Off-label parenting

An addition to the voting has put "Why I’m Not An Attachment Parent" into first place as The Post Readers Most Want Me To Write Next. 

I hope that’s not too misleading a topic description – this isn’t going to be one of those anti-AP polemics from people who are convinced, based on apparently no knowledge of child psychology whatsoever, that AP makes children excessively dependent or spoiled or the like.  Personally, I’m fine with the philosophy behind it – it’s hard to object to the idea that parents should seek to foster strong emotional bonds with their children, that breastfeeding is highly beneficial, that parents should be physically affectionate and emotionally responsive.  I don’t like the way that its advocates tend to mistake some potentially useful ideas for Commandments As To How Thou Shalt Parent engraved in stone and handed down from On High, but that’s hardly unusual in the world of parenting, and blaming AP advocates specifically for that behaviour would be a little unfair. 

What I reject, and have always rejected, is the label.  Even in Jamie’s early months, when I was battling heaven and earth to keep him exclusively breastfed in the face of difficulties, carrying him everywhere to an extent that Jean Liedloff could barely have found fault with, and abandoning all my pre-baby plans about getting Jamie used to his cot from the start in order to curl up on a mattress with him every night and blissfully co-sleep, I flat-out refused to call myself an Attachment Parent.

(I want to stress, here, that this is how I feel about the label – it isn’t how I think anyone else should necessarily feel.  It says particular things to me that I don’t like; it won’t say those things to everyone, and nor should it.  If it’s a label that suits you, excellent.  None of what I say is intended to be an attack on attachment parents collectively, and I truly hope it isn’t taken that way.)

There is no doubt that labels have their uses in life – they’re what make it possible for us to conceptualise, to categorise, to think about things in a structured way.  But that’s a double-edged sword.  Labels can also narrow our thinking.  Labels can be a way of tidying something away into a neat little box in our minds.  There are a great many things in my life that I’d love to have tidied away into neat little boxes (any volunteers?) but my parenting has never been one of them.  I wanted more space to let things flow as they might (and, apparently, to mix metaphors sufficiently to make an English teacher’s brain explode).

Once, on the AP mailing list I subscribe to, a mother was talking about the difficulties she was having with setting limits for her three-year-old son – he’d start to cry and fuss, and she’d feel obliged to give in.  When I inquired as to what she found difficult about letting him cry, another mother on the list objected that I clearly hadn’t understood what AP was all about.  Now, as it happens, I know perfectly well that AP is not all about giving in to your child’s tears no matter what – that’s just the stereotype of AP held by people who know next to nothing about it – and I dug up some apt quotes from the Sears’ webpage to back this up.  But it occurred to me afterwards that this touched on a key part of why I dislike the idea of putting any one particular label on my parenting.  I don’t ever want to make my parenting decisions based on "what Parenting Style X is all about", regardless of what the X might be.  I want to make them based on what Barry and I feel is right for Jamie and right for us, right for our family as a whole, whether or not they happen to agree with what it says in the Officially Sanctioned Handbook Of Parenting Style Whatever.

Labels can also be divisive.  As I said above, AP advocates are hardly the only parents prone to OneTrueWayism – that attitude certainly isn’t something I’d blame on AP, as such.  But I do think that, to some extent, it’s something I’d blame on the very act of labelling.  A label can be a way of saying that I’m doing things Right while you’re doing them Wrong.  When we talk as though one group of parents has some sort of exclusive claim to something that should, after all, be a deeply inherent part of parenting in general, what sort of attitudes does that foster towards parents who do things a little differently? 

I have actually heard the term ‘detachment parenting’ used by die-hard AP-ers to dismiss people who don’t parent according to AP-sanctioned principles.  Even where that specific term isn’t used, stereotypes abound.  The usual alternative with which I’ve seen AP parents compared in AP writings is the mother (and it is usually the mother who’s specified) who Leaves Her Baby To Cry In A Crib In A Room Down The Hall.  (Among other things, non-AP parents apparently all have unusually large houses – the rooms of these hypothetical non-AP’d babies are always ‘down the hall’.  We never seem to hear references to babies In A Crib In The Room Next To The Parents.)  When these babies are taken out of the Room Down The Hall, it’s apparently only to shift them from one Plastic Bucket to another – ‘plastic bucket’ not being meant literally, but as a derisive term for anywhere you can put a baby (car seat, bouncy seat, swing, high chair, pushchair) that isn’t a sling.  And, of course, putting babies in these Plastic Buckets means that you can’t possibly be forming any decent sort of attachment to them.  No, indeedy!

The problem is that AP sometimes seems to lose sight of the wood for the trees.  Breastfeeding into childhood, babywearing, and co-sleeping are looked at as the cornerstones of attachment.  (Oh, yes – and, of course, signing the blood oath that you will Never Abandon Your Child To Cry and will, in fact, spit in contempt whenever the name of Ferber is mentioned.)  Now, personally, I can think of excellent reasons for doing all these things (apart from the spitting in contempt) – we all know the health benefits of breastfeeding, babywearing can be both convenient and fun, and co-sleeping was, for me, a gift from the Parenting Gods and the saviour of what tattered shreds are left of my sanity.  But I think they have a fairly limited relationship to the strength of your attachment to your child.  It is perfectly possible (and not even particularly difficult) to wean your baby early or start her on formula from Day 1, use a pushchair for trips and a cot for night-time, and still foster a wonderful attachment.

