Monday, May 28, 2012

Attachment parenting isn't about checklists (or is it?)

Happy_Hippie: People are so obsessed with the idea that attachment parenting is about a laundry list of parenting "rules"--that it's about babywearing or baby led weaning or natural birth or whatever. Well, it's not actually about those things at all. It's about following your heart and your child. It's about doing what works for you as a family.

AttachedAndLovingIt: Exactly! What gets me is that they're painting attachment parenting as something for martyr mommies. Well, guess what? I only do attachment parenting because it's actually easier for me--cosleeping and breastfeeding are totally the lazy way! My 18-month-old is still up four or five times a night--can you imagine if I had to go downstairs and sterilize and prepare bottles of formula for him each time?

K8lynne's_mommeee: And recovering from a natural birth is way easier than from a c-section!

GranolaGirl: I have hard time with these sorts of discussions, to be honest. I tried really hard to birth my son, but after 56 hours of back labor, things just weren't progressing and we had to have a cesarean section. And I wanted desperately to do babywearing but he hated the sling. I kind of feel like I was lied to by the books and websites that told me that there is only one correct way to parent...

AttachedAndLovingIt: But GranolaGirl, you CAN be a great attachment momma even if you did have a c-section! I had a c-section and I challenge anyone to say that I'm not an attachment parenting mother--I wore my daughter for hours on end when she was a baby and we did baby led weaning and we co-slept and nursed and used rear-facing carseats till she was almost three, in spite of the fact that I didn't have a natural birth. Attachment parenting is not about checklists, people!

Happy_Hippie: The other thing that really bugs me is the way Time magazine kept talking about attachment parenting as The New Latest Thing To Do--like some sort of a 21st century fad. But the reality is, attachment parenting is just going back to basics--it's the way human beings have parenting since the beginning of time. Hello, co-sleeping and breastfeeding into toddlerhood--all this was considered completely normal and mainstream until very recently in human history!

I'm didn't blog about the Time magazine cover and I'm certainly not going to do so now, because frankly I think we're all a bit sick of this rather stale bit of news that was never particularly interesting in the first place. (My own reaction to hearing about that Time had put an extended nursing picture on its cover was rather like my reaction the first time I heard that scientists had succeeded in cloning animals for the first time: basically, "I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this when everyone else seems so terribly excited about this news, but to be honest I actually had this vague idea in the back of my head that they'd already done this years ago.")

People's reactions to the news were actually a lot more interesting than the news itself. There have been a lot of conversations about attachment parenting taking place on blogs, boards and Facebook pages in the wake of Timegate. Online conversations about attachment parenting are basically really, really weird. They go round and round and round in circles, and are full of contradictions that never really get properly discussed.

Take the whole little speech about "Attachment parenting isn't actually about babywearing or baby led weaning or natural birth--it's not a checklist of parenting rules, it's about relating to your child in a way which works for you" etc. etc., some version of which can be found hundreds of times over on any attachment parenting-oriented attachment parenting-/natural family living-related website or blog, Google group, discussion board or what-have-you.

Now: I would like to propose a little experiment (no, seriously; you can actually try this one out). Go to one of these online fora, and ask people one of the following questions: "How popular is attachment parenting where you live?" "Do other members of your family do attachment parenting?" or "Can you recommend any children's books which have images of attachment parenting in them?" Check the responses.

Now here's the thing: I can guarantee that pretty close to 100% of the responses will basically talk about breastfeeding and bed-sharing, homebirth and baby led weaning, rear-facing car-seats, midwives and slings. "This is a very attachment-parenting friendly area--you just step outside the door and babies in Ergos are at least as popular as babies in strollers." "I'm the only one in my family who does attachment parenting; my sister-in-law [BFWOBS: why is it always sisters-in-law?] formula-fed from day one and had an epidural at 2cm so she wouldn't 'feel any contractions' LOL" "Well, Mommy Had A Baby is pretty attachment-parenting-friendly--the mom gave birth at home and it definitely shows a baby that appears to be in the parent's bed asleep, although I was rather disappointed to see a picture of a baby being spoonfed at one point..." (I remember stumbling across a group of online mothers who were picking over every last detail of a Dora The Explorer episode--yes, really--in terms of whether the newborn mom was parenting her twins according to a laundry list of attachment parenting "rules," and thinking to myself, "I'll definitely be remembering this one next time I hear someone insist that 'attachment parenting isn't about checklists, you know.'")

