The Atlantic recently published an article online titled What Everyone’s Missing In The Attachment Parenting Debate. It made many excellent points, including mocking that abhorrent, desperate bid for attention of a recent Time Magazine cover that tried to throw fuel on the fire of the “mommy-wars.” From a personal standpoint, however, I found it helped me crystallize my thinking about attachment parenting (in the sense that the term is used these days).
Before I was pregnant with W, I had absolutely zero experience with babies, and had essentially no parenting philosophy whatsoever. During my pregnancy, I began to develop some feelings about how I wanted to mother. These notions arose from my burgeoning maternal intuition, and initially weren’t influenced whatsoever by the myriad books, magazines, and websites that attempt to mold our mothering (or, more accurately, shame us into doing things their way). For instance, I liked the idea of carrying my baby around in one of those Baby Bjorn things that everyone seemed to have, so I purchased one (I later returned it and bought a different baby carrier after reading that carriers that allow the legs to dangle are thought by the International Hip Dysplasia Institute to negatively impact hip health). My mother gave me a crib, and advised me to put it in the nursery as opposed to my bedroom. My baby would sniff, snuffle, and make all kinds of normal baby noises at night, she said, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep. My husband and father dutifully installed the (very heavy, very cumbersome) piece of furniture in the nursery, but I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the arrangement — this was all while I was still pregnant, mind you — and asked them to move it into the bedroom only a few days later. With regard to the feeding of the baby, I’d long intended to breastfeed until 12 months of age, because that was the recommendation of the AAP.
Around the time W was a few weeks old and purely by accident, I found out about attachment parenting (or, more accurately, the Bill and Martha Sears brand of attachment parenting). This happened because W was a very, VERY high-need baby and I was losing my mind. Someone in my breastfeeding support group suggested I look at the Sears’ writings on high-need babies, which are based upon their personal experience with one of their children. I found strength and hope in these writings, if only because they offered reassurance that it’s possible to survive parenting a really intense child. Prior to finding the high-need baby writings, I’d had no use whatsoever for the Searses, purely on the basis of their son (Dr. Bob Sears) and his ridiculous, unfounded-in-data, alternative vaccine schedule. Still, after reading about high-need babies, I decided that perhaps I’d judged the Searses prematurely. I went on to read their other writings and some of their other books, including their work on attachment parenting, a term with which I was wholly unfamiliar.
I guess I got interested in attachment parenting because I fit part of the description of what, per the Searses, an attachment parent is and does. I breastfed. I “wore” W. We co-slept (we never intended to, but we sort of fell into it when, the third night she was home with us, she wouldn’t sleep in her crib for more than 20 minutes in a stretch without crying for me). I guessed that I “believed in the value of her cries,” — another of the Searses criteria, whatever it means — because I figured she was crying for a reason, rather than to irritate me or manipulate. As to the other so-called “Baby B’s” of the Sears’ style of attachment parenting — Birth Bonding, “Beware the Baby Trainers,” and Balance — well, I figured they probably fit my style. After all, W and I had spent lots of time bonding after birth, I wasn’t planning to do a cry-it-out with her (since I was happy enough with her sleeping in my bed), and…who doesn’t want balance?
As a result of my reading, even though I’d never before heard of attachment parenting, I started to identify as “AP.” And boy, did I identify. I was I glad I was an APer in those early days. After all, according to Dr. Sears, babies raised by the AP method don’t cry much; babies in cultures where AP is the norm, he says, cry for only minutes a day as compared to the hours a day of crying we so often experience in our culture. Babies raised by APers grow up with empathy. They become less needy. They’re less prone to SIDS, he claims. They’re smarter, even! Hooray for AP, I thought to myself.
I’d like to take a time-out right now and explain that, for those of you looking for a shred of evidence-based decision-making in my behavior as I describe it here, don’t trouble yourself to look further; there is none to be found. I was swept away on a tide of hormones and promises, of new-mommy fears, hopes, and dreams. I was, in short, not my normal evidence-driven self.
