Guest post: From attachment parenting to the mental hospital


I’m honored to be entrusted with publishing this incredibly powerful post from a mother who wishes to remain anonymous.

It took me just under three years to go from bright-eyed and expectant to waking up in a mental hospital in severe withdrawal from benzos (aka anti-anxiety medication). It’s not the whole story – what ever is, really? – but a big part of it centers around the current cult of attachment parenting that, at least in my circle, reigns supreme.

I wanted to be a wonderful mother. I live in on the East Coast – a very progressive little state where attachment parenting is heralded as something akin to the next coming of Christ. Of course you must breastfeed. You must have a doula. A birthing plan. Birthing music. Co-sleeping. Lots of eye contact. The idea is, if you don’t, you don’t care.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I checked myself into the hospital… Seven days later, I was released. I went home and tried to make sense of what had happened in our lives.[/pullquote]

I cared so much. So, I set about doing it all. My plans started to go afoul when my son was frank breech. He wouldn’t budge and we were coming down to the wire. My mother, a pushy and progressive obstetrics nurse in Boston, begged me to get a risky inversion (which could have put the baby in danger). She also implored me to attempt to deliver feet first vaginally (also very risky). Having worked on a labor floor before (thanks to nepotism), I knew I didn’t want risk when it comes to my child. I decided to go ahead with the Cesarian.

So, I started my son’s life with guilt. Lots of it. I remember dining out with friends who’d also had a baby around the same time and also had a c-section. Theirs had been entirely unplanned and the friend talked to me about her grief around the c-section. I couldn’t relate and that felt funny. I mean, it hurt like hell after but I was just so happy everyone was safe. What more could I ask? But…grief? What was there to grieve? We had ushered a new life into the world. That being said, I started to think something was wrong with me for not experiencing c-section grief and not being able to understand it…I mean, didn’t I care?

Next, we breastfed. Here’s the thing: my son cried around 20 hours out of every 24 hours a day while we breastfed. I was absolutely desperate to breastfeed. What sane person doesn’t breastfeed? I eliminated everything from my diet and went down to just eating white rice (i’ve since lost two teeth as a result). My mother was ruthless about it – I felt that if I even suggested formula she’d call the police on me! My mother-in-law was quite different (and not necessarily in a good way). She’d bring us cases of formula and suggest we try it. Well, we did and that didn’t stop the crying. Finally, one night at 3 am after a particularly hard stretch of our son crying for basically 40 hours, my husband suggested SOY formula. I agreed, he bought it and then magic happened: within 20 minutes, my son’s crying stopped. That was it. 8 weeks of round the clock crying and it was over. Just like that. Wow.

So, we went to the pediatrician and told her. She responded with great skepticism and told me she had a room I could go into to “latch-feed” asap before my milk dried up. I had enough confidence in myself to decline her offer – but I went home upset. Was I monstrous? Was I selfish because I couldn’t deal with the constant crying anymore? My motherly instinct told me my son shouldn’t have to cry like he had been but my pediatrician was acting like it was a medical emergency. I felt ashamed. I felt lazy. I felt like I wasn’t strong enough (in retrospect though, who is strong enough to endure 8 weeks of round the clock crying?).

I took on my mothering duties with a vengeance. The original plan had been that I would go back to work, but attachment parenting or not, that didn’t feel right for our situation. I restructured everything so I could stay at home. I found small writing jobs (for everything from beauty salons to software companies) that paid peanuts so that we could have enough money to make ends meet. I woke up every day at 4am to make the proverbial bacon.

During the days, I took my son out. We went to playgroups and gyms until he grew more and ended up getting so focused on things like a single set of car keys that he couldn’t no longer be in group environments like that. I remember packing up our things to leave, time and time again, and staring out at the sea of babies who didn’t need to leave. Where had I gone wrong? Was it because I hadn’t always eaten organic? Was it the traumatic c-section (although nothing had gone wrong)? Had I not made enough eye contact? Was I too stressed?

