Before we got pregnant,…

Before we got pregnant, I had no idea that there was a parenting war going on. I hadn't heard of Ferberization, or Cry It Out, or Attachment Parenting. Which tend to get referred to by cryptic acronyms on mommy blogs and the like -- CIO, AP, etc. I've been fascinated by it all -- and mostly, by the vehemence with which people advocate one style or the other. Lise Eliot's What's Going On In There? helped me make sense of it all by offering a concise summary of the science behind the theory, as well as some of the issues at play in the societal discussion, esp. around childcare and women going back to work. I recommend her chapter on Social-Emotional Growth if you want to know more about the science aspect. But let's just take that as a given for now, and discuss the implications.

"Attachment is regarded by many psychologists as the seminal event in a person's emotional development -- the primary source of a child's security, self-esteem, self-control, and social skills. Through this one incredibly intimate relationship, a baby learns how to identify her own feelings and how to read them in others. If the bond is a healthy one...she will feel loved and accepted and begin to learn the value of affection and empathy." (Eliot, 305)

What's odd about our approach (I think I can speak for Kevin on this one; we seem to be pretty much in agreement), is that in practice, we're probably Attachment Parents so far -- but we really distrust the rhetoric of Attachment Parenting. We do tend to mostly pick Kavya up as soon as she starts fretting and try to soothe her, and while we might let her grumble for five minutes while we finish eating breakfast, so far, we've never left her to just wail if she gets really going. We do a lot of cuddling, including the naked-chest/naked-baby cuddling they call 'kangaroo care.' It's pleasant, and it's supposed to be good for the parent-child bond. When we wander around the apartment doing chores, we sometimes wear Kavya in a sling (known as 'babywearing') -- it keeps her sweet and sleepy, and we can still get things done. We give her breastmilk almost exclusively (which gets lumped in with AP because they ardently support it, though it's really primarily a separate issue, I think), and even though she's gotten a lot of it in a bottle, we don't prop the bottle up; we snuggle her while feeding her. So, okay -- pretty much we're doing AP.

But the problem with this approach to parenting is that it's very labor-intensive. I'm not sure you have a lot of choice about that with a newborn, but I can certainly understand why parents might try to acclimate their babies to a less labor-intensive parenting style as the kids get older. We have the luxury of time -- Kevin and I are both off for the summer, with no teaching. We should, in theory, still be working -- me writing and him doing math, but that work is flexible enough that we can take a month or two off from that too and it's not a big deal. So we can be as hands-on with the parenting as we want right now -- it's a very different situation from the mom with six weeks of leave and the dad with just one week!

"If babies are programmed, as a matter of frontal-lobe maturation, to grow attached to their primary caregivers, what happens when they spend a large share of their waking hours away from both their mothers and fathers? Do they fail to develop the primordial bond essential for later psychological health?" (Eliot, 308)

We're deeply suspicious of the rhetoric of AP. The theory says that babies who aren't tended to enough in this way (babywearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, etc.) form insecure attachment bonds with their parents, and that this stunts their long-term emotional development. And it may well be true that if you get tons of affection and attention as a baby, that you're likely to be a bit more emotionally stable as an adult. Fair enough, makes sense. But if you listen to the advocates, that tends to get translated into statements like, "If you're a mom who chooses to go back to work, you're emotionally crippling your child." And, "If you didn't want to devote your life to your baby, you don't deserve to have children. You should never have had them."

One problem is that AP offers a tremendous justification to SAHM's (stay-at-home-moms) -- if they really buy into it, then they can argue that of course it made sense to leave their careers, because their children really need this high-intensity parenting or they'll be emotionally traumatized. If you're someone who's chosen to leave work to be with your kids full-time, and are feeling anxious about that choice (either because of internal doubts, or because you feel that friends/family/society are judging you negatively about that choice), AP could certainly make you feel a lot better about the decision. Some of the SAHM's I've been reading make motherhood sound like an incredibly high-intensity careeer choice, the kind that demands that you work your fingers to the bone and emotionally exhaust yourself.

