As a little girl growing up in a small Catholic parish in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, my favorite part of weekly Sunday mass was being called forth with the other kids to participate in Sunday school: a special space, just for kids, in a world mostly made for adults. I remember well one of our favorite verses from the bible, Matthew 19:14, often repeated in Sunday school: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” I heard this verse repeated often growing up in more than 18 years of private Catholic education.
So I was surprised when, in becoming a first-time mother last year, some close, Christian and Catholic loved ones in my life told me very clearly and directly to purposefully leave my baby to cry herself to sleep, alone in her crib, before she even turned 6 months old.
I had seen this advice on literally every single commercial parenting and postpartum website I had encountered at the time, but hearing that same advice from followers of Jesus created confusion for me. Aren’t we supposed to let the children come to us? Isn’t expecting our infants to learn how to “self-soothe” at such an incredibly young, vulnerable age — in fact — hindering them?
I spent much of the first year of my daughter’s life reading and reflecting on these questions with much discomfort and grief while also witnessing the external debate, taking place almost daily on social media, about “crying it out.”
Beyond debate on the potential risks of such practices, I have found two evolving responses related to these questions come into greater focus for me. One has been compassion for other young parents who, like me, are similarly navigating these grief-filled and often shame-inducing questions with very few-to-no alternatives in sight. And the second is, quite honestly, anger. Anger at an economic system that I believe has brought us to a place of feeling so profoundly unsupported in the intensity and overwhelm of the early parenting years so as to normalize going against the call to “let our children come to us,” even as early as in infancy. I continue to sit with the age old question, what would Jesus do?
As Dr. Gabor Maté, a Vancouver medical practitioner and expert on addiction, stress and childhood development, clearly explains in his article, “Why I No Longer Believe Babies Should Cry Themselves to Sleep,” “In our stressed society, time is at a premium. Beholden to our worldly schedules, we try to adapt our children to our needs, rather than serving theirs. More ‘primitive’ aboriginal peoples in Africa and North and South America kept their infants with them at all times. They had not yet learned to suppress their parenting instincts.”
I grew up surrounded by life under late-stage capitalism and know it well. Though I had never devoted too much time to thinking about these practices until becoming a parent myself, I too was raised within the culture of leaving babies to cry it out and sending children to school for most of the day so as to coincide with their parents’ full-time work schedule. I took for granted that these practices were not, in fact, universal, because growing up under capitalism in the United States meant living under an economic system so deeply embedded into our cultural context, even within Catholic communities, that we were rarely able to see beyond it.
Fortunately I have had the opportunity to expand my perspective through living for the last 10 years in Bolivia, South America. Living outside of the U.S. in this very different cultural context, which is far less consumed by the demands of modern industrial society, has meant finding different answers when asking how to approach the early years of parenting.
So when my daughter was born in 2021, many Bolivians close to me asked where she slept. Many were curious if I would parent her the way that they saw North American families parenting in movies and television. For those who I spoke with, the worst they could imagine was me leaving my daughter to sleep alone in a separate bedroom (even after the first six months). They had no idea that mainstream advice in the U.S. is for parents to also, purposefully, leave infants to cry themselves to sleep. That possibility was nearly unimaginable for them, and many shared their own experiences of co-sleeping with their babies as an alternative. My partner and I were then able, aware of how to safely practice this alternative and surrounded by support, choose co-sleeping with our baby. It felt much more in line with our values as new parents.
And as I continue to navigate the nonlinear process that is baby sleep now, nearly 20 months in, often still exhausted but learning everyday, I continue to reflect on how our society — and specifically Catholic communities — can do more to support young parents in living out the call to “let our children come to us“ amidst the pressures of our rotten systems.
How might we push back against the for-profit industries trying to convince us that babies who don’t sleep alone are a problem and together explore — so that young parents can find options in line with their values — normalizing the alternatives so common around the rest of the world? How might we stop normalizing the pressure to “return to work” as soon as possible and advocate for more comprehensive postpartum care/longer-paid parental leave so that young parents can at least have the option to prioritize their families in these vital early years of childhood development? And maybe most importantly, how might Catholic communities make strides to clearly and concretely disassociate ourselves with the exploitation and dehumanization so characteristic of capitalism so that those most vulnerable in our society — our babies — know that they are always welcome among us?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annemarie Barrett grew up in Minnesota, becoming a dual citizen of the United States and Bolivia after moving, originally as a Franciscan lay missioner, to the South American country in 2013. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and solidarity. She is also learning everyday from the experience of growing up in Western, capitalist culture in the U.S. and becoming an adult in the much more communal culture of the Andean region of Bolivia. Today she lives with her partner and young daughter and works as a watercolor artist, selling prints of her original art online under the name AEB Art.