High Needs Mother

By Lynn Shattuck

LynnShattuck_blogAfter my first son Max was born, I wanted answers.

My little red-faced infant wanted to nurse every twenty minutes. He woke up six or more times a night. The ‘quiet alert’ phase that we had heard about—the one we had imagined our peaceful, silk-cheeked baby silently gazing at us while inhaling the landscape of our faces—was non-existent.

Long days dripped by in a haze of milk and tears—both of ours. Our pediatrician said it wasn’t colic; nursing soothed him. And Max didn’t save his sadness for just the witching hour—any hour of the day or night was fair game. In my attempts to ‘fix’ my son, I lugged him to osteopaths and homeopaths. I went on an elimination diet consisting of brown rice and carrots. I spent hours with him hooked to my breasts while I searched the Internet for solutions. For ways to make him happier. To make us both happier.

In my research, I came across an article by Dr. Sears, a leading proponent of attachment parenting. Dr. Sears described ‘High Needs Babies”—how they tend to sleep poorly and require constant holding and attention. The article suggested my son’s temperament as who he was, who he was born to be. Not something to fix. I was a bit devastated by this theory; if I couldn’t fix it, the tears and sleepless nights would continue. We were already utilizing many of Dr. Sears’ suggestions for calming our ‘High Needs Baby’—co-sleeping was the only way for any of us to get rest. I carried him in the Ergo so often, I felt like the skin on my shoulders was absorbing the straps. I nursed on demand—and the demand was high.

The only thing that really helped was time. Ever so slowly, our nursing sessions stretched out. After about sixteen months, Max finally started piecing together four or six hour stretches of sleep.

Max is four and a half now. He’s been weaned for a few years, and he usually sleeps through the night. But he is still intense. When he’s happy, he’s down-to-the-toes effervescent. And when he’s not—which is often— he’s a shrieking, writhing tempest of misery.

We have a daughter now, too. She smiles and laughs easily and often. Loud sounds don’t phase her, and she weaned with little effort. At 21-months, she still requires a lot of care. But her whole being vibrates with ease, with lightness. I sense that life is much easier for her than it is for my son.

Than it is for me.

You see, I’m a High Needs Mother.

Before my kids were born, I practiced extreme self-care. I went to yoga and dance classes. Twelve-step meetings and therapy. I took long, slow walks and attended a Unitarian church. I signed up for retreats and workshops. I did all of this to help me feel normal, which has always seemed much easier for most people than for me. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Maybe it’s because I struggle with anxiety and depression. Maybe it’s because I’m what is described as a ‘Highly Sensitive Person.’

My husband and I vowed that when we had children, I would keep up my rigorous program. We promised we would support each other in doing the things we loved and the things that kept us sane and happy.

And then my son arrived.

And I was the only one who could soothe him.

A few months after Max’s birth, I went to a yoga class by myself. As I backed the car out of the driveway, I felt half giddy. I also felt half naked without my son.

At the class, I breathed. I tried to root my body on my yoga mat, to let the ground cradle me like I so often cradled my son. In between surrendering to gravity, my mind wondered how my son was. If he was screaming. If he would take the bottle. If he would nap. During the closing shavasana, I felt the sharp zing of my milk letting down; even my body couldn’t fully surrender to the time alone.

When my son was twenty months, we discovered my husband’s work would subsidize part-time childcare. We enrolled Max two days a week in a nearby daycare. I had wanted children, badly. So why did I need to be away from my son? How dare I ask other people to care for him two days a week when I wasn’t going to be filling all of that time with paid work? When I might use some of it to go to a yoga class or do laundry or lug my laptop to a coffee shop and write?

My guilt was huge, but my need for a respite was bigger. When I dropped my son off that first day, I came home, melted onto the couch and cried. When I finally peeled myself off the couch, I wrote Max a letter. In my home, alone, all I could hear was the hum of appliances. For the next several hours, my body was all mine. I felt guilty and blissful, free and lost.

With time, the guilt shrunk.

I hate that as a mother, I felt like I had to choose between caring for my child and caring for myself. Because really, I can choose both. I can teach my kids—by example, which is perhaps the most potent way of teaching—that they are worthy of listening to their own needs. To the quiet, sure voice that might tell them they need a break. To lie on a yoga mat and sink deep into their own body and breath. To wander through a cemetery, alone, slowly enough to read the names on the gravestones. To sit down and write about how they’re feeling, or to surrender to sweet sleep for an hour.