Back to our story. Fast-forward, say, 6 months, and we find me meticulously following the AP regimen, identifying even more strongly with the label of “attachment parent.” As I look back, I wonder if I clung ever tighter to the AP label as I felt it start to fail me; as I wondered in a place deep down inside — a place I didn’t consciously acknowledge — if I’d done something terribly wrong. Cognitive dissonance, anyone? Because far from being an easy-to-please, happy baby (as W should have been, according to the AP promises), she was becoming more and more demanding. She’s a smart little stinker, and she was learning to work the system. In short, she became a tyrant. She cried for hours every night, because she’d only sleep with a breast in her mouth, and I couldn’t sleep while nursing her (no matter what AP said I should do). I went almost a year never sleeping more than 2 hours in a stretch. She forced me to carry her in my arms or in a carrier at all times, protesting angrily and ceaselessly if I put her down. Other mothers’ 6-month-olds would play for 5 minutes by themselves with a new and exciting toy. Not W. W required physical contact with mama — ideally with mama’s boob — at all times.
I started to become resentful. I started feeling like she was sucking the life out of me. I wrote in a journal entry that I later tore to pieces, fearing she’d see it one day, that it felt like the only way for her to be happy was for me to be miserable. On my better days, I wondered if our happiness was simply mutually exclusive. On the hardest days, I literally felt that she fed on my misery, like some sort of freakish swamp-dwelling mold. I talked to support group members who I knew were also committed to AP about my experiences. I said it felt like we (my husband and I) were operating as though W was the only family member who mattered. This bothered me for two reasons; first, because we were getting worn pretty thin. Second, because I worried that it would set a bad precedent as she grew (in her mind, in ours, or in all of the above). These folks were absolutely the wrong choice for moral support; they told me to stay the course. They more or less scolded me for being selfish, saying that this amounted to a very small portion of both W’s life and ours, and that we needed to give her EVERYTHING right now to ensure that she grew up securely attached.
Looking back, can I just say…BULLSHIT. That was an utter load of Bull. Shit.
Because this post is more about my failed AP experience than my road to recovery (12 steps…hello, my name is Kirstin, and I’m an AP addict…), I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say that it took many months and finding a new group of supporters for me to turn the corner. It also took Zoloft, but that’s a story for another day. Two people in particular were responsible for the bulk of me finding my way out of my AP hole. The first told me that being a mama was a little like being on an airplane when the pressure drops unexpectedly and the oxygen masks fall: you’ve got to put your mask on first. It’s not selfish to take care of mama, because if you don’t take care of mama, mama can’t take care of anyone else. The second person who really made a difference was in the same boat as I, with a smart kid who was (at nearly the same age as W) also learning to work the system. She — let’s call her “A” for the sake of anonymity — and I sent lots of emails back and forth, and sometimes I’d read her latest message with tears running down my cheeks just because it helped me so much to know I was not alone, and that while AP might work for some, it doesn’t work for everyone.* In short, “meeting” her and her very W-like child (I put meeting in quotes because to this day, we’ve never met in person; she’s an online friend) helped me to forgive myself for “failing” at AP; it helped me to understand that some kids just need a different sort of parenting.
*I know Dr. Sears talks about balance, and says “If you resent it, change it,” but he also talks about how important AP is in general. Because I basically resented the whole damn thing, I figured it was me — not the parenting style — that needed changing. I assumed that I was being selfish (as other APers told me I was being), or that I was somehow lacking the mom-gene, or that I was hormonal. This post is not meant to be an indictment of all aspects of Sears-style parenting; after all, I still breastfeed, co-sleep, and so forth. There’s a big difference, though, between using parenting techniques that work and subscribing to an ideology. I wonder if some of the Sears’ writings — particularly combined with AP cheerleeders on Internet fora and in support groups — don’t have a tendency to push some of us into ideology. I can’t speak for others, but I know that’s the effect they had on me.
While I harbor no illusions that my writing these words will have any impact upon the prevalence and ferocity of the horrid “mommy-wars,” I nevertheless submit this: These wars have been fought and won. Regardless of how we handle the day-to-day logistics of child-rearing, we have come a long way as a culture. We no longer treat our children as though they should be “seen and not heard.” We no longer worry that holding them close and covering their yummy faces with kisses will make them spoiled, or weak. True attachment parenting — Ainsworth and Bowlby style — is so much a part of our culture now that we don’t even have a term for it. We are, all of us, attached to our children. Whether we feed our babies from bottles, breasts, or a combination of the two, whether we push them in strollers or wear them in slings or balance them on our hips like so many generations — and even our evolutionary ancestors — have done, whether we allow them to cry for a bit in their room or put them down in our own beds, we are all so deeply emotionally attached to our children that we sometimes can’t feel where they end and we begin. In a great irony, many months after shedding the last of my identification with AP — sure, I still co-sleep and W sometimes rides around in a carrier, but these no longer define my parenting; they’re just things we do — I have realized I’m an attachment parent after all. We all are.