Do We Really Mean Attachment Motherhood?

There’s a cover story in Time magazine that’s been getting tons of press.     It’s one of those you can only get on-line if you are a subscriber, but I’ve read hard copy.  You can also get a sense of it just from poking around at reactions.

Attachment parenting is the theory made popular by Dr. William Sears.    There are, I guess, three key ideas.   You should breast feed (on demand, of course), you should never let a baby cry, and co-sleeping or having a baby sleep right next to your bed is best.    While not everyone has fully committed o Sears’ ideas, they are clearly influential.

From my perspective–the one I work through on this blog–there are a couple of interesting points.   First, the idea of all this seems to be to create a strong parent/child bond–one that will then form the foundation of the child’s future development.   The bond isn’t formed by genetic connection, but rather by subsequent conduct.   Any completely committed adult can do the carrying and the co-sleeping as well as listen attentively for the first tentative cries, ready to leap into action.

Thus, it seems to me, that I ought to see attachment parenthood as a vote in favor of parenthood based on performance–the people creating the attachment–rather than those who are genetically related.  In particular, a woman could reproduce using third-party sperm and fully engage in attachment parenting.

Which brings me to my second point, which is really two related points.   You’ll notice I left one thing off the list in the discussion above–breast-feeding.   There are a couple of reasons I did so.   First, the inclusion of breast-feeding complicates the earlier discussion of genetic vs. functional parenthood.  It’s true that generally the genetic mother is capable of breast feeding while a genetically unrelated woman is not, but that’s because being pregnant/giving birth triggers the capacity for lactation.  Thus, a woman giving birth to a genetically unrelated child has the same capacity to breast-feed as a woman giving birth to a genetically related child.     Breast-feeding may point in the direction of the genetic parent but not because of the genetic connection–it points that way because the genetic parent is commonly the woman who gives birt.

Second, I’m not sure what is so important about breast-feeding from Sears’ point of view.  If it is the physical closeness, then there may be adequate substitutes for non-lactating parents.   If it nutritional advantages of breast milk, there are actually breast milk banks that help non-lactating parents provide this.

In any event, while the inclusion of breast-feeding complicates my earlier discussion, it does not seem to me that it actually undermines it.

There is, however, something that strikes me as far more important about the emphasis on breast-feeding and this takes me to my second main point.   Sears’ approach–at least as portrayed in the Time article–is profoundly gendered.  It is, as someone in the article does finally say, about attachment mothering.    Because of the unremitting emphasis on breastfeeding the father is apparently little more than an assistant parent–making sure the primary parent is cared for in a way that allows her to fully commit to attachment parenting.

I find this deeply troubling as, apparently, do others who have criticized Sears.   Clearly a properly attached mother cannot be a working parent.   The devotion required (and the period of time over which is it required) is inconsistent with a commitment to a job or a career.

Further, she cannot have an equal-partner co-parent of any sex.  It seems the non-nursing parent must have a qualitatively inferior relationship to the child.

One could say that it just has to be like that–that this is what biology gives us to work with.   But I’m really not willing to go there.   And I wonder if I’m correctly reading the depiction of Sears and/or if the depiction is accuarate.   To the extent the main point of attachment parenting is to nurture an intense bond between parent and child it isn’t clear to me that breast-feeding is a necessary part of the picture.  Granted a newborn eats frequently, but a non-nursing parent can also devote endless time and energy to cuddling, swaddling and cosleeping.

There’s no substitute, I guess, for really understanding what Sears says.  Perhaps the idea of dividing parenting between two people is that it would create two not-quite-attached enough relationships where what you really want is one fully attached one.  But there’s a way in which what Sears actually says may be less important than how he is actually portrayed.   Surely the Time article leaves me with a deeply gendered sense of how parenting should work and this troubles me.

Happy Mother’s Day indeed!

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7 responses to “Do We Really Mean Attachment Motherhood?

  1. The gendered aspect that bothers me is that although women have always been the primary child caretakers, why is it invariably a man who gets recognized as the “expert?”
    Regarding breastfeeding; sorry julie but you gotta address your complaints to mother nature.
    In any case, while breast is most certainly still best, there are plenty of substitutes; so the choice is every womans.
    You could also address your complaints to the economic structure of modern industrial society that require separating mothers and their infants, but you’ll likely get as far as you would complaining to mother nature.

    However, I suspect Julie that due to your highly successful career you are a bit out of touch with situation facing most common folk. You speak as if most women would rather go back to work than breastfeed. In fact its just the opposite. Most women would rather stay home with their infants, whether breastfeeding or not, for far more than the 6 paltry weeks their disability insurance provides (that is; if they even have any). Some women are back at work, on their feet, serving coffee at lunch diners, 2 weeks after giving birth because they still have to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

  2. also regarding breastfeeding: there are many reasons for women to choose bottle feeding over breastfeeding, but trying to share the bonding equally is not one of them!

  3. (and rather a narcissistic concern in my opinion!)

  4. regarding other wise to care for an infant, there is always diaper changing… but in early infancy, babies pretty much just eat and sleep. after a few weeks (usually at the time mom goes back to work in our industrial world) they start interacting more.
    Aside for, breastfeeding itslef is powered by oxytocin, the bonding hormone. so diaper changing is cool, it just doesn’t cut it

  5. sears and his new york times ilk are simply in the regular old business of guilting women for never doing enough

  6. I think induced lactation and breastmilk banks are a poor substitute. Your own milk changes over time to accomodate the current needs of the growing child – I doubt that even induced lactation could ensure that happens. I don’t think breast feeding is for attachment, but rather the long-term health benefits to the child – at least until they are vaxed and have time to develop their own immune systems. I think you would find much less antibiotic use with breast fed babies.

    I had more attachment parenting from dad than I did mom, and needed it – long story – but that attachment parenting happened after work, at night, and in the morning.

    I understand the need for daycare but I think it isn’t the most benefical way to raise a child. If the child is not the focus during home time, then I think kids loose a lot of the benefits of being parented but can also see the drain that would take on the parents after long days at work too. Different today than my day.

  7. themommypsychologist

    As a child psychologist and a mom, one of the things that is so misleading about attachment parenting is the name. It is only called attachment parenting because of the theory it was based upon. It is not called this because it is the only form of parenting which allows parents to develop a secure attachment relationship with their children. There are numerous ways to develop a secure attachment relationship with our kids. I explore more of this myth here for anyone who is interested:
    http://www.themommypsychologist.com/2012/04/15/what-does-the-mommy-psychologist-have-to-say-about-attachment-parenting/

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