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Thursday
Dec232010

I keep pouring

Have you ever poured your child a glass of milk, put the milk away, and sat down only to hear "Mama, can I have some more milk?" So you take the empty glass, fill it up, put the milk away, sit down again, and then hear "Mama, I'm still thirsty."

In his book, Playful Parenting, Lawrence J. Cohen talks about attachment and reconnecting with your child using the metaphor of filling and refilling a cup.  He writes:
To help explain attachment, I like to use the metaphor of filling and refilling a cup.  The primary caregiver is a child's reservoir, a place to start from and return to, in between explorations. The child's need for attachment with them is like a cup that is emptied by being hungry, tired, lonely or hurt. The cup is refilled by being loved, fed, comforted and nurtured. Besides food, warmth, and loving physical contact, a caregiver's refilling includes soothing when the child is upset, and playing and talking when he or she is happy. ... As babies grow, their explorations take them further and further afield, but those whose cups have been consistently filled always carry a strong sense of security within them. They are securely attached.

I've always loved this metaphor and found it worked beautifully for us. We kept our children close when they were young and then had them venture off into the new world of preschool when they turned three. Both of them went through a period of adjustment, but both seemed to eventually find their place in the school. Teachers have complimented our children, calling them respectful, polite, caring, empathetic, intelligent and good natured.  They go off to school in the morning with their cups full and that carries them through the day. As Cohen explains, "between return visits for refills, children with a secure attachment can soothe themselves, can handle their emotions, pay attention, connect well with peers, and feel good about themselves and the world."

But, he explains:
Parents are often quite confused when their toddler bursts into tears at pick-up time, and the day-care provider says, "She's been great all day; I don't know why she's crying." Yet this behaviour is actually a sign of secure attachment. When they are with strangers or day-care providers, securely attached children "save up" their bad feelings for when they reunite with their primary attachment figure. (Gee thanks!)

Julian's cup has always been quick and easy to refill. Sure, there have been times when I realized that perhaps we weren't refilling it often enough and that becomes evident in his behaviour. But for the most part, that is easily repaired. A cuddle, a tickle fight, a game of Trouble, or a special one-on-one "date" can repair things fairly quickly with him. He can refill, then take off, then come back again for refilling, then take off again, and do it all fairly seamlessly.

In his book, Cohen contrasts children with a secure attachment with those who have a "leaky cup". Children with insecure attachments, who have been abused, or who simply do not get the love and affection they need at home, tend to be constantly needy and clingy at school, they "steal from other people's cups" by bullying them, or they have cups that are so completely empty that they actually look empty.

Cohen also writes:
But even the most loved and well-cared-for child, with no major losses or traumas, whose cup is in good shape, seems to have a bottomless need for love. His or her cup may be intact, but it still needs almost constant refilling. Therefore, the most important thing we have to offer is our children is our ability to make them feel loved, respected, wanted, and welcome.

This is Emma. To some extent she has always been this way (which is why the sling and co-sleeping served me so well in the early days). But these days it seems extreme. She seems to need a constant IV drip to keep her cup full. No amount of cuddling, connecting, playing, is ever enough. Sure, she goes off for the day and does fine at school. She has fun with her friends, enjoys the activities, and cares for her teacher. But when she is at home, her need for connection is constant.

So these days, whichever one of us is caring for Emma, never gets to sit down. We are constantly being asked to refill the milk. Thankfully there are two of us and we can trade off, but it still takes its toll. We understand that "filling and refilling the child's cup is the basis of heartfelt parent-child connections" but that doesn't mean it isn't exhausting. Sometimes when you've spent the day "pouring milk" for your child, there is none left for anyone else. The carton is empty. The store is closed. The server is off duty.
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Reader Comments (26)

My daughter can be very much the same way. So much pouring.

As she gets older, it gets easier. I'm holding out hope that all of the work we're doing now will pay off later, and we won't have to do so much down the road. It's what sees me through.

December 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

Great post. I'm not a parent yet but I'm trying to educate myself about different parenting styles before we become pregnant. This was a very thought provoking post for me, thank you!

December 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal - Prenatal Coach

Many days, that seems like the Boychick too, and when I run out of spoons before his cup is full, well, things get stirred up in painful ways.

I wish I had any real help to offer you. But know that you're not alone.

December 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArwyn

My son's cup also needs constant re-filling. I'm hearing this from several of my friends lately--that their kids are all going through a phase right now of needing much more focused attention and reconnection time. (I wonder if it's something about the time of year or the weather?) In any case, you are certainly not alone.

December 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

I love the metaphor. Beanie has been the same way lately. It's hard with a needy 9month old and a needy 3.5 year old. I definitely understand feeling like there's none left for anyone else.

As an attachment parenting mama and a childcare provider too, I see both sides of this. My Childs cup needs refilling more frequently when nanny charge is with us, or has been with us. Nanny child is attached to mum& dad but struggles when she sees my child being refilled (especially physically through nursing sessions) and does EVERYTHING she can to keep her from refilling. It all leads to me feeling drained and my child feeling less secure ao it's probably not going to be a fit for us much longer.

