How I came to hate attachment parenting

When Little Boy was an infant, I spent a lot of time online.  Trying to keep myself awake, mostly.  Somewhere amid the long dark nights, I found myself Googling “I hate attachment parenting.”  I needed affirmation for the black fire of anger that had arisen during pregnancy and spilled out everywhere during those newborn days.  I needed someone to tell me it was OK to parent in a way that really, truly worked for me and my baby.

This post is about where that black anger came from, and why I’ve had so much trouble letting it go.

Before I go any further, let me be very clear on one thing:  If you practice attachment parenting or any of its components because it is what works for your family, then this post is not about you.  All the core components of AP fall onto the spectrum of perfectly acceptable parenting behavior.  We did several of them ourselves: I breastfed Little Boy for 17 months; we frequently “wore” him around the house and neighborhood; we room-shared for the first few months.  Heck, most of those things are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

No, when I say I hate attachment parenting, I mean that I hate Attachment Parenting™, the worldview that believes that it is the only acceptable way to parent.  I hate the naturalistic fallacy that has infected the white, liberal, middle-class approach to parenting, and I hate the misinterpretations and misappropriations of science that are used to back it up.

It started when I was pregnant.  As those of you who’ve read Little Boy’s birth story know, I was interested in “natural” birth—that is, giving birth without pain medication—until Little Boy flipped breech in the third trimester and it became clear that a C-section was likely.  I am the kind of person who likes to learn as much as I can in advance, so I did a lot of reading about “natural” childbirth.  Only… it turns out that there aren’t a ton of resources for women like me, women who want to skip the epidural but stay in the hospital.  It was always sort of assumed that if I was going that route, then of course I didn’t trust doctors and of course I’d probably really want to give birth at home.

Here’s the thing: I’m a trained scientist.  I may not be a medical expert, but I have enough background to read medical papers, and my university affiliation gives me access to the full text of most major journals.  I can tell when people are spewing bullshit, and my bullshit meter was blaring like a siren.  It was so easy for me to check that all the woo about homebirth was wrong.  And all this scary stuff that people were telling me about hospitals?  It hasn’t been true since before I was born.

Unfortunately, while it was easy to dismiss the stuff that was obviously fringe, it was much harder to ignore that which had crept into the mainstream.  One of my friends, a smart, educated woman, was reading Ina May Gaskin and planning to deliver at a local birth center.  So that couldn’t be that weird, right?  The local hospital’s birth classes were taught by doulas and lactation consultants; the hospital itself boasted that babies were expected to room-in full-time after birth.  So that was good, right?

Except… My OB was a wonderful, caring woman, and the lactation consultant who visited our hospital room was a jerk.  Full-time rooming-in was terrifying and exhausting.  All of the naturalistic stuff I’d been hearing just didn’t jive with my experiences.

The second step came with the breastfeeding.  The funny thing is, breastfeeding went really well for us.  No problems with supply, no issues with weight gain, nothing to feel guilty about.  So why does the über-pro-breastfeeding culture make me so angry?

Well, there was the way the lactation consultants in my breastfeeding class spent the first 10 minutes telling us how inferior formula was.  We’re here at this class—we’ve already decided that we want to breastfeed!  Plus they seemed to be going way beyond what the science actually says, twisting and stretching the facts to suit a certain narrative about good motherhood.  Like I’ve said, I hate it when people get the science wrong.

Yet again, I found that there was no place for me in mothering culture, no place for a mother who wanted to breastfeed but didn’t want the answer to everything to be “more boob.”  It has always been extremely important to my husband that he be an active parent, and so it was very important to us that both parents be able to soothe Little Boy.  I didn’t want to nurse every five minutes.  I can’t nurse every five minutes and keep my sanity.  And you know what?  Little Boy didn’t need to nurse every five minutes.

It turns out, though, that when you search for the answer to breastfeeding questions, the answer is always “more boob, more often.”  Even when that doesn’t make sense.  Even when it’s clear that baby isn’t hungry.  The top-listed resources, Dr. Sears and KellyMom and La Leche League, they all assume that of course mom is going to be with baby constantly, probably co-sleeping, and dad’s just there to help out.

Attachment Parents like to tell you that their parenting beliefs are all about “following your instincts.”  They’re just doing what they feel they should do!  But here’s the thing: my instincts about parenting were always on the side of “he’s fine, give him a minute.”  I never had an “instinct” to run to the baby the second he started crying.  I love snuggling with him, but my “instinct” is always to put him down so that I can do things for myself once in a while.

