in Florida, so I knew I’d have to wait for the happy news, but I thought about her and the baby throughout the event-crammed weekend.
Saturday was a particularly busy day, with celebrations of two of life’s milestones. That morning, I attended a Memorial Mass for Dr. Tom Ryan. I knew Dr. Ryan in recent years as a fellow parishioner at Immaculate Conception and organizer along with his wife of the monthly Book Swap which serves to feed my family’s book-collecting addiction. But I’ve known the Ryans since I was a little girl because their children were at St. Joseph when I was and Mrs. Ryan was my high school speech teacher, guidance counselor, and drama club sponsor.
Dr. Ryan planned his own Memorial Mass, and the celebration in the Parish Hall afterwards was lively, with Irish music, mimosas, and laughter as well as tears. His five grandchildren and the stories shared by his family were vibrant reminders that we live on in our descendants and in the memories of those we leave behind.
Only a few hours later I found myself at a wedding. My husband and I were married just out of college and before most of our peers, and for many years after our marriage we were attending weddings of friends and family frequently. Then we moved on to baby showers. In recent years we’ve attended lots of funerals. Now, apparently, we are entering a new stage–the weddings of our friends’ children. For those of you who have not yet experienced it, nothing will make you feel older than watching your date to the Junior Prom walking his 20-year-old daughter down the aisle on her wedding day!
The bride’s mother and I spent many hours together at Knoxville Catholic High School, between Drama Club, Mock Trial, and the Green and Gold newspaper. We’re the kind of friends who go years without a word and then run into each other in Kohl’s and talk for an hour (to the disgust of any children accompanying us). Seeing her as mother of the bride was surreal. But it was a lovely wedding, and Emily was the happiest bride I think I’ve ever seen–she never stopped smiling. We enjoyed sitting across from her new mother-in-law, who was holding the beautiful newborn daughter of a relative and talking about her own soon-to-arrive grandchild, the son of the groom’s older brother. “I’m not going to let anyone spoil my grandbaby,” she announced. “I’m going to hold him 24 hours a day to make sure.”
I remember two-year-old Emily charming us all at one of my own wedding showers–a time very much on my mind because this Sunday was our 18th anniversary. We had planned to celebrate as we usually do, but in the end we had to postpone our plans because we were too busy with arrangements for another big day–the first day of school for my own Emily and her brothers Jake and Teddy (William already started last week). We spent all afternoon and most of the evening buying school supplies and helping Emily with the finishing touches on her summer assignment for AP English.
The children all finally in bed (way past the appropriate time, naturally), I finally had a few minutes to sit down and check my email, and was thrilled to find one from my friend Kris’s mother, announcing that baby Andrew had arrived Friday afternoon. A birth, a funeral, a wedding, and an anniversary–it sounds like a movie but it’s really just Life, isn’t it?
EDIT: Kris has two boys now, and the “newlyweds” are the proud parents of two boys and a girl.

Big Catholic Families

I’m posting this column reprint as a followup to my “Why Stop at Two” post of a few weeks ago.  In that post, I talked about why we’ve chosen to have a big family; this post focuses on the Catholic Church’s teachings on family size.  This was too long for the East Tennessee Catholic in this form; it was condensed and split into two columns which appeared, I believe, in early 2009.
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth’”(Genesis 1:28).
You know He said it, but what did He mean?
A few months ago I told you why we have chosen to have a “big Catholic family.” Today I am making good on my promise to write on what the Church says about family size.
To be honest, though, I am humbled by the task I’ve set myself. It’s already been done, you see, much better than I could ever do it and by scholars with much more authority than I. But you’ve probably never read Gaudium et Spes, have you? Or Familaris Consortio? How about Humanae Vitae or Evangelium Vitae? If you’re in a Renew group, you’ve at least read some of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but we haven’t gotten to this part yet.
I’m not criticizing you, although I think it’s a shame, and I hope that Catholic educators today are doing a better job of getting some of this material into the hands of high school students. Even though I minored in Theology at a Catholic university it was only by accident that I ended up in a Christian Marriage class where some of this material was required. I’ve been fortunate since that my work with the Diocesan Respect Life Committee and with this column have led me to delve deeper into the writings that explain the doctrines Catholics profess to believe. I hope after reading just the small sampling I provide here that you might be tempted to go further, to be inspired as I have been by the Church’s vision of marriage and family–it’s so much more than the secular version.
Here’s the crucial point for most of you: The Catholic Church does not require or even suggest that you forgo all forms of birth spacing or regulation in order to bear as many children as physically possible throughout your reproductive years. Surprisingly, that’s actually an Evangelical Protestant idea–a minority idea–called the “Quiverfull Movement.”
This movement springs from Psalm 127:3-5: “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They will not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.” Its adherents, mostly U.S. conservatives, believe in receiving as many children as possible as blessings from God, rejecting even Natural Family Planning.
Now the Catechism of the Catholic Church does say that “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity” (2373). But it also says, “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children” (2368). In Gaudium et Spes we read that “certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and . . . they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased”(51). This is further clarified in Humanae Vitae: “Responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth”(10).
The problem is that many people hop on the “It’s okay to limit births,” part of the message without paying attention to the “grave motives” and “moral law” part. This is NOT okay: “In the task of transmitting life . . . they are not free to proceed completely at will, as if they could determine in a wholly autonomous way the honest path to follow; but they must conform their activity to the creative intention of God, expressed in the very nature of marriage and of its acts, and manifested by the constant teaching of the Church . . . If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier” (HV 15-16). “It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” (CCC 2368).
So, to simplify: Catholic couples are called to cooperate with God in the transmission of life, being as generous as their particular circumstances allow, limiting births only by the use of natural methods and for suitably serious reasons.
This casts it all in such a negative light, though! Listen to what some of these documents have to say about the meaning and the function of marriage and family in God’s plan: “Called to give life, spouses share in the creative power and fatherhood of God” (CCC 2367). “Spouses, as parents, cooperate with God the Creator in conceiving and giving birth to a new human being . . . God himself is present in human fatherhood and motherhood . . . In procreation, therefore, through the communication of life from parents to child, God’s own image and likeness is transmitted, thanks to the creation of the immortal soul. . . . in their role as co-workers with God . . . we see the greatness of couples who are ready ‘to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Saviour, who through them will enlarge and enrich his own family day by day’ . . . Thus, a man and woman joined in matrimony become partners in a divine undertaking: through the act of procreation, God’s gift is accepted and a new life opens to the future” (Evangelium Vitae 43).
“Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents . . . All should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men”(GS 50-51). “Conjugal love . . . does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person. . . .Their parental love is called to become for the children the visible sign of the very love of God . . .Christian marriage and the Christian family build up the Church: for in the family the human person is not only brought into being and progressively introduced by means of education into the human community, but by means of the rebirth of baptism and education in the faith the child is also introduced into God’s family, which is the Church. . . . The commandment to grow and multiply, given to man and woman in the beginning, in this way reaches its whole truth and full realization” (Familiaris Consortio 14-15).
If you were married in a Catholic ceremony you answered “yes” to the following question: “Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” Chances are when you promised that you did not really understand any more than I did what it really meant. Now that you have read just a little of the teachings that inspired the question, I hope you might prayerfully consider whether that longing you’ve sometimes felt for “just one more” might be the voice of God.
 

