This essay was originally posted in November of 2010, but due to the recent attachment parenting buzz, both in the April 30th New York Times Room for Debate forum and this week’s Time Magazine cover (a school age child suckling on a mother’s nipple—yes, you read that right), I thought it was time to repost. It’s a little on the long side, but it’s one of my favorites.
Feel free to weigh in!
By now you may have read–or at least heard about–Erica Jong’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Mother Madness.” In it, she says some things that have long needed to be said about the attachment parenting movement: what it means for women and feminism, and what it suggests about our society’s adoration of the latest parenting fads. Most of all, she points out that attachment parenting does very little to help women through this sloppy world of work and bills and marriage and spit-up. In fact, it seems to be a veritable backlash to the feminist movement of which she has been a significant part.
I couldn’t agree more.
When I was in the hospital after my son was born, I devoured a borrowed copy of the Searses’ The Breastfeeding Book. My newborn had difficulty trying to latch, and each feeding resulted in wails, sore nipples, and sweating brows. Ever a product of the information age, I thought I could read my way through it. The more I read about breastfeeding, the easier it would be, I figured. Once my son was old enough, I began going to a breastfeeding moms group at a nearby hospital run by a militant lactation consultant. We stripped our babies weekly, handed them over to a woman with cold, skinny hands, and waited to see the results. If the baby gained at least 4 ounces, we were good mothers. If not, we were failing at the most important job in the world.
The last thing a new mother needs is this kind of anxiety. While we took solace in the camaraderie of other women sitting around the table, baring Botticellian breasts for our babies to suckle, exchanging stories and gathering parenting data, our dependence on Ms. S’s approval was unhealthy. No one dared to mention the word “formula.” (I suspect this F-word would have generated more horror than calling a woman a “cunt” in front of her sleeping baby.)
While I relied on The Breastfeeding Book in the initial weeks, I started to veer toward the simpler, stapled packet from the hospital instead. It gave me more concrete information rather than a parenting philosophy. More and more, when I turned to the Searses’ book, it became clear that their style of parenting meant your baby was the master of the house, and you needed to bend your every will to his or her needs. (I was shocked to find out they also wrote The Discipline Book. I’m sure the only discipline they advocate is breastfeeding instead of time-outs. According to them, mama’s milk is a cure-all.) In later chapters, they encouraged a mother to breastfeed well into the toddler years. A mother was supposed to feed on demand throughout the day and in her bed at night, which I can’t imagine is good for a couple’s already dwindling sex life. Dr. Sears, a pediatrician, seems to reject any data that co-sleeping is dangerous and instead advocates it as the best way to parent. (Though, since he isn’t able to lactate, I’m sure he manages a night’s sleep while his wife spends the darkest hours pulling open her shirt each time the baby stirs.) The more I read, the more I wanted to throw the book across the room. The perfect, breastmilk-suffused world they presented did not look like my own. The Searses further emphasize the beauty of the relationship of babies to their mothers in Africa, who wear their babies in slings and feed “on demand.” Apparently, the way we know that this is the ideal situation is that those babies rarely, if ever, cry. According to the Searses. Who live in the United States.
Do we really want to mimic the lives of women in Africa? It is certainly a rich and vibrant culture, but I don’t think many American women would advocate giving up their day jobs and their two-car garages to live in the desert, cook over a hearth, and share their husbands. So why are they embracing the attachment parenting philosophy so readily?
Guilt. Guilt about not being able to protect our children from every painful experience that goes along with being human.
As Jong says, “We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.”
Just as Jong’s essay spread through the blogosphere and internet, my own tiny post on Scary Mommy last week caused a bit of a stir, at least in my blog-world. In listing ten things I learned in the first year with my second child, I rejoiced that formula was not, in fact, poison, as I had been taught, and that it is a quite proper substitute when breastfeeding fails. As I suspected, an attachment parenting advocate jumped on it, on me. “I’ve done my homework,” she said, and “that crap IS poison.” When I and a couple of others pushed back, she shared a quote from Jennifer Coias, who often writes for Peaceful Parenting: “In all my time & effort researching the best ways to mother, I’ve come full circle to realize that in almost all cases, the best choice for the health of children & mothers are the ones you’d make if stranded on a deserted island & forced to follow your instincts. Breastfeed. Sleep by your baby. Wear your baby. Keep your baby whole. Communicate with your baby. Listen & respond to your baby’s cries.” Later, my commenter went on to imply that I probably treat my dog better than my children. (Actually, I’m quite glad I don’t have a dog, because he or she would probably not get fed at all with the amount of energy I have left in a day.)
The obvious thing about Coias’s quote is, most of us don’t live on desert islands. Thank God. Has she even seen Lost or read Lord of the Flies? If I had given birth on a desert island, I might follow Coias’s advice, right before I put my toddler to work picking berries. But lucky for me, I had a wide variety of take-out restaurants, supermarkets, friends, and family on hand when both of my children were born. I had my husband, who also wanted to be an active part of our newborns’ lives. I took great comfort in small things that reminded me I was still a woman, still had a body and brain separate from my children. What I can’t help but wonder is whether mothers who are extreme about their attachment parenting style are doing it out of their own emotional needs rather than their babies’. It’s nice to be needed, wanted, the most important presence for your children. Yet I don’t know that it’s always the best thing for a baby. It’s okay for a child to cry sometimes. Really. It’s actually perfectly normal.
There are a few things I feel strongly should not be a part of one’s parenting practice: verbally or physically abusing your child, expecting your child to fulfill your own wishes for career and/or relationships, and placing unfair demands on him or her. Beyond that, I think we need to stop judging women for the various choices they make. All of us are different, and so are our needs and desires. We all deserve to live the best lives we can. By uniting rather than condemning each other, we may actually, finally, get somewhere in this antiquated patriarchy. Maybe we’ll finally achieve affordable healthcare and childcare, paid maternity and paternity leave, flexible work schedules so that we can be present for our kids. I don’t see attachment parenting getting us any closer to these goals, however. Unfortunately, it might have the opposite effect.
Let me stress that I am not against breastfeeding. I breastfed both of my children as long as I could. I think it is a wonderful way to bond, a natural and normal way to celebrate the power of women’s bodies while giving our babies proper nourishment. I also understand a parent’s desire to sleep with her child if it’s going to help them connect and wake happier in the morning, as well as share a dreamy physical closeness. My problem is the way that attachment parenting plays on a mothers’ guilt about trying to do everything for her kids without leaving much left of herself. My issue is with the sacrificial mother archetype that we haven’t quite escaped, despite our other political gains.
So all I can say is, bravo, Erica Jong, for starting a much needed discussion about why feminism still matters, especially for mothers. I’d agree with you even if I lived on a desert island.
Image: “On the Maternal Throne” by premasagar via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.