Even worse, so often, that seems to turn into those SAHM's being brutally critical of women who don't make that choice. Or even if they say it's okay for women to go back to work, they're expected to go work their eight hours and then come home and do this very labor-intensive parenting, which I have to think would be terribly exhausting. Wearing Kavi in a sling for three hours makes my back hurt a bit, even with the best sling I can find. If I felt like I had to wear her all the time, and breastfeed on-demand (i.e., whenever she wants, for as long as she wants), and co-sleep every night even when she's restless and I have to be up at five to get to work on time, and that I'd be a bad mommy if I didn't do all this eagerly...very guilt-inducing. I think it'd make me feel really sick.

EXAMPLE: I chose to put Kavya in her moses basket for an hour while I fed the puppy and me breakfast, read my morning journals and wrote this entry. She's been peacefully sleeping this whole time. According to the strictest interpretation of AP, I should have had her in a sling against my chest this whole time, and since I didn't, I am a BAD MOMMY (tm) and I have emotionally traumatized my child. It sounds ridiculous when you put it that extremely, but what's startling is how many women (some men too, but mostly women by far) do seem to take it to that extreme. Also surprising how easy it is to start internalizing this stuff and feeling horribly guilty, even when you know better.

"Are we raising a generation of children at risk for serious behavioral problems, or is all the fuss about day care and babysitters merely another kind of backlash against women, a way of making working mothers feel all the guiltier about the time they spend away from their young children?" (Eliot 308)

Aside from the breastfeeding part, there's nothing about AP that is inherently gendered -- men can do all the rest of it. And men can certainly give every single pumped bottle of breastmilk too. But the conversation tends to be a heavily gendered discussion, because in the vast majority of cases it's a woman doing primary childcare. And so I worry about the sexist implications of how AP gets prosletyzed. Especially in the context of mothers choosing to go back to work and putting children in daycare, AP theory can place huge emotional and physical demands on women, if it's presented in a demanding, judgemental way. And too often, that's the way it gets presented.

I know I've only been a parent for a month. What do I know? But I wish all these people would just mellow out. Pay attention to your kids, yes. Love them and shower them with affection, all good. But take some time and relaxation for yourself too! If you love your work, work (using my brain is a big part of my own happiness). Keeping yourself healthy and happy and sane seems like it should be part of the equation, part of what makes for happy children who grow into healthy adults. And I just don't see an acknowledgement of that from most of the AP folk I've been reading on the web. It worries me.

11 thoughts on “Before we got pregnant,…”

  1. Have you read Jennifer Weiner’s novel Little Earthquakes? I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak to the realism of it, but I thought it had a very funny, snarky take on the whole AP issue.

  2. There are a LOT of theories out there and I think first time parents tend to want to educate themselves about them because they are still gaining confidence in the whole parenting thing. I think you should do what is comfortable for you & your family. Trust your instincts. Like you said, if you’re happy, you’re child will be happy.
    There are SO many ways to feel guilty when you become a parent and there are SO many people (mostly “experienced” parents) who give you advice and judge you based on their values and what they did/do with their kids.
    I think the most wonderful thing about parenthood (apart from a cute, cuddly baby of course) is that this is YOUR chance to raise your child and participate in her life. You know what’s best for your child.

    I’ll get off my soap box now :o)

  3. The thing that gets lost in the parenting wars is how profoundly different people are, one to another — kids *and* parents. Not just that parents have different needs and wants — what works for one kid does not work for another.

    Some kids really do require a whole lot of lap time and soaking up of parental energy. Others you can drop off at the door of any social situation and return an hour later to find them entertaining the crowd. Some really do require some very strict enforcement of limits. Others respond best to explanations and lots of freedom, and too strict limits spark open warfare.

