Readers respond to Ayelet Waldman's critique of busybody parents.

By Salon Staff

Published August 18, 2005 5:14PM (EDT)

Read "Mind Your Own Kids" by Ayelet Waldman.

Amen to Ayelet Waldman's "Mind Your Own Kids."

I was once a fairly judgmental woman regarding the intricacies of birth, breast-feeding and child-care. Birth should be drug-free, breast-feeding should take place for at least a year, and one parent should stay home.

Then I had a child. My natural birth turned into a surgical c-section, my daughter refused to latch after birth and went on so many nursing strikes that my milk supply couldn't keep up, and I found out just how difficult being an at-home mother can be.

I was taught an incredibly valuable lesson: Most mothers need understanding without judgment. Thankfully, I never had a run-in with a lactivist, but I felt the terrible guilt of mixing formula and bottle feeding my daughter in front of my mother's group, whose children all happily gobbled at their moms' breasts. And I felt the sting of healthcare providers not seeming to understand the difficulty I was having with nursing. I was undermining my daughter's nursing relationship with me by giving her a bottle, yet she wouldn't nurse from the start. How, pray tell, was she supposed to eat?

In the world of the attachment parent, I should have attached a supplemental nursing system so my daughter could have suckled the formula from a contraption attached to my breast. In my world, it just wasn't working. Some babies truly never take to nursing, for a myriad of reasons.

The attachment parents I knew were never smug (with me, at least). They seemed to be lovely women who really were doing what they believed to be right for their babies. But when our babies were 8 months old and we all met for coffee, they were the most tired, the most frazzled, the most utterly sleep-deprived. Some were even having marital problems. Attachment parenting sounds like a wonderful thing, but the reality of it involves so much self-sacrifice that women are often left teetering on the brink of depression and anxiety. Wear your babies, sleep with your babies, nurse your babies on demand, put aside your selfish quest for sleep for the good of your baby.

Women need to embrace one another as opposed to offering the scolding condemnation of superior mothering. We have a lot in common, even if our styles of parenting differ, and that should bring us together, rather than separate us.

-- Kelly Facenda

Oh, come on, Ayelet. Are you seriously going to try to say that the only nosy, impolite parents you've ever come across are so-called attachment parents?

Maybe you don't know the kind of people I know, but I can tell you with certainty that I have learned that one true thing about being a parent is other parents think they know better than you do. And most of them are going to let you know about it, one way or another.

Where I'm from (a working-class community) no one has even heard of attachment parenting. But god knows they have heard of telling other parents what to do. I have been told (I don't know how many times) that I should "let the baby cry it out", and that "I'd see that breast-feeding wasn't going to work out" and that holding my newborn would "spoil" it. Try mentioning your plan for an out-of-hospital birth with a midwife around these people, and they will let you know that they think you are reckless and endangering the life of your newborn; they won't hesitate to tell you this while waiting in the buffet line at a picnic. Fun!

The advice from my family and hometown friends seems centered on doing what they consider modern, convenient and shows sufficient wealth. (Why make your own baby food when you can afford Gerber?) Sounds much like the entire baby boomer working class of America feels about many social issues, no? The advice you describe receiving seems centered on doing what's natural, "right," and that which disregards convenience and values research. (Why fill your baby with chemicals when you naturally produce breast milk?) That sounds much like the educated left of America. Hmmmm. Curious.

My point is that it's not the attachment parents, Ayelet. I realize that because this is the "hot new thing" in the parenting set for the cultural elite that it's now primed for public criticism, which sells articles. But it's patently unfair.

I'm not buying that the spankers keep their mouths shut and that the bottle feeders would never dream of criticizing a breast-feeder over Thanksgiving dinner or waiting for a subway. I know that's not true. I've been on the receiving end.

Some people are rude, bossy and nosy. Some people will wait until you ask their advice. Some people will politely refer you to books they have read, or give you a big box of rubber nipples that you didn't ask for at your baby shower -- a brand they "couldn't do without." But everyone thinks they know better than you do, and they will all find a way to let you know.

I think the type of advice and instructions vary, but really, we're all getting it one way or another.