I have to borrow Beanie Baby’s excellent analogy here – breastfeeding, babywearing and co-sleeping as routes to Better Parenting are like footrubs and candlelit dinners as routes to Better Marriages.  They’re potentially good ways of improving bonding, but hardly the be-all and end-all, and not even the only way to a blissfully happy and well-bonded relationship.  Far from it.  Attachment is the sum total of how you respond to and interact with your child in a thousand tiny ways day after day after day throughout his childhood.  There isn’t a single specific way to go about this, and, paradoxically, thinking that there is can actually interfere with your ability to meet your child’s needs – while the vast majority of children will thrive on AP (as they will on most parenting methods) it can cause problems for the child who really needs to be left alone to cry for a few minutes to release tension or whose mother is struggling with such severe breastfeeding problems that continued efforts to breastfeed are actually impeding her attachment.  AP is no more immune than any other child-rearing how-to to the potential problem of letting the dogma get in the way of the baby.

And the other problem with labels is that they can blind us to the fact that, in real life, it actually isn’t that easy to categorise people – we do have this annoying tendency of not fitting into those neat little boxes.  I breastfed Jamie into toddlerhood, took him into bed with us every night until he started sleeping through of his own accord, carried him everywhere during his pre-crawling months, own four different types of baby carrier, and go out to work only because my husband is staying home and therefore one of us is always with our child.  I also started him on formula supplements from four months old, left him to CIO when he was thirteen months, weaned him when he was sixteen months, use a pushchair when I want to take him anywhere, and am planning to put him into his own room (which isn’t Down The Hall, but would have been had we managed to get the house we’d originally planned on buying) within the next couple of weeks.  All of these are decisions I’m happy and comfortable with, decisions that were right for our family.

So, does all this mean I’d qualify as an Attachment Parent or not?  I’m guessing that, if that was ever voted on, votes would be divided.  And I don’t particularly care.  I might or might not be considered an Attachment Parent, but I’m an attached parent.  Not because of, or in spite of, any of those things, but because of the way I’ve reacted to and responded to my son over the twenty-one months since his birth – being there for him, responding to his needs and wishes, caring for him, letting him know at every stage just how much I love him.  I don’t see any of that as being, specifically, an Attachment Parent.  I see it as being a parent.

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6 Comments

Filed under Deep Thought

6 responses to “Off-label parenting

  1. See, I KNEW I wanted to read your post about why you weren’t an Attachment Parent! The title really surprised me, and I thought “there MUST be something more to it.” I couldn’t agree more (although I DO call myself an Attachment Parent.) Thanks! 🙂
    Now I’ll go and vote about the MMR 🙂

  2. Constance

    The attachment parenting post is first class. Full blown attachment parenting seems to preclude attachment grand-parenting [or attachment aunt and uncle-ing or attachment cousining etc] or any of the bonds and ties that enrich each life. This is something I haven’t seem much discussed but it feels important watching, as I do, from a different perspective. In fact, A/P seems predicated on one true set of attachments much like one true faith. The warning lights begin to come on at that point for me. Thanks for a detailed and thoughtful posting on an important issue.
    C

  3. Ruth

    I really liked this post and think you do a good job of conveying the slightly self righteous tone that OneTrueWay parents often adopt.
    My problem with the whole idea of attachment parenting is that I believe that one of the most important roles of a parent is to facilitate their own child’s separation from them and to help the child develop an independent life and personality distinct from the parent’s. I wonder when and how, when the child and the mother are so emmeshed (sleeping in the same bed, nursing well into todlerhood etc)this process starts to happen.
    I also feel that this type of parenting can often become about meeting the needs of the mother as much as the child. It then becomes very hard for the mother to ‘let go’ as the child gets older. Through my work I have seen many parents of teenagers who are still so bound up in the lives of their children that it becomes completely suffocating. The kids in turn find it hard to assert their own identity without feeling like they are somehow letting down their parent.
    I’d like to know how ‘attachment parents’ see this process of separation unfolding as the child gets older. I know friends who are still struggling with these types of claustrophobic relationships with their parents well into their thirties!

  4. Beth

    Ruth,
    I’m not an Attached Parent, and I co-slept and nursed my child well into (well past) toddlerhood, and I’m also really into my kids’ independence and separation. I think of myself as a slacker mom (although probably not a Slacker Mom).
    In my case, I found that letting the kid decide to stop nursing and manage sleeping solo gave a chance for the kid to feel mastery and independence. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not liking to sleep with your kid, and there are many reasons why co-sleeping is not a universal practice. But making that decision for your kid takes away one chance for them to assert their own identity without feeling … Luckily there are lots of other chances, which is why there doesn’t have to be One True Way to be a good parent.
    I think the key is more attitude than deeds — suffocating parents can be Attachment fanatics or Ezzo devotees.

  5. Ruth

    Hi Beth,
    That’s a good point, and I’m sure that the parents of my friends probably weren’t ‘attachment parents’ as such back in the 70s, so I’m sure you’re right taht the main issue is the personality/ attitude of the parent and child.
    Don’t think there’s any wider significance to this, but I found it interesting. My mother told me recently that when I was a baby there were two types of pushchair you could buy- one that faced the mother and one that faced out into the world. She thought at the time that it was crucial to get the one facing out into the world. I thank her very much for that decision.

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