No expert here

I am not a parenting expert.  I am not a parenting expert.  I am not a parenting expert.  I want to make sure that I make that perfectly clear!  It can be dangerous to be thought of as a parenting expert, because then you are expected to have perfect children.  Then when you don’t (and who does?) people have plenty to say about it. 
I wrote a few weeks ago about my friend Katie Allison Granju, a well-known blogger and writer on parenting topics, whose son is now recuperating from serious brain injuries.  What I didn’t say is that his injuries were the result of a drug overdose and a drug-related assault.  What I didn’t even know, but what Katie has now made public, is that her son has been battling a serious drug addiction for years.
Katie never said she was a parenting expert–in fact, she disavowed the title in print on more than one occasion.  But she wrote a parenting book, and people who didn’t like what she said in it have taken this sad occasion as vindication of their opinions of her parenting methods.  Never mind that her book was about Attachment Parenting, one of the tenets of which is that you, the parent, learn from your child’s cues to be an expert on YOUR OWN CHILD.  Never mind that she never told anyone else how they should raise their children, only described how she was trying to raise hers.  On the second page of the book, she wrote: 

. . . the parenting book you now hold in your hands is fundamentally different from the others you may have seen.  It isn’t going to tell you exactly how often you should nurse your baby, or how many hours he should sleep each night because we don’t know you, your child, or your family.  Our philosophy is that you yourself–in partnership with your child–are the real “parenting experts” when it comes to your own family, even if you don’t realize it yet.

Ignoring all this, many mean-spirited folks have come out of the woodwork to blame her for her son’s drug addiction, to fault her for making it public, to accuse her of being narcissistic, and worse.  And, of course, this is what anyone who writes in a public forum knows she is risking by taking positions on sensitive issues.  I won’t quickly forget the many accusations that were hurled at me a few years ago when I wrote a column on Catholics and voting in the East Tennessee Catholic.
But even more than politics, people take their parenting responsibilities–and failures, if that is what they even should be called–very seriously.  It’s natural to look for guidance–would there be so many parenting books otherwise?  We all want to find someone who can tell us how to do the job right, because it is such an important job and such a hard one. 
I’m not that person.  I have a lot of kids, yes.  But that doesn’t make me an expert on YOUR kids.  Most days, I don’t even feel like I’m an expert on my own.  I feel like I know a few things, and I like to write about them, but I’m not guaranteeing that what has worked for me will work for you.  Lots of things I’ve tried HAVEN’T worked.  Lots of days I feel completely at a loss.  
In my opinion, people who think they have all the answers on parenting probably have never had any children.
So read the “authorities” or the “gurus” or just the moms like Katie and me and other bloggers out there who share experiences and maybe a  little wisdom, and take what works for you and leave the rest; and if you want advice from a real expert, listen to Dr. Benjamin Spock, who said to his readers: “Trust yourself.  You know more than you think you do.”

