Detachment parenting

My mother let us ride without seat belts. I let my daughter play with sharp tools. I am such a mess as a mother.

Published March 13, 2001 8:52PM (EST)

I spent all weekend slinking around my house, telling myself, "You're a horrible mother." If I'd had a whip, I would have flagellated myself, but all I had was the vacuum hose hitting me in the thighs. I muttered, "You're irresponsible. Selfish. She could have lost a finger!"

Very dramatic.

I knew the pick hammer was a bad idea when my neighbor handed it to my daughter. But I was detached. I thought, "Cool. They'll stay busy excavating that huge dried-mud pile and I'll clean the kitchen."

Detachment parenting is not good, I know now. I admit right here that I only learned what attachment parenting was last year, by reading about it in magazines. Bonding with your baby, the family bed, carrying your infant and toddler at all times, like in a Snugli. Cool.

But see, I'm 11 years into this already. I've been messing up for more than a decade. First off, I work. I have been working since I was 14. And the choice remains clear today, in my house: Mom works 25 hours a week, we eat three meals a day plus mucho snacks.

I bonded big time with my first daughter, Gaila. At 3 months, she stayed with my mother-in-law, who cuddled her and sang without cease, while I rushed back from work twice a day to breast-feed. When Gaila was 2, though, I had to leave her with my husband's godmother, who'd provided home day care for 30 years.

I will never forget the sight of Gaila splayed on the yard's chain-link fence, clinging like a kitten on a screen, screaming so loud the neighbors and relatives would grin and say, "There goes Gaila the Waila. Her mama must be off to work."

We didn't live in an attachment kind of place. I didn't even know what a Snugli was. But I carried Gaila all the time when she was an infant -- too much, according to my roughneck friends and relatives, who said, "Put that baby down. She's spoiled."

I didn't listen. I liked the way Gaila's fingers felt clutching my collar or hair into a tangle of security.

We didn't have a changing table, and our floors were hard wood except in her bedroom, so I changed her on the floor and then lay around with her while she crawled on me.

One day the second toe on her right foot swelled and turned purple, and I rushed to the pediatrician. It was my fault -- one of my long blond hairs had wrapped around her toe, nearly cutting off the circulation. The doctor had to wedge tiny scissors in and cut the hair. Gaila's toe bled a little, and I felt a sharp pain ricochet between my hipbones, like a shadowy contraction. My fault, I kept thinking, for days. All my fault. How could I have been so careless? I am such a mess as a mother.

Now, 11 years later, I still feel that way: distracted, detached, fierce and loving, yet somehow never enough of what I am supposed to be. I have three daughters, and I am divorced. I know what past-babyhood attachment means: spending every waking moment with your children, being a stay-at-home mom, driving them to sports and social events, making crafts, just being there for them 24 hours a day. That's how I've heard some mothers describe parenthood in the pre-school or elementary school parking lot, glancing at other mothers with disapproval. Family bed, family vacations, family fun nights, family sports, family 5K runs.

Not that I don't spend most of my time with my kids. I help with homework, sitting at the same table with my daughters while grading my own papers. I watch "Sabrina" and "The Parent Trap," companionably. But I also like to read, sitting on the porch within yelling distance while the kids are on the swing set, or in the mulberry tree, or jumping on their beds.

Most of my attachment seems accidental. My baby, Rosette, just turned 5 and she still sleeps with me. It's not a family-bed, conscious thing -- hey, mine is a two-bedroom house, and a third bed wouldn't fit in the girls' room. So when my friends and family say, "That big girl's still sleeping with you?" I shrug and think, "I should kick her out and let the clean-laundry pile warming our feet take over that side of the bed?"

But I am often detached, though I feel guilty. Sometimes, on the weekend, I want to be alone! Not for romance; I want to clean the kitchen in peace. I say, "Go play outside."

I should say, first, that when my mother said this to us, she meant it. We went outside and climbed the foothills in summer heat and smog, avoiding rattlesnakes, excavating huge tunnels with hammers and chisels in decomposed granite. After hours, when we came back and complained that we were thirsty, she would lift the hose from her flowers in a detached manner, and we'd drink.

What did they do, those moms? So coolly detached that we could walk to the store a mile away, lingering to play in the flood-control ditch. So impervious when we rolled like Lincoln Logs on the huge bench seat of the station wagon as she stopped quickly at the light.

And yet, her arm, their arms, always shot out like a railway crossing gate to keep us from hitting the dashboard.

That morning, I watched my daughters through the kitchen window while I scoured the sink. They began investigating the huge dirt clods caused by our new construction. My neighbor, a contractor, is adding two bedrooms and a bathroom. In a few months, Rosette will detach from my side at night. She will not clutch my pajama top in a damp fist, mistaking it for her blankie.

"Rosette is so tall now, at 5," I was thinking. But she's still my baby.

They threw dirt clods at the large hump of sculptured dry mud near the foundation, and I went outside to yell, "Throw clods from the same side, so you won't hit each other!"

They did. I lingered at the counter, watching them chip the dirt with a garden trowel. I unearthed bread heels and chip-dusted baggies and Oreo shards from that corner of the counter that acts like a magnet whose steel filings are lunch castoffs. I thought, "Maybe Delphine will find a treasure today."

She loved excavating around our 1910 former orange-grove farmhouse. She'd found half a bisque doll's head, a mother-of-pearl button and a license plate from the '40s.

My neighbor was putting in windows, and when Delphine picked up his sharp claw hammer, he studied her for a moment, then handed her a shiny pick hammer. He thought it would be safer, he said.

