Exclusive interview: Natalie of The Baby Borrowers discusses attachment parenting, teen pregnancy

A couple of weeks ago I shared my feelings regarding NBC’s reality TV show “The Baby Borrowers.” If you are unfamiliar with the premise of the show, it takes five teenage couples through a crash course in adulthood tasking them with responsibilities such as a house payment, a job, and for three days, the care of a baby (and later a toddler, pre-teen, teenager and elderly person).

As I mentioned in that post, I was surprised to find out one of the moms of the borrowed children – Natalie Nichols – practiced many aspects of attachment parenting (AP). I couldn’t stop thinking about her and wondering if my initial visceral reaction to the show was entirely warranted or if, like in any situation, there were two sides to the story.

I decided to go straight to the source to find out more about what motivated Natalie to lend her infant daughter (Etta – 6 months at the time of the show) and toddler son (Benjamin – 2 years at the time of the show) to The Baby Borrowers (to be cared for by teen “parents” Kelsey and Sean) and to find out if there was more going on behind the scenes than was depicted on the show.

While I still disagree with the show, writing my initial post and doing this interview with Natalie has been a learning experience for me. All too often in the blogosphere, we (myself included) tend to react off the cuff to news of this, that or the other thing, without delving in for more information or waiting to hear the other side of the story. I think it’s human nature, but it doesn’t make it right. I hope that I will remember this the next time I hear something “outrageous” and before I blow a gasket, I will check out the facts and try to find out the whole story.

What follows is an interview with Natalie Nichols about her participation in The Baby Borrowers, with questions from a few other AP moms as well.

Natalie Nichols and son Benjamin - July 2008First off, what are the names and ages of your children?

I have 4 children total: 3 boys, Mackenzie (13), Zackary (8), Benjamin (3), and then our daughter Etta is now 18 months.

In an earlier conversation you said, “yes, I am an AP parent.” What does that mean to you?

I actually would say that I have some characteristics of Attachment Parenting, and many of a Natural Family Lifestyle. It is important to note though that neither of these titles defines who I am or what I do. I simply do what comes naturally to me, and what feels right as far as my family is concerned. I do not judge others for their parenting choices. Over the years of parenting my 4 kids, I have responded to their cries, and they have been worn in a sling or in my arms. I have nursed with reckless abandon, some would say. I’m “one of those moms” who doesn’t think that breastfeeding should be hidden, so where my kids were hungry is where they nursed. I’ve never seen the need to buy a “hiding” cover, sit in a special room, or God forbid nurse in a toilet stall. I think that babies should be worn or held up close and in the middle of adult conversations as a way of becoming more social and fostering great communication skills. I believe in delayed vaccinations, I co-sleep, I have almost always been a stay-at-home mother, I have homeschooled, I have unschooled, and two of my 4 births were natural by choice (and beautifully peaceful if I might add). If my babies need something, I provide it. I have never used a pacifier for any of my kids. They didn’t need them, they had me, and that worked out wonderfully. Out of the bunch the only one to suck a thumb was Benjamin.

Heather, an AP mom who blogs at A Mama’s Blog and API Speaks, would like to know, “Why did you feel the need to let teens who virtually have no child care experience, “borrow” your baby and let them be your baby’s caregiver? Doesn’t this go against the very parenting philosophy – attachment parenting – that you are trying to apply with your baby?”

