Bottles and the Bad Parent Patrol

I'm going to write one of those posts based on the theory that the blogosphere is a small place (if you live in a big city and run into people you know regularly, you know what I mean). Over at Babble, Katie Allison Granju wrote yesterday about something I've been grappling with as well: the "older" baby with a bottle (her daughter calls it a boppy, somewhat as my eldest son called breastfeeding nana, which by the third son morphed into nani, or the way my old neighbor's daughter had a pacifier called a plugga-plugga, terms of endearment, all). Granju was moved to write about her nearly two year-old's enduring fixation on the boppy after photos–and disparaging remarks–flooded the Internet because Katie Holmes' famous daughter, Suri, totes her own bottle (she's just over two). Extended bottle drinking (or accessorizing, in Suri's case, since she's a toddler, known to make fashion statements) is apparently a modern parenting no-no. Both aspects of Granju's piece seemed to call up subjects I've been thinking about a lot recently, the bottle and the new modern-day parenting rulebook.

First, let me address the bottle issue. Saskia, my sixteen month-old, drinks a lot of milk from a bottle (one of her earliest words, "lidlo" for bottle, clear as garbled toddler day). She is a pipsqueak, a very active ball of motion. Her interest in solid food resembles a London forecast: changeable. Some days, she sits and chows down; other days, even getting her tush in the high chair–standing's so much more fun–is kind of a struggle and tossing food overboard far more interesting than actually eating it. So, milk does constitute critical nutrition and calories for her. We tend not to let her walk around with a bottle; she does not bring one to bed. Bottles overwhelmingly are something she enjoys in the arms of a loving adult (parent, babysitter, grandparent, friend) or sibling (the key exception: she often has one during a stroller or car ride).

At our one-year check-up (fourth child, I finally scheduled the one-year appointment at thirteen months, but I was on time for the fifteen-month one), the pediatrician told me as I gave Saskia a bottle after her vaccination, that I should wean her of the bottles. "Bad for her teeth," Nora warned. "She should be drinking from a cup." I replied that she drinks water from a cup and that I'd try to be careful about her teeth (in the intervening months, I've seen her reject the fluoride dropper regularly but that's another story…) and mostly that I breastfed three babies so there's no way we're going to stop that cozy, holding feeding time with her yet because she's too little. "Well," Nora replied, "Try to wash it down with some water and don't let her bring the bottle to bed. Make sure she's brushing her teeth." I can't say we wholly succeed at heeding this counsel, but we do try. I held firm at the fifteen-month visit and I have no actual plans to stop Saskia from taking bottles. I do try–harder as the months go on–to encourage her to eat more solid food.

I nursed my other babies well past the doctor-recommended year. The first went until just past two. I was pregnant–and extremely nauseated as a result–with the next then, and I felt like I needed nutrients for baby-to-be and for me; I couldn't go on. My first had struggled to breastfeed and while he enjoyed nursing, he wasn't passionately attached to it. The second nursed for two years and seven months. By then, over five years of pregnancy and nursing later, I really wanted to be done. I absolutely regret enforcing that end to nursing, because this child was passionately attached and longed for it/me. For over a year, he pulled up my shirt to cuddle in, skin-to-skin, at night; he was terribly jealous of his younger, nursing brother when he hit the scene (the second was four by then) and he just happens to be a very touchy, lovey guy with a big craving for physical contact (which is, by the way, overridingly a plus about him; at eleven, he holds hands, cuddles, hugs–and yes, sigh, climbs into our bed in the middle of the night on a regular basis). It is no surprise that with the third–I thought last–baby I determined from the start not to cut him off, but instead to let him lead the weaning process. Four years and eleven months later, we were all the way done with nursing, which, as I joked then, propelled me far into the hippie-ish hinterlands where I'd never expected to find myself. (One aside here, because I can't see where else to put this: English children's book author Jill Murphy wrote a terrific book, which I'd urge obtaining in the original English English not an Americanized version called The Last Noo-Noo, about a monster giving up its pacifier, "noo-noo;" delightful, non-judgmental, funny as can be, a book that belongs in any household).