I made the mistake, during pregnancy, of joining my “birth month group” on BabyCenter.com.  Oh hell no—do not do that.  BabyCenter purports to be a mainstream resource, but in its fora I saw women excoriated for letting their babies cry for THREE whole minutes.  Horrors!  Apparently my instinct—that is was OK to let Little Boy fidget a bit while I set up my environment to be comfortable for nursing—made me a terrible mother.

I’ve never felt the need to stare into Little Boy’s eyes constantly while I nurse, or to be down on the floor with him every second of his playtime.  Quite the opposite, in fact: I need time to myself in order to literally stay sane enough to function.

What do you do, when the culture is telling you your “instincts” are wrong?

I was already pretty viciously anti-attachment-parenting by the time we sleep trained Little Boy, but that was the last straw.  Our baby, at the age of three months, was not interested in being nursed to sleep, nor in being rocked gently off to dreamland.  We know.  We tried those things.  As long as something worked, we were willing to do it—but nothing worked.  Little Boy resisted sleep, and woke from his naps cranky and tired.

Sleep training (we used the Ferber method) was a miracle.  It took only a few nights and surprisingly little crying.  Little Boy, it seems, wanted the space to be left alone to sleep, without rocking or singing or nipples in his face.  He was happier, we were happier, and I have never had any doubt that we did the right thing.

Sleeping training, though—from an attachment parenting perspective, that is the worst thing we could do.  Some commenters have implied that we should have waited until six months.  One woman online told me that I was lazy and clearly didn’t know how to soothe my baby!  (I do know how to soothe my baby.  It involves giving him peace and quiet.)  I have seen mothers adopt severe martyr complexes about what they endured to avoid “crying it out,” even more than the martyr complexes they take on about breastfeeding.

My baby needed to learned to sleep on his own.  Anyone who thinks otherwise can fuck off.

Much later, I checked out Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book, that bible of attachment parenting, from the library and read it, wondering if perhaps my impression of him had been wrong.  Nope.  The Baby Book is every bit what I thought it was, filled with dire warning about the “bad start” of an un-“natural” birth and a general snide message of “don’t you want to know that you did the best for your baby?”  The “best,” of course, being Dr. Sears’ tenants of attachment parenting.

I’ve noticed that Attachment Parents like to present an aura of being rebels, of going against the mainstream.  It’s one of the things that seems to appeal to them.  But are you kidding me?  I’m sure there are places where it’s some of this stuff is still unusual, but on the whole?  In the media?  Give it up, you guys, you already won!  The AAP is staunchly pro-breastfeeding.  Babywearing has been common for a quarter-century.  Bed-sharing remains controversial, but the AAP itself recommends room-sharing.  The classic baby-care guide What to Expect the First Year won’t even answer the question of how to put a three-month-old on a regular schedule.  Among the white, liberal, educated middle-class, the attachment parenting approach is already the norm.

In fact, that’s why it’s so hard to reject: because there are bits and pieces of it that are smart and good and true, or at least reasonable under some circumstances.  If it didn’t pretend to be based on science, I would laugh it off just as I laugh at the anti-vaccine crowd.  But it pretends to be The Right Answer, and it drives the guilt that underlies my approach to motherhood.

So there it is: the anger.  Little Boy is one year old, going on two; you’d think I could let all this go by this point.  But I still remember the deep black darkness of his early days, and I remember how much the feeling that I was doing something wrong contributed to that pain.  I felt alone and judged and hopeless, and the attachment parenting ethos is one reason why.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to be a DEtached parent.

What Judith Warner got right about motherhood in America

Over the holiday season, I finished reading author Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  (Just the title alone makes it sound like the perfect book for me, right?)  I had a very positive gut-feel reaction to this book.  Here was someone, published, in words, who was experiencing the culture of American motherhood in much the same way that I am.  Not the specific details of our lives, but the overall aura of how mothers are perceived and expected to behave.  The unsaid expectations and judgement and blame that pile up and make you feel guilty for the most ridiculous of reasons.

Because I have so many tendrils of depression and anxiety running through my brain, I’m used to other people dismissing my perception of reality.  “It’s not that bad,” they say.  Or, “Just ignore it.”  This happens so often that I end up gaslighting myself, trying to convince myself that perhaps the forces I feel are all in my head.  It therefore comes as a profound relief to hear that someone else feels them too.

I found the pressure to breastfeed for at least a year, to endure natural childbirth, and to tolerate the boundary breakdowns of “attachment parenting”—baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breastfeeding and the rest of it—cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women.

Perfect Madness, pg. 15

The book came about after Warner moved back to the U.S. a few years after giving birth to her first child in France.  She extols the French approach to parenthood to perhaps an excessive degree, gliding over some of the more sexist elements to focus on the availability of childcare and the expectation that mothers remain adult women with their own lives.  Her shock at the contrast between the two countries’ approach to parenting is the launching point for an extended discussion of American motherhood.

