When I found out I was pregnant with a much-wanted baby, I did what every bookaholic does when faced with a new situation – I bought books. The Happiest Baby on the Block, Dr Sears’ books, you name it, I read it.
Several of my friends had used attachment parenting with their children and they swore by the results. They recommended the best baby carriers and ring slings, sent me links to articles touting the benefits and safety issues of co-sleeping, and urged me to join the cult of attachment parenting.
Even if you’re not a parent, you’ve probably heard about attachment parenting from proponents like celebrities Mayim Bialik and Alicia Silverstone. They believe in techniques that encourage a strong bond with a baby; skin to skin contact, breast-feeding, baby-wearing and co-sleeping in order for your child to grow up secure and loved.
While recently language has been added about the parent taking care of themselves, and urging parents to pick and choose amongst these techniques, in practice I’ve only observed parents going whole hog. And that was what I did.
I watched movies like The Business of Being Born and insisted on a natural childbirth, with skin to skin contact and delayed umbilical cord cutting. I prepped for breastfeeding, buying support pillows and lanolin and attending classes. Breastfeeding was harder than I’d expected, and more painful, but I stuck it out. Per all the books I did it on demand, so whenever my son was hungry, he got a boob.
Waking up twice a night to feed? Ha! Try four to six times a night. There was no schedule, so it was difficult to plan out a day or activities, even though it didn’t bother me to feed in public. I found breastfeeding to be draining, physically and emotionally, at one point breaking down in tears and begging my son to give me a break.
My plan to breastfeed for a year stretched into two, and then almost three years. I wanted my body back, but when your kid is screaming at 2am and you’re desperate for sleep it’s easier to just pop a boob in his mouth than try to wean him.
While I’d planned on breastfeeding, I hadn’t planned on co-sleeping. I sort of fell into it – literally. One night, sitting in the rocking chair, I fell asleep with my son on my breast. I jerked awake just in time as he was rolling out of my lap and about to hit the floor. Terrified that he’d nearly fallen, I decided to just lie down with him in my bed for a little bit then put him back in his crib.
I slept with him the whole night. My ex-husband was furious and scared when he woke up the next morning, afraid that he could have rolled over and smothered our son in his sleep. But I’d had the best night of sleep since he was born and I wasn’t about to give it up. After researching and arranging things for the maximum possible safety he ended up sleeping in our bed until he was almost two.
It’s no secret that new moms face a lot of pressure and stress, particularly with a first baby. But one of the biggest issues I see with attachment parenting advocates, and basically any "this is how you should parent" movement, is that there’s no room for criticism.
And new moms are especially vulnerable to criticism. Most of us want to do it "right," we want our kids to grow up feeling loved, and to turn into happy, successful adults. To imply or state that a mom is doing something "wrong’" can be devastating to her self-esteem and she may respond with anger or fear, depending on how you’ve approached her.
Often, we’re not allowed to say, “You know what? I tried this, and it didn’t work for me.” Even if we had the strength to phrase it that way, because what the other person hears is that we must have been doing it wrong. In a rush to be helpful, and slightly to defend themselves, they’ll say things like, “Well, did you try it with the nursing pillow?” “What about a co-sleeper by the bed?” or “Your just need more sleep,” and offer advice.
When I complained that the baby sling hurt my back and shoulders and said that I didn’t want to practice babywearing anymore, my friends urged me to keep it up. “It gets easier!” they’d say, and show me again how to tie/wrap/position the sling so that it would supposedly be comfortable. It never was.
Yes, my son fell asleep in the wraps and slings as promised but the moment I sat down he’d wake up. Walking around the house with fifteen to twenty pounds strapped to your front, unable to sit down, for two hours just to get your kid to nap is no fun.
Another problem I found with attachment parenting was that no one really talks about how to detach the kid. At some point, he or she has to grow up. Like I already said, weaning my son from breastfeeding took close to two years. After a year of co-sleeping, he was getting too big, and my ex-husband wanted him out of the bed.
Articles on weaning a child from co-sleeping offered advice which I tried to follow but… it meant sitting by his crib while he cried for me, rubbing his back, reading him books, singing him songs, for up to three hours. It was an exhausting nightmare that didn’t really work because at some point during the night he’d end up back with me.
When he got older my ex-husband insisted on locking him in his room with his bed, as the books said he’d tire himself out and eventually fall asleep. Guess what? He didn’t. My son, at two and a half, would often stay awake until 1 or 2am screaming at us until, in desperation, I’d bring him into the bed with me. I had work the next day, if I didn’t get any sleep I was worried I’d pass out at my desk.
And, yes, it was always me soothing him in his crib, and always me getting out of bed to feed him. It wouldn’t be fair of me to not acknowledge that my ex-husband’s lack of support probably contributed to my dislike of attachment parenting.
With the focus being all on the child’s needs, there isn’t much discussion in attachment parenting about what the parent needs. Like maybe a good night’s sleep in her bed without a toddler’s foot in her stomach? I think it ties in with the United States' culture of venerating motherhood and of putting the child first.
When your friends are all cooing about how great it is to feel their baby’s skin against their own, or bragging about how secure their child is, there’s a lot of social pressure to keep quiet if you’re not finding the experience all that great. And I can’t even begin to touch the amount of privilege inherent in being able to spend the time and money that attachment parenting requires. One hundred twenty dollar ring slings, anyone?
Unless you’re a retailer trying to sell me a spa day massage or a “Mom’s Night Out,” the expectation is that of course I’ll want to be with my child as much as possible. We’ve somewhat accepted working mothers as an economic necessity – though a woman can face a lot of criticism if she goes back to work because she wants to, not because she needs to – but there’s still a dialogue of “I miss my kid,” or “I wish I could be home with him, but we need the money,” a ritual of sentences around the coffee pot that is supposed to excuse you from the sin of being a working mom.
About six months after my son’s birth, a friend of mine who’d given birth around the same time and I were talking on the phone. After sharing stories about great it was to be a mother the conversation kind of dwindled until I finally blurted out, “I miss going to Target alone.”
“Oh my God, yes!” she responded. We’d both been independent career women before having kids, we both spoke multiple languages and had traveled extensively and lived overseas. And we both were struggling with the loss of independence that comes with being a mom.
Just because we’d added ‘mom’ to our identities of traveler, dancer, accountant, and adjunct professor didn’t mean that all those other descriptors had dropped away. Being a mom was another facet of our identity, not the be-all and end-all defining factor. But with attachment parenting I didn’t feel like there was any room for "me."
If I get to do it again, I’ll probably keep some of it and throw out the rest. I’d breastfeed, but I’d do it on a schedule. I’d put my child in a bassinet by the bed but wouldn’t co-sleep. Since my four-year-old still climbs in with me every night it would be a bit crowded. I’ve already thrown out all my baby-wearing wraps and slings.
Who knows? With a different partner it might be better. But full-on attachment parenting? Never again.
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