    I think a lot of the time when parents end up zealous partisans of one or another parenting style, it’s less that they are imposing this style on their kids, than that the kids (by being who they are) have imposed it on *them*, and the theoretical justifications came afterwards.

    Any time we find ourselves saying “how can they be so strict with him? Of course he acts that way as a result,” or “how can they be so permissive with her? Of course she acts that way as a result,” we should note that we may be confusing cause and effect, and probably sign up for a few hours of babysitting the kid in question, at the least, in order to test our lovely theories. 🙂

    We read the Sears & Sears book in Switzerland. We liked it. It was a bit heavy-handed, but we were far from the charged atmosphere of the American parenting wars, so we weren’t too sensitive to that. Clearly, it described a very resource-intensive form of parenting. But to us it seemed reasonably mellow about the fact that not everyone was going to be able to manage so much investment, and that “do what you can, without driving yourself nuts” was a good motto. I don’t know if I would have been able to read it in this constructive a fashion if we’d been here, where everything is so polarized.

    Attachment is not a binary condition, a fortress with good parents inside its walls and bad parents outside. Attachment is, rather, one of those things you look for, like balance, a diverse diet of activities, self-control, a growing sense of independence, in your parenting mix.

    Your kid can be attached to their nanny, the day care worker, or the older kid down the block who shows them where there are rats hiding in the hay. As a quality, I think the notion is useful — is this kid, at this time, getting enough attention and snuggles? That goes along with other questions, like are they getting enough time to be alone, enough challenges, enough limits, enough responsibilities? (I realize I’m getting a little head of myself here; it’s okay not to assign Kavya any chores yet… :-> ). And are they getting good models — like parents living full and fulfilled lives? Used properly, any of these concepts is part of a productive inquiry; used as a weapon against other parents, any of them sucks.

    Parents, stop hatin’ on each other, y’all!

  4. OMFG, Attachment Parenting. I love it and I hate it. We used a modified AP technique with S and it worked well for us, but it is in effect highly unfeminist. The rhetoric is all about pushing Mom’s to stay at home. Yes Dads can also engage in attachment parenting but the literature and the discussions seem to just give it a passing nod. Heaven forfend that a mother actually put their child down for 30 seconds. Enough incoherent foaming at the mouth, congratulations to the both of you. Kavya is beautiful and I’m sure you’ll both make wonderful parents.

  5. Congratulations MA!, This is the first I’ve written since Kavya was born.Beautiful Baby!What an Ordeal was that delivery. Whew! on her birthay next year look back and be releived! I don’t mean to say anything untoward about all the recomendations and how-tos or what-to-dos but… might I suggest stopping reading them entirely and just follow your and Kevin’s own insticts. The noise of “the parenting wars” will subside and you may have an easier and happier time with Kavya.Sleep as much as you can and unless she is sick or you are planning a parenting advise book yourself,avoid doing online research while she is a baby -you’ll be doing enough later when you’re pulling your hair out over discpline and potty training and how to deal with lying and biting and hitting ect.. ect.. ect….Enjoy her now, she is only a baby for 11 more months. Love, Elle

  6. Oh god yes, you’ve nailed it. Kills me. We have gotten a double dose of this (if it’s possible to up the ante on women anymore!) because V. spent ten months in an institutional setting and, yes, needed to re-learn how to attach after pretty much un-learning it. And we’re lucky that she attached fast and well, so we’re not dealing with a very difficult situation. But! Have I ever seen anyone talk about having a father stay home full-time with a kid? No. Literally never. People will actually tell you that if you, as a woman, don’t stay home full-time with your child, you might as well leave her in an orphanage. There is an incredible class issue (international adoption is not for the cash-strapped) in addition to the gender issue.

    I did also like the Sears book (I didn’t read the whole AP book, just the section in the baby book) because it spent a lot of time saying things like, “The more you can do XYZ, the better for your baby, and also, here are ways to do it that make you feel better too.” And I really, really like his motto, “If you resent it, change it.”