I went outside and said, "You be careful." Of course I did. Mike glanced at me and grinned. He has boys. And they're still so young.

I said "Be careful" about five more times while I took out the recycling and trash. Then I said, "That thing's very sharp. Do you know what you're doing?"

Then I went inside to clean the week's worth of hair ornaments from the bathroom counter. It was only half an hour before Rosette screamed, and I ran out to see her holding a finger, dripping blood.

The pain that I get when I see their wounds is like barbed wire pulled across the inside of my belly, low down, between the hips, where I carried them.

I screamed, too, at Delphine. "How could you?!" I slapped her on the shoulder, and her eyes went black and tear-shined as stones.

I couldn't tell what was gone from Rosette's left index finger until I got it under the tap. I thought she'd lose the end. A huge flap of skin, nearly the whole tip, but a shallow layer. It bled as fingers and lips and toes and chins do, on children. All those extremities. "All my responsibility," I kept thinking furiously.

We rushed her to urgent care, just to make sure it didn't need stitches. "I don't want to see," Rosette moaned, looking away from the proverbial dish towel. Delphine cried silently. I sat there remembering broken wrist, dresser-corner split forehead. Meningitis, scarlet fever, pneumonia. All Delphine. And this hurt her way worse.

Of course Rosette only cried for the first five minutes. My girls are stoic, like me. Delphine never cried when she broke her wrist. (The E.R. nurses all came to see her stony fierce gaze over the dangling limb. "Look at that one -- she's scary.")

Even in the car, I was saying, "When I was 5, just like you, someone slammed my finger in the kindergarten gate and it tore just like that."

"Did Grandma take you to urgent care?" they asked.

"Heck no," I laughed. "She probably said, 'Go get a Band-Aid.'"

But later, I tried to remember. Had my mother carted us off for every scrape, as we mothers do now? We had broken bones, pneumonia. Do I just not remember? And that led me to wonder if my own kids will remember these trips. Will they think, "My mother was so detached. She let us play outside with sharp tools because she wanted to clean the bathroom sink in peace."

Stitches and casts and butterfly bandages -- they are the attachments of our mothering lives. The doctor didn't even seal Rosette's wound with that new glue. He pressed the flap of skin down and bandaged it, then gave her a tiny splint like a flat, silver gingerbread man. She was dry-eyed, fascinated.

So why did I mope around for the next two days thinking, "But she could have lost her finger! I'm the worst mother in the world"?

Because that's what we do now. Attached like limpets to everything about our kids -- schoolwork and clothes and friends and food and games -- we see ourselves in every move they make, every facet of their days and nights. We take credit for soccer game victories, because we drove to practice or coached. We suffer with every spelling mistake, every birthday party snub, every childhood injury. Perfect mom is who we are supposed to be. Not like the moms of my childhood, who shooed us from gold-flecked Formica tables and said, "Go play outside." We drive our kids everywhere, rarely let them play in the yard unsupervised, never let them walk to the store. We can't. We won't.

I'm not wholesale romanticizing the old days. My mother was a foster parent, and I lived for 12 years with children whose parents were detached to the point of drunkenness, hunger and abandonment.

I'm only saying that all weekend, I wanted the misery and pity and guilt of Rosette's finger for myself. Our bad luck turned into my personal failure.

I pictured myself at the playground fence come Monday, seeing other mothers' frowns at Rosette's splint, hearing them say, "One of yours got hurt again?" I heard them already saying, "My God, she could have lost a finger! She'd have been scarred for life!"

I know. That's what I kept thinking, all weekend. I also realized I didn't even know Radio Disney existed until someone else's child rode in my van and showed me the station. (I had to take out the Van Halen tape Rosette loves just as her favorite song, "Running With the Devil," came on.) I have never played a Raffi tape. We never finger-paint. I never made baby food from scratch. The girls don't even have a real closet. Rosette doesn't even have a bed.

Delphine came bleary-eyed to show me the rough draft for her fourth-grade writing assessment, titled "The Most Valuable Lesson I Have Ever Learned." Her sentences were fine constructions full of references to "sharp tools" and "blood," wrapping up with, "I should have listened to my mom."

Then we went to church. I glanced behind us to see the older men rising to sing, their hair silvery and gone, their fingers gnarled and big-knuckled on the pews. I felt Rosette pressed against me, playing with her splint. Who am I to think I own her fingers, I own her safety forever, I own every drop of her blood, her life?

On Monday morning, she awoke crying, and I sat up with a start. Was she in pain?

She'd lost her splint and bandage in the sheets, and she had wanted to show them to everyone in kindergarten. "Does your finger hurt?" I asked, as perfect as I could be this early in the morning darkness.

"No," she said matter-of-factly, now that I was holding the splint. In the bathroom, while I slid the bandage back on, she raised her eyebrows critically and said, "Mommy, did your pajamas actually come with the wallpaper?"

My ancient, cheesy flannel pajamas have a stripe with a floral design inside. The wallpaper in the hallway, something I was so proud of getting done after my divorce (since during my marriage the raw drywall had been exposed for years), has exactly the same pattern. "I'm just asking 'cause, you know, it's kinda funny that you match the wall," Rosette went on, nonchalantly jamming the splint onto her finger. "Tighten that up for me, Mommy, OK?"

By Susan Straight

Susan Straight is the author of "A Million Nightingales," "Take One Candle Light a Room," and "Between Heaven and Here."

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