-- Caroline Nicholl

Wow. That was a really great article -- for Parents or Your Baby or some such magazine. Too bad it ran in Salon instead.

I had previously thought that Ayelet Waldman's critics were being excessively vitriolic about the overabundance of affluent parenting/nanny articles, but even I've become weary of Salon's increasingly tedious "being a mom is, like, really, really hard" articles.

Enough, OK?

-- Katy Medders

I took Ayelet Waldman's essay to heart because I am one of those strident attachment parents she castigates. I agree with Ms. Waldman that most parents act out of convenience rather than conviction, but I think the issue goes farther than that. Mainstream parenting, from my vantage point, is characterized by a startling lack of empathy for children. Although rarely egregious enough to overcome my respect for boundaries and "personal parenting choices," some instances drive me to interfere. What would Ms. Waldman have me do, for instance, when I sit at the beach next to a toddler who stumbles around for over an hour in a disposable diaper that must have 5 pounds of seawater and salt in it (while the parents are wearing loose, dry cotton)? And really, how can anyone not see the cruel irony in one of our most cherished nighttime rituals, in which we read to our young ones about all the barn animals bedding down with their siblings and parents, just before leaving our own children to fend for themselves? I empathize with Ms. Waldman's personal situation, and I understand that there is a fine line between convenience and exigency. I just don't think many parents are near that line.

-- Parke Godar

Ms. Waldman and her parenting forum pals seem to forget what by now should be an Internet adage: If you're going to put any aspect of your life on the Internet, expect to be bombarded by the opinions of complete strangers and idiots. Don't want to hear a contrary opinion? Don't write about it.

That said, Ms. Waldman would do well to read "Our Babies, Ourselves" by Meredith F. Small. The book does a wonderful job of compiling, comparing and contrasting parenting styles the world over. She collects data from multiple sources, including anthropological, medical and biological reports. Among her more interesting findings is the revelation that what Dr. Sears and Ms. Waldman call "attachment parenting" is the norm for the majority of non-Western cultures. Far from a "fad" or a "religion," there's actual science and common sense behind many of "attachment parenting" methods.

The best part of Small's book is that she emphasizes what an individualistic thing it is to raise a child. There is no true "right or wrong" way of child rearing. As Ms. Waldman points out, a lot of parenting is accidental, and that's perhaps the one thing that parents the world over have in common. So, let me be one of the first to say "Good luck" to Ms. Waldman and "Shut the hell up" to the long line of scolds about to barrage Salon's in box.

-- James Elliott

I'm sure poor Ayelet will get yet another Web-lashing over this article, but I for one am glad someone finally came out and said something.

As a first-time mother expecting a son six weeks (or so) from now, I am inundated by conflicting advice from friends, family, books, Web sources and just about everything else. In my efforts to prepare for child raising, I've actually managed to become more confused than when I started -- and I haven't really even started yet. My best hope, I suppose, is to maintain a sensible outlook and just be flexible.

Be he a disposable diaper-wearing/formula fed/cry it out baby who is vaccinated within an inch of his life, or a cloth-diapered, breast only, child-directed-sleep baby, I can assure you: I'll love my child very much, and I will take responsibility for my choices. I'll ask others simply to respect my opinions and not force theirs on me too viciously.

-- Wendy

As a Salon reader and a frequent poster to the Berkeley Parents site, I read Ayelet Waldman's article on parenting with some interest. My wife and I have used many so-called attachment parenting techniques (co-sleeping, baby-wearing, nursing for much longer than is the norm -- at least in places other than Oakland), but neither of us is a fanatic, though the tone of Ms. Waldman's article suggests that all such parents are waiting to find and punish lapses.

While I agree that many attachment parents can be scolds about their chosen philosophy, I think that sentence is equally true if the word "attachment" is deleted. Parenting -- of almost any stripe other than "might makes right" --brings out our insecurities. The article makes this point, about three paragraphs from the end, but only after the author has had her fun bashing attachment parents.

If Ms. Waldman is interested in toning down the rhetoric, name-calling is an odd place to begin.