  7. If you pinned me to a wall and FORCED me to choose a parenting style I’d say we’re modified APs as well. But I’m not dogmatic about anything. And in fact my reading of the Sears Baby book at least the edition we have is that really they find the five B’s helpful but you know what’s best for your child and you should respond to your child’s cues.

    A careful reading of the book shows that working is fine and anything is fine as long as you’re sensitive to your needs and your baby’s. The fact is that working as a parent *is* emotionally hard but you can manage it.

    Unfortunately many parents who specifically label themselves AP go far beyond into dogma. IME every child is different. Even my two children and not just because one has special needs. Special K loathed swaddling and bouncers and loved swings. Little T loved swaddling and bouncers and loathed swings.

    I did breastfeed both kids but due to his medical issues Little T also received a lot of formula to add extra calories to the breast milk. And although I do still cuddle both kids a lot. I loathe slings. And while other parents may be able to spend 24/7 with their kids I need regular breaks or I got a little nuts. I also found that sharing a bed with loud bedhogs didn’t work for us parents to get sleep so while both kids were breastfeeding at night we had a side car and then they slept in a crib after they stopped nursing at night.

    I guess one thing about having a special needs kids is that I simply can’t do enough for him. I just do my best. I make mistakes. Despite all this he has done remarkably well so far. And so has Special K. One of the few advantages to needing a team of experts is that they kept telling what a good job I’m doing. My opinion of how I’m doing depends on the day but mostly when I look back I feel good.

    I also think that a lot of people forget the Sears have a huge number of kids including one with special needs. That takes a special set of skills and no doubt brings one a profound sense of confidence if the children grow up and turn out well. Sometimes when I read their books I think they forget the total and utter lack of confidence new parents feel. And how their statements could be interpreted as ‘this worked great for us and other parents’ rather than ‘this is the one true way to parent’.

  8. Tired. Lots of typos. Forgive me. I hope you can understand despite typos but the last sentence was switched masking its meaning.

    It should read “And how their statements could be interpreted as ‘this is the one true way to parent’ rather than ‘this worked great for us and other parents’.”

  9. I really, *really* liked what BR had to say.

    A whole lot.

    Sears and everyone else seems to forget that “family” means so much more than daddy, mommy, baby.

    “Family” is all the significant people in baby’s life who will hold, and cuddle, and respond to and nurture.

    I think it’s possible that our daycare lady – whom G referred to as “Nana” when he was old enough to talk – coddled him more than we did. I don’t think she set him down, ever.

    He also had a constant horde of firefighter recruits through the house as babysitters, all of whom had different styles but nurtured him equally, I think, in their own gruff and manly ways.

    I think the idea of mom having to have constant contact with the baby or she is a “bad parent” is inherently sexist, and completely wrong.

    G was raised by lots of loving people who doted on him utterly. He’s an attached, loving, lovely boy. Everyone remarks on how compassionate and loving he is, even with his peers.

    And we stuck him in daycare – lovely, fabulous, grandma-esque daycare but still daycare – quite early on, you know?

    Same with L.

  10. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Thank you all for your comments — v. thoughtful and thought-provoking! And all of you who tell me to relax and trust my instincts — while I do appreciate the advice to stop reading this stuff and just step away from the computer and enjoy my baby, I think if I’d done that a few weeks ago, I would’ve felt worse, not better. I would have felt really stressed and guilty.

    I think I’m coming to my own separate peace with our parenting style, but it really helps me to analytically think out why I do what I do; if I just rely on instinct, then I don’t feel like I have a solid rationale for resisting all the well-meaning folks (doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, parents, other relatives, friends, strangers in e-mail) who try to press their parenting advice and styles and theories upon us. What can I say — I’m just an analytical sort of gal. 🙂

  11. He also had a constant horde of firefighter recruits through the house as babysitters, all of whom had different styles but nurtured him equally, I think, in their own gruff and manly ways.

    OMG… my kids would KILL to have been raised by a horde of firefighters!

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