Momtroversy: How Feminist Is Attachment Parenting?

About a month ago, in anticipation of starting my son on solid foods I attended a seminar at a parenting support center in Los Angeles. Of course we must make our own baby food, the lecturer began: By chopping, steaming and pureeing (defrosting batch-cooked “food cubes” was eschewed due to potential vitamin loss) we could avoid prepackaged preservatives. And we should only buy organic. I raised my hand: Buying organic can be expensive—were certain foods better than others? Not really, she answered tersely. Actually, the best solution for our babies’ nutritional needs was to grow our own fruits and vegetables, she said. I glanced around to see if anyone else was surprised by her suggestion of urban farmsteading, but none of the other moms–all breastfeeding and baby-wearing–seemed remotely fazed. I realized I had fallen into a vortex of attachment parenting devotees.

Just after Mother’s Day, the cover of TIME magazine lit up the blogosphere with its image of 26-year-old Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her almost 4-year-old son. The accompanying article, written by Kate Pickert, was a profile of Dr. William Sears, the guru considered responsible for the rise of the attachment parenting (AP) movement. TIME‘s profile seemed to be spurred by the U.S. publication of Frenchwoman Elisabeth Badinter’s bookThe Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, which sharply critiques the “natural parenting” movement. And that book evoked its own panoply of reactions, including KJ Dell’Antonia’s piece in The New York Times, “Has Motherhood Replaced Sexism?”, and Slate’s series “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.”

According to TIME, the tenets of attachment parenting include extended breastfeeding, baby “wearing” and bed sharing–all continued for as long as the child demands. Badinter’s response to women who embrace this parenting model? They don’t need to worry about the cultural imposition of patriarchy, they’re already putting themselves back into the domestic sphere so solidly, so willingly and, in her view, so misguidedly, that they–or, rather, their babies–are the new administers of their oppression. Both those in the AP camp and Badinter’s followers rely heavily on the word “choice” to argue their viewpoints, but both perspectives seem to fail to recognize “choice” as the result of a constellation of social and economic realities, including the ability to access paid parental leave and childcare.

More central to these issues is the question of whether attachment parenting can be called feminist. Actor Mayim Bialik insisted to The New York Times that AP is a feminist choice–at least for her–with no mention of the economic realities necessary to enable this. And TIME‘s own website offered “How Feminism Begat Intensive Mothering,” in which Belinda Luscombe claims, “At heart, the reality of the feminist revolution was that women could do just about anything.” So, after gaining parity in the boardroom, she argues, the next natural “choice” was to bring the contemporary woman’s power, education and efficiency back into the child-rearing realm—a circular argument that rings with conservative overtones.

To fully implement AP, a woman requires the economic means to live on one income and the time to dedicate herself to full-time mothering. A more pragmatic response comes from economic reporters such as Helaine Olen, who writes,

Whatever one thinks of the pros and cons of attachment parenting … it doesn’t come cheap, especially since there aren’t many (if any) employers out there waiting for an employee who turns up with multiple children in slings and otherwise clinging to her body.

Olen likens Sears’s proposal that “‘mothers quit their jobs and borrow money’ to afford to carry out his recommendations” to Mitt Romney’s recent remarks about borrowing money from Mom and Dad.

Further, Orit Avishai takes on the incompatabilities of breastfeeding for years with management of a career:

Some mothers may have the financial means to quit their jobs and dedicate themselves to full-time parenting. For most women, this is not a viable choice, since the more time they spend away from work, the larger the negative impact on their potential lifetime earnings.

“Breastfeeding for six months or longer is only free if a mother’s time is worth absolutely nothing,” affirms an April 2012 press release from the American Sociological Association entitled “Breastfeeding Isn’t Free: Study Reveals ‘Hidden Cost’ Associated With the Practice.” Similarly, a 2009 article by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic explored the idea that women who embrace extended breastfeeding are essentially defrauded of other gains.

Whether or not women “choose” to work is a thorny issue with Dr. Sears. As he said in a rebuttal, of sorts, to the TIME article:

 Women are the greatest multi-taskers in the world.  AP, modified to the parents’ work schedule, helps busy parents reconnect with their child, which actually makes working and parenting easier.  It’s attachment moms that forged the long overdue workplace-friendly breastfeeding-pumping stations and laws which respect and value the ability of a working mother to continue part-time breastfeeding.

The logic of how AP moms fostered workplace-friendly rules while also fulfilling his edicts seems baffling–as is the vague dictum that women’s ability to multi-task serves as a solution to the increased pressures imposed on moms subscribing to AP tenets.