-- Michael Berman

Hooee, Ayelet Waldman is going to get it! But the flurry of scolding that is sure to ensue from her article will only perfectly demonstrate her point.

My first child had cloth diapers and no sugar before age 1 1/2; my fourth was eating blue things by the time he was 6 months old. All four were breast-fed, and nobody was sleep-trained -- the family bed, for us, staved off sleep deprivation psychosis. Attachment parenting? Sure, whatever. By default. For survival, let alone "convenience."

I think what drives much of the attachment contingent's scolding is the creeping fear of screwing up. I felt secretly righteous about breast-feeding my youngest until he was 3 (despite the fact that it was making me completely nuts) -- and hated myself when those night feedings resulted in 19 cavities, for which he had to undergo general anesthesia to repair. It took a long time for me to stop beating myself up, to remember it wasn't about me.

Self-righteousness about parenting dehumanizes us all, parents and children alike, because of its underlying fallacy that if we're doing everything right (or giving up enough of ourselves) our children will turn out all right.

Really, it's a crapshoot. Anyone who pays any attention knows that anything can happen, anything at all. And that's what makes life interesting. It would be so nice if we could give each other the benefit of the doubt to love our own children as best we can, and to lift each other up. Consider the smiling grandma in the grocery line, whose twinkle calms your little barbarians so you can survive the checkout line.

-- Christine Ennulat

Thank you, Salon. Every time you run a column like Ayelet Waldman's "Mind Your Own Kids," you help to relieve whatever lingering guilt or regret I still have over never having had any children of my own. Whether it is reading about how certain "enlightened" parents place their moral judgment over those who are simply trying their best, or merely absorbing the litany of tribulations apparently required to raise kids in this modern world, the cumulative effect reminds me that this is a life-absorbing, stress-inducing task -- the level of which I would simply be incapable of handling. We are not all meant to have children and it seems more obvious to me than ever that one has to be almost super-human in order to raise them today.

-- Jim Chadwick

When my daughters were babies, their mother was under the influence of a cult called La Leche League. Although I'm sure that there are many sane, well-meaning people involved in this, the women in this particular chapter were among the most judgmental, self-righteous people I've ever seen. They also almost universally had professional husbands, affording them the chance to be full-time moms. Most educated people would probably agree that breast-feeding is the healthiest option, but it seems to me that women who breast-feed until their kid can coherently order a meal in a restaurant are doing it for their own security -- not that of their child.

-- Paul Hobbs

Ayelet Waldman's piece should be required reading for the posse of sanctimonious mamas who patrol the Bay Area streets. My 3-year-old twins had a fleeting taste of breast milk before the pain of it made me realize that it would be better to hold them lovingly and feed them formula than to freeze with dread like some shell-shocked farm animal. We also went the Weissbluth route, with the result that we seem to have some well-rested kids who rarely lose it at the end of the day, and slip into sleep around the same time every night, allowing their brains to develop and us to enjoy some conversation or reading or trash TV or even sex.

I have never stopped anyone on the street to berate them about their sleep-deprived (but breast-fed) progeny, but this has never stopped the reverse from happening. Such as the woman at the nearby playground, for example, whose kid shoves Oreos (chocolate-covered, yet!) in at a clipped pace, and talks one's ear off about how she is still breast-feeding her 3-year-old daughter, sharing her bed, and shunning vaccinations, and also telling "those snotty-nosed kids with colds to go home." I am also annoyed by the moral superiority of the attachment crowd, especially as they seem to have adopted the techniques of another culture and superimposed it onto their own, without the support systems and extended family that make it such a viable idea in other places and such an exhausting one here.

I adore my children, would take a bullet for them, but I also love my husband and want to spend time with him, and cannot see how my kids' sleeping in their own beds (except, of course, in the case of an illness that we want to monitor) is akin to child abuse, especially as there's so much real neglect we might spend our energies railing about -- including the kind of pervasive poverty that renders so many kids truly bereft, nutritionally and otherwise.

