Attachment Parenting

I guess I have to read Elisabeth Badinter's book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, but I think it's going to be supremely irritating, judging by this review and Katha Pollitt's column, both in The Nation.  The bad guy du jour is "attachment parenting," which says good mothers/parents need to be in super-contact with their children, wearing them in slings, breastfeeding them as long as possible, sleeping with them in a "family bed"--none of which is compatible with maintaining a full-time job. This kind of motherhood "undermines the status of women" so ... baaaaaad.

Except it's really much more complicated.  This paragraph from Pollitt's column gets things all wrong--
I was originally going to write this column as an attack on women who have fallen for the attachment-parenting spiel, which makes them feel endlessly guilty and then encourages them to project that guilt outward onto more relaxed mothers. Women are so eager to blame themselves and one another about, well, everything—weight, looks, clothes, sexual behavior (you haven’t lived till you’ve heard a seventh-grade girl refer to another as a “ho”), marriages and, of course, baybeez, every wrinkle of whose behavior is directly attributable to their mothers’ having made some small but fatal mistake.
Despite the disclaimer, this is an attack on mothers who attachment-parent.  Has Pollitt ever met any?  I have, because I sort of liked that kind of thing when my kids were young and so did many of my friends. Pollitt imagines women go into parenthood with no thoughts and feelings of their own and then get suckered into attachment-parenting--there's the spiel, and then the guilt, and then the work-family conflict, and then the attached mom starts laying guilt on other mothers. But no, the sequence of events is rather this--

You have a kid (or two, in my case).  Your every instinct is not to let the vulnerable little people out of your sight.  You love the closeness of breastfeeding. You sometimes bring crying babies into bed in the middle of the night--it just feels right.  The idea of leaving them in the care of someone else all day is distressing.  You do everything else in your life "full-tilt" and want to parent that way too.

Yet lots of advice books tell you that your impulses are wrong.  There's the feminist idea that you must return to full-time work right away.  Work is always respectable, no matter what it consists of -- just because you're paid, I suppose.  There are lots of books that promote an authoritarian style of parenting that says you shouldn't respond to your baby at night.  There's the onslaught of media images that say breasts are for sex, not for feeding baby.  Then you discover "attachment parenting"--and suddenly what you wanted to do anyway becomes OK.  You learn that it's not unheard of for women to want to stay close with their kids--there are lots of cultures in which this is standard fare.  William Sears's books are a bit over the top, and I wouldn't dream of following his advice to a T (or anyone else's, for that matter), but the message in them is welcome--for many women it's the message that their own intuitions are OK.  Far from increasing guilt, the books alleviate guilt--in the woman whose instincts mesh with that parenting-style. 

So I don't buy this idea that attachment-style parenting is inflicted on women, and can just be discarded, to overcome the work-family conflict that's a problem for many women. Attachment-style parenting (at least in its essentials) runs deep, and many women choose it for themselves.  Those that don't care for it have dozens, if not hundreds, of other child-care books to choose from.  There's plenty of validation out there for people who want to parent in a different style, or who want to return to work and personal freedom as quickly as possible.

The question to my mind is how women can spend part of their lives in a family focused way, and yet fully "recover" (so to speak)--returning to careers, preserving financial viability, and so on.  It would help if there were on-site daycare, so you can both work and be close to baby--for someone people, that would be enough.  It would help if there were part-time opportunities for both men and women.  Some people hate the idea of a stranger taking care of their child all day, but are happy with the thought of another parent being in charge.  But for those who really want to spend 5 or 10 years with parenting as their primary focus, why must that be the death of career and financial stability?  In any event, it just won't do to pretend that super-attached parenting is a nefarious plot, and not just what some women genuinely want.


Deepak Shetty said...

The question to my mind is how women can spend part of their lives in a family focused way, and yet fully "recover" (so to speak)--returning to careers, preserving financial viability, and so on.
If you ever have an answer to this which is other than - "wing it" , let us know :)

theogeo said...

Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

Since when is it a "feminist" idea that one "must return to work right away" after having a baby? No feminist I know actually thinks that. Indeed, they're the ones saying that women AND men should have choices about how to parent, and that we should offer family leave policies consistent with the rest of the developed world that make possible such choices.