I have to begin with saying that I was a very intelligent young girl, but at the same time, I didn’t know anything. I moved out on my 16th birthday to live with my teen boyfriend’s family, we got pregnant on purpose, we were married when I was 8 months pregnant and I delivered my first son 1 month before I turned 18. Although I was in the top 10 in my class, in the National Honor Society, Gifted and Talented, captain on the Drill Team, and in Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I threw it all away to drop out of school and raise my son. Sure I could have kept going to school and placed him in the on campus childcare, but they wouldn’t allow me to physically nurse him, and the few breaks I could get weren’t enough to maintain a milk supply. I tried pumping and having my mom watch him for 1 day but he didn’t eat the entire day and screamed bloody murder. I decided that he was more important than a school with rules that I didn’t agree with, so I quit. I got my diploma from a mail correspondence program but I didn’t get a prom or to walk with my class or anything else that represents being a senior in high school. Sure, I was breastfeeding, and we tried cloth diapering, but I was not patient enough with the leaks and gave up. I was a good teen mom, by society’s standards. However I was not a good mom by my own standards and I know that my son deserved better. It was never fair to ask him to grow up with me, or for me to expect him to just wait until I figured myself out so that I could give him the best he needed. He is a fabulous kid now at 13, and I do not for a second regret that he was born. What I do regret is the timing. I would love nothing more than to rewind the clock and become the woman I was supposed to be and share with him the wisdom that living my life has given me. He understands now that he is older, but he had no idea why I wasn’t mature enough not to yell and why his dad and I argued in front of him all the time when he was little.

It is important for me to reiterate here that while I consider myself an attached parent, I do not go down a check list of ideals and ensure that I’m applying what someone or some organization thinks is best for my children. My style of attachment parenting applies to not just my own children, but to my view on how we should be with society as a whole. I live my life by what I feel is the right thing to do, instinctively and as a mother. For me, the right thing to do is to turn my mistakes in the past into something positive for someone else. My older kids are proud of what our family has been able to do to try to make the world a better place.

I don’t feel that allowing the teens to care for Etta for those three days had anything to do with going against the way I parent. There are many teen girls out there who think so little of themselves, as I did, that they fall madly in love with the first boy who looks their direction. They see their self-worth only in what that boy tells them to think. And they have sex with him so that he will value her even more. These girls just “need” someone to be there for them and show them that it is not the right path to take. They need someone to tell them to look deeper inside themselves and see the beautiful girl staring back at them. They need to know that the right man will love them for the person she is and for the person that she wants to be. He will never try to make her be someone else or try to stop her from achieving her dreams. As an AP and NFL mother, I feel that it is every one of our places to fill this role. In my opinion, these are all of our children. Just because they are teens, they are still someone else’s son or daughter.

Did you hope to educate the teens (and viewers watching at home) about the benefits of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, etc.? If so, do you feel that you accomplished this?

I did teach the teens how to simulate nursing with Etta, using her breast-shaped bottle and my expressed milk. I didn’t share with them about co-sleeping, because the teens were not allowed to sleep with the babies in their beds as one of the safety precautions. While I do believe that co-sleeping with your own child is perfectly safe, you instinctively respond to the slightest sounds or movements with a baby you have recently given birth to and that couldn’t be expected of the teens. HOWEVER, Sean did co-sleep with Etta in a sense, after I had my initial tough love discussion with him. He walked holding her, he laid back on the couch holding her, and she slept, well, like a baby. Granted he didn’t get much sleep, but he fostered that feeling of co-sleeping that she was used to, and he made it work. In addition, since unlike me, he was having to prepare her bottles for her night nursings, it worked out well for them to be on the move anyway. I did bring Etta to the show in our sling, however I didn’t leave it for them because it is fitted and they were both much taller than I am. Plus I didn’t feel that they would be totally secure holding her in it and might have a false sense of security anyway. They did have the use of front carriers, but I don’t think they used them.

It has to be said though, I did not participate in this project because I am an AP or NFL parent. I participated to help show teens the realities of being a parent in hopes of deterring them from throwing their teen years away. I just happen to parent this way and was able to share some of that with them. I did tell Kelsey when I met her and saw her in the empathy belly “Congratulations, you have a beautiful baby girl and you are a breastfeeding mother now!” But that did not make the final airing. An additional neat breastfeeding moment was when Sean was caring for Etta alone and visited with his neighbor and fellow pseudo-single dad Cory. They were discussing their parenting tricks they had picked up. Sean told Cory that he needed to pick Karson up and take him to another room for a change of scenery (something I shared with him in the tough love conversation). And then Cory asked Sean if Etta had eaten and Sean said proudly, “Oh no man, I just breastfed her like 10 minutes ago.” :) I’m hoping that his breastfeeding experience will give him some insight and enable him to be very supportive of his future wife.

