“Meh” to Attachment Parenting

About a week ago, I attended my first pre-natal yoga class. We started by rolling ourselves into a sharing circle and took turns describing our pregnancy experiences. Stories of puking, leg cramps, the creeping chill of panic as labour dates approached. So far so good.

Then we began the chanting portion of the class.It wasn’t the chanting itself that bothered me. I can respect a good chant, even if I can’t always bring myself to fully participate. It was the content that caught me off guard.

Most of the women in the group knew the words, and all together, as one voice, they exclaimed, “A woman’s power is discovered through birth.”

The singular “a woman” was standing in for “all lady-folk everywhere,” of course. I thought about the women I know who have chosen not to have kids, and those that are unable. This sacred script implied that childless women are somehow power-deficient because they lack progeny. I was now attending my very own annoyance- yoga class.

It also reminded me of “Attachment Parenting”(AP), and how its views on child development have percolated from the pages of dog-eared, 1970’s-fonted secondhand bookstore stacks into the mainstream (you know its in the mainstream when there’s a reality show about it.)

Basically, AP theory believes that “sensitive, available parenting” helps the child to form lifelong attachment patterns, which fosters “a child’s socio-emotional development and well-being.” The image is now iconic – a kid old enough to fully articulate his preferred juice brand suckling at the teat. The terms have been popularized. Co-sleeping, baby-wearing, baby-led weening.

At the heart of AP is “attachment theory,” developed by British psychologist John Bowlby. He argued that the way to foster emotional health is for one caregiver, preferably the mother, to meet the needs of infants immediately until they are three. (It’s the “until three” part that I’m uncomfortable with. I plan on using AP techniques for the first few months of my baby’s life, when s/he’s basically still a fetus on the other side of the uterine wall.)

Subscribers to AP insist that there is a lot of room to move within these parameters. For example, women can work. They just need to hire a nanny who is also a follower of AP. But, for most new moms, the thought of being able to afford a nanny is laughable. Unless a caregiver (at an unregulated daycare, being paid $12 an hour) can duct-tape 12 babies to her person, this isn’t going to happen.

Of course I want to help my baby develop into an emotionally healthy kid. But I’m skeptical of any practice that completely strips away a person’s autonomy. I am my kid’s first introduction to a real-life, grown-up lady. Is it really healthy for the kid if I foster an expectation of butler-like availability?

But do you know who really doesn’t like AP theory? French feminists. French feminists, such as Elisabeth Badinter, are all up in arms. They lean a little too close to “all breast feeding is a prison” for my liking, but have a number of good points. This essay sums up the argument well.

They question the amount a woman is expected to give up of herself, of her own life, for her children, and see this expectation as a reversal of the the last 40 years of feminism. They also rally against the guilt that’s used to saddle women into the these kinds of roles, and which turns moms against each other. And a number of studies coming out now question how much of an influence we really have over our kid’s future selves.

It’s all leaning dangerously close to “a woman’s power is discovered through birth.”

15 thoughts on ““Meh” to Attachment Parenting”

  1. Don’t forget the thinly disguised sexism. I’ve always felt one of the implicit messages was that fathers can’t wholly parent. Of course that’s inherent throughout our society, and is even systematised. I.E. the CRA by default treats the female parent as the parent responsible for the children.

  2. I’m not sure you entirely understand AP. It’s flexibility (not all children, all parents or all situations are the same), and the ability take some parts and leave others. Also, I would dispute that AP dictates that it is always the mother. Mothers are the only ones who can breastfeed, pretty much everything else can be done by either parent. We were AP parents (although somewhat modified) and my husband was the one to stay home with the kids.

  3. My wife did the pre-natal yoga thing before our first kid. She would come home after every meeting tense, angry and ranting about all the mystical, earth-mother bullshit they were carrying on about. I was like, “Honey, I don’t think yoga is supposed to make you feel this way.” But she toughed it out because the stretching was kinda worthwhile.

    Gordeaux: Yeah, that fathers-aren’t-true-caregivers side of AP bugs me too. But as a stay-at-home dad, I have found the inability to breast feed to be a liability. The capacity to produce food for an infant in one’s own body just seems so efficient and financially prudent.

    Damn these vestigial nipples!

  4. AP has many good practices that make sense for some but are also impractical and even extremely undesirable for others. The socio-political aspects this kind of parenting are certainly worth considering and those French Feminists make some excellent points. Thanks for the link to the review of Badinter’s work. It mentions a book I read recently–Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe. It’s less a memoir than a light and easy read on motherhood as a cultural construct. She does a very good job of pointing out how parents would be advised to rely more on their common sense rather than self-abnegating philosophies that do very little to encourage practical self-reliance in children. It was incredibly liberating to discover that not all cultures are so neurotic about motherhood!

  5. We adopted a toddler. My paartner and I used the principles of attachement parenting to build attachment with this person. For the first months we made sure that we were the only ones who attended to basic needs (food, comfort, bathing). From this we used other strategies to help build self regulation. As time went on we then started to let others be involved in care.

    Our aim for doing this was to build trust with this person that we would be there no matter what, and then as other people cmae into caring ( day care, sitters, family) to allow our child to figure out how to interact and recieve care/love form others.

    It’s our hope that this will enable our child to be and adult who can trust and attach and build great relationships. No way of knowing if this is going to work, but we think it might based on the work we did understanding older adoptees.

