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.