Tuesday, May 7, 2013


I've written and re-written this post, and somehow it keeps evolving and becoming something different. Because there's so much swirling around in my mind on this topic, and it seems important to say clearly.

So let me say this clearly first: I am in no way against attachment parenting, even as an organization. Some of the best parents I know are attachment parents hook, line, and sinker. And I'm all tangled up in attachment parenting myself. But I'm tangled up in a lot of other things too. And I absolutely do not believe attachment parenting is the only way, or the best way, to have a healthy, loved, thriving child.

Attachment Parenting, as a philosophy, organization, and community, has given the parenting world many good things. It's built on attachment theory, which reminds us that babies--and children, and people--have much more complex needs than merely physical ones. A baby (or child, or person) can be well-fed, well-clothed, well-slept, and still very far from well-loved. People need other people, and babies need big people--mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunties--they can trust completely to respond to all their needs. Babies need to know they are important, they are loved, and that their calls for help and comfort will be listened and responded to. Attachment Parenting reminds us that we won't somehow spoil our babies (whatever that means) by loving them. And it reminds us that not only are we not hurting or crippling our babies by living in closeness with them (by co-sleeping, breastfeeding, babywearing, or any number of other things), but we're doing them good. We're fulfilling basic human needs that will continue to be fulfilled in healthy ways as our babies grow out of Moby wraps and family beds.

Attachment Parenting also reminds us that babies' needs, while perhaps more complex than just food and clothing, are still pretty simple, and still pretty easy to meet. Babies don't need all the paraphernalia that often seems to accompany them. They don't need schedules, enrichment classes, fancy toys, name brand baby furniture. They just need us, and our love, and our willingness to include them in our lives and get tangled up in theirs.

So, go Attachment Parenting with a capital AP. You've done lots of good. You're not the only good thing, or the highest of good things, but you've done good.

And now let's talk about needs. Attachment parenting literature (in its more academic forms, and in its more Facebook forms) uses the concept of needs liberally. Which makes sense, given attachment theory and all that. Responding to your baby's needs comes up everywhere, and seems to be the end-all for every argument. Which is great, right? We all want this, and we all should. But there's a trend I've seen in attachment parenting literature (academic and Facebook alike) that seems to imply that only some of us actually want this. The other some-of-us mainly want to control our children.

It's what turns me off most about Dr. Sears' books, honestly. The implication that go-with-the-flow, nurse-on-demand, sleep-whenever-and-wherever parents are responsive, kind, and loving, and care about seeing and responding to needs; and the "other" parents (you know, the scheduling, crib-sleeping type) want to control their babies from the top-down so that they (the parents) will never be inconvenienced.

And so, when I read the comment I referenced in my previous post about attachment parenting being as simple as just responding to a baby's needs, I couldn't help but think, it isn't that simple. We all want to respond to our babies' needs. But every baby is different, and every baby has different needs. Every family has different needs, every mother has different needs, and every parent (or pair of parents) has its own (loving, unselfish) perception of what a baby needs most, which needs to prioritize. And it's highly likely those perceptions are influenced by what we need most, what we tend to feel most strongly in ourselves.

I was at a lunch with some friends several months ago, and one friend had told her young daughter that she had to eat a certain number of bites of vegetables before she could have dessert. The little girl wasn't happy about it, but clearly, mom wasn't budging. Another mom present started encouraging her, loudly. I mean clapping and cheerleading loud. Everyone noticed, and everyone was well aware of how far towards dessert the little girl had progressed. And I was embarrassed, on the girl's behalf. I kept thinking, Just leave her alone. She knows what she has to do, just let her do it. She's already put out by having her dessert postponed, just let her save face and eat in silence without the whole entire table knowing she's having to eat her vegetables. And I was sure, in that moment, that, was it my child (you know, the preschooler I don't have yet), that my way would have worked. No fuss, no embarrassment, you do it or you don't, no one has to witness it.

But I know this other mom (the cheerleader) often felt ignored as a child, when she spent her life just quietly doing what people asked. I know that others' praise meant (and means) a lot to her. I know some of her most treasured childhood memories are of being noticed (in public! loudly!) for her not-so-grand accomplishments. She wasn't trying to embarrass the little girl; she was trying to notice her. Because it's what she would have wanted, what she would have thrived on, herself. Just like I would have wanted to be left alone and allowed to save face in peace and silence and blessed anonymity.

I could accuse her of being overbearing; she could accuse me of being emotionally distant; we could both accuse each other of not wanting to respond to the little girls' needs. But none of those accusations would be true. Just like accusations of that kind typically aren't.

When I was little, if I got too tired, I was prone to complete sobbing meltdowns triggered by very, very small things. Fortunately, my parents learned early on that the only thing to do was console me briefly and then put me to bed. No reasoning, no emotion coaching or whatever, no reflecting my feelings, just okay, looks like the day is over, bedtime, coming right up. And that's what I wanted, because that's what I knew I needed. I knew I wasn't upset about the beans being mixed with the rice, or whatever stupid thing had set me off, and it was an incredible relief to be told I was tired and bedtime would be soon. Now, as a parent (and an aunt, and a friend, and a teacher) that's my first instinct for dealing with a sobbing puddle of melted-down child. Yet I've seen people torn to pieces (in both academic and Facebook literature) for using similar strategies with their children. How dare any parent be so neglectful of her daughter's emotional needs. I should have been listened to, my emotions should have been named, my feelings about the beans and rice should have been validated. I don't mean to belittle or make fun of the importance of valuing our children's feelings. And yes, some children need that, truly, regardless of whatever other needs are present. But I needed to go to bed. We have different needs. Our children have different needs. We see needs in different ways, through the lens of our own needs. Call it selfishness, or call it empathy. Perhaps it's both.

The most rigidly scheduling parents I know are people who thrive on (who need) strict schedules themselves. They're not trying to control their children, they're trying to respond to their children's (genuine) needs for safety, predictability, and security. Just like spontaneous parents aren't simply ignoring their children while they continue to live as though they were child-free; they're trying to respond to their children's (genuine) needs for responsiveness, adventure, and flexibility. Parents who let their babies cry it out aren't cruel or unresponsive or selfish. On the contrary, they are trying to respond to their babies' (genuine) needs for sleep. Just like co-sleeping parents aren't co-dependent and clingy and careless about safety; they are trying to respond to their babies' (genuine) needs for security and comfort (and, in a lot of cases, sleep!). There will always be extremes in every category of course. There will always be misguided parents and there will always be selfish ones, in any parenting style. But there are a lot of good ones, too, in every parenting style.

So if attachment parenting is about the desire to respond to our babies' needs, then we are all attachment parents (or at least the majority of us). And in the best, purest sense of the word (as in, parents whose babies have a secure attachment to them), I think this is true. But Attachment Parenting (with a capital AP), takes some pretty strong stances on many of the things some parents do to respond to their own babies' needs. And in the end, like every mother and father and grandma and organization and community out there, it sees babies' needs through its own lens. Which doesn't belittle Attachment Parenting at all. But it doesn't belittle anyone else, either.

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