December 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVioletsouffle

My daughter Madden is like that, or was like that for a while, and it drove me crazy. I couldn't understand why her cup always seemed to be empty, given that she gets plenty of me. But she just needed constant refilling. Thankfully, she seems to have eased out of that phase. Whew! I wasn't sure I could go on that way forever ...

I just want to tell you how much I love reading your blog. Great post.

December 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia

Wonderful post. My son is the same and yes it can be exhausting. I often say to my husband as soon as I get my son to bed; "I'm taking the rest of the night off". Cause I'm Done, stick a fork in me. Luckily, the unsolicited hugs & kisses from my son refill my cup! :)

December 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Joseph

I love your blog and the post as well. My toddler is in the exploring phase and comes back to refill her cup often. It's reassuring to know we are all trying our best even when we feel exhaustion in the process.

December 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKarina

i commented on twitter last night, but this post really hits home right now. a reality check and a gentle reminder of *why* we do what we do. some kids just need more milk than others...the irony? it is my milk protein allergic child that is the most demanding;).

December 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterangela

I love this post. And, as Arwyn and others note, you're not alone. I remember that the last chapter of Cohen's book includes some helpful ideas about keeping your own cup full as a parent, but, alas, I don't remember any of the ideas right now and my copy of the book is far away, in Brooklyn....

December 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRachael

How appropriate to read this post now, as I'm spending my days holding and nursing a newborn, and often at the same time trying to hold my very cuddly almost-3yo. It's a time of pretty intense milk-pouring right now...

December 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

This is great and I love the cup metaphor! My almost 3 yr old DS seems to be one of those kids whose cup needs constant refilling. He goes to preschool and when he is home he needs to be really really close to me both physically and mentally. We co-sleep and he snuggles up against me all night. At dinner he often wants to sit on my lap. He follows me to the bathroom! I love that we have a close relationship, but at times the constant cup refilling can be exhausting! I am due with my second child right now and sometimes worry about how I will be able to give DS enough attention once baby arrives.

December 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSheryl @ Little Snowflakes

Ah, I have one of those, too...and between holiday craziness, a recent illness, and the demon that is teething, the jug? It is empty. Even more fun is the regression back to the phase where, NO, Daddy cannot POSSIBLY give me adequate love and attention, it must be YOU, MAMA, ONLY YOU AND ALL THE TIME.

I sometimes wonder if mine is an extra-thirsty child, or if children are cups of different sizes; mine is a Big-Gulp.

December 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSaisquoi

Oh boy, this is Maggie all over. It has gotten better as she's gotten older and she is much more satisfied with briefer check-ins now (at almost 10 yrs), but there were some very, very exhausting days before we hit this point. Hang in there, it is worth it!

December 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

and in our case, if it isn't the *correct spoon*... well, let's just say I keep the bulldozer spoon clean AT ALL TIMES.

December 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

I'm late to the party, but, well, I just am.

I love this part of his book, and relate so well to it, particularly with my first child, who - at six years, after much cup filling, still can throw a tantrum so dramatic, loud, and long lasting as to make our heads spin, and after still more cup refilling, can throw yet another, even louder tantrum, all of which can leave us completely drained and wondering who will fill our cup and what are we doing wrong - will still willingly and gratefully collapse into a snuggle and cuddle and then wow me with her brilliance at school & in life and her kindness towards her brother that it gives me hope and strength to know the constant cup-filling - while challenging - works, attachment parenting works, and disciplining with love and gentleness and empathy works.

Maybe the leaky cup children help us become better parents.

December 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

what a great post. I worry that my daughter isn't securely attached because she seems so very needy, her cup needs a lot of filling, I guess. I'm a full time working mum, so it s big guilt thing for me. She is very happy at school though, kind to others, loves her teachers, a happy kid, its just me that gets the brunt of her emotions at the end of the day. which is how it should be, I suppose!

January 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergeekymummy

As a working mom... I can't tell you how much I loved this post. This has often been the case with my daughter, Madeline, when I pick her up at the end of a day at her dayhome (and it's also the case for my husband, when he is the one doing pickup). It's so difficult to have to receive all that release at the end of what's generally been a stressful day for me, but I'm glad that she feels free to do that with me. That's what I'm here for, after all!

I love your blog. I don't comment often, but I'm always reading.

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbessie.viola

Thanks for the comment Bessie!

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

My 13-month-old is one of those constantly needing refilling kids. I often wonder where I am supposed to go to get refilled. Tonight I thought to come here. Thanks for your posts on attachment parenting. I've been feeling unsupported in my parenting choices, so it's such a major comfort for me.
Also the toddler bursting into tears upon being picked up at daycare has been happening to me, so it is wonderfully comforting to read that it is a sign of secure attachment.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin OK @ it's OK

This is a nice metaphor. I often feel empty at the end of the day, on those days when I have read and cuddled all day. I agree children need the reassurance.

December 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLauralee

I purchased that book b/c of your site, it's a gem of my library :)

December 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlga

[...] tired, I’m touched out, and his arms wrapped around me bring me back to the knowledge that his cup needs refilling.  Pour, Mommy, pour.  And so I do, and eventually, he [...]

This is an old post, but it's hitting home right now. My 4 year old's cup is a bit out of control right now. It feels like we are never enough, and I'm worn out between her and my 1.5 year old. I assume it passed? Any tips for those of us in the middle of it?

January 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

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