I am the mother of a four-year-old (due to go to school next month) and a 20-month-old, both girls. I am quite anxious and highly strung. I have always set very high standards for myself and had a need for control.
When my first child was born, the first 12 weeks were tough and we became very sleep-deprived. I read all the books and tried everything I could think of to help her sleep. I didn’t want to leave her to cry, but eventually, at seven months, I didn’t feel I could take it any longer. I had started taking antidepressants because I felt low and more anxious than ever. I joined a support group for sleep training and, for about a week, I left her room at bedtime and returned only at 11pm and 3am to feed her. She cried for hours at a time. And I left her.
After a week I realised it wasn’t going to work. I have never left her to cry since. I practise “gentle parenting” now, respond to her needs fully and give her lots of love, reassurance and attention. However, she is quite a serious and anxious child who takes a long time to settle into a new environment or routine. I can’t shake off the feeling that I did that to her by leaving her to cry in the night as a baby.
Is there a chance I’ve done this to her through my actions? Or, with my history, was it inevitable that her personality and temperament would be this way, regardless? How can I build her up and make her feel secure?
Your older daughter is nearly four and, from your longer letter, it is obvious that you are thoughtful and caring – and that includes stopping something you didn’t think was right after only a week. Yet you are determined to judge yourself on that one week. What about your younger child? How is she? You didn’t mention anything else about her – is that because there is nothing to berate yourself for there?
Dr Jan McGregor Hepburn, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist (bpc.org.uk), and I both wondered about your own childhood and where this super-critical voice originates. She said: “You sound very sensitive, and so does your daughter, but the other side of being sensitive is anxiety. You sound less sensitive to your own needs and I wondered why.”
When we become parents, anything unresolved from our own childhoods can come back. I wish more parenting books mentioned this. Parenting is dual aspect: it’s about your child, but also the child you once were and all of those experiences. Did something happen to you, aged four, just before starting school, that has made you write now? Becoming an effective, kind parent is often about working out what is our anxiety and what is our children’s.
Becoming a mother for the first time, especially when you are a “control freak”, is hard. You have put things in place to give a semblance of control and then along comes this baby with primal needs, added to which are feeding problems, sleep deprivation and depression. You got through it – isn’t that something to praise yourself for? You are chastising yourself for not being kinder to your daughter – for that one week – when you can’t be kind to yourself now. Children learn from thhe way we treat them, but also the way we treat ourselves. As I’ve said before, guilt is the enemy of confident parenting. Somehow you need to make peace with your past (even one session with a good therapist could be really beneficial) and move on to enjoy what is happening now.
“If you’re always feeling guilty,” McGregor Hepburn said, “it can make your child more anxious.” I would add that a parent who feels guilty can make the child feel as if they are at fault, because they may misinterpret your unease as something they have done wrong.
“You seem to be punishing yourself for something you now regret, but is not decisive in your child’s life,” McGregor Hepburn said. “It’s the totality of the experience children get that really matters. Everyone does things they later regret. You only have to be good enough as a parent for the child to grow up OK.”
You have done so much right with your daughter, and as your younger one grows, you will see that children from the same parents can be vastly different. By being a more confident mother – which means forgiving yourself – you will make her more confident. Carry on responding to her emotional needs. We all become more secure by knowing our needs are met, that we are listened to and accepted for who we are. Who does that for you?
• Send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.