Thursday, December 2, 2010

Prescriptive Parenting, Part 1*: Does Attachment Parenting Victimize Women?

Feminist author Erica Jong recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal in which she heavily criticizes Attachment Parenting (the child-rearing philosophy pioneered by William and Martha Sears), accusing it of encouraging female victimization. She calls it a "perfect tool for the political right", promoting an unhealthy obsession with motherhood and convincing women that they're happier barefoot and pregnant at home than they would be pursuing their own careers in the workplace. Our feminist foremothers, she claims, would be appalled. Now, anyone who has read Jong's Fear of Flying or attended one of her lectures (I have done both) knows she has a penchant for the dramatic, and this article is no exception. But strident tone aside, Jong does raise some valid concerns about one of the most prominent fads in modern parenthood.

But not if you ask Attachment Parenting (AP) advocates Katie Allison Granju and Jillian St. Charles, who wrote a scathing rebuttal in the New York Times, in which they call Jong's article a "broad and unfocused screed," and a "lengthy, preachy, and ultimately pointless laundry list of crimes she believes parents are committing".  They react as many AP followers react to criticism of their beliefs: by taking personal offense at what they perceive to be a direct attack. They reflexively circle the wagons and launch verbal arrows at their enemies, pointing out (irrelevantly) that Jong is 68 years old, from a generation of "second-wave" feminists who denies "the reality that many women ... are fulfilled by parenting their kids." They claim (apparently on behalf of all women) that "our most valued, fulfilling role is the one we take on as mothers to our children."

The word fulfilling pops up a lot in AP literature, usually to describe a woman's "natural" feelings towards motherhood. According to Dr.Sears's own website: "Being in harmony with your baby is one of the most fulfilling feelings a mother can ever hope to have." He also claims that "the mother feels right when she is together with her baby and not right when separated." That's how a mother knows she is securely "attached" to her child.

Like Jong, I have a problem with this attitude. While I don't deny that my son is the center of my life, to say that I am fulfilled by staying at home and taking care of him (which implies that I don't need anything else to feel "complete") is a bit of a stretch.  If other women are made utterly happy by the sometimes wonderful, sometimes infuriating task of motherhood, to the point where time spent alone feels wrong, well, good for them, I guess. But to extrapolate that that's the way all women ought to feel is what I take offense to.

Not to mention that this attitude undermines whatever women have accomplished (or hope to accomplish)outside of the home. What of their careers, hobbies, interests, and relationships outside the family? If these things cease to matter when one becomes a mother, did they ever matter to begin with? I also find it insulting as a woman who struggled with infertility--was I a lesser woman when I was trying to get pregnant than I am now for having succeeded?

Don't get me wrong, I think my kid is the most adorable, brilliant, amazing creature who ever lived. His laughter makes me happier than any other sound on earth and I'll go to ridiculous lengths to provoke it. I'm incredibly proud of every one of his accomplishments, no matter how trivial or mundane they may seem to an outsider. Before he was even born, I rearranged my whole life so I could be his primary caregiver, quitting a job as a nanny and finding work I can do seasonally and from home. I didn't do this out of obligation or to fulfill my biological destiny, but because I felt like my years of looking after other people's kids had made me a high-quality caregiver; it seemed unlikely that my husband and I would be able to afford to send my son to a preschool or day care that would provide a better learning environment than what I could provide at home. I can't give my son much by way of material things, but I can give him the lifelong advantage that comes from having a former preschool teacher for a parent.

But despite my devotion to his well-being, he is still a selfish, irrational, loud 18-month-old. I love to grab a few hours to myself, letting dad or a babysitter deal with the screaming, the runny nose, and the food throwing. During these outings, I don't miss Little H at all; in fact, I don't even think of him that often. I get to focus on the parts of my life that have nothing to do with him, like meeting with my writers circle or catching up with a friend over a drink or three. When I get home I am always delighted to see him, ready to slip back into my all-consuming "mommy" role. I consider these outings crucial to both my sanity and to my identity, but according to the principles of Attachment Parenting, this means I must be doing something wrong. After all, if we were securely attached, I would want him with me everywhere I go and I would trust no one, not even his own father, to be able to care for him as well as I can.

Let me make it clear that I am not bad-mouthing parents who use Attachment Parenting as a guideline in rearing their children. I try very hard not to judge other (non-abusive) people for their parenting choices. If moms want to wear their babies in slings, breastfeed exclusively and on the baby's schedule, and co-sleep in a family bed, that's within their rights as parents. And I realize that most women who care for their infants in this way are not slaves to dogma; many adapt the principles of AP to their own families and situations, focusing on the overall positive AP values of fostering empathy and trust. Rather, I take issue with the insistence that all mothers have an obligation to subvert their own needs and identities to fill their "natural" role of child-rearing. It has led to a nagging voice in the heads of all mothers who feel that they must be coming up short if they ever, even for just an hour, are not completely in thrall of their children.

Little H may be completely dependent on me now, but in time he'll grow to have his own interests and friends, entire parts of his life in which he'd prefer me not to intrude. If I have completely identified with my role as mother, who will I be when he grows up and leaves the nest? What will I have to offer my adult child if I spent his youth arresting my own development? I love being a mother, but there's so much more to me than just that. I refuse to feel guilty for acknowledging this.

*This is the first post in a three (or more) part series in which I try to provide a skeptical viewpoint to counterbalance "expert" advice. Next on the chopping block: Gary Ezzo's Babywise.


  1. amen. I have always been a stay at home mom but I have felt very often lonely, bored and very frustrated. If you're lucky enough to have a helpful extended family where you can take breaks, great. but if you don't, it is not that fulfilling. I abhor the term. my kids are now 12 (soon 13) and 7. I do love them, kiss them, yell at them (ah, talk about fulfilling, just kidding [s])kiss, snuggle and laugh. I am very fortunate that they love humour, the same humour and are just smart funny creatures to boot. But I need more than that. for the longest time I was struggling with who I was. it can be too consuming and it is not emotionally healthy to be seen as the complete and sole influence of your child. a child needs a balanced parent who has other interests, they get passed on. it sounds to me as if these attached parenting advocates probably have adopted an identity because of a lack of one.there are times when I question it because it seems to be filling a need with the mother, more than the child. Let it breath for crying out loud. alright, getting off my soap box[s]

  2. Thank you for the well thought out and nuanced opinion. Parenting is not an easy job and requires a lot of patience and staying power. It is important to share the fact that we all must find a way to make it work. Having other aspirations besides being a mother is normal and will only enrich our childrens lives.

  3. *clapping*
    I love it when I find a good blog to follow. Carry on.