Category Archives: Attachment Parenting

My rainbow “baby” is two!

I am drinking a mimosa & eating waffles with my hands (no syrup). The guests have left. Our newly-minted two-year-old is napping. And father & son are cleaning the latest Lego disaster in the basement.

“Baby” M is two. We had a very small brunch party to celebrate her birthday. (Hence the waffles & mimosas…)

It was too hot to bake & we don’t have air conditioning in the kitchen, so I made a chia seed pudding & we cut up an obscene amount of fruit & called it a birthday party. (I stuck M’s two birthday candles in blueberries, which I thought was terribly clever but was actually just completely ineffective.)

M’s grandparents respected my no-pink request & M also got a much coveted pink baby-doll stroller from her auntie & uncle (to whom I made no such request). The balance worked perfectly & M is very happy. Oh & her grandpa bought her a ton of balloons, which blew her mind.

Life is fun & slow with a two-year-old. I had forgotten that. She is a scientist, observing & figuring out how her world works. Through experimentation, she is discovering her preferences & inclinations & abilities.

Today she realized, as we sang “Happy Birthday” & said her name, that she is loved by her tribe.

But she also needs me. A lot.

She does love her family & friends. I plan to exploit this love for others (& her newly-developing, though cautious, independence) to take better care of myself (& my vegetable/herb garden) in the coming year. (And she can help with the garden care… as long as she stops picking green tomatoes…)

I also remember that the year of two is really when my babies stop being babies. There is now no denying the changes going on, the little child emerging from all of that delicious baby chubby-ness.

I have to respect that process, which takes constant reminders to myself. Reminders that my old tactics may not work. Reminders that her memory is stretching backward even as races forward. Reminders that new activities & challenges, gently introduced. And reminders that I need to gamify our tough moments.

Right around the 2 1/2-year mark with my son, I started to do more, like read books & make homemade kombucha, even while I was clerking for a federal judge.

Sometimes I recall those times & wonder who that person was. But then I remember starting a new job. And then the heartache & depression that came with pregnancy losses. Then the intensity of infancy with M And I try to cut myself some slack.

My inertia is just starting to come back.

And that’s okay. I’m realizing that there is truth to the old wisdom about the seasons of life. Life is not a linear journey & I can respect the place I am in now. I can do a lot but I can’t do everything at once.

So, can we all cut ourselves some slack? Hug our babies (even the big babies) & our loved ones & just be? Be gentle with ourselves & with them? And with our neighbors & others? (I struggle with being gentle with myself & others… it’s a work in progress…)

Our energy does not come from nowhere (thanks, high school physics!), so let’s find our sources of energy & recharge. And maybe we’ll have some energy left over to share.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that for better or worse, this season will pass. More literally, this summer will be over in a snap & while summer can be stressful for us parents (what with juggling childcare & camp & actives), breathe & enjoy it. Even if for only one moment.

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Metaphorical motherly musings on Mothers’ Day

I spent a lot of time holding & cuddling my sleeping “baby” (aka, the toddler) yesterday. She wanted “mama” all day long & slept next to me for her nap & in my arms at the beginning of the night. When she was taking her bath, I heard her calling out “mama… mama!” sweetly as I stole a few minutes of solitude in the kitchen.

As I lay staring at her in the afternoon light during her nap, I thought of a tree.

I want her to be mine. Forever mine. But I know that’s not what motherhood & childhood & life are about. She’s no more mine than my partner is mine. She is no more mine than a beloved tree.

The most I can I hope for is to be a part of her core. Like the seed that (I imagine) forms the core of the rings of a tree. She will, I hope form her self around that inner core.

The core will, naturally, become more distant to her outward appearance & the self that she presents to the world, but it will still be there.

My job, is to be loving & stable, so that her core & the inner rings that are forming right now, are as solid as possible.

And that core is not only my work, my job, but also that of the others who are central to her life right now. That is the motherly work of parenting. So, whether you are a mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, babysitter, nanny, friend, your work is important. Happy Mothers’ Day.