To be honest, though, you probably don't have to go so far as to start a whole new thread in this manner. See the little imaginary discussion thread above. It's weird, really. Someone will do the whole speech about "attachment parenting isn't about checklists," and someone else--or sometimes the same person--will then go on to say things like "Attachment parenting is the historical norm for human societies, because look at all those ancient tribal people doing bed sharing and carrying their kids in slings" or "I attachment parent because breastfeeding and co-sleeping and babywearing so on are so much easier." And everyone then agrees with everything that everyone else has said, and nobody really points out that some of those statements directly contradict each other. Like, you kind of feel like saying, "Erm, hang on. I thought we'd all just agreed that attachment parenting actually isn't about breastfeeding and co-sleeping and babywearing, right? So... now you're saying it is basically about these things after all? Which do you mean?"

The other comment you might be tempted to make is along the lines of "Sooo.... you're saying that if your circumstances had dictated that formula feeding [for example] had proved to be more convenient than breastfeeding, then you would have done that instead?" Seriously, go to an attachment parenting/natural family living forum and try telling them that "I sleep train because I'm lazy, and sleeping eight hours in a row is easier than being woken up all long by a 12-month-old," or "I prefer cesarean section because it saves me the effort of laboring" or "I'm too lazy to do this babywearing thing. For me it's more convenient to put the baby in an exersaucer and use a pram." You won't get very positive responses (understatement of the century there). This is not an attempt to start a conversation about (for example) whether vaginal delivery or ceserean section is actually the easier way to give birth, because that's actually a very complicated question. Rather, the point is that with the "I am an attachment parent because it's soooo much easier" people, the "easier" solution is only embraced when it happens to be one of the items on the checklist. So yeah... checklists again.

(Actual example: I once came across a discussion on cloth diapering on a certain board I frequent, which was full of posters earnestly claiming that they did cloth diapering out of sheer laziness... Reasons given for this rather incredible claim were that (a) using disposables causes so many blow-outs that you end up doing more laundry than if you were using cloth, and (b) when you are using disposables you constantly run out of them and have to rush to the store to buy more. Now, firstly, disposables only cause lots of blow-outs if you are using the wrong size. And the second argument isn't really very logical, because if you really were trying to minimize effort, the rational thing to do would be to use mostly disposables and keep a few cloth diapers on hand for those times when you run out, not to use cloth the whole time. (Also, I am strangely touched to think that in 2012 there are people who apparently don't know of the existence of online ordering and bulk buying. Back when I used sposies exclusively, I never ran out) Don't misunderstand me--if you have decent laundry facilities and are prepared to mix 'n' match with sposies, cloth diapering is usually not an insurmountable amount of extra work, but honestly, it is extra work and it's just silly to claim otherwise. Well... on this particular discussion thread, an unrepentant disposable diaper-using mum turned up and pointed all this out--and almost instantly the whole tone of the discussion changed and suddenly everyone became very hostile towards the idea of doing diapering or anything else "the easy way." For an outsider, this is all highly amusing.)

 I think you get my point. Honestly, I think there really is a strong element of modern tribalism about attachment parenting and other parenting styles--that is to say, the practice of sorting other human beings into "Us" and "Them" based on differences of dialect/vocabulary, dress, appearance, taboos, food, body modification (or absence of same) and dining rules--whether people are prepared to admit this openly or not. Like... c'mon, let's get real, people. Nobody in the books or on the blogs or message boards actually says you can't be classified as an "attachment parenting" mother if you don't do [natural childbirth, babywearing, whatever]--that's a straw man argument. But these media do do a really good job of making it clear that some choices are definitely considered less equal than others, and of making mothers who are unable to succeed at these things feel permanently apologetic and "less-than" as a result... Like those c-section mothers who, every time the subject of their child's birth comes up, feel the need to go into this long, rambling apology about how much they wanted a vaginal delivery, and how hard they tried, and how much they hate having had a surgical birth, and... It's easy to dismiss these women as hooking for compliments or head-pats, but I think their anxieties are quite genuine. They really are insecure about the way they gave birth. It's all a bit sad, considering that for the most part we are talking about mothers who love their children heartily and whose children are surviving and thriving in their care.

