Five Truths About Attachment Parenting

by Rachael on May 11, 2012

When I post on Fridays, it’s typically about something I’ve been reading. Today I’m posting in response to something I haven’t read: the Time cover story that keeps showing up in my Facebook feed. It’s been a craptastic week — beginning, in fact, with my not being able to meet up with my friend Dionna, who was here in NYC for a photo shoot for said article (the Critter was sick, and I had to take the Gnome to the urologist, and so on, grrr) — so I don’t want to read anything that might finally trigger my head to explode, as I’ve been feeling it might even before this week.

Maybe the article would trigger head explosions, and maybe it wouldn’t; I don’t know. Hell, despite its nonsensical headline, “Are You Mom Enough?” (whatever that means), the article just might be awesome. (I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that the author of the article likely had zero responsibility for anything on cover of the magazine, including the headline and possibly more ridiculous subhead.) So of course you should please not construe the following as a response to any of the ideas in the article. I’m not so stupid as to think that I can make a responsible critique of something I haven’t actually read. Instead, please consider the following as a brain dump, a way of clearing my head before I read the article.

Are these truths about attachment parenting truly always true truths? I don’t know. But they are my truths.

Attachment parenting is about attachment, not perfection.
Indeed, why don’t we start off with Mayim Bialik’s definition of attachment parenting, which is as good as any (boldface mine):

Attachment parenting is an umbrella term coined by a pediatrician, William Sears, to describe a style of parenting that embraces the normal biology of pregnancy, labor, breastfeeding, and bonding, all in the name of raising children who demonstrate the psychological classification of being securely attached. By definition, it eschews notions of perfection but instead seeks to educate women and families about the natural, organic and normal ways our bodies were made and how to best maximize the potential for securely attached children who live in harmony with parents who are not afraid to be imperfect.

I particularly like the reference to attachment parenting as a “style” of parenting. It’s not a set of rules, but rather a set of flexible practices from which, as Dr. Sears puts it in The Baby Book, you can “select what best fits your family.” Given that the primary goals of attachment parenting are, according to Dr. Sears, “to know your child, to help your child feel right, [and] to enjoy parenting,” how could this style of parenting be anything but responsive and flexible?

You can take or leave attachment parenting, but attachment itself is essential.
To explain this truth, I go to my personal heroine, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. From page 392 of Mother Nature (again, boldface mine):

What makes us humans rather than just apes is [the] capacity to combine intelligence with articular empathy. But all humans develop this empathetic component in the first months and years of life as part of a unit that involves at least one other person. This is what the psychoanalyst and pediatrician D. W. Winnicott meant when he said, “There is no such thing as a [human] baby; there is a baby and someone.” No matter how sophisticated the in vitro technology, or even the capacity to clone one human organizm from another, the DNA of Homo sapiens does not develop these uniquely human capacities without the intervention of other humans, sustained interactions between a genetically engineered baby and its interacting caretakers.

In other words, human intelligence and empathy grow within the context of human relationships. As first established by such researchers as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, we now understand that these human capacities flourish only when these relationships are secure.

Attachment involves relationships — not just the child’s relationship with its mother.
Unlike the chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, and rhesus macaques that Bowlby studied while developing attachment theory, humans are cooperative breeders. In fact, argues Hrdy in her book Mothers and Others, our tendency to form attachment relationships with more than one adult (the ideal, I’ve read somewhere, is at least three) is likely the basis of our capacity to empathize with the entire human family.

Attachment parenting nevertheless does have a feminist problem.
The problem, however, is not that this style of parenting is essentially at odds with maternal needs or ambition. You need not go any further than such blogs as PhD in Parenting, Raising My Boychick, and Blue Milk for some very fine thinking about attachment parenting and feminist mothering.

The problem is rather with some of those who promote this style of parenting, including the Sears family. According to Martha Sears, as quoted in Attached at the Heart, “When Bill wrote Creative Parenting (1982), he referred to it as ‘immersion mothering’ and ‘involved fathering.’” Yes, one of the “seven concepts that make up attachment parenting” (as Dr. Sears puts it) is “Balance and Boundaries” (i.e., “having the wisdom to say yes to your own needs”) and yes, The Baby Book does emphasize the necessity of meeting mothers’ needs as well as those of their children, but the Sears’ writings nevertheless retain more than just traces of the earlier assumption that the mother’s identity is subsumed (“immersed”) into her role as mother. For example, although The Baby Book claims that “fathers have more than a supporting role in baby tending,” much of the text appears to be addressed to the mother — who is rather paternalistically encouraged to find a way to be a “full-time mother.” (Sorry, Dr. Sears, but as The Feminist Breeder has pointed out, we’re all full-time mothers.)