    I think of what one of my wisest friends told me whne our adoption moved inot the last stages.. ” you’re gonna get a lot of advice, listen to it and in the end you and your partner gotta do what you feel is right”

  6. “Is it really healthy for the kid if I foster an expectation of butler-like availability?”

    I’d say yes, but only to an undetermined age of a few years. My reasoning is based on how kids who grow up without basic comfort tend to turn out, and I figure the other extreme produces more functional human beings.

  7. #6 You are spot on.

    I was almost 6 months “old” when I was adopted.

    I did daycare, it was at a bowling alley in Calgary. Mum was in a women’s afternoon league, we’d go by bus,& I’d end in a room with a play structure, and toys, and about 20 kids of varying ages.

    My Mum & Dad, kinda let me do my own thing.
    When I 1st hit kindergarten, it was 1/2 days. Mum went back to work 1/2 days, by bus. She trusted the System, but she also didn’t have much of a choice otherwise.

    Of all of the bit of education that I have, I’ve only had 1 bad relationship with 1 teacher.

    More unsolicited advice, get yer noob in touch with nature and live music, before she/he looks at any computer/tv screen.

    Have Fun!

  8. Ah, the good old days when listening to my friends with myst(ic) eyes, seeking enlightenment and empowerment, waxing rhapsodic about The Connection they (and all women – or is it womyn?) had to the Earth through their menstrual blood.

    They never liked it when I asked where men were in the picture.

    Many deal with systemic inequality and injustice by building the mythologies we need to give meaning to our lives, or to justify our attitudes and opinions. And it’s easier than making things change.

    P.S. I am a woman and feminist, and childless by choice.

  9. #6 – agreed, particularly the final paragraph of your comments. i find that a high degree of writing on pdog blog (and paper) is just as reactionary as the topics/ideas that are being criticized. if it isn’t good for you, it doesn’t mean it is shite.

    also, my partner and i just had our third child at home (watch out for those hackles being raised); the phrase you have some dislike/disdain for was instrumental for us, as in, this particular woman (my partner) found power to do what was needed in birth. sure, it is just one interpretation, but we at least did not (and do not) view it negatively. in fact, especially in our cultural environment when birth is often encouraged to be highly institutional and/or medical based, it is an awesome idea to encourage the person doing the work (the woman, in “labour”) to use all the freakin’ power she has! i don’t think it says that the ONLY way a woman discovers power is through birth, but in this context, a woman should have some power, goddammit!

    good luck whatever direction you go, and you may find that balancing autonomy – whatever your definition – and parenthood to be a challenge unlike any other. not one that you’ll not meet necessarily, but again, one unique to most people’s lives. thanks also to #7 – caring for one dependent on you, while sacrificing your own independence a bit, is sorta part of the equation of choosing to be a parent.

  10. What a refreshingly thoughtful article! I think the feminism that requires women to chant with one voice instead of encouraging women to speak for themselves is awefully like paternalism. Good for you for thinking for yourself, Carrie May!

  11. I decided to take the easiest parts of attachment parenting and pioneer something I like to call “slacker-parenting”.

    Take breast-feeding for example, the cost of breast milk is just right, you can lose like 20 pounds with no exercise or dieting, no matter how distracted you are you can’t forget your breasts and you can’t leave them at the back of the fridge for too long and then have to decide if they’re safe to use.

    Co-sleeping is the same. No need to carry baby to another room, no getting up in the middle of the night and walking all the way to the crib, hell you can go to sleep with the little one at 7pm and leave the dinner dishes to someone else.

    And “baby-wearing”, let me tell you wearing a warm baby on a cold day is like having a hot water bottle strapped to your chest, a hot water bottle that stays warm even in the coldest weather.

    The pre-natal yoga is a total drag, everyone takes it all so seriously–no jokes, no irony.

    I’m Paul’s wife, btw, and in our yoga class when we did the “soooo, how do you feel?” round, Paul gave some thoughtful and emotional response. The instructor was so pleased, you could see her mentally giving him an A+. I earned a D- when I leaned over and called Paul a little ass-kisser (it would have been an F but you can’t fail a pregnant lady in prenatal class).

  12. i’m backing team french feminists but then again i almost always back team french feminists

  13. #12 Mabye you could get an “F”, for not naming him / her, Paul / Paula Jr.

    here’s an E for effort + a gold star..

  14. Pauls’ wife – hahaha…. this is exactly how I felt much of the time. No way in heck I was going to walk down the hall, pick up the baby, sit down in a chair and feed the baby, settle the baby back in the crib and then walk back down the hall to go back to bed. Rolling over and feeding the baby was WAY easier. Same with the bottle situation. I was blessed to be able to take my oldest with me to work so the baby wearing bit was very handy as well. I often think that the baby-training/scheduling faction just makes their lives so much harder than they need to. I have other reasons for doing a lot of AP stuff (health benefits of bfing, cost of formula (I was in grad school with the first two), bonding, instilling security in my kids so they can be healthily independent later, etc.), but a lot of it does come down to laziness. In fact I would say that my impression of AP is the exact opposite of yours Carrie – to me AP was the least invasive parenting style. Unless of course I had been wealthy and able to afford round the clock nannies, I guess that would be less invasive…

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