Which parenting style is best?
Different parents adopt different approaches to caring for their babies, depending on who they are as people. “Baby experts” give advice about early parenting, based also on who they are as people. No matter what your views are, you will probably be able to find a parenting author who mirrors your own perspective. There will also be parenting writers who will not support your style of parenting. Some of them will voice this very strongly, but that does not mean you are wrong. It just means that you and that person see things differently.
As far as early parenting styles are concerned, you might have noticed that new moms seem to divide themselves broadly into two different camps: Those who adapt to their babies and those who get their babies to play by the rules. The Facilitators and the Regulators. A lot of parents fall in the middle, somewhere in between these two extremes, and this is possibly the more sensible and psychologically healthy option.
British psychoanalyst, perinatal specialist and author, Joan Raphael-Leff, says that at the extreme end of the continuum, ‘Facilitator parents’ aim to gratify their baby’s every wish. They devote themselves to their babies completely, sacrificing themselves to the extreme and focusing their lives totally on the demands and whims of their babies. These moms do not allow their babies to be apart from them, they generally choose not to work, they breastfeed on demand and they delay weaning until the baby is a toddler. Facilitator moms usually sleep with their babies and they respond to each small squeak or grunt by offering the breast.
Natalie was ecstatic to be a new mom to her first child, Ben. She believed that she and her baby would continue to be “as one” after birth, as they were during the pregnancy. She carried Ben around in a sling, hardly ever putting him down except when she needed to do something urgently. Natalie dedicated her life to Ben, making herself available to him at all times of the day or night. Her own life was on hold until further notice. She breastfed him on demand, for as often and as long as he wished. She took him everywhere she went, never wanting to have any separations from him because “he needs his mom”.
In the opposite camp are the moms who are focused on getting their babies to adopt a routine that makes life predictable and structured for both of them. Raphael-Leff calls these parents ‘Regulators’. Extreme Regulators introduce substitute caregivers early on, as long as the baby remains in her routine. Feeds are given at regular intervals and not from the breast. These moms are inclined to want to distinguish between “legitimate crying” and “crying for no reason”. If no physical reason can be found for crying, the baby is left alone to cry. The regulator mother sacrifices less of herself and is more inclined to pursue her career or other interests. She is more focused on her life away from her baby and does not see herself as central to her baby’s existence.
Noni’s second child, Hannah, is three months old. She is bottle-fed. Breastfeeding did not fit into Noni’s busy lifestyle. Hannah has been sleeping, apparently “through the night” in her own cot in her own room since she was five weeks old. Both the parents door and Hannah’s door are closed at night, so it would be hard to hear if Hannah was awake or distressed, unless she cried very loudly. Noni works eight hours a day at a high powered firm who have little regard for working moms. She feels a need to continue working so that her children will be able to see that she is a real person, independent and capable, with an identity of her own. Not “just a mother”
People usually have good reasons for adopting the different parenting styles. For example, a woman who has struggled for years with infertility might feel she wants to totally devote herself to her baby, and forget about her own needs till her baby gets bigger. She will be a Facilitator. On the other hand, a woman who has five children and who needs to earn an income will probably need to be a Regulator mom. Most parents use bits of both parenting styles, but the extreme of either side has its problems.
The downside of the extreme Facilitator?
Being a Facilitator mom might sound blissful and wonderful. Perfect motherhood. But that is exactly the problem. Joan Raphael-Leff says that extreme Facilitator moms sometimes idealize motherhood and they idealize their babies. If motherhood and babies are so “perfect”, what happens to the inevitable feelings of hostility and resentment, disappointment and sadness that motherhood almost always evokes to some extent? Also, the extreme Facilitator mom tries very hard to be “at one” with her baby. She can’t bear the pain of the reality that her baby is actually a separate person. Sometimes he will cry and she will not be able to comfort him, and sometimes he might need a little more separateness from her than she can tolerate. In a nutshell, Raphael-Leff says that Facilitator moms are running away from their own negative feelings about motherhood and their own babies. They are pretending to themselves that they have a perfect and beautiful union with their babies. The problem with not being aware of, recognizing and acknowledging negative feelings in yourself is that they then play havoc inside your unconscious mind. All kinds of difficulties can result, either in the mom or in her baby.
What is the downside of the extreme Regulator?