-- Deborah Bishop

I was so pleased to read Ms. Waldman's piece "Mind Your Own Kids." I too live in what I thought was a laissez-faire, family-oriented community (Santa Monica, Calif.). What a rude shock it was upon having a child to discover that retro, knee-jerk impulses to political correctness had permeated parenting in my community.

In many cases (including my own, in the beginning), this kind of preaching seems to be based on formerly career-oriented mothers needing to channel their Type A tendencies into a new endeavor and wishing to validate their choices by shoving them down other people's throats.

What's really weird about some of the hardcore devotees is their desire to make attachment parenting into a kind of competitive sport or religion. I tell my friends who are new parents to just treat such people like you do the Jehovah's Witnesses who come uninvited to "save" you on your road to perdition: nod, smile, thank them for their interest, and close the door.

-- Susan Sheu

Ayelet Waldman compares those who voice concern for others' babies with those who criticize the ugliness of others' aluminum siding? Babies' health is not an aesthetic issue. If I see someone damaging a living, tiny, helpless, vulnerable person -- possibly out of total ignorance that her behavior is, in fact, damaging her own precious child -- I am absolutely justified in speaking up to inform her what her choice means. Moreover, when you post on an online message board about your parenting techniques, you are actively inviting criticism. The horror and sense of violation in this column would be more appropriate if complete strangers were barging into your house uninvited and picking up your crying baby.

-- Chelsea Lewis

Now that I am past it -- mothering, that is -- and deeply contented with a grandchild, I can look back on the parenting taboos of my generation with some amusement. In my day, red-faced mothers would come over to me at the playground to lecture me for serving my sons the wrong kind of apple slice. There is no Ph.D. in parenthood, as my mother used to say. We all do it differently. And there is always room for improvement. But most of all there is crushing need for compassion and generosity and humor. Step in if you see some poor wretched mother banging her kid's head at the Safeway, perhaps -- otherwise, leave it the hell alone.

-- Abigail Farrell

I am so glad to see the return of Ayelet Waldman's column. I always enjoy it and have missed it, even though it sometimes makes me want to argue with her. This column was one that made me want to argue, too.

The examples that Ms. Waldman gave of parents criticizing others certainly were very rude, but I think that the perception that "attachment-parenting" adherents are the main people who dish out this sort of sanctimonious judgment is unfair and off base. The fact is that a similar judgmentalism toward attachment-parenting practices is so much a part of mainstream culture that most people do not even notice it when it happens.

It is culturally acceptable in our society to give babies bottles and talk about feeling "pressured to breast-feed," but no one kicks you out of the museum for giving your baby a bottle. Who is being pressured here?

In fact, any breast-feeding mom who dares to mention that she is worn out or worried about anything regarding her baby will, in our society, be heartily greeted by a whole chorus of parents saying, "Give that baby a bottle so you can get some rest, get out more, so they won't starve, because it's disgusting to do that in public," etc.

I fully support a parent's choice to formula-feed if they want to, as only they know what combination of stresses and life situations will or will not work for their own family. All the same, in our culture, formula-fed infants who grow up to be preschoolers who have continuous ear infections, asthma and a host of preventable ailments and surgeries are given antibiotics and treated as if this is the normal course of childhood -- while breast-fed preschoolers who are healthy and happy can be removed from their homes by ignorant caseworkers. Who is being unfairly judged the most in this situation?

There are rude parents of every persuasion, but most people who say they feel "pressured" to breast-feed, etc., it means that three people have talked about it around them. As someone who really is an advocate of breast-feeding, what I want is for people who want to nurse to have the information and the support they need so that they can do it successfully and without being harassed in public. I have no interest in getting someone who doesn't want to nurse to do things my way, any more than I would want them to try to get me to do things their way. I am the most extreme advocate of breast-feeding I know and I truly feel that way. When will I criticize people for formula-feeding? Never. When will I compare it unfavorably to what I choose to do? When people harass me for parenting in a way that they do not agree with -- that is self-protection.

If mainstream parents don't want to hear from the attachment parenting crowd on their parenting choices, they might want to look in the mirror. It is hard to give tolerance when you so rarely get it.

-- Mariah Boone

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