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The hardest thing about being a parent

“Noooo! Start the next chapter!”

As I was doing bedtime with the kids last night, I suddenly realized what for me has been the hardest part of being a parent: It’s the feeling that you’re never doing enough.

I don’t mean that in an abstract, perfectionist-y kind of way. I mean that literally my children are always asking more of me.

T (my oldest) was dragging his feet getting ready for bed tonight & wasn’t ready (despite lots of gentle prodding) until “lights out” time. Which meant there was no time for reading. Except I know that no reading really sucks, so I told him I’d read to him for a measly 5 minutes. When that came to an end (&, really, I’m 99% sure we went past 5 minutes because, I’m a sucker & love reading to him…), he pleaded for more time. This, despite the fact that he ran out of time, I still read more than I said I would & should have had no time at all.

Now, some authoritarian-minded parents might tell me, with some kernel of truth, that I’m reaping what I’ve sown. In other words, I didn’t stick to the firm limits I had set, so of course he’s going to ask for more!

But I know that bedtime without reading just doesn’t work. And he was none the wiser to the fact that I went over the 5-minute limit I had set. I simply said, “time’s up!” & shut the book.

And had we had time to read for an hour, he would have still asked for more. That’s just how my kids work. And I suspect I am not alone.

I live in a universe that is the exact opposite of the beautiful Neil Young lines: “Will I see you give more than I can take? Will I only harvest some?”

To answer (your entirely rhetorical) questions, Mr. Young: No, I will see them take more than I can give! No, they will not only harvest some. They will gladly take it all.

Or, at least it feels like that sometimes.

And then I start to wonder: Okay, even if it is not just my kids, is it just American kids? Western kids? Kids with some amount of privilege?

Am I doing something wrong? (Well, to answer that not-entirely rhetorical question: Yes. Plenty.)

Or is there something else going on?

Babies ask for the moon & the sun. Hold me. Feed me. Love me. Rock me. Show me. Touch me. Help me. Comfort me.

In the beginning, they take all we can give & more. It’s instinctual. They beckon us with a yelp or a cry. Then with a smile or a coo.

I never questioned the necessity of those asks. I just gave.

Yet, at some point I started to construe those asks, those demands on me, as selfish.

At 21 months, I’m definitely not there with M (my youngest). At 9 years, I’m definitely there with T.

But why? What changed? And, when?

Nothing’s really changed, but everything has. He’s pulling away, developing into his own individual identity. But when he needs me…. It’s like a rubber band pulled taught & then released; man, it snaps back with a vengeance.

He needs those moments when we’re both at ease & open to each other & alone. And, thirsty & in need, he drinks them up (as do I, honestly). (To wit: laying in his bed with a book we both adore, unconsciously leaning towards me until we’re in full-on cuddle mode.)

His needs are real. And while he’s at an age where I can say “no” or “later” & expect him to understand, at least in normal circumstances (like an average bedtime), I have to still find a way to fill those needs.

And I think that’s where I struggle. Especially with a young toddler who is still at an age where limits are difficult, to say the least, it can be difficult to manage & navigate their needs while not completely neglecting my own needs as a human being.

But what I’ve come to realize is that the demand for “more” is real & does not mean that my children are particularly selfish.

I’m simply playing a constant game of catch-up, trying to figure out how to meet their needs in developmentally appropriate ways. That’s the really hard work. The true challenge & calling of being a parent.

What do we offer to our children to harvest?

More lyrics, this time from Beach House: “It won’t last forever. Or maybe it will.”

I hope it will. At least, I hope that my relationship will persist with my children to the extent that a small part of them will always need me. I realize the upheaval of adolescence is just around the corner, really, with adulthood to follow. I hope to be there every step of the way with something to offer.

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Becoming a sleep iconoclast: How I found my way without sleep training

icon • o • clast : noun : a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions (Merriam-Webster)

This is the second post in a series about how I came to be a sleep iconoclast. Check out part one for why I quit the rat race of sleep training. This post is about how my family manages to get enough sleep without caring too much about what the clock says.

