By Lynn Shattuck
After my first son Max was born, I wanted answers.
My little red-faced infant wanted to nurse every twenty minutes. He woke up six or more times a night. The ‘quiet alert’ phase that we had heard about—the one we had imagined our peaceful, silk-cheeked baby silently gazing at us while inhaling the landscape of our faces—was non-existent.
Long days dripped by in a haze of milk and tears—both of ours. Our pediatrician said it wasn’t colic; nursing soothed him. And Max didn’t save his sadness for just the witching hour—any hour of the day or night was fair game. In my attempts to ‘fix’ my son, I lugged him to osteopaths and homeopaths. I went on an elimination diet consisting of brown rice and carrots. I spent hours with him hooked to my breasts while I searched the Internet for solutions. For ways to make him happier. To make us both happier.
In my research, I came across an article by Dr. Sears, a leading proponent of attachment parenting. Dr. Sears described ‘High Needs Babies”—how they tend to sleep poorly and require constant holding and attention. The article suggested my son’s temperament as who he was, who he was born to be. Not something to fix. I was a bit devastated by this theory; if I couldn’t fix it, the tears and sleepless nights would continue. We were already utilizing many of Dr. Sears’ suggestions for calming our ‘High Needs Baby’—co-sleeping was the only way for any of us to get rest. I carried him in the Ergo so often, I felt like the skin on my shoulders was absorbing the straps. I nursed on demand—and the demand was high.
The only thing that really helped was time. Ever so slowly, our nursing sessions stretched out. After about sixteen months, Max finally started piecing together four or six hour stretches of sleep.
Max is four and a half now. He’s been weaned for a few years, and he usually sleeps through the night. But he is still intense. When he’s happy, he’s down-to-the-toes effervescent. And when he’s not—which is often— he’s a shrieking, writhing tempest of misery.
We have a daughter now, too. She smiles and laughs easily and often. Loud sounds don’t phase her, and she weaned with little effort. At 21-months, she still requires a lot of care. But her whole being vibrates with ease, with lightness. I sense that life is much easier for her than it is for my son.
Than it is for me.
You see, I’m a High Needs Mother.
Before my kids were born, I practiced extreme self-care. I went to yoga and dance classes. Twelve-step meetings and therapy. I took long, slow walks and attended a Unitarian church. I signed up for retreats and workshops. I did all of this to help me feel normal, which has always seemed much easier for most people than for me. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Maybe it’s because I struggle with anxiety and depression. Maybe it’s because I’m what is described as a ‘Highly Sensitive Person.’
My husband and I vowed that when we had children, I would keep up my rigorous program. We promised we would support each other in doing the things we loved and the things that kept us sane and happy.
And then my son arrived.
And I was the only one who could soothe him.
A few months after Max’s birth, I went to a yoga class by myself. As I backed the car out of the driveway, I felt half giddy. I also felt half naked without my son.
At the class, I breathed. I tried to root my body on my yoga mat, to let the ground cradle me like I so often cradled my son. In between surrendering to gravity, my mind wondered how my son was. If he was screaming. If he would take the bottle. If he would nap. During the closing shavasana, I felt the sharp zing of my milk letting down; even my body couldn’t fully surrender to the time alone.
When my son was twenty months, we discovered my husband’s work would subsidize part-time childcare. We enrolled Max two days a week in a nearby daycare. I had wanted children, badly. So why did I need to be away from my son? How dare I ask other people to care for him two days a week when I wasn’t going to be filling all of that time with paid work? When I might use some of it to go to a yoga class or do laundry or lug my laptop to a coffee shop and write?
My guilt was huge, but my need for a respite was bigger. When I dropped my son off that first day, I came home, melted onto the couch and cried. When I finally peeled myself off the couch, I wrote Max a letter. In my home, alone, all I could hear was the hum of appliances. For the next several hours, my body was all mine. I felt guilty and blissful, free and lost.
With time, the guilt shrunk.
I hate that as a mother, I felt like I had to choose between caring for my child and caring for myself. Because really, I can choose both. I can teach my kids—by example, which is perhaps the most potent way of teaching—that they are worthy of listening to their own needs. To the quiet, sure voice that might tell them they need a break. To lie on a yoga mat and sink deep into their own body and breath. To wander through a cemetery, alone, slowly enough to read the names on the gravestones. To sit down and write about how they’re feeling, or to surrender to sweet sleep for an hour.
When I take good care of myself, I am more present for my babies. I can play air guitar with my son and orchestrate dance parties to Footloose. When I don’t take care of myself, I’m a stringy, soggy, limp wash rag of a mother. Slowly, over the years, I have been able to add more and more self-care back into my life. To come back to myself and meet my own needs. To meld the person I was before having children with the mother I became.
Over time, I learned that there was nothing wrong with my son. He just happens to be a lot like me.
Lynn Shattuck is a writer living in Portland, Maine. She blogs at http://thelightwillfindyou.com as well as the elephant journal and Huffington Post.