The Baby Borrowers has fallen under attack by groups like Zero to Three and Attachment Parenting International, among others. How do their responses affect you as an AP parent who willingly participated in the show?

I am not bothered by the negative criticism these groups have given the show or us as parents. The issue of teen pregnancy is a big one and it requires serious communication. Look how people are discussing teen sexuality out in the open now. It is amazing. As far as the research that these groups are using to say that we endangered our children emotionally, I don’t feel that it even applies. There are many situations that these same groups excuse from their criticism. Working parents, military parents, parents who go on a long weekend and hire a nanny or leave their children in the hands of a relative they don’t see on a regular basis, etc. The babies in those situations have no idea why their parents are leaving, whether it be for a weekend getaway or to participate in The Baby Borrowers, and if they are securely bonded in the first place (which is next to impossible to avoid with AP) then they are fine. I truly think it was irresponsible for these groups to speak out about the show without gathering all of the facts first. I don’t know of a single parent or child involved in this program that has been assessed by any of these groups. I have to add that I did not participate so that anyone could decide whether I am a good mother. I was not the best mother at one point in my life, but I am doing the best that I can to right that wrong now. Regardless of any of the claims that these groups, who have no actual knowledge about the filming or the participants, I would do this all over again if given the chance. Every time I get a letter from a young girl who’s life was touched in some small way by this program or by my involvement, it is further solidified in my heart that I made the right choice, and these “experts” are fanning flames when no fire exists to begin with.

Did you, your husband Chet, and/or your children get to spend some time getting acquainted with Sean and Kelsey before they “borrowed” the kids?

We sat with Sean and Kelsey for a good while before we left the children in their care. We stayed maybe 2 hours or a little less with Etta. We went through the manual that the producers asked us to prepare for Etta’s care. It contained the brand of wipes and diapers we use, what she likes to eat, any allergies the children had, the children’s likes and dislikes, etc. We had a chance to thoroughly inspect every room in the house. Everything was age appropriately baby proofed. We were able to observe the teens each holding our daughter, and explained what she liked and what she didn’t in that regard. Chet reiterated to Sean that he had to support her head. We answered any questions that they had and just got to visit with them and find out a little more about them as people. Kelsey explained that she wanted kids right away, which we already knew, and hoped to change. And Sean explained that he was hoping Kelsey would realize that they should wait. We liked Sean’s idea better. We didn’t spend quite as much time with Benjamin there because he was ready to play on the swing set. We sat and explained to Sean and Kelsey that he was like night and day from Etta. And we explained that we wanted them to see that it was not as easy as saying, “Etta was just that way because she missed her mom, my child would be different.” We told them that no two kids are exactly alike, and you really never know what their personality is until you meet them.

On the show I believe they showed you intervening with the teens twice while they had Etta. I know that you expressed milk and brought that over to the house throughout her 3-day stay, but how many times did you actually intervene? Did you spend any time with Etta during any of those interventions?

On a few occasions we sent instructions through the nanny if we noticed something minor that the nanny might not have known to pick up on. Nothing against the nanny, but there are some things only a parent can recognize in their child. That is the benefit we had of seeing and hearing everything that went on. As an example, I sent word to the nanny, via the producers, to be sure that the teens were putting my expressed milk into the fridge in an organized manner and paying attention to dates/time to be sure they didn’t let any go bad, etc. And after Sean’s visit to the grocery store, bless his heart, he came home to tell Kelsey, “Etta’s mom said she loves avocado, but I couldn’t find any jars of that anywhere.” I did zip over quickly to let Kelsey know that they would just buy an avocado and mash it up for her with breast milk. It was not a big deal, just clarification. And before going over the first night, I did send word that they made Etta’s breast bottle and left it sitting on her dresser untouched while they frantically tried to figure out why the child would not just fall asleep.