We left off with why you should consider ignoring the advice of most so-called sleep “experts,” with the exception of writers like Elizabeth Pantley & Sarah Ockwell-Smith.

At some point, though, you have to put aside the books, log off, & tune into your unique situation. So, that’s the first thing I did on my path to sleep freedom: I stopped reading about sleep. In fact, I gave away my copy of Pantley’s book. I also (mostly) stopped reading about sleep online.

Then, after learning to expertly read Baby M’s tired signs & acting on them swiftly, the second thing I did on my own was to stop tracking night wakings. This was absolutely life-changing. I didn’t look at the clock when the baby woke up. I didn’t count how many times she woke up in the night. I always tried laying her down initially, but I didn’t track whether she stayed down for five minutes or an hour.

This move was so freeing, I cannot even explain! Sure, I still intuitively knew if we have a more interrupted night than usual, but by not cataloguing the baby’s sleep, even mentally, I stopped judging & evaluating every. single. night! (I have to admit, I am not so loosey-goosey as to turn on the light & let Baby M play in the middle of the night. To the extent that I keep our world dark at night & don’t engage in active play when the baby wakes, I suppose I engage in some sleep “training.” But we never insist that either child has to be alone or asleep at any point, day or night.)

As a corollary to not tracking nighttime wakings, I also stopped timing naps & “insisting” that naps be a certain proscribed minimum length. We judge how successful a nap is by Baby M’s mood upon waking. If she’s upset or extremely groggy, we know the nap has been too short & we try to nurse or rock her to sleep again. If she’s happy but the nap seemed a bit short, we follow her lead—We know we can’t force her to sleep.

Third up, we stopped caring about how or where the baby sleeps. Again, we follow her cues. Sometimes (less so now that she’s 1 1/2 year old) we hold her for an entire nap or for a long time at night. Sometimes she has good stretches in her bed. When she was smaller she napped in a bassinet connected to our bed or in a pack ‘n play in the living room. She always ends up in bed, next to me at night. We bed-share for some naps on weekends & we also let her nap & sleep in the baby carrier, the stroller, the car seat, etc.

We keep to a general (& very brief) routine, but this baby is a part of a busy family & sometimes naps happen on the go. Sometimes an accidental cat-nap is actually just what she needs.

We also trust that when she needs us, she needs us, so we’re ok with holding & co-sleeping & bed-sharing. (Regarding bed-sharing, I found the La Leche League’s guidelines for safe bed-sharing to be very helpful.)

Fourth, I have learned to expect disruptions. Teething, developmental “leaps,” illness, travel, changes to the daily routine … the list goes on & on. Sometimes there’s no reason at all for a sleep disruption (or at least not one I can discern).

These disruptions happen to all families, whether they sleep train or not. The difference is how you react to those disruptions. But no matter whether it makes sense to you or not, your child is communicating a real need to you.

For example, lately, I notice that, on Mondays, after being together for a few days, Baby M misses me & this changes her sleep patterns. Her brother heads off to school, I go to the office, & her dad heads off to work too. She adores her babysitter, but come Monday night, she just wants to reconnect with me & nurse a lot. All night. It’s ok. It’s exhausting, but it’s a real need & I’ll survive. And I plan accordingly.

…Which leads me to my last adjustment. Planning for sleep for you! It’s obviously important to prioritize getting enough rest for the entire family, especially for yourself if you’re the primary nighttime parent.

Admittedly, this is not easy when I’m following my baby’s lead when it comes to sleep. But I need to be functional every morning at work. Our son needs to get to school. My partner has to find time to get his work done. So here’s the inconvenient secret: An early bedtime for everyone.

When I first went back to work, I went to sleep with the kids. At, like, 8:00! As Baby M started sleeping for a stretch on her own early in the night & I find I have to be vigilant & force myself to not stay up too late. I aim to be asleep (or at least in bed) no later 9:30.