When I take good care of myself, I am more present for my babies. I can play air guitar with my son and orchestrate dance parties to Footloose. When I don’t take care of myself, I’m a stringy, soggy, limp wash rag of a mother. Slowly, over the years, I have been able to add more and more self-care back into my life. To come back to myself and meet my own needs. To meld the person I was before having children with the mother I became.

Over time, I learned that there was nothing wrong with my son. He just happens to be a lot like me.

Lynn Shattuck is a writer living in Portland, Maine. She blogs at http://thelightwillfindyou.com as well as the elephant journal and Huffington Post.

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  • http://www.holisticmoms.org Nancy Massotto

    Thanks for this wonderful article! My first child was VERY high needs as well. I think the struggle between mothering and self-care is a big one for all of us.

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      True, it’s a struggle for moms (and dads!) whether we’re high needs or not. Thanks for your comment!

  • http://www.hungrylittleanimal.blogspot.com leslie

    Just read both Aron books on higghly sensitive people and what a revelation. My daughter simply gets it from me. So i know that if she sees me caring for myself she sees how to care for herself, and i have more energy to nurse her, love her, dance with her read to her. I very much relate to this piece!

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      Leslie, I didn’t realize there was a book about highly sensitive children~ will have to check that one out! Great points, and glad you could relate.

  • http://www.hungrylittleanimal.blogspot.com leslie

    Apologies for spelling and grammar errors, typed on a cell phone in the dark as my toddler sleeps!

  • http://www.oxygenmaskyoga.com Ilonka Michelle O’Neil

    This post truly resonates with me. I hope it is widely read by mothers who most need it and by those in their circles who want to support them .

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      Thank you, Ilonka. Me too.

  • Andrea

    Thank you for writing this. My son, now almost 11, is sensitive like me as well. I had no idea what was going on during that time of his infancy. It wasn’t until the end of kindergarten that I realized all of the different pieces- sensitivity to sound, tags, textures, foods, it was all part of being highly sensitive and also why separating from me was so difficult- I protected him from a lot of the things that were loud, chaotic, scratchy, etc. but of course neither of us recognized it at the time. I thought he would grow out of it until l realized what IT was, and that IT was really who HE was. I mean, what he looks like as a sensitive kid at 11 IS different than as a baby and younger child, but not because he’s outgrown it. And truly, my son being this way has been a gift for me because a part of me that felt crazy wondering what is wrong with me now feels legitimate. So now my son doesn’t cry when I drop him at school, but I notice the moment of pause he takes every day right before he closes the door to the car to leave, like a deep breath he takes, before he smiles and makes the break from me to his friends. And I so appreciate trying to figure out how to continue to take care of yourself well while also having a child with his own specific needs. That’s an on going one for me and I wish you the best as you continue to discover who your son is and who you are as his mom!

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      Thanks for the great comment, Andrea! Your son is so lucky to have a mom who is so tuned in to him. I hope to be able to do the same for my son.

  • sirena

    I related to keenly with this article. I too and a ‘highly sensitive person’ with a daughter cut from the same cloth. She is five now and still very intense, I followed your article with alot or reminiscence. I had that same guilt that was so necessary to fight and in the end I can’t agree more. If I don’t teach her self care who will?

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      Glad you could relate! Yes, it’s sometimes an uphill battle with lots of guilt, but I really do believe our kiddos need us to model self care. Take good care!

  • Michelle

    Love this post, thank you! I’m an HSP too. I always thought I’d have 5 kids, but found one so overwhelming. I’d love to hear more about parenting AS an HSP (not just about parenting an HSP).

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      Thanks Michelle. I had the same thought about wanting more info about parenting as an HSP…

  • Jamie

    I have a highly sensitive daughter. She is 4 1/2 and things have been really rough. I feel alone a lot and don’t know other parents with kids like mine. It seems to be getting worse and not better. I would love to hear about any resources out there – support groups – online forums.

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      Sorry you’re struggling, Jamie~ it can be so tough. I don’t know about other resources, but have you read The Highly Sensitive Child?