It’s a discussion that’s unabashedly focused on the (white) middle class, that group that kinda-maybe-sorta has enough money and privilege to have real choices in life, but maybe not.  It’s the group that can get just close enough to having it all that when they inevitably fail, they assume that it’s their fault as individuals rather than a failure on the part of society.  It’s the group that buys the wooden (not plastic!) toy blocks and the organic cotton blankets and the Baby Einstein DVDs—or maybe doesn’t buy the Baby Einstein DVDs, so they can brag about protecting their children from the evils of TV for 2, 3, 4 years or more.  It’s the group that organizes Frozen-themed birthday parties for one-year-olds and puts together special sensory boxes for their toddlers.

Maybe our children could have run off and played.  If we’d let them.  But we didn’t.  There was so much pressure to always be doing something with them or for them.  And doing it right.

Perfect Madness, pg. 25

Warner puts this approach in context of the last 50 years of motherhood in the U.S., describing how, as household devices relieved the heavy work that had once dominated a housewife’s life, women began to fill their time with “makework and trivia.”  She talks about how Dr. Spock and other child-rearing experts popularized the notion that children are born as relatively blank slates, to be perfected into successful human beings by the attention of their parents.  She calls modern women “a generation of control freaks,” caught up in the angst of the declining American middle class and trying to prove that we are good enough.  If we do everything just right, we believe, we will be rewarded by perfect children and an easy life.

I see this attitude so often in parenting magazines, advice blogs, and mommy forums.  If you follow every attachment parenting rule in the book, your infant will not cry.  If you practice only the very very gentlest disciplinary measures, your child will not only eventually learn to behave, he or she will go into adult life free of parent-induced neuroses.  If you adhere to an enormous and often conflicting set of strictures about child nutrition, your kid will have a healthy relationship with food and zero allergies.  The corollary, of course, is that if your baby does cry or your child does turn out anything less than perfect, then it must be your fault.

[The] potential to do damage, to cause one’s child unbearable and lifelong pain, became part of the very definition of motherhood. […] and the linking of nightmare experiences of children lost and abandoned to mundane everyday situations of short-term separation became attachment theory’s problematic legacy.

Perfect Madness, pg. 93–94

Perfect Madness is actually a decade years old—Warner’s generation of mothers are closer in age to my mom than to me.  Aside from the occasional reference to growing up in the 80s, though, it doesn’t feel out-of-date.  If anything, it feels even more true now than it was 10 years ago, with the ever-increasing prevalence of “natural” parenting and the recession that knocked the American middle class back even farther.  It makes the vaguely hopeful ending a bit more depressing to know that in 10 years, we haven’t managed to make any kind of structural changes to American society to ease the struggle of motherhood.

Because Warner doesn’t blame this atmosphere on individuals.  She blames it on a culture that values “rugged individualism” above all else, and I tend to agree.  For all the freedom my demographic (that is, middle-class, educated white women) supposedly has, our life choices actually remain rather constrained.  You can work—for the money or the intellectual satisfaction—but that means buying into our workaholic culture and paying the exorbitant cost of unsubsidized daycare to cover the long hours of your job.  Or you can stay home and budget carefully and love being with your kids but maybe wish that wasn’t all you did.  There’s very little space in-between.  And so women who pick one extreme or the other convince themselves that it’s all for the best, and that they have freely chosen the thing that is Most Beneficial for their children.

All the moralizing we routinely do is a ridiculous waste of time and energy.  And it rests upon assumptions that have no basis in reality.  Chief among them: that mothers do what they do most of the time out of choice.

Perfect Madness, pg. 145

The book wanders a bit in the middle, stepping away from parenting to discuss the other ways that millennial women manifest their control-freakishness: eating disorders, pseudo-allergies, an extremely individualized approach to feminism.  I was also a bit put off by the chapter on marriage and husbands, which had a very “men don’t help at all” attitude and spoke of fathers disappearing for golf and drinks on the weekends.  My family’s experience is nothing like that (although I do know people who are more stereotypical; I suspect it remains unfortunately common).

There’s one other thing I don’t like about this book: whenever the subject of American daycare comes up, Warner bemoans its low quality.  It’s the sort of thing to make a working mom feel immediately defensive, and it feels odd given the book’s focus on the middle class.

Still, Perfect Madness was a fascinating and welcome read.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone who feels caught up in the pressure of parenting, or who has ever felt that way.  If nothing else, take away this message: guilt is not a necessary part of being a good mother.

[Obligatory (not-really-a-)disclaimer: I bought this book myself because I wanted to read it.  I have no connections to anyone involved in its publication and all opinions are my own.]