This way, I am sure to get an aggregate of adequate sleep. Even for adults, our sleep patterns are more malleable than you might expect. In fact, the idea that we need a solid eight-hour block of sleep may be more of a cultural creation than a real biological need. Prior to the Industial Revolution, the normal adult sleep pattern was a night of sleep broken into two segments, between which people actually embraced being awake & engaing in activity!

I’m not going to lie: A night with a lot of wakings is tough to weather. But if I get a few solid chunks of sleep that add up to around eight hours, I’m okay. (You may be different, in which case you may need to engage your partner, if you have one, more often or find ways to gently nudge your child toward longer stretches. No judgment… you gotta be your own iconoclast!)

Unfortunately, an early bedtime also means that time alone with my partner suffers. My nighttime social life (to the extent that I had one!) is almost nonexistent. And, as my son has noted, family movie night has been ruined by the baby!

I just have to remind myself (& my family) that this phase will pass. For now, my partner & I consciously plan to spend time together after work or during naps on the weekends. And I try to meet friends during the day or visit as a family.

The hard reality of being a parent is that it’s a 24/7 job. It’s up to me how I react to that reality. I’ve chosen to enjoy it.

Seriously.

I love to smell M’s soft hair in the night. I enjoy my older child’s snuggles when he decides to climb into bed with us. (Not so much the kicks to the back…)

Of course, I don’t enjoy feeling groggy or grumpily sleep-deprived. I try to look at a crappy night of sleep as an excuse for an extra cup of delicious coffee. But Baby M is sick right now & last night I basically didn’t sleep. It sucked. No amount of coffee can make that okay.

But when my children are grown, I will look back at these years knowing that I did the best I could to savor the sweetness buried in the challenges of day-to-day (or night-to-night) life with young children.

And that is why I’m now a devoted sleep iconoclast! I hope you also find your own way!

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Becoming a Sleep Iconoclast: Why I broke up with sleep training

icon • o • clast : noun : a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions (Merriam-Webster)

For the most part, I have avoided writing about sleep. Some years ago, not long after starting this blog, I wrote a series of posts adapting Attachment Parenting International’s principles of attachment parenting for working moms. When I got to the topic of sleep, I faltered. Ultimately, rather than tackle the topic, I abandoned the series all together.

Not only did I feel I had nothing to say worth reading about sleep, but my son’s sleep situation made me feel embarrassed. It was one area where I felt I was a complete parenting failure. (I have failed & continue to fail in many, many ways, but I felt I was a categorical failure when it came to sleep.)

My son didn’t sleep. Or couldn’t sleep. Or so I thought. He slept on someone. And when he woke up, forget about it. It was back to square one with the nursing & the bouncing & the rocking & the delicate operation that was laying him down in his crib. Forget about naps. We were lucky to get 15-25 minutes in the early days!

At the time, I just assumed that even AP families were supposed to be able to put their little ones down for a bit of independent sleep now & again. Looking back now, I see how cultural norms surrounding sleep crept into my attempt at AP nighttime parenting. I shouldn’t have assumed anything…

Beyond the sheer exhaustion that ensued for those first 2 years or so, the whole situation made me doubt everything about my parenting. Was I nursing too much? Not pumping enough? Not giving him the right solids during the day? Cosleeping too much? Too little? Studying too much? Working too much? Giving him too much stimulation during the day? Not enough?

Sleep, it turns out, is a big deal in the parenting world not only because there’s never enough of it at the right times, but also because it bleeds into all aspects of the early parenting journey.

And in American parenting culture (which is “independence”- & dominance-driven, rather than collaborative), sleep is a key barometer for your success or failure as a parent. I was clearly failing because my son did not sleep, at least not in the right ways.