    • Bev

      The Highly Sensitive Child book is a wonderful resource (as is the Highly Sensitive Person book if you think you also share the trait). After you have read the Highly Sensitive Child, you can join a Yahoo group based around the book and the issues we face parenting these amazing kids (https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/hscbook/info). I’ve been following the conversations of that online community for about 11 years now, and it has been extremely informative and comforting.
      I have a 13 year old hsp daughter and an 11 year old hsp son, and as hard as it may seem to see any light at the end of the tunnel when you’re in the thick of the early years, please know that it does get better in the long run! There will always be ups and downs and some REALLY rough patches, but as you learn to understand and respect their needs these kids will have breakthroughs and surges of maturity and insight that will blow you away.
      So hang in there!
      Elaine Aron is currently working on a book focusing on highly sensitive parents too.

  • LP

    This resonated with me so strongly today: my daughter’s first day of preschool. She just turned 2, and I’m a stay-at-home mom. Like you, I have found that I *need* time away. Consistently. My daughter nursed every 90 minutes from birth until 12 months. She never slept through the night until I weaned her. I still wear her in the sling and the carrier, every day. Her needs are so intense that I often don’t get what I need, too. I *need* to do yoga. I *need* to read. I *need* to sit quietly and think, uninterrupted. Self-care, especially without family members nearby, is nearly impossible day-to-day. I never thought of myself as high-needs, but I think that is the perfect description.

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      LP, congrats on your daughter’s first day of preschool! Hope this will enable you to have some time to take care of yourself. I am exactly the same as far as the needs you describe.

  • http://goodnightalready.com Jennifer Berney

    This sounds so much like my son, who is now five and still wakes up in the night wanting company. And I also struggle with guilt around making time for myself. I wish our culture made that easier to do.

    • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

      Me too, Jennifer, on the guilt front. I guess we just keep paving the way for ourselves and hope it gets easier!

  • Sarah

    Thank you thank you thank you for this post. It’s always a relief to know there are other mama’s like you out there.

    I knew I was a HSP before I had my daughter and I worried about how it would affect my parenting and how I would take care of myself when I also had to keep her alive and happy. And then she had colic, and like you I went to a chiropractor, tried the elimination diet, and found that same Dr. Sear’s article. My daughter is now almost 3 and like me, a very sensitive beautiful soul. And like you, as she’s gotten a little older, I’ve just gotten to the point of being able to make space for and honor my own needs, so that I can then do the same for her (not to mention modeling it for her). And what a journey of shedding guilt it was to get here!

    So, as a HSP mother of one, I have questions for you on how you made the decision to have a second and how you’ve been able to handle 2 kids while still taking care of yourself? In some ways, I’d love a second (and my daughter begs for a little brother), but I fear that I’d lose all that space I’ve created to take care of myself if I add another little being to our family who needs me so much. Any thoughts or perspective to share?

  • http://thelightwillfindyou.com Lynn

    Hi Sarah,

    That’s a great question and one that doesn’t come with an easy answer. I will say that my daughter was FAR easier than my son as a baby, and though it was a very challenging adjustment to go from 1 to 2, it has totally been worth it. I reclaimed my “me time” much sooner after my daughter’s birth than I did after my son’s, because I knew I needed it and it makes me a better parent.

    But ultimately, the decision was really about whether or not my family felt complete when it was just my son. It didn’t. Now it does. (I even sometimes have completely insane moments when I contemplate having a third. Fortunately my rational brain usually outweighs my crazy hormonal brain.)

    My best to you and your family!

  • Michelle T

    I recommend reading “Quiet – the Power of Introverts” by Susan Cain. I am an introvert as well, and I identified completely with the book. It also states how highly sensitive children are most likely introverts, and it is absolutely not your fault or your parenting style.

  • Jen

    My son, now 19 months, was also very high needs. My husband worked the first shift and I worked second, so he would pickup the baby from day care and related to me that the only way to get the baby to stop screaming was to hold him in a sitting position in his arms and walk around the house with him. The tot weaned at 18 months when I found out I was pregnant with #2 and dried up my milk. When I was with my son, he wanted to nurse and nurse and nurse. We co-slept so he could have access to my all-night, all-you-can-eat buffet. He finally started sleeping through the night at 16 months. I don’t remember the stress of having to spend so much time with him. Call it rose-colored glasses, but I’m so glad I got to spend that much time with him as an infant.

  • Alison

    He could’ve had GERD. Certainly after some time I’m sure he learned to live like that expecting to be uncomfortable. Silent reflux is often under diagnosed. I really had to push my doctors for an explanation. Honestly, if I were acting that way something would be wrong with me.