At around 8 months, my son went through a major sleep regression. He just… stopped… sleeping. It was like the colic days without the crying. Co-sleeping, which I had enjoyed as had he, became a total no-go. Instead of soothing him, it made him even more wired. Still, I kept at it. There he and I would be, night after night. He’d be bouncing in his crib (he couldn’t be right next to me because of safety due to his level of energy) and I would be on the floor next to him – awake and unrested. Finally, sick and bone tired, I looked into crying it out. I felt like an actual monster.

Crying it out wasn’t as easy as the books say it is. Not for us. It took a month of our son screaming day and night while I rocked him in his stroller. Back and forth. I would catch fifteen minutes of sleep at a time when he slept. It was unbelievably hard and it must sound like an exaggeration to the reader who doesn’t know me.

Finally, it worked. He started sleeping like clockwork. I could breathe again. I could think again. I started trying to teach him Spanish and French in addition to English ( I wanted to be super mom). He was learning it, too. It was a beautiful but short-lived time.

At around 14 months, he started to walk. He also stopped talking. He hadn’t been a prolific talker, but he had talked. Slowly, this went away. Eventually, it completely disappeared.

I would go into my pediatrician with my concerns about this. She would suggest I read to him more. I did. I followed our son around the house with book after book. He paid me absolutely no attention and I felt silly, but still I persevered.

I’d like to say that my perseverance paid off – but it didn’t. He didn’t talk. In fact, he started making less and less eye contact.

I beat myself up at every turn. If attachment babies were more engaged and happier, what did that say about what I had done? How had I failed so miserably and so fast? Hadn’t I tried? Clearly, it seemed to me, everyone else had tried much harder. Maybe, I thought in my darker moments, I didn’t even know the meaning of trying.

It was a bleak time. Eventually, our pediatrician referred us to early intervention. The words had a terrible register – were they intervening with my terrible parenting? The nice ladies came every week and suggested our son had anxiety. Again, I felt horrible. Anxiety? In a two year old? Oh, dear.

It was around that time that I met a new friend: Benzodiazepines. Well, we don’t speak anymore so maybe I should call them an enemy. At the time, though, they felt more friendly. My fears and self-doubt started to go away. I could hang in there. I could be present.

At around 2 and a half years old, we got referred to a neurologist to start evaluating our son for autism. It was at that time that my benzo abuse really ramped up. I remember the doctor pulling our son’s pants down and our son hobbling around the room because he didn’t know to pull them up. I went out to the car after and popped an extra pill. I was in so much pain.

I rejected autism one thousand percent. It wasn’t autism, it was me: it was my countless failures as a mother. It was the c-section, I hadn’t done enough skin-to-skin, it was the breastfeeding, it was the formula, it was the co-sleeping, it was the crying it out, it was my stress. I cried and popped pills for the next few days. It was a low moment and not one that I am proud of but do feel it is important to share.

Four days later, I checked myself into the hospital. I spent the next two days in a state of delirium and sweat. Seven days later, I was released. I went home and tried to make sense of what had happened in our lives. A few weeks later, our beautiful boy was diagnosed with autism.

Since then (our son just turned five), it still hasn’t been easy. I still have a whole lot of self-blame. Should I have not vaccinated? Should I have used formula from the beginning (had the crying somehow damaged our son)? Should I have been wealthier so that I wouldn’t have had to work at all? I struggle. I go to therapy every week and talk about all of it. I stay far away from pills and anything addictive (other than crime drama television shows).

My husband begs me to see that autism is likely genetic. We both come from multi-generations of engineers and math nerds. Quiet people who preferred computers to parties. I am trying. But, on social media, I see friends share scary posts about breastfeeding being best or vaccines causing autism, and I momentarily crumble.

When I look back at my attempts at attachment parenting and my results (or lack thereof), I see that my son most likely was born different. I also see that there is an incredibly unhealthy social pressure put on mothers to “know better and do better” and to do the “best”. The montessori school I had once dreamed of for my son has been replaced by his IEP. I blame myself – but thanks to people like The Skeptical OB and their message that there is no perfect in parenting, I am starting to blame myself less and less. I am starting to be able to breathe, and to fall asleep more easily. I am starting to enjoy all of the wonderful quirks that come along with raising a child with autism. I am starting to tune out the endless sea of opinions that come with that and trust myself. He doesn’t talk yet but his smile – and his smile never went away – says so much. It says everything.