It is hard not to read Sears’ philosophy–one that emphasizes women either go into debt or largely give up their professional careers, hence becoming financially dependent–as anything but conservative, despite its embrace by largely well-off, liberal parents (many of whom may be unaware that both Sears and his wife Martha are evangelical Christians).  Yet I often hear AP devotees frame their parenting style as being “what our cave ancestors would do,” “earth-mother-like” or even radical.

At the six-month mark, only 36 percent of U.S. mothers are still breastfeeding, so refusing to wean is bucking a trend; score a point for AP’s radicalism. Sharing the family bed as long as children desire is also not standard U.S. practice (nor advised in the Western medical world), so score another radical point. And AP devotees are taking a non-mainstream approach that rejects what is perceived to be a paternalistic system often dismissive of women’s instincts.

But the AP philosophy can also be construed not as a radical reclaiming of a mother’s role but as a return to an essentialized view of women as duty-bound to their children in way that negates other needs and ambitions–which is precisely Badinter’s point. Rhetoric, explicit or implied, that this type of mothering is a “fulfillment” of a woman’s true purpose or highest calling, despite a claim of “choice,” rings deeply traditional. That men aren’t held to the similar expectation of being on tap to feed the crying child negates any progress toward a philosophy of equal parenting. While Sears says that men can “baby-wear” as well as women, he is more often cited as advocating that men take on support roles to their wives so that the mother can remain the central parent.

But both parents may be adding to their workload if they follow the attachment parenting model of refusing modern conveniences invented to lessen childcare drudgery, such as disposable diapers and packaged baby food. While this sort of environmentalism may come from a sincere desire to provide toxin-free childhoods and return to the valorized goodness of the homemade, Badinter suggests that “the reverence for all things natural glorifies an old concept of the maternal instinct and applauds masochism and sacrifice.” Such reverence, she writes, is also a “threat to women’s emancipation and sexual equality.”

It’s not surprising that TIME called Sears “The Man who Remade Motherhood,” adding him to the legacy of a series of men (Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. Richard Ferber, John Bowlby) who have dictated how women ought to care for their children. It’s also not surprising that Pickert mentions a category of mothers who suffer from what’s been called “posttraumatic Sears disorder”–that is to say, women who try to live up to the dictates of Sears’s plan but just plain can’t. Hence TIME‘s guilt-inducing headline, “Are You Mom Enough?”

Much in the same vein, a recent study documented that stay-at-home-Moms suffer from higher rates of depression. Could that be because mothering is such hard and undervalued work, exacerbated by the pressure to match up to some idealized template? The shock value of TIME‘s image may have passed, but debate will probably continue to rage between proponents of Badinter and Sears, along with calls for a middle ground, and personal choices separate from faddish dictates.

That is, of course, until the next male-based wave of mothering advice comes along.

In the meantime, I hear there are a range of on-the-shelf purees that are equally tempting to growing babies and sleep-deprived moms.

Photo from Flickr user Children’s Bureau Centennial under Creative Commons 3.0

Comments

  1. Jessica Hudson says:

    I tried AP with my daughter, and briefly again with my son. It didn’t work for us. When my daughter was born I was a single working mom- bed sharing was not appealing, especially since I often worked either before dawn or long into the night. I did breastfeed my daughter until she was two, but only nursed my son until he was 9 months. I wore my daughter, not my son. My daughter is still clingy at 5 years old and my son is 1 and very independent. AP was exhausting and limiting. I was married by the time my son was born and I focused on developing an equal parenting schedule that allowed me some freedom, because as a SAHM I know I need to make sure my social and personal needs and ambitions don’t fall to the wayside. Thank you for talking about this. In an area of primarily AP Christian families it can feel very isolating to be the mom that demands some freedom and equality in parenting.

  2. Michelle says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this because it seems like a topic that gets a lot of heated debate especially from anyone criticizing it (me). I think AP is definitely NOT feminist and I can’t understand why anyone would think otherwise! As you mentioned, AP seems like another oppressive rule almost like religion on our backs. I will not let anyone oppress me-even a baby. I mostly agree with the French model even though AP has a couple good points, in general, it’s not practical and I don’t think it would be healthy for the mother, child or the marriage for that matter! I mean allowing your kid to share the bed with you for as long as he/she wants?? ANd you think your husband will be perfectly ok with this? C’mon, that’s ridiculous and it’s giving a kid WAY too much power and control. Sounds like a bad recipe for entitled, priveleged kids. This puts WAY too much pressure on women/mothers. Not to mention its ALOT of work!!! And sorry, I don’t care if I’m not an “ideal” mother-nobody’s perfect and I’ll do the best I can without a man telling me what to do thank you very much. Just because you’re a mother, doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to have any freedom or self interests! And no, your kid won’t be screwed up if you don’t “wear” them or do any of the other extreme forms of parenting AP recommends, quite the contrary I think.

