Attachment parenting, while made a ‘style’ by Dr. Sears more recently, isn’t a new idea. It’s based on the things I love most: science and anthropology. Humans are animals, whether we like to admit it or not, and as such attend to our young in a particular way. In our case, mothers nurse their young and keep them close and both parents take on the responsibility of nourishment, protection, and comfort much longer than any other animal.
Breastfeeding is the biological norm for our species. It provides nutrition, comfort, and immunity against disease. Most people don’t even realize that the world wide average for weaning is actually closer to age six. Perhaps it is this disconnect from the biological norm (which is ironically similar to our disconnect with our own food sources) that makes it necessary to actually pass legislation to protect women so that they may feed their babies in the biologically normal way. Families all over the world sleep together in the same beds and have for thousands of years. It is safe, comforting, and in many cases a way to reconnect after a long day. Human beings have carried their babies for as long as we have been around. It keeps the infant close by, makes it easier to nurse, allows the parents to continue their daily routine, and most importantly provides small children the opportunity to sleep or retreat from an overstimulating environment when they need to.
But I think the most important side of attachment parenting is the concept of modeling. This is something that I feel Sears really fell short on explaining, but perhaps is better illustrated in books like The Continuum Concept , Our Babies Ourselves, and others that put the focus back on the science of biology and culture. People historically have done all of the above things not only because it was biologically normal to do so, but also because by keeping children a part of the daily life, they were socializing them. Through modeling and experience, children grow up within a culture understanding what it means to be a part of that community. They gradually take on responsibility and a role in that community, because from the beginning they were included in it. It is only recently that we have separated children from our “adult lives” and then had to train them to become a part of it. The result is that when you give your kids time to develop who they are and take on their role, they are confident and secure in their ability to do so. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson outlined stages of human development, asserting that if one stage was not met, it would show up later and cause tension and difficulty in later stages. Certainly being taken out of the natural rhythm of human development and community can interfere with the acquisition of said virtues.
There is no child that is “too attached”, there are only families who recognize the value of having a close relationship with their child, and providing the experiences and encouragement for that child to grow up and live their own life. The world does not revolve around the child, the child is made a part of the entirety. It is not about holding on, it is about nurturing the ability to let go.
How is it that society can be simultaneously crying “too attached!” and “kids are growing up too fast!” at the same time? Once again, it’s because we have become so disconnected from what is developmentally normal that we cease to understand the needs of humans. We have to take all of this information and put it into the context of culture. We live in a society that worships technology, and rightfully so in many ways. Technology has moved us into higher level of existence really, but what it hasn’t changed is the human. Perhaps that is the point of this re-focus on attachment parenting. Just as the idea that real, whole, non-manufactured food can prevent many of the diseases and environmental issues we are faced with, perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to process ourselves either.
I think the most interesting criticism I have heard about attachment parenting is that it reverses the advancements made in feminism. Really? because I thought the feminist movement was about choice. It seems to me that the most empowering thing a person can have is choice, including the choice of how to parent. Attachment Parenting, despite popular opinion, is not about self-sacrifice. It’s about balance. It is attending to the needs of the human. Does that make women who decide not to co-sleep bad parents? Nope. Does that make bottle feeding un-natural? Well, sort of, but only because we are told that formula is just as good nutritionally (and it’s not). Parenting is about making the best of what you’ve got with the information you have, and bottle feeding is necessary for some and a choice for all, one that no mother should be made to feel guilty about.
I don’t feel less than a feminist for making the choices I did, including leaving the traditional workplace. Instead, I am on a continuous journey of redefining what it means to be a working mother. I have nursed my babies through planning meetings at the Smithsonian and grant-making sessions at the National Endowment for the Arts. I have prepared a run of prints for an art show with a toddler slung to my back. I have turned down opportunities because they would not fit into our family values. Some days our home school routine includes business meetings and filling holes in the wall at the hackerspace I helped found so that creative women could have more choices. Modeling the possibilities of life to my kids is better to me than telling them how to live it. For me, returning to this view of child-rearing has made me more creative, more adventurous, and more connected to my own identity.
The choice to return to what I believe humans need, something that has been taken away from us in a very patriarchal world for the sake of “progress”, is what feminism is to me. Perhaps the most feminist act we can make is to stop listening to experts and start trusting ourselves. We are the experts of our families. Phrases like “good enough” and “mother enough” imply that we don’t have the necessary instinctual tools to raise our kids without guidance. And maybe many of us feel like we don’t. But is that because it is not within us, or because we have not been raised in a community where we would have gained the experience needed to move onto the next stage of our lives with confidence?
As Wendy Priesnitz points out: “Australian academic, author and social commentator Susan Maushart asserts society needs to “acknowledge that bearing and raising children is not some pesky, peripheral activity we engage in, but the whole point. Warehousing kids in daycare or school so mothers can get on with what they see as their real lives is not part of that vision, but we need to find ways to ensure economic security for women of all classes, and extend the vision to include fathers as well.”
This doesn’t mean that working outside the home or sending your children to school/daycare is detrimental, but we have compartmentalized our lives to such a point that any choice seems predetermined, forced, and then judged. Parenting and our career choices are not and should not be seen as mutually exclusive. The solution then, is to stop judging the parenting of mothers and start focusing on attitudes and policies that promote what is best for families as a whole.
Yesterday I was interviewed on Attachment Parenting by the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group, and it was no surprise to me that the detailed interview I gave was whittled down to a few sentences. In this case, the story was gauging the reactions of mothers to Time’s highly inflammatory Cover photo and article entitled “Are You Mom Enough?” It seems to be de rigueur these days: let’s take a story and instead of trying to truly understand it, we’ll make it into more than it is.
It is an old story, really, but it comes at a difficult time when the rights of women (particularly mothers) are being attacked by legislation all over the country and the media is desperately trying to keep afloat the flawed idea that mothers battle it out over parenting styles and life choices. I say flawed because most mothers don’t have time to argue about whose right, and in fact we don’t care. We all just want two things: a satisfying daily life and to produce healthy, happy, independent kids by the end of our parenting journey. To clarify what was said in the article I was quoted in, I have actually received very little criticism for our choices. I mentioned while being interviewed that nursing my oldest when he was two, while still living in Virginia, garnered a few looks here and there. I think that was mostly due to the fact that, like the kid in the Time article, my two year old son looked like a five year old. Not that it should matter. The most pointed remarks I have received was from family members, and I responded by emailing articles relating to why we have made the choices we did and they have all since come aboard.
But to give them some compassion, it must have been difficult to understand at first a way of parenting and living that had been absent in mainstream culture for so long. I am just doing my best like they tried to. Like the article said, I nursed all my babies until they self weaned at around three, with some gentle encouragement on my part. I still co-sleep with my three year old and our two older boys sleep in their own room by their own choice, but are welcome to come into our bed if they need to. Pretty rare at this point, though as a result I still get to enjoy morning cuddles and conversation. And while I was not asked this, I feel compelled to point out (because it is a question I am asked often): Yes, I sleep well, and no, it has not affected the intimacy between my husband and me. I have three kids and we just celebrated our ten year anniversary so we must be doing something right. But the very last sentence of that article got it exactly right: our king size bed *is* the best investment we ever made.
This article originally appeared on Samantha Matalone Cook’s personal blog, Burning Gnome.