Although it would have been fine with the producers if I had gone to comfort Etta, I didn’t choose to do that. Because she was nursing and was used to having the AP lifestyle, I just felt that would have been a mistake. It would not have been fair to her for me to show up when she had already gotten used to her surrogate parents and then leave again. My main concern was her smelling my milk and then refusing to take the bottle from Sean and Kelsey. My husband was not able to give her the bottle with me in the room because she wasn’t that easily fooled. But if I was gone, then she took it with no problem. I didn’t view this any differently.

Summer, an AP mom and blogger at Wired for Noise asked, “How sudden were the changes (for Etta) from co-sleeping and breastfeeding to not? Did she have time to gradually adjust to the new situation before the show, or was it sort of last minute? I wonder because I have heard that with many reality shows the people are selected with little to no notice.”

That is a good question. The notice is fairly short I guess when you are considering schedules that many children have, etc. Like I stated in an answer above, Etta continued breastfeeding, just through her breast-shaped bottle. We purchased the Adiri nursers because they feel like a breast more than any other bottle. As long as I was not the one giving it to her, she took it fine. We are regulars at our local gym and she went to the on-site childcare most evenings for an hour. We started taking the breast bottle with us when she went as soon as it was a possibility that she would be on the show. It wasn’t very long, but long enough that we knew if she was hungry, she would take it. Also, I really don’t feel that co-sleeping was taken away from her because of the way Sean gave her that constant touch that she was craving after I spoke to him. You all saw that she wasn’t very happy when they did try to take co-sleeping away from her, and it was not going to happen.

How did you mentally and emotionally prepare your 2-year-old son Benjamin for his 3-day stay away from you?

I guess I prepared Benjamin as much as one can with a 2 year old. When Etta was a newborn, Benjamin went to a preschool program for a few hours a few times per week to give me time to breathe. He was perfectly fine with that and wanted to go all the time. Benjamin, although he is parented the same way, has always been very independent. He has always been the “tough one” of all of them at his age. He doesn’t get phased by much, and separation is one of those things. It is funny that in one scene Sean is standing at the door where Benjamin is crying and says, “I think he misses his mom,” but they didn’t understand his words as much as I did and I had just heard him crying saying that he wanted to go outside and play. Benjamin knows we are here and that we are coming back. He’s always just been really laidback about that and doesn’t get stressed by being around others. Now if he watches us leave, he may protest for a minute or two, but as a general rule for him, when we’re out of sight, we’re out of mind. We always just distract him with something else and sneak out and he is A-OK. They took him out to show him the play equipment in the backyard while we left, so he didn’t have an issue with it.

On the show, they depicted Sean telling Ben that he had to go to his room for a timeout if he didn’t stop crying. He didn’t stop crying and was sent to his room, the door closed while he continued to cry on the floor. How did you feel about that? How do you discipline him at home? Did you intervene at all during Benjamin’s stay?

To be honest, even with 4 kids, I don’t have a lot of experience in this arena. Neither of my older two boys ever threw tantrums, so I didn’t get to experience that before Benjamin. I was the mother in the store in shock that children acted that way because MY CHILDREN would NEVER act that way. Well I believe that everything happens for a reason and I believe that Benjamin’s job was to show me once again that I didn’t know everything and that yes, even my children could act that way. At the time, we were telling him that if he did not stop the behavior, he would go to his room for a timeout. If he did not stop, he went to his room, and at home he threw fits much worse than he did for Sean and Kelsey. I actually felt like he was acting better than he did at home. This brought up an interesting point. We noticed that when Kelsey made deals with Benjamin, he held up his end of the bargain. She told him, for instance, that if he took a nap, he could go to the park. She asked him if he wanted that and he said yes, so he laid down and took a nap without protest. He was a fairly late talker, compared to my other boys so it didn’t dawn on me that he was able to negotiate his behavior like that. But what she was doing was working for him. So at home, we have started doing that. Sometimes, we will still do time out in his room, but it is his choice. He likes to hear that it is his choice. He feels empowered, I guess. We will tell him that he can either stop the behavior or he can go in his room, and then say, “you choose.” And generally very quickly he chooses to stop the undesirable behavior.