As for Attached at the Heart, written by the founders of Attachment Parenting International, I cannot fully express my disappointment with Chapter Seven, on what is defined as Principle 6 of attachment parenting, “Provide Consistent, Loving Care.” After providing an overview of this principle, the chapter goes on to describe the effects of stress on the baby’s brain and then cites many studies on the negative effects of childcare — while neglecting to cite such studies as the one by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) that found that (in Hrdy’s words) “maternal and alloparental sensitivity and responsiveness to infants’ needs were better predictors of developmental outcomes like self-control, respect for others, and social compliance than (within limits) actual time spent away from the mother was.” After this alarming discouragement, the chapter then provides some “helpful tips” for when a parent is returning to work. My response to this chapter alone warrants its own blog post (at least); for now, I’ll just ask why this chapter couldn’t have been framed more positively, such as by acknowledging the contributions that sensitive alloparents may make to the emotional well-being of children and explaining how to identify good alloparents before warning parents about the possible harmful effects of a poor care-giving situation?

Meanwhile, however, our society has an attachment problem.
Again, I cite Hrdy. Beginning on page 288 of Mothers and Others:

As everywhere in the post-Neolithic era, survival of even the neediest youngsters has become largely decoupled from the responsiveness of caretakers. And perhaps for the first time in human history, exceedingly high rates of child survival coincide with sobering statistics about the emotional well-being of children.

In a finding that is not so surprising, developmental psychologists report that as many as 80 percent of children from populations at high risk for abuse or neglect grow up confused by or even fearful of their main caretakers, suffering from a condition known as “disorganized attachment.” Far more unsettling is the finding that 15 percent of children in what are described as “normal, middle-class families,” children not ostensibly at special risk, are also unable to derive comfort from or to constructively organize their emotions around a caretaker they trust; these children too exhibit symptoms of disorganized attachment.

In the penultimate paragraph of the book, Hrdy concludes (boldface mine):

To all the reasons people might have to worry about the future or our species — including the usual depressing litany of nuclear proliferation, global warming, emerging infectious diseases, or crashing meteorites — dd one more having to do with just what sort of species our descendants millennia hence might belong to. If empathy and understanding develop only under particular rearing conditions, and if an ever-increasing proportion of the species fails to encounter those conditions but nevertheless survives to reproduce, it won’t matter how valuable the underpinnings for collaboration were in the past. Compassion and the quest for emotional connection will fade away as surely as sight in cave-dwelling fish.

Alarmed much? That’s why the questions to be asking aren’t bullshit questions like, “Are you mom enough?” The right questions are really questions such as …

What are our family values, really?

What will it take to get paid parental leave in this damn country?

Or decent workplace policies, such as reasonable hours and paid sick days?

Or good, affordable childcare?

And hell, while we’re at it, does an education oriented toward success on standardized tests really encourage our children to become the adults we most want them to be?


What questions do you think we should be asking?

And, whatever else you do this weekend, I hope that you have a happy Mother’s Day!


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

MyGreenMouth May 11, 2012 at 3:17 PM

Hi, I finally read some of the stuff with the article today, though not everything. (I became quite frustrated and took a break.)

Anyways … I very much like your list and the quotes. Really helpful, thought-provoking, and informative.

The only 2 cents I have to add right now is my take on the title of the article. I think it might be a riff on the Rolling Stone song:
“Beast of Burden”
I’ll never be your beast of burden
So let’s go home and draw the curtains
Music on the radio
Come on baby make sweet love to me

Am I hard enough
Am I rough enough
Am I rich enough
I’m not too blind to see

Right now, because of work deadlines and general frustration–while I could say more–I’ll just leave it at that.

Again, thanks for all the thoughts and references here. Quite excellent.


Seonaid May 12, 2012 at 9:25 AM

One of my community groups uses the “twinkling” our our hands to signal agreement when a speaker is on a roll and we want to affirm their words without interrupting. I found myself *twinkling* several times while reading this. I find myself reading these types of articles (not the one in question, but the conversation in general) thinking, “OK, fine. We respect one another’s choices etc. What are the *most effective strategies for raising functional kind adults who care about themselves and the world around them*?” It’s not just a matter of opinion; there’s evidence to be discussed. And then I hear people saying, “Oh, don’t talk about the science, you’ll just make people feel guilty.”

Yes! Talk about the science. Talk about the evidence. And then we need to figure out ways to construct a culture that doesn’t play us off against one another to find individual solutions to structural problems. Agency only goes so far.


Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama May 16, 2012 at 12:42 PM

Right on!


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