And here’s a big admission: Because I misconstrued sleep as a key to parenting success, I got angry a lot at bedtime. This started in his infancy & continued through his two’s, after he transitioned to a big kid bed. I think this is perhaps why I’m most embarrassed by this episode in my mothering journey. I tried so hard to be a gentle parent, respectful of my son’s needs, but I just lost my temper so often at night. I never harmed my son physically & I was usually successful in bottling my anger, but I’m sure my tone & words were less than kind on some many nights. I often had to just walk away.

I was & am ashamed of this. If I could do one thing over with my son, it would be all about sleep.

What’s different today? I am an exhausted, bed-sharing/co-sleeping mother to a 1 1/2 year old who still nurses a lot at night & has unpredictable nighttime patterns… But, I’m mostly okay with this. That last bit is the big difference: My attitude has shifted.

And, so, with some perspective on my experience with my son & additional experience with the baby, I feel like I can & should write about sleep.

When I had my daughter, I was determined to not repeat the mistakes I made with my son & in the process I discovered something: Sleep “training” is nothing more than a cottage industry offering books & services to unwitting parents caught up in the cultural tide that is mainstream, competetive parenting in America.

So, I decided to quit that rat race…

I am now officially a sleep iconoclast. Forging my own path without shame. Throwing out (almost) all the baby sleep advice sans guilt. Giving the boot to the concept of sleep “training.” Slaying expections surrounding normal infant & child (& adult) sleep patterns. (Mostly) loving bedtime & sleep & nighttime parenting proudly.

What did I discover is wrong with most sleep training advice? Why toss it all out? It’s all about perspective—The premise is wrong & all that follows is necessarily flawed.

Almost all sleep books start from the adult perspective. This perspective defines normal sleep as sleep that primarily takes place at night for blocks of 7-9 hours. From this perspective, sleep is also something that is self-initiated & occurs in large, uninterrupted chunks of time. Our modern days & lives are built around the construct of this big nighttime, 8-hour sleep.

Not to mention that the American cultural obsession with “independence” is also an adult concept that is overrated & often unfairly imposed on infants & children.

All of this must be quite different from the infant’s perspective. An infant (fresh from the womb & new to the concept of day & night) wants to sleep when he’s tired, whenever that happens to be. He wants to be close to his favorite person in the world (that’s you). He wants milk before falling asleep (or after… or both). He definitely wants milk while falling asleep. He prefers to sleep in short snippets of time, just like he did in the warm comfort of your belly.

Now, your response might be (understandably) that you have to function in a world that is designed around ingrained, typical adult sleep patterns. So, you have to train your baby or child to adapt to the typical pattern, too. This seems logical. (And as an attorney with a day job, I get it.)

But babies are anything but logical. They’re instinctual & biologically driven. Unfortunately for us adults, this means that their sleep patterns are incredibly inconvenient & difficult to change. So difficult, in fact, that trying to convince a baby to sleep at a time or in a manner different from what her little body is telling her is usually a frustrating endeavor for both parent & child. Sometimes (usually?) it’s simply futile.

Most sleep advice tacitly recognizes that infant sleep is fundamentally different from adult sleep by admitting that babies need a lot more sleep than adults need. They need naps. They need a larger total amount of hours at night dedicated to sleep.

Beyond the newborn days, though (when we’re admonished to “nap when baby naps”), sleep training advice is mostly adult-focused, often urging parents to impose a schedule & stick to it. Sure, that’s convenient, but it’s not always what the child needs. We should recognize that we, as adults, are the ones who primarily benefit from a predictable schedule not our children.

While the adult world keeps barreling along according to inflexible & often inscrutable schedules, from an infant’s perspective, sleep might be boring, scary, hard, intrusive, uncomfortable, lonely, unnecessary, etc. Or it might be easy & best done in solitude. You just don’t know until you know. And to know, you have to watch, listen, observe.

But even if your child is a “good” sleeper, there’s bound to be something inconvenient about it, whether it’s an early bedtime (as in, right after you get home from work) or a second (or third) nap in the afternoon (you know, when you have to pick up your older child from school…). So, what to do?