Sleeping Beauty

Most mornings, after I get up at 6:30 and wake the boys, prod Jake to get ready, make breakfast for John, and close the door behind the three of them, I go back to bed for an early morning nap.  I try not to feel guilty about this, because I work hard all day long, and while my work day might start later than some people’s, it also goes on longer (for example, I was drafting motions and writing client letters after 11 last night).

Still, I probably would stay up and try to get an early start on the day if it weren’t for one thing, or I should say one person:  Lorelei.  My five-year-old baby still sleeps with us, and the temptation of getting back into a warm bed for another hour or so with a cuddly little person is too hard to resist most days.

Parenting is an inexact science–or art–at best, but one area I feel sure I have mastered after five children is the issue of “sleep training.”  Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems was all the rage when my first was a baby, and I “Ferberized” her and her little brothers.   It worked–for awhile.  But I remember many, many nights standing by Emily’s crib, counting the minutes until I thought it was safe to sneak out the door; and many, many other nights of lying on the floor next to her bed and then actually crawling out of the room.  With Jake, it was getting up and down and up and down to head to his room to nurse him, only to fall asleep where I sat; both Teddy and Jake came into bed with us in the middle of the night for years.  And always there was a sense that I just HAD to get them to sleep through the night in their own beds!

But why, really?  When William was born, he slept in his cradle occasionally, but mostly he was in bed with me.  When he was two, I put the mattress from his crib (which we set up but never once used) on the floor next to our bed, and he started sleeping on it.  Eventually I moved the mattress to his room and began nursing him to sleep there.  Sometimes he would call for me in the night, but he never once left his room to come to ours.  By the age of four, he slept all night, every night, in his own room.  It had all been peaceful and stress-free.

Lorelei didn’t have a room of her own, let alone a crib, as an infant.  She has always slept with us.  She has a room now with her own mattress, and if I want to lie there with her until she falls asleep she will sleep there until she wakes to use the bathroom, when she comes to us.  But most of the time I don’t bother.  After a stressful, busy day, I like that I can still give her this time, can fill her emotional tank and mine with some nighttime cuddles.

As for going back to bed in the morning, here’s the reason I quiet that critical, guilt-inducing inner voice and do it more often than not:  I remember when Teddy, now a 210-lb. 15-year-old football player, was a roly-poly five-year-old, still asleep in my bed when his big brother and sister left for school.  I remember how often I forced myself to resist the pull to go back and join him so I could do something very important like dishes or laundry.  I remind myself that ten years from now there will still be laundry and dishes and letters to write, but there will not be a cuddly child lying in my bed.

And then I go back to sleep.

Lorelei with her cat, Pepper, who also used to co-sleep. 🙂

Postscript: Lorelei continued to spend a lot of nights in bed with us for many more years.  She’s 12 now and sleeps in her own room.

Grace through Suffering

This originally appeared  in The East Tennessee Catholic in 2006.

It was late at night–later than a twelve-year-old should have been awake–when Jake discovered me crying in front of the computer. Like all children, he doesn’t like to see his mother cry, and he asked me what was wrong. I told him about the website I was looking at, and he went up to bed.

He caught me reading and crying again the next night, and the next night too. “Why do you keep reading something that makes you so sad?” he wanted to know. He’s still too young to understand how joy and sorrow can be wrapped up in one package. He’s not alone–the idea of grace and joy flowing from suffering isn’t a popular one even with adults these days.

These personal stories are the most heart wrenching things I have ever come across in print. And yet there is a beauty in them. Last month I wrote about people who would abort a baby for having an extra finger. The families in these stories welcome babies developing without much of their brains. The news is full of articles about women “terminating” for “defective fetuses.” These stories are full of mothers who pray for their doomed babies to survive long enough to be born alive, who welcome surgical birth to give their sick babies a better chance at a few more minutes of life, who treasure every second of their pregnancies because that is the only time they will have to love and care for their babies.

You’d expect the stories to be sad, of course, and they are. For every story of a diagnosis that turned out to be a mistake, there are 20 about babies who proved to have terrible abnormalities, from anencephaly to missing kidneys to rare chromosomal additions that are incompatible with life. For every story of a baby who miraculously survived after medical intervention, there are ten about babies who breathe for just a few precious days.

But they are also joyful, peppered with such adjectives as “amazing,” “happy,” “beautiful,” and “thankful.” Nobody says, “I wish I’d had that abortion my doctor suggested.” Nobody says, “They were right. It would have been better for my baby to die sooner.” They don’t talk about defective babies, but about much-loved family members. And while many of them begin with anger at God, they end with acceptance, peace, and a respect for His dominion over life and death.

As I write this, my beautiful two-year-old, my fifth healthy child, is falling asleep in my arms. I am grateful for her perfection, but it bears remembering that God’s concept of perfection is not ours. I hope never to receive a poor prenatal diagnosis; I hope the same for you. Nevertheless, I’m glad these stories are there to remind us all that suffering is not meaningless and that its eradication by immoral means is never justifiable.

If you are on Facebook (and who isn’t?) you can “Like” BeNotAfraid’s page and see additional inspirational and informative posts by and about mothers and fathers dealing with prenatally diagnosed fetal abnormalities.