Extreme Regulator moms are often inclined to run away from the intimacy and closeness that they could (and perhaps should) be having with their babies. Raphael-Leff says that Regulator moms might be avoiding the experience of “falling in love” with their babies and so they don’t take the time to really get to know them. The baby has to fall in line behind other priorities like work and other commitments. These moms are quick to hand the baby over to other caregivers so the baby can bond with other people and not become too “dependent” on the mother. They keep the baby at an emotional distance by setting limits about feeding and sleeping, and keeping to a strict routine, no matter what the baby wants. Extreme Regulator moms can feel a lot of anger and resentment towards their babies because of their demands and their dependency. They might have a powerful need to “get away” from their babies, and work gives them permission to do just that. Getting their babies into a routine helps them to feel more dominant and in control, rather than being at the mercy of an all-powerful baby. A routine might be an extremely valuable way for a Regulator mom to ensure that the baby doesn’t get neglected (or over-indulged).
Which one is best?
Both styles have their shortcomings and their benefits. Regulated babies often really do learn to play by the rules. They do often sleep better at night and they may well be less demanding and high maintenance than Facilitated babies. They are then easier to handle and they tend not to drive their parents to the edge of sanity to the same extent as Facilitated babies. Perhaps they know it won’t be tolerated, so they don’t dare. Beware though, they might well make up for it later on. Facilitated babies, on the other hand, are probably getting their psychological needs responded to more sensitively. My guess is that they learn to trust where regulated babies learn to behave. I (and most other psychologists) value trust in infancy more highly than good behavior. In fact, developing trust is the single most important psychological task that babies need to accomplish during the first year of life.
Complications happen when there is not a good fit between a mother and a baby. If a Regulator mother has a baby who absolutely refuses to comply with her wish to get him into a routine, there is likely to be trouble. Some babies are completely unpredictable and they seem to never do things the same way more than twice. No matter how hard you try, you might not succeed in getting this routine hating baby into a fixed schedule. If that is the case, it will be better for everyone if you stop trying, and accept that you are going to have to make some adjustments to your own parenting style. This kind of baby seems to require a Facilitator parent, and he might respond well to a more sensitive, flexible approach.
Problems also arise when there is conflict between a mother and her spouse/mother/mom-in-law/best friend/parenting expert about her parenting style. If you are a Regulator and someone close to you is telling you that you are doing it all wrong, this might cause your hackles to rise or it might cause you to doubt yourself. Perhaps you do not have the patience, the time or the energy to be a Facilitator, and if you tried to be one, you might even be at risk of developing post-natal depression. Sometimes the mother is a Facilitator and the father is a Regulator, or vice versa. Both might have excellent reasons for wanting to pursue their own parenting style, but if the styles conflict with one another, there will be problems. Marital stress is greatly amplified if parents have different views on parenting and Facilitator-Regulator battles have caused many a fight between new parents.
There is also often conflict in a mother who has the two opposing parenting styles working against each other inside her own mind. Perhaps she desperately wishes she could be a Facilitator mom because she believes that is the right way to be, but she can’t bear to sacrifice herself to that extent. Or perhaps she believes she should be more of a Regulator with a routine and structure, but she can’t let her baby out of her sight and she feels compelled to feed him whenever he cries, even though it isn’t time for a feed. These moms are probably feeling guilty and inadequate and as though they are not being the mother they would like to be. Under any of these difficult or complicating circumstances, it would be a very good idea to consult a parent-infant psychologist who is trained and has experience working with new parents.
What to do?
Joan Raphael-Leff suggests that taking the middle road between Facilitator and Regulator is a good idea. Babies are dependent on their parents, but they are also separate beings, capable of forming other relationships. Through a gradual process, mothers, fathers and their babies can and should get to know each other and come to understand one another. Of-course the baby’s needs are crucial, but so are the needs of everyone else in the family, including other children and sleep deprived parents. In my book, Babies in Mind, I have favoured and encouraged a more Facilitating parenting style rather than a Regulating one. That is because I believe that the Facilitated baby’s needs are usually responded to with more sensitivity. But I have also discussed in great detail the powerful and important negative feelings that Facilitator moms might be out of touch with.
Your specific circumstances, your family, your lifestyle and most importantly, your own baby will determine what style of parenting you take on. You might have been a Facilitator mom for your first two children and a Regulator mom for your third out of necessity and desperation. Whatever you choose to do, your baby is fortunate because you care enough and are responsible enough to be reading and thinking about what he needs from you as his parent.
Adapted article by Jenny Perkel
Published (January 2010) by Living and Loving magazine (South Africa)