Thursday, June 7, 2012

Attachment parenting

As I wrote last time, May was a VERY busy month for us, and it looks like I'll be busy much of the summer.  I don't have any intention of stopping blogging, but updates may not be 2-3 times a week the way I had intended.

Attachment parenting has been in the news recently, in part due to the provocative (or inflammatory) Time Magazine article the week of Mother's Day.  As someone who tries to practice attachment parenting, I find that I have a lot to say about this article.

The trouble began with the cover photo and headline.  Other critiques have pointed out that the very pose is unnatural, nothing like what breastfeeding a toddler is like.  I know, because I breastfed my son until he was about 3.5, about the age of the boy on the cover.

I can tell you upfront, I have never nursed my son in a pose like that.  The very nature of breastfeeding is nourishing and nurturing.  The first, instant mothering instinct, when DS wanted to nurse, was to put my arms around him.  And, truth be told, in order for me to remain standing up, he would have been in my arms.

One critique argued that by placing the child standing, it gave the impression he was older than he is (~3.5).  I can say that my son HAS nursed while standing up, sometimes.  The difference was that, in order for him to stand, I would sit, kneel, or otherwise crouch to where he could reach.

Many of the people who complain about nursing into toddlerhood and the preschool years, don't realize that nursing is a relationship.  As with any relationship, it takes two to make it work.

My youngest brother, when he was an infant, refused to breastfeed.  We later learned he might have broken his collarbone during birth, so that the nursing position was too painful.  I've heard other cases of infants refusing the breast.  Some mothers have the resources and patience to work through those problems, or to exclusively pump, and I greatly respect those who are able to make heroic measures work for them and their family.

You CAN be an attached parent and feed your baby formula, if that is what it takes to have a happy, healthy family.  This is often the case with adoptive parents, or with babies who have SEVERE allergies that require special formulas.  We supplemented with formula for many reasons, the simplest of which was that it preserved our sanity.  The more complicated reason, being that American society and social policies are not breastfeeding-friendly. (That, can be the subject of a whole 'nother post.)

As kids grow into the toddler and preschooler years, this becomes ever more clear.  There is no forcing them to nurse.  (You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink.  You can offer a kid breastmilk, but...)  By age 3, DS was primarily nursing at bedtime, for comfort and relaxation as he went to sleep.  If he nursed during the day, it was usually short rounds, and most often to soothe a boo-boo.  About the time I called it quits, he was nursing about once every 1-2 weeks.

The Geek in my husband and I came up with kennings for breastmilk.  We called it a "potion of sleep," because he often fell asleep at the breast.  We also called it a "potion of healing," because much like kissing the owie, a bit of milk often soothed the bumps and bruises of life.

The Time article also seemed to focus on extreme cases, and only on motherhood.  That is nothing like my experience.  It completely ignores the role of fathers in the parenting relationship.  Attachment parenting works best in a partnership.  Dr. Sears, whom the article seems to "blame" for the rise of attachment parenting, in his own books describes wearing his children.  Infants are demanding.  Brian and I would often tag-team it.  If one of us called "tag," the other knew to drop what they were doing as fast as possible and take over with the baby, so the one on duty could get a break.

I am an attached mother who went back to work as soon as my maternity leave was over.  In our situation, what made sense for our family, was for my husband to stay home and care for our son.  He did this full-time for three years, until the needs of our family shifted.  Fathers are parents too.  Good ones.

Attachment parenting varies from person to person, family to family, culture to culture.  I was determined to breastfeed for at least two years, because breastfeeding that long helps reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.    So instead of buying those pink ribbons, try supporting a breastfeeding mother.  Don't go complaining to waitstaff and store employees.  If you must talk to them, try offering a drink of water, since breastfeeding often makes a woman thirsty.

The biggest point that Time Magazine missed, with regard to attachment parenting, is that there is no single solution that works for every family.  Attachment parenting is a set of tools from which parents can mix and match as appropriate to their family.  Some of the tools used by many (but not all) attachment parents, in varying amounts are:

  • Breastfeeding (Could include exclusive breastfeeding, supplemental nursing systems, exclusive pumping)
  • Co-sleeping (with appropriate precautions to prevent suffocation)
  • Extended breastfeeding, for 2, 3, 5+ years. (The worldwide average age for ending breastfeeding is 4 years old.)
  • Gentle, often child-led weaning
  • Feeding choices may or may not include organic, vegetarian, vegan, raw food diets, etc.
  • Gentle discipline
  • Babywearing, using a variety of slings, wraps, backpacks, etc.  (We didn't do a lot of this. DS didn't like the sling and we usually ended up holding him in our arms instead.)
  • Baby Sign Language / simplified American Sign Language.
  • Children's education might include Montessori, Waldorf, Homeschooling, or Unschooling
  • Religious education in a variety of degrees and forms, including atheism.
The point of it all, is that parents need to decide what they value most, and how important those values are to them.  Many families can't afford to have one parent stay home, and that's okay.  Some families choose to sacrifice in order to get by on just one income, and that's okay too.  I grew up without cable tv, no piano or dance lessons, not playing soccer at the Y, so that my parents could afford to send four of us to Catholic schools, because they valued a Catholic education.

Life tends to force us to compromise somewhere, so most of us are muddling along as best as we can.  If the kids are healthy, mostly happy, nourished, and educated, then you are indeed Mom Enough (even if you're a Dad.)