  3. I suppose I am an AP mom given that my three year old still bed shares when my husband is on night shift, she was nursed until she was nearly two, never ate prepackaged baby food (seriously, why pay for special food when mashed up people food works just as well?) and I am a stay at home mom. We eschew cable, multiple vehicles and the modern love affair with debt to afford it. We’re lucky, we live in the middle of the country and don’t have to worry about paying tuition to a top notch preschool; there aren’t any. I’m pregnant with number two and don’t have any intention to change my style with this one. So according to Michelle above what I am doing is decidedly “NOT” feminist and I’m putting too much work into motherhood. What about the fact that I’m finishing my grad degree while gestating this baby? What about the fact that I blog, write, and lecture on the topic of women’s rights? What about the fact that I identify as a feminist? Are they telling me I need to choose? That I can’t breastfeed for an extended amount of time AND agitate for women’s rights? This is just another facet of the mommy wars. There is an incredibly useless idea out there characterized by “how dare you use a label to describe yourself that I use especially when you’re not doing things exactly as I do.” That attitude is fostered by media outlets who need to sell advertising by increasing traffic to their websites and publications. Making women feel like they need to defend their parenting choices is a time honored way of getting them to spend more money. These issues aren’t black and white. Any thinking person knows that. I am an attachment parent AND a feminist. You can be one, you can be the other, you can be both or neither. And frankly, its nobody’s business which ones you are. The very marketable “mommy wars” will never end unless women stop encouraging the media that has invented it.

    • I completely agree with Mary – I am an AP and a FEMINIST. In response to the article, firstly, AP tenets are flexible – you take what works and discard what doesn’t. Secondly, working outside the home ISN’T impossible and a lot of AP’s work – and maybe more flexible workplaces would make it even easier for parents to AP. More child-friendly work practices is something feminists can aim towards instead of aiming at each other. Thirdly, AP brings up a lot of guilt for a lot of people. No-one can make YOU feel guilty – so if you’ve researched your parenting options and choose NOT to AP, then make you peace and move on. Feminism means different things to different people.

  4. Heather says:

    So breastfeeding = more work = unfeminist? Cloth diapers = more work = unfeminist?

    I used to teach a class about attachment parenting, breastfeeding, and cloth diapering. I wasn’t in ideological alignment with Dr. Sears to be certain but it’s quite a leap you’re making here. First of all, cloth diapers are quite a bit less work. There are lovely commercialized and convenient (which you would recognize as therefore being feminist) brands of cloth diapers and rather than lug out garbage or go to the store over and over to buy all those diapers (remember how being an attachment parent means spending tons of money?) you spend about 100 dollars… once… on diapering all the children you’ll ever have. Many, if not most, of the women I taught ate organic and carefully prepared food *before* they ever had children. It might have escaped your notice or consideration, but their male partners, when they had them, were perfectly capable of buying and preparing the food.

    We can argue a blue streak about how awful it is to keep women from careers by having them stay home with babies, but it is also worth mentioning that once you have more than one child, daycare costs as much as some women’s paychecks. “If their time is worth nothing?” It’s worth a lot, but daycare costs more than that. If we want to talk about classism and parenting then probably the better argument than parenting-that-requires-work-(probably)-is-sexist would be about how the United States has no paid maternity leave and significantly less time than many other countries because we don’t recognize the value of, at the very least, the opportunity to breastfeed and recover from birth, or how our minimal and sometimes nonexistent daycare assistance makes returning to work actually impossible for middle to lower income families.

    Here’s a clue: when you’re actually finding yourself arguing that having to take care of the baby you wanted to have is “unfeminist” because it prevents women from surviving, start by questioning the institution that prevents them surviving.

    • chatte noire says:

      My problem with attachment parenting — beyond that my parents did it, which meant that my mother got stuck with way too much work and my dad did nothing — is that it overemphasizes the mother’s role, while relegating the father/other carer(s) to a decidedly secondary position. Frankly, that’s bullshit for everyone involved. As for middle to low income families (I’m from one)… we can’t afford to have anyone staying at home. It isn’t feasible.