What’s wrong with relying on “experts” to help you fix these & other “problems” with your child’s sleep? Not only do the so-called “experts” almost always start from the wrong perspective, as explained above, they are most certainly not expert in your child’s sleep signals & patterns & needs. For example, your pediatrician is likely not a good source of advice on infant sleep because she’s not with your baby at bedtime or nap time. A book author, even if he has “Dr.” in front of his name, has never even met your baby! And sleep needs are nothing if not unique to the individual child.

If you must consult an expert, at least make sure it’s someone who understands & respects infants as having unique needs in the sleep department. Personally, I loved Elizabeth Pantley’s book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Newborns: Amazing Sleep From Day One—For Baby and You. This gem is one of the only books out there that focuses on the right things: namely, normal infant sleep patterns & learning your baby’s language. (Also safe sleep, which is a must.) Pantley clearly understands & respects the needs of infants.

Also, Sarah Ockwell-Smith has a wealth of solid information regarding normal infant sleep on her website (& presumably, her book on sleep, too, though that’s not available in the good ol’ USA).

But even the best writers on infant sleep will only get you so far. Ultimately, it’s going to be up to you to find your path. I’ll share deets on what my path has looked like in part two in this two-part series.

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Why dropping my phone in the toilet was one of the best thing to happen to me lately…

… And it’s not because I was angling for an iPhone X iPhone 8 refurbished iPhone 7…

So, on a recent evening, as I rushed to pee & get to baby, who was not satisfied with her father in that moment, I forgot that my phone was in my shallow back pocket. Plunk…

Yes. My phone fell in the toilet.

After I, um, rescued my phone, I swapped my soggy phone for a whimpering baby (…actually, I washed my hands first…).

And then I panicked… naturally… What would I do in the dark & quiet as my baby slept in my arms? What would I do afterward when I would be tired-bored-not-tired? What would I do on my commute in the morning?

After my panic passed, I just sat, in the dark & quiet, nursing & then holding my sweet little girl. And I enjoyed it. Not that I don’t always almost always enjoy holding her. It’s just that I usually do so distractedly. As in: I enjoy holding my darling baby while doing useless shit on my phone. Or watching an episode of The Crown.

But that night, I went to bed without my normal distractions. And it was peaceful, as bedtime should be. The next day, I was (by default) more present in everything I did.

And come Monday morning, I didn’t even miss my phone anymore. My commute was productive in that I attended to work & made an action plan for my work week. I took a book, which I read on my way home. That evening, I enjoyed more quiet reading with my son & sweet rocking with the baby.

It was as close to a tech detox as one can have on accident. As I waited to see what would become of my phone as it dried out, I took the opportunity to just do without as much as I could.

And it really was glorious in unexpected ways. I was really conscious of all the times throughout the day that I have cluttered & mucked up with constant access to tech.

The other good (or not-so-good) news here is that my phone survived to function until the next accident or failure. As a cloth diapering mom, I have no fear of potty material, so I didn’t hesitate to plunge my hand into the toilet to rescue my phone. I immediately took off my seriously protective case, shook it off & handed it to my partner, who did some quick googling & secured the requisite bag of rice. After 36 hours, I confirmed there was no water damage by peaking into the SIM card slot. After 48 hours, I took a chance & turned it on. And it worked.

So here I am, trying to do a better job at self-regulating, but still indulging my less desireable qualities & checking my phone more often than I should. I now know I can live without, yet my instinct in so many moments is to reach for my phone, even when it hasn’t dinged for my attention.

Most nights, though, I reserve some time for just snuggling baby. Breathing with her in my arms. Breathing her in. Breathing in these moments that I know pass too quickly.

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Being There: The nitty-gritty details & the rest of Mom, JD’s review

Clarity, part two of three-ish…

This is part two of my review of Erica Komisar’s book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. You can find part one here.

I want to make my point clear from the start, because I think it’s so important (… & sometimes I get long-winded & my arguments get lost…): The reason I think a project like Komisar’s is so dangerous is that it robs working mothers of quality time with their children. The guilt is insidious, like a parasite roaming your thoughts at the least opportune times. The result is not presence (Komisar’s claimed goal), but anxiety. Instead of enjoying the protected time we have with our young children, the danger is that we start analyzing every interaction.

