Attachment Parenting Toddler and Newborn?

I am a mother to two girls, who are 23 months apart. My older daughter is 26 months and my younger daughter 3 months. I had a very difficult pregnancy, but most especially a difficult third trimester.

I have been studying your website with great interest, most especially your articles regarding attachment parenting. According to the description, I would say that my eldest daughter was without a doubt, before my third trimester, a securely attached child, most especially to me.

My third trimester was physically tiring, and very difficult emotionally. We live in Hong Kong (moved here about a year and a half ago). I had just come back from home and was completely homesick and my third trimester was so tiring due to being pregnant but also due to the weather (extreme heat and humidity), I was limited in my movement. Due to both these factors, I withdrew from both my daughter and husband, and started to rely quite heavily on both my husband and my live-in helper to take care of my eldest daughter.

Before this, I was my child's primary caregiver with my husband. I still, however, accompanied my daughter school, but after a month and a half of that, I allowed my helper to start taking her. It broke my heart to do it, but I did it because I did not want her to associate the fact that I stopped going to school with her with the birth of her little sister. Three weeks later, my younger daughter was born. My older daughter gets along wonderfully with my helper, and I am grateful that I have a babysitter that I can trust and that my daughter likes.

I believe that since my third trimester, my daughter has become somewhere in between securely and ambivalently attached. About a month ago, my daughter started attending nursery school alone (3 days a week for 3 hours each time), and she is doing wonderfully. At the beginning, my daughter's teacher suggested I let my helper take her to school and do the goodbye. I let it go on for two weeks, but agonized each time and felt so uncomfortable with it, that finally I took over. It completely went against my instincts to let my helper do it, but the teachers convinced me that it might be easier for my daughter. I disagreed with them instinctually but decided to try it. Like I said, we tried it for 2 weeks, but without much improvement. I took over, and within a week, she started doing much better (I believe it is because I always say goodbye and I always return, and I have always done that). When I take her to school, she leaves me without complaint, but is anxious for me to return. When I pick her up, three hours later, she is happy to see me and we have cuddles between the three of us.

If however, I leave her at home with my helper (I do this maybe once a week for about three hours, otherwise, I spend all my time with her and my younger daughter), she has the textbook ambivalent attachment reaction. She protests at the thought of my departure, but when I say goodbye, she gives me kisses and tells me she loves me. And when I return, she rejects my comfort for a while.

Has it reached the point of no return? I worry quite a bit about my relationship with my older daughter. I love her so much, and it hurts incredibly when she asks to play with my helper or to be with her. I understand that she asks because with my helper, she gets her undivided attention, whereas with myself, she is always with me and her baby sister, but it doesn't make it hurt any less. And it is difficult to spend time with my toddler alone, because I practice attachment parenting with my younger daughter, they way I did with my eldest, on demand breastfeeding, co-sleeping etc. Do you have any suggestions? Do you think it is too late to undo the hurt I have caused my daughter? -- Lily

Dear Lily,
There is never a point of no return. You can always repair your relationship with your child, and make it even stronger. That starts with your awareness of what is happening, and your intention to make things better, both of which you have. I'll give more specific suggestions for strengthening your relationship with your daughter below, but first a few points.

First, there is always an adjustment period when a new baby is born. Your daughter does feel the pain of losing your undivided attention, but she is also gaining a sister, which will ultimately enrich her life. I know that it feels difficult to be there for both kids, but that will evolve over time and you will find you have enough love and energy to go around. It is terrific that you have partners in parenting -- your husband and your caregiver.

Second, I encourage you to make peace, in your own heart, with the role of your caregiver in your daughter's life. It is good for kids to have more than one attachment relationship. Think of your caregiver as an adopted aunt or grandmother, and welcome her (emotionally) into your and your daughter's heart. She extends your ability to be the mother you want to be to your girls. Having a secure relationship with her caregiver and her dad will not in any way compromise the security of her relationship with you.

Third, if it was your withdrawal during your difficult pregnancy that created the rift with your daughter, compounded by the constant presence now of the new baby, then the key to bridging that rift is focusing on that relationship. Meeting the needs of your baby does not preclude letting her spend some time with your caregiver while you spend time with your toddler. I strongly recommend that you find a particular time, on a daily basis, that is protected time between you and your oldest, in which she knows you will always be there, while the baby naps or is otherwise occupied. Whether it is at bedtime, or bathtime, or for awhile after you pick her up from school, point out that this is special time for just the two of you, every day. Use this time to just be with your daughter, offering her physical, verbal and emotional connection.

Finally, how do you help your daughter to regain her trust that you will return, and to feel secure that you will be there for her? You always use the same routine when you leave, during which you say goodbye and reassure her "Mommy ALWAYS comes back." And when she protests, or rejects you upon your return, empathize with her feelings. For instance, if she cries when you leave, say "You don't want me to go, but your caregiver will take care of you and I will be back soon. Mommy ALWAYS comes back." When you return and she rejects you, you stay near her, without forcing contact, and observe "Mommy came back. Mommy ALWAYS comes back. You're still mad and sad that Mommy left, so you aren't ready to hug Mommy yet. Whenever you're ready, I will be here to hug you."

In other words, offer her empathy for what she is going through, and a verbal recognition of her feelings. Since she doesn't have the language yet to express those feelings, you will have to use simple language, and repeat yourself. But if you persist, she will begin to feel understood, and that understanding will repair the rupture you are sensing.

By the way, I want to assure you that I think it is fine for you to continue to leave the girls once a week for three hours -- that is important for your own sanity. Your daughter's ambivalence and rejection of you upon your return is a symptom of her fears, not of your being away from her for three hours, and will go away as she begins to feel more secure again.

You might also want to check out this article I wrote on separating from your toddler.

I admire your fierce commitment to give your daughters the attachment parenting they need, and your obvious deep love for them. Please drop a note and let me know your daughter responds.

Dr. Laura

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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