Saskia is adopted. While I tried–to the best of my abilities with four children–to breastfeed her or even offer the breast as comfort, my efforts failed. I quickly came round to feel that a bottle could offer plenty of nurturance and discovered some unexpected gains from it, like more freedom for me to remain focused on our older, (at the time, with new baby in the house) needy children during those early months and an intimacy between papa and baby that papa could not enjoy with the others, because mama was always on first, due to the magical, comforting breast. What's more, Saskia was lucky to receive a pretty hefty amount of breast milk. We lucked into four different mothers with extra for various reasons (pumped too much, baby had food allergies) at different times, so while she didn't enjoy being breast fed, she got some of that white gold in large, occasional batches. That saying about the village raising the child–the village also fed my child, for which I was extremely grateful.

Probably because Saskia is so small and tends to have more social interaction on the elementary school playground than with many other toddlers (save for her two best buddies), we haven't received that evil gaze of "too big for bottle" yet out in the world. She really does look too small to be running or saying so many words, and I think, in terms of the bottle, that's protected her and us from judgment. She looks like she should be drinking from a bottle. Most parents of older kids remember those details–how long the kid had a bottle, for instance–through a haze, anyway, and so they tend not to judge. Mostly, they kvell at Saskia–a rare baby amongst families getting puppies–and these parents simply love when she lets them hold her.

But this whole "bad parent" debate seems to be kicking up across the media, and as Lisa Belkin mused in the New York Times Magazine recently, the economic downturn may make a kind of overly involved, overly scheduled, overly coddled form of parenting obsolete (for a while?) and a less-is-more attitude may prevail. She cites the self-naming of "bad" mothers as signal to this trend. Ayelet Waldman could be considred the original "bad" mother, once her New York Times essay about loving her husband more than her children made waves in the mommy-blogosphere. Although I spend a lot of time with my kids, I am not sure I'd "pass" as an attachment parent. Frankly, the label always put me off (cue, irate blogosphere). It seemed to me a given that I would be attached to my children and they to me; that is the point of family, right? From a secure sense of familial love, independence would more easily occur, and that's the goal: raising independent, happy, self-confident, kind children who can soar into adulthood (with plenty of parental support through the bumpy attempts to fly, rest stops, band-aids on wings, etc). Perhaps because I failed at Ferber, and at not having a family bed–I call ours an inadvertent family bed, something I wrote about for Mamazine–and am certainly deeply involved in my kids' lives, yet also invested in and focused upon my own work life, I couldn't figure out, didn't want, a label or a philosophy. I guess I'm a little DIY about this parenting endeavor (and clearly, fascinated by it). These relationships, and this act of caregiving and of figuring out how to navigate our sense of connection and of interdependence and independence is pretty darn involving.

So, there's bad parent. I don't want to proudly call myself a good or bad parent. Parent will do fine. And then, just to extend this a little further, there is the fact that someone like Katie Allison Granju or myself isn't a "modern" parent, in the sense that while she and I have toddlers, we also have teenagers. I'm an old parent. Lots of what I learned–from nursing and sleep theory to paying careful attention to finding the "best," safest, hippest gear–happened a long time ago. Yes, we have the "safe" plastic bottles (I asked my friend, Kate, who owns two, fantastic children's stores, which one to get), but it wasn't me painstakingly doing the bottle research. I did that worrying about exactly the right stuff over a decade ago, when there was plenty of stuff, but far fewer choices than there are now (in a way, I'm grateful for that). Watching my sister and friends (stepsister, technically, fourteen years my junior) prepare for parenthood–and pore over the right "stuff," is part of a ritual that I understand to be preparing for this huge leap to the planet I already dwell, Planet Parenthood. The same way childbirth classes strike me as both important and silly–labor's maybe twenty-four hours; parenting's forever–this overthinking of stuff occurs because that forever is way too vague and vast to contemplate. You kind of have to leap, then start learning. My old-school opinions come from the fact that I know no matter how well-layered your baby is, he or she is gonna get sick sometimes (germs happen) and some babies will love the breast or bottle while others won't care so much. And later on, this sense that you can love your children but you can't control them or what happens to them, becomes kind of acceptable. At the beginning, though, you hang onto stuff or ideals or fears in order to attempt to find some control over what is, finally, bigger than you are: love, human nature, the evolution from dependence to independence, and those deep lessons you cannot avoid discovering about yourself. The story, somewhere in there, starts to write itself.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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