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.