      Also, fyi… if/when I have kids, I’ll continue to work… even if I have to go into debt. Why? Because, honestly, it’s better than being suicidally depressed. So “here’s a clue”: drop your own judgements, and take a deep breath.

  5. Michelle says:

    OMG. This is what i’m talking about- people get soooo defensive when AP gets criticized and they totally misunderstand the criticism. Let me make this clear: Do whatever you want but if you’re only doing it cuz you read that stupid old dude’s book to tell you how to live your life/raise chldren then you’re being brainwashed. I don’t care what you do (really, I don’t!) but my problem is when some guy TELLS women how they should raise their children. It’s completely a personal thing that is no one’s friggen business but their own!! I don’t like anything that has a bunch of rules attached to it or puts any kind of guilt/shame on a woman if she doesn’t do things a certain way. THAT’S NOT feminist and THAT’S my problem with AP. It’s kind of like being some smug jerk looking down on people who eat meat when you’re a vegan. I hate that!! If you feel good about it-then cool but don’t try to make everyone else feel bad cuz they didn’t have the time nor money to eat vegan food-same issues with raising a child. It’s more the label and the rules that go along with it that piss me off. I would never tell a woman she’s not being feminist if she’s raising her kid a certain way, again, I could care less how you raise yr kid unless of course you’re abusing them and that’s a whole other thing. I say, do what you can, be the best mother you can be and that’s all anyone could ever ask of you. Period.

  6. Heather says:

    Attachment parenting is just a newer word for an old parenting style. And there’s no one way to do it. I would agree that our society makes it harder on women, but the same can be said for parenting in general. I would also say that it makes life a lot easier on women in some aspects too. But every one is different and it’s just one of many styles that might fit naturally into a person’s life. It’s a parenting style based on respect for everyone in the family including both the mother and child. If you ignore the same things that you hear for all things parenting (you must do it this way only, etc.), then attachment parenting makes a good bit of sense. Even for working parents. For another take on attachment parenting, I think this article at PhD in Parenting sums it up pretty well.

    http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/06/18/attachment-parenting-is-not

    Oh, and in response to Michelle, we bed share and still manage to have a very healthy sex life. It’s all about imagination. It means we never lost a single night of sleep, and breast feeding was much simpler. Works for some people, doesn’t work for others.

    You know, I don’t even like labels but even though we use a stroller for long walks or never used purée at all (baby led solids was way easier), our parenting could still be considered attachment parenting. Everything we’ve done is out of respect for everyone in the family, not based on modern techniques that may not have felt right to this family (which is also why you can’t just go by what one man says). I don’t understand how that could be anti-feminist more so than any other parenting style.

  7. Articles like this sure alienate a lot of firmly feminist, liberal, working mothers who also practice attachment parenting.

  8. How is attachment parenting anti-feminist? Feminism is about choice and equal opportunity. Not every woman wants a carer. Personally I don’t care about have a carer and would quite happily raise my children and effectively be a house wife. This is my choice. I should have equal opportunity to choose otherwise if I wish, which I do. I don’t wish though. This isn’t anti-feminist of me. I am exercising my right to choose and I choose to raise my child as I wish and I choose to let my partner be the main breadwinner so I can care for my children. To suggest that by feeding your baby for a healthy amount of time and carrying it attached to you is oppressive is actually insane…!

  9. I know AP moms who are feminist and AP moms who are not feminist – it really depends upon your motivation. I nursed both my kids until they were past four, shared our bed with them, wore them when possible and I know few people who are more feminist than myself (maybe my seventeen-year-old daughter). I have always worked outside the hone (although I would have enjoyed being able to be home with my babies longer if that had been a secure or financially possible choice for us – it wasn’t as it isn’t for most people), as has my spouse, but I do believe that children who are able to become securely attached in their early years contribute greatly to the health of our planet and I do believe that raising healthy, peaceful children is more important than anyone’s career, male or female. The children are our future. Dr. Sears seems like a nice guy to me – I read most of his books as a new mom – but he is no feminist,although I think he’s made progress over the years. He’s very much a product of his generation, though. That does not negate all the valuable work on attachment done by social scientists over the years. Evolutionary biology is a real thing and American culture takes individualism to dangerous extremes. I think more of an attachment mindset by men and women would be good for everyone. AP is not, however, the same thing as a cult of domesticity. Environmentalism is also extremely important, perhaps more important than anything as the world heats up, but we need ways to reduce our carbon footprint and plastic use that do not involve so much labor by women alone, for certain (long term – I suppose whatever can be done is better than nothing). You won’t find me canning anything…

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