Well, I suppose it might be possible to come up with a more thoughtful definition of attachment parenting that is based on being a truly connected and conscientous parent who does what works for their family etc. etc. rather than being based on checklists (although, if you were to do this, you would have to formally detach yourself from Sears, Granju and pretty much the whole AP canon); the trouble is, if you define any parenting style along these terms, it all ends up becoming so vague as to be completely meaningless. I mean, really, how many parents don't consider themselves to be connected and conscientious parents who do things that work for their families? Not too many.

So, if we recoil at the idea of parenting by checklist, wouldn't it make more sense to just do away with the whole idea of defining yourself by a label in the first place? After all,  at the end of the day the parent-child relationship is merely a human relationship, no more and no less--like being a spouse, a sister, a next-door neighbor or an employee. And most of us would think it kind of odd to actually describe ourselves as a [insert adjective] wife or [insert adjective] daughter-in-law or whatever. (I wonder what a self-defining "attachment wife" would be like? "Sorry, girls, can't have a drink after work, I'm an attachment wife. Have you read Jane Smith's book on Attachment Wiving?" For some reason, I'm envisaging a  kind of crunchified Stepford-Wife type with the secret soul of a bunny boiler, who you know is one day going to snap and drown her husband in the bath. But I digress)

And that's enough of that. I'm got that off my chest. And after four posts in a row that go on (and on) about parenting styles/attachment parenting, I think it's time to step away from the fly-blown horse carcass. Tomorrow I am having a day off from work, and I shall be off to Yoyogi Park with Baby Seal to roll around on the grass with her, laughing and having fun, because that's what you do with people with whom you have a loving human relationship.

And my next post will be on the role of solid food before the age of 12 months. Are they just for entertainment? To what extent do they fill an essential nutritional role? Can you nourish a child effectively for the first year on exclusive (or almost exclusive) breastfeeding? (So far, the answer seems to be "It Depends.") Stay tuned.


  1. I love this! I was recently the unrepentant sposie user in a discussion just like that on Diaper Swappers, I wonder if that was the thread you were thinking of? I did briefly try cloth again due to too many blow outs with sposies, but realized the issue was with how I was putting on the sposies and how they were fitting my son, and I've sold my cloth and am back to disposables full time because they are much easier *for me* and I'm actually lazy.

    I firmly agree with this: " the trouble is, if you define any parenting style along these terms, it all ends up becoming so vague as to be completely meaningless. I mean, really, how many parents don't consider themselves to be connected and conscientious parents who do things that work for their families? Not too many."

    If AP isn't a checklist, than what the hell is the point? Mainstream parenting experts have been recommending sensitive, responsive parenting that meets your needs and the needs of your baby for the last thirty years. Even sleep training can be framed as being responsive to your baby's needs rather than wants, and there are some studies showing improved emotional health for babies who are sleep trained, probably due to getting sufficient sleep.

    And yeah, I just posted this on FB, too, but I'll put it here as well, just for the heck of it.

  2. I puffy heart this blogpost :) . I actually once suggested a similar experiment - sign up for MDC, with a siggy stating "Elective C-seccing, disposable-diapering, FFing, CIOing, etc.,....AP Mama", and watch the ensuing hilarity. Because, yanno, AP isn't a checklist, though just about every AP Mama to grace any messageboard has smilies and blinkies to the contrary. None of them ever say stuff like "I'm sensitive to my children's needs", for some odd reason.

    (I actually went to the trouble of making up some smilies for such a siggy, but I found out later that MDC doesn't allow external smilies in sigggies. Oh well.).

  3. Aren't we all just using "easier" as a proxy for "my preferred way of doing things, which makes me happy by virtue of being a gratifying exercise of autonomy"?

  4. It's true that defining "easier" in childrearing terms can get quite tricky. In fact, I might even do my next post on that... hmmmm (the solid food one is taking a little longer to put together than I thought....)

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