No bottle feeders, no spankers

Attachment parents stick to their guns.


Amy Brill
March 31, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

The women in the room don't look
particularly subversive, tattooed biceps
and shoulder blades notwithstanding.
Their children -- all 9 to 18 months old
-- waddle, stumble, drool and tumble
like other babies. "So if I eat M&Ms all
day," one mom with childlike pigtails
asks guiltily, "will my milk be, like,
all sugar?" Faces turn to the front of
the room where a lactation consultant
fields questions over the din.

All these mothers are breast-feeding.
None of them works outside the home.
Most of the babies were delivered on the
premises -- the Elizabeth Seton
Childbearing Center in New York -- by a
midwife. When the little ones are in
transit, they nestle in slings or other
close-to-mom's-heart contraptions.

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"If you were a bottle-feeder or a spanker you probably
wouldn't be interested in this,"
comments Beth, the cherubic 29-year-old
mother of 16-month-old Santiago, summing
up this representative sample of
millennial moms.

These are attachment parents. No
bottle-feeders in these parts. These
women have discarded most of the
parenting strategies that dictated their
own upbringing, and turned instead
toward those that are considered
"instinctive" by their proponents. Are
these moms pioneers, bravely defending
the designs of nature against the
onslaught of science? Or are they people
unduly obsessed with their kids? Are
they fighting for the mental and
physical health of a new generation? Or
are they just riding a guilt-fueled
parenting trend?

A number of mothers say they didn't know
there was a name for what they were
doing until after they started doing it.
They say that what is currently known as
"attachment parenting" -- staying home
with the kids, sharing a bed, long-term
breast-feeding -- is what felt natural
to them. But now that their private
choices have become fodder for public
debate, they're taking flak from all
manner of authorities -- federally
anointed and self-appointed.

Suddenly, it seems, everyone has
something to say about bed-sharing and
breast-feeding -- much of it dismissive
or even hostile. Attachment parents,
though, have their own expert troops at
the ready. Not to mention a claim on
"instinct," a fairly impressive weapon
in any debate.

At the heart of the attachment parenting
philosophy are five core practices. The
"Baby Bs," as they are called, are birth-bonding, breast-feeding, bed-sharing,
baby-wearing (in a sling or a harness
like a Baby Bjorn) and "Belief in the
signal value of an infant's cry."
Coined by Dr. William Sears, a San
Clemente, Calif., pediatrician and
father of eight, the Bs seem simple
enough, and the underlying premise both
logical and comforting. As Sears
explains to new parents: "You want to
feel connected to your baby. My goal for
you folks is to help you become an
expert in your baby."

And these days, anywhere an
attachment-minded mom looks, a
validating force stands ready to assist
her. There are zillions of attachment parenting Web
pages,
associations and support groups. There
are books by Sears and by Katie Allison Granju that
cover all five of the Baby Bs, each of
which has its own attendant court of
experts.

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There are midwives and labor support doulas (who
offer emotional encouragement and
comfort during delivery) for the birth
part; lactation consultants for the
breast-feeding part. There are the
trainers who train such people. There
are support groups (La Leche League and
Attachment Parenting International are
big ones) and "Natural Attachment
Parenting Products," which include organic hemp diapers in
addition to the assortment of slings and
pouches for the baby-wearing part.

Best of all there is Sears himself,
author of "The Baby Book" and two dozen
other volumes that espouse intuitive,
contact-driven child-rearing. "If you
and your partner and your baby were on
an island and had nothing to follow but
your basic instinct, attachment
parenting is what you would do," he
explains.

Sears sounds, at least on the telephone,
disarmingly like Mr. Rogers: a kindly,
vaguely creepy, almost spiritual figure.
Sears says that women can get the basics
of attachment parenting from, say, one
class (never mind that he's sold around
a million books on the topic to date).
His next book, he says, will be titled
"Kids Who Turn Out Well: What Their
Parents Did." Which implies, of course,
that if you don't do what Sears suggests
you do, your kids may not turn out well
at all.

Sears, in fact, practically guarantees
results. Attachment kids, he says, will
grow up having advanced from the Baby Bs
to the "Four Cs:" confidence,
competence, caring and communication.

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"These kids," he intones, "will never
shoot up a school."

An attractive prospect, no doubt, to any
parent of a school-age child in the age
of Columbine. If said parent happens to
be a working mother, though, her
prospects become less rosy. In fact, she
might find herself up against a wall of
sanctimonious attachment types who don't
support her choices, since, according to
Sears himself, you have to be with your
baby most of the time to get an
authentic attachment experience
happening.

Here is Sears, for instance, on the
dilemma of the working attachment mom:

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I say, "Forget the day you're going back
to work" so they [don't] keep themselves
from getting too close to the baby for
fear it will be tough to leave. They
come back for the one-month checkup,
things are going great, they're real
connected, baby's in a sling, nursing on
cue, there's a real harmony.

So mom says, "I've got to go back to
work in about a month, Dr. Bill, would
you mind writing me a little medical
note so I can extend my leave a few
weeks?" So I say, "Baby's allergic to
formula" -- which is true,
microscopically every baby's allergic to
formula. I give them a medical reason to
extend maternity leave. They come back
in another month, they say, "I'm having
trouble finding a caregiver." They come
back by the third month and say, "You
know what! I've decided to change jobs.
I've started a home business."

