This week's issue of Time screams, "ARE YOU MOM ENOUGH?" over a photo of a woman breastfeeding her son who, frankly, looks old enough to cut up his own piece of steak. While the article takes a serious look at "attachment parenting" — a controversial child-rearing philosophy pioneered by pediatrician Dr. Bill Sears — the cover is meant to incite both public ridicule and maternal anxiety — just in time for mother's day. "Look at that weirdo over-mothering her kid!" and "OMG, will my child grow up to be a maladjusted, angry asshole because I was a neglectful parent who weaned him before he learned to read!?" The issue has definitely kicked the "mommy wars" up a notch, but there's also an important debate happening right now: Is progressive motherhood an extension of go-getter feminism or is it just a misogynistic ploy to take women out of the workforce and rob them of their freedom?
There are three major tenets to attachment parenting: Breastfeeding into toddlerhood and beyond, co-sleeping, and "baby wearing," meaning the infant is forever attached to the mother in one of those baby slings. These are all discussed in the attachment parenting "bible" The Baby Book, first published in 1992. The Time piece acknowledges that The Baby Book's author Dr. Sears' views are "less extreme than his critics (and even many of his followers) realize." Still, while the theory behind his philosophy "that the more time babies spend in their mothers' arms, the better the chances they will turn out to be well-adjusted children" and that "every baby's whimper is a plea for help and that no infant should ever be left to cry" sound reasonable, they can also lead to inferences of guilt and anxiety for moms who fear that spending any time away from their child could fuck him or her up for life. (Is this about making a baby feel secure or making a mother feel insecure?)
Even though we know that's not true—plenty of people, ourselves included, have turned out fine without attachment parenting—Sears maintains that "excessive" crying can cause brain damage in infants.
The cry-it-out approach has the potential to cause "harmful neurologic effects that may have permanent implications on the development of sections of their brain." Sears cites a number of academic studies to back up his point.
A close look at the research, however, does not actually provide evidence that bouts of crying associated with sleep training affect brain development. Several papers Sears cites involved studies of rats. At least one looked at babies who suffered from cases of severe neglect or trauma…but hardly representative of typical parenting. Other research showed that babies who cry excessively are more likely to suffer from, for example, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, but it's not clear if they cry because of underlying neurological problems that later manifest as ADHD or whether the crying causes the ADHD.
So the science is flimsy, at best. However, some women aren't willing to take that kind of chance when it comes to their own child. Every mom wants the best for her baby. But attachment parenting asks a lot of mothers. It truly is 24/7 mothering. Exclusive breastfeeding and carrying around a baby in a sling isn't conducive to most jobs or careers. The attachment parents profiled in the Time's piece are all stay-at-home moms. It's nice that some women have that choice available to them. Other families, however, rely on a mom's paycheck for survival. It will be interesting to see, 20 years down the road, what kind of affect this "sea change in American child rearing" will have on the class divide. Will the less privileged be less emotionally secure as adults? Or will wealthier kids whose moms practiced attachment parenting have difficulty living autonomously?
Mayim Bialik (aka "Blossom") wrote her own book about attachment parenting and insisted, in a recent New York Times piece, that it is a feminist philosophy for motherhood. Her argument about breastmilk and hormones and women's bodies definitely had some logical points:
We believe that breast milk is biologically and nutritionally superior to anything formula manufacturers tell you is equal to it, and that sleeping next to your baby releases positive hormones that facilitate bonding…Now tell me how attachment parenting is inconsistent with feminism?
I don't think these points are necessarily inconsistent with feminism, but they're not particularly emblematic of it. Undoubtedly, though, it's educated, progressive women that are buying into attachment parenting the most. It's a little odd, though, considering what Dr. Sears has said of working mothers.
He and his wife Martha—with whom he has partnered to build his baby empire—converted from devout Catholics to devout evangelicals for many years (they have recently converted back). In their 1997 book, The Complete Book of Christian Parenting & Child Care they say in a chapter titled "Back to Work?":
[Some] mothers choose to go back to their jobs quickly simply because they don't understand how disruptive that is to the well-being of their babies. So many babies in our culture are not being cared for in the way God designed, and we as a nation are paying the price.
In the Time piece, Dr. Sears says he's "evolved" since then, but when he's giving advice about balancing work and motherhood he "suggest[s] mothers quit their jobs and borrow money to make up the difference. The couple subsidized their sons' wives so they could stay home with the Sears grandchildren."
This isn't to say that women who choose to stay home are not feminists, and that women who choose (or are needed) to work are shitty moms. But a parenting philosophy started by some Christian nuts—who can't even make up their minds about their denomination—that proselytize about mothers giving up their careers, personal space, and sense of self in favor of putting their children first is, at the very least, worth an eyebrow raise.
However, I don't fault any mother who chooses the parenting techniques that she believes are right for her and her child. Although, I do admit to thinking that attachment parenting won't really result in a generation of well-adjusted people as it will a generation of pains-in-the-ass, overbearing mothers-in-law. (Seriously, can you imagine marrying a guy who was breast fed till he was six and slept in bed with his mom till he was nine and then having to deal with her domineering bullshit at Thanksgiving?) Mostly, though, I think that there's nothing wrong with cuddling a baby as often as possible. It feels good for everyone involved.
Images via Time