Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Happy new year and new post: attachment parenting

The holidays have involved a lot of family and a lot of travel, but I'm planning to get back into posting this month. I'm about to start the second semester of my master's program. A two-year program goes very fast - it will already be half over in 5 months and I feel like I've barely started!

This long and very interesting post by kneelingwoman got me thinking about attachment parenting (AP). I haven't posted about attachment parenting before but lord knows I've discussed it plenty with my friends who care for or parent young children, doulas and non-doulas alike. I don't have my own kids yet, but I have a big extended family and babysitting/nannying has almost always been my second job (and sometimes my first). I think this actually has given me some interesting perspective in that I've had a chance to interact with parenting of many different styles without being inside the bubble of my own parenting experience. I've also read the Dr. Sears books - the bibles of attachment parenting - and as a doula and breastfeeding educator, I am trained to promote a lot of care practices that match up with AP (e.g. babywearing, nursing on demand, sleeping with the baby in close proximity).

To be sympathetic to some aspects of AP that the author is arguing against, there is plenty of dogma on the other side that AP is reacting against. I recently heard that a new mother was "spoiling" her 2-day-old baby because she was holding him all the time. There is such an intense focus on getting a baby "used to" not being held! To quote a very wise lactation consultant, "A newborn has been held continuously for 9 months. Any time you're not holding him, you're getting him used to it." Imagine what it's like for a new mother who is trying to keep her newborn happy, healthy, and fed to have her family come over and tell him she's "spoiling" him. AP reminds us that it's developmentally good for babies to be held often, to be carried where they can nurse easily and interact with the world, to sleep near their parents, and to have their needs met relatively quickly (eat when they're hungry; comforted when they cry.)

Unfortunately, the pendulum can swing just as far in the AP direction, especially when it comes to older children. I have seen AP used between parents against each other - "you weren't home to nurse him! he was CRYING! how COULD you!" - and it's not pretty. There is an obsessiveness about it that places the relationship with the child above every other relationship. It boggles me sometimes to see parents who seem literally married to their children - they no longer talk to or spend time with their partners in any meaningful way. I start wondering whether those people just used each other as tools for conceiving a child and then forgot about each other. The post I linked to above touched a chord with me because I agree with the author that out of all the mothers I've known, the happiest were not dogmatic about any one style of parenting, and they most certainly did not surrender their whole identity to mothering.

When I was writing my senior thesis in college, I came to agree with Linda Blum's hypothesis in her book "At the Breast" - breastfeeding (in developed countries) is wonderful to the extent that it empowers women, re-embodies them, and provides a positive relationship with their children. When it is a source of guilt, shame, or overwhelming burden, it is no longer a positive act. Don't get me wrong: think that breastfeeding is very positive for public health and for the health of individual babies and mothers, and too many culturally constructed barriers are thrown up in front of mothers who try to breastfeed to keep them from experiencing the positive benefits of breastfeeding. But in a developed country, almost any baby can be reasonably healthy on formula, and to use infant feeding as yet another way to guilt women is not a feminist act. I feel similarly about AP and a lot of its practices; having Dr. Sears encourage you to co-sleep and give you good reasons to do so is great. Then you know it's a good option, and if your family is happier bedsharing, you have someone to bolster you when your mother-in-law comes over all, "Is he going to still be in there when he goes to college?" Feeling like you HAVE to sleep in the same bed with your child or she won't be psychologically healthy - that's not great.

So that's my agnostic view of attachment parenting, as with so many other things in the baby/birth/breastfeeding world - great when done at the right times in the right situations, and not so great otherwise. What do you all think?


jennafaith said...

ack so much of this is stuff i am thinking about right now as i see many of my friends-who-are-parents (mostly over-educated, older, white liberals with enough class privilege that nearly all of the households have one parent at home) and many are into some kind of attachment stuff. i have to get my thoughts together, but from what i have seen (and experienced, as i spend a lot of time observing/caring for/hanging out with these kiddos) i am skeptical of any regimented "theory" or "method" of parenting. put the book down, stop stressing out, and just be with your kid instead of over-intellectualizing the whole thing. ...of course you can't spoil a 2 day old kid, but when the kid is 2 yrs old and you are still indulging them it becomes a problem... you know? mmm not articulate right now but i totally want to talk about this with you!! xo

publichealthdoula said...

Do you think there's some connection between older parents or parents that have never spent a lot of time taking care of other kids? To some extent, it seems like someone who's very new to child care might be more susceptible to getting a idealogue-y, just because it's more reassuring to stick to something they "know" is right instead of trying to make up their own version and worry that they're doing it wrong.