Riiiight. When approached with the
question of what they would do
should they need to return to work
outside the home, many of the attachment
moms I spoke with took a more pragmatic
approach. "I'd pump," says Jennifer,
mother of 17-month-old Carlyle and
6-week-old Maxwell. "People do it."

Others, though, gave responses that
exemplified the philosophical gulf
forming between attachment moms and the
other kind. How self-absorbed and cold
appears the mother who can leave her
6-week-old baby in the hands of
strangers! How cruel it seems to let an
infant wail in a room alone, when you,
the mother, are right there, listening
in agony! How unnecessary the pacifier!
How unnatural the crib!

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One begins to wonder how a working
mother could ever forgive herself, or
even be friends with these other
mothers. Until, of course, you consider
how incredibly Peter Pan the idea is
that everyone can afford to hunker down
at home with their kids 24/7. How smug
indeed seems the middle-class full-time
mom, arms folded over her life-giving
breast, eschewing the workplace for the
greater good of her brood. How easy it
is to point to the expense of day care
and the desirability of full-time
mothering from the high perch of
financial and conjugal stability.

Or maybe the gap is, once again,
generational. "A decade ago the big goal
of women was to be in the workforce, and
women were waiting until they were in
their 30s [to have families]," is how
one 25-year-old mom explained the
attachment craze. "Now a lot of people
are starting their families at an
earlier age because we've seen what
happened to those women." Ouch.

Speaking of easy targets, the pithy
jargon and inevitable crunchiness of the
natural birth movement also lend
themselves quite nicely to teasing,
ridicule and general irreverence ("Draw
your door to birth!" urges one book.)
Attachment parents take plenty of heat,
and not just from the media. Many have
been challenged every step of the way by
their parents, faithful adherents to
laws laid down by an earlier crop of
experts.

Outsider angst is commonplace, even in
cities, where slings are already
ubiquitous. "I get it all the time," one
young mother recalls. "People in my
family started right at the beginning:
'I can't believe you're having natural
childbirth. You're crazy.' I'm like,
'OK, I'm about to undertake the biggest
challenge of my life and you're giving
me shit.'"

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The mainstream media, getting in on the
game, has recently spotlighted the
unorthodox -- for Americans, that is --
aspects of attachment parenting. Bed-sharing was unequivocally discouraged by
the Federal Consumer Product Safety
Commission this fall, despite its
prevalence in much of the non-Western
world; Rosie O'Donnell ridiculed
attachment practices on her daytime talk
show. The mothers, though, are fighting
back.

"On national TV the woman is saying,
'These people are all in one bed, they
don't ever put the kid down, the kids
never learn to walk,'" fumes Jennifer.
"It makes me so angry. It's like someone
telling you that the way you're having
sex is wrong.

"Attachment parenting is not never
putting your child down or all sleeping
in the same bed until the kid is 12.
It's just using your instinct, doing
what's right for your family."

Beth, another attachment enthusiast,
fired off a letter to Rosie "busting her
butt." "We're doing something well," she
says tartly. "Look at this child! He's
flourishing and beautiful and happy. So
how can anyone say that breast-feeding
or bed-sharing is weird?"

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History also figures into the
pro-attachment mix. "My grandmother had
her first one at home," recalls Carrie,
mother of 23-month-old Lola. "All her
kids slept in the bed with her, she
nursed them all until they were
toddlers, and when she'd get pregnant
the oldest would go sleep in the bed
with the siblings.

"Then again, her parenting philosophy
was, 'Spare the rod, spoil the child.'"

This selective harking back to The Way
Things Used to Be -- or as one zealous
mom-webmaster puts it: "The way
parenting was meant to be since time
beyond beginning" -- has tapped a nerve
among '90s women. In the grips of
millennial angst and/or postfeminist
gloom, the way Grandma did it is looking
better every day.

After all, the appeal of the "supermom" has faded and
with it the illusion that corporate
America would develop an infrastructure
to support working mothers.
High-quality, subsidized day care
remains a distant dream; lengths of
maternity leave in the United States
rank pathetically low compared to other
countries of the "first" world.

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What has not changed, though, is our
collective membership in, and reverence
for, the cult of expertise. There is
someone out there to advise us in all
things: how to be healthy or successful,
how to decorate or throw parties or get
promoted. Attachment parenting is no
exception. Thus the irony: A cottage
industry is now churning out the
knowledge mothers need in order to use
their own instincts.

"I'm almost embarrassed to say, I felt
like I needed to read about it to
legitimize it," admits Jessica Porter,
mother of 9-month-old Emma and
president of the Association of Labor
Assistants and Childbirth Educators.

"What we're doing is not mainstream,"
echoes Carrie, who refers to Sears' "The
Baby Book" as "my bible." "Initially
everyone we came across questioned what
we were doing. So even though we're
going by our instinct, we want to hear
that what we're doing is OK." Formerly a
publicist, Carrie is now a stay-at-home
mom undergoing certification to become a
doula.

"We're paving our own way rather than
taking Dr. Spock off the shelf and
saying, 'This is what the book says,
this is what we have to do,'" she
offers. Ten seconds later, I ask her
about La Leche League, of which she is a
group leader, and wait while she digs
around in her bookshelf.

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"Now where's my breast-feeding book?"
she wonders.


Amy Brill

Amy Brill is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Time Out New York, Premiere and Talk, among other publications.

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