I didn’t intervene myself with Benjamin, but my husband did once I believe. At first, Sean and Kelsey were letting Benjamin do whatever he wanted, and seemed afraid to take control of the situation. So Chet went over and explained to them that they had to be the parental figures and that he could not just be able to run wild. They took his advice to heart and each developed their own approach to discipline. Sean wasn’t as creative and just used the time outs in his room that Chet suggested. Kelsey really turned things around and had a great rapport with him. In regard to Benjamin crying on the floor, I was not affected by his behavior. He was not sad or hurt, he was just mad. I had witnessed enough tantrums from him to know that he was just in a battle of wills with Sean, and I was not going to intervene and let him think that he was winning. And Benjamin didn’t actually start throwing tantrums until Chet spoke to the teens and asked them not to let him have his way. For instance he would not get up to the table for them, would immediately get down, etc. and they were just allowing it and ignoring it. We don’t accept that behavior in our home and did not want them to either. Being a parent is showing your children the correct way to behave too, and Sean and Kelsey had to learn that part as well.

Julie, an AP mom and blogger at ChezArtz and API Speaks would like to know, “What do you wish they would have shown as part of the series?”

I wish that they would have shown Sean’s sleepless nights with Etta after he finally did “get it.” It is unfortunate that he came across as this heartless little punk who called my baby girl an “it.” He was not that way at all. He developed such a bond with her and she with him that it is almost unfair to the both of them that you didn’t get to see it. Or maybe it’s better that way and it’s something special that only Sean, Etta, Chet, and I will carry with us forever. I am glad that Cory was shown stepping up to the plate when needed, but he did it reluctantly. Sean dug right in and didn’t complain. Both of those boys earned my respect, and that of my husband. They can hopefully serve to show teen boys out there that if you do get in a situation and you think the only thing you can do is run, maybe they might want to think again. Sean showed that if you relax and just hug and love your child, they will give you that in return, and it is rewarding. And Cory showed that even when it is hard, sometimes you just have to buck up and push through. They both proved that babies of teen parents (and anyone else for that matter) need more than their mothers to stick around.

On a separate note, I wish that there was more time to air the parents’ review of Sean and Kelsey with the toddlers. After having seen them care for both of my children, I did not just sit there nodding my head listening to what Chet had to say. I felt that I had come to know both of them well enough to speak candidly with them and that I owed that to them. So I told Sean and Kelsey that I did think separately they were wonderful people, and that someday they would both make great parents, but not with each other. I told them that they did not display the love and devotion that it takes to make a marriage work. When they were apart, they seemed to shine, but as a couple, they really didn’t support one another or complement each other. I also told Kelsey that I felt that she had low self-esteem, as I did when I was her age and became a teen mother. But that she couldn’t look to Sean or any other man to provide her with that. I told her that she had to love herself enough to know that she was a beautiful person with or without a man.

Do you have anything else that you feel myself or my readers would be interested to learn about your participation in The Baby Borrowers?

I will attach my response to viewers and critics of The Baby Borrowers, including 0-3 and AACAP, so that you can read more about my reasons for participating and what myself and others have gained. In addition, it is paramount to note that my family did not seek to get on television. We are not seeking fortune or fame, or even our 15 minutes as many have suggested. I was contacted by NBC because one of the casting agents found my Myspace page and they invited me to participate in the auditions. I had never heard of the show, and when they explained the potential to help reduce teen pregnancy, I was on board. There was no money or other compensation whatsoever for participation in this “social experiment.”

Thank you again, Natalie, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk candidly with me. I genuinely enjoyed getting to know more about you and appreciated your perspective on The Baby Borrowers. I wish you and your family all the best.