Don’t just take my word for it. In an article aimed at a particularly “intensive” interpretation of attachment parenting, Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist, writes on her blog:

This all might sound daunting for a new parent, who could still be tempted to overdo the focus on the infant and how the connection is going—potentially leading to the same kinds of stress and guilt that the attachment parenting movement creates.

The same could be said of Komisar’s brand of focused mothering, which is demanding & all-consuming (not least because “outcomes” & the resultant pressure to be “present” fall solely on the mother, as opposed to being shared equally with a partner or other caregiver… even if other caregivers are allowed in Komisar’s model, it is clear that she is advocating a model in which mothers alone bear true responsibility for the well-being of the child).

My wish is for mothers to feel empowered to learn to understand their children so that they can in turn trust their gut to know when something is amiss & adjust course. You can get there. And Komisar is right on one thing: Presence is the key to nurturing a relationship with your child that becomes a feedback loop. I just don’t think you get more mothers to that sweet spot by inducing guilt in working mothers or criticizing women for being “ambitious.”

*****

In the rest of this post, I am going to present the three concrete reasons why I think that Komisar’s overall argument is wrong:

1. Science may sparkle, but it’s not always gold.

Science! How it dazzles & impresses. Yet, in this book, Komisar engages in a pattern of relying of scientific studies that do not actually support her overall argument. She often (a) cites to scientific studies that do not say what she says they say, or (b) cites to a scientific study & then draws an additional conclusion that is not supported by the study cited.

For instance, right there on page one of the main text:

A new study released by the Stanford University School of Medicine showed that a child’s brain responds more strongly to her mother’s voice than the voice of strangers; the brain regions engaged are involved not just with auditory processing but also with emotion and social function, among others. (At p. 3. Emphasis mine.)

Interesting. But what is the possible take-away? For optimal brain development, do not leave your child with the nice lady you meet at the park. Or, possibly more applicable, talk to your baby when your with her & don’t just plop her in front of the radio, which is full of the voices of strangers.

In the context of Komisar’s argument (which is that birth mothers specifically must be present physically & emotionally during the first three years to avoid children falling into the bottomless pit of terrible outcomes…), this study is not only meaningless but likely deployed to induce guilt in mothers. Because here is what the study does not say: That a mother’s voice is the only voice to activate these areas of the brain. 

When Stanford (or any other reputable research institution) does a study comparing a child’s reaction to a mother’s voice versus that of her father’s or consistent caregiver’s voice, then I might pay attention.

I would love to hook my infant-toddler daughter up to some science-y technology & see that her brain does not light up when she hears her father’s voice. Her brother’s voice. … Voices she has known since she was womb-side.

But the study actually cited does not support Komisar’s argument.

Because a stranger is not equivalent to another parent or caregiver. Period.

(Also, chalk this up to yet another study confirming the perfectly obvious… Of course a child’s mother—or, likely, other primary caregiver—is going to get more of a reaction than a perfect stranger… Yawn…)

I am grateful that I’m in tune with my children & don’t need science to give me the answer. I see the twinkle in the baby’s eyes when she senses her dad is near, when she hears his voice approaching. And when she hears her brother’s voice… cover your ears because the delighted squeal she’s about to emit is loud.

There is, as far as I am aware, simply no “scientific” proof that a birth mother is the only proper parent for a young child. Probably because that’s just not true.

So, here is the study that Komisar’s book lacks, because it doesn’t exist: outcomes for young children raised by two or more “primary” caregivers, all of whom are responsive to a child’s emotional & physical needs, present most of the time, attuned to baby, & providing a sense of safety & security.

Even the studies she cites to for the proposition that mothers, alone, are responsible for their young children’s long-term outcomes, lack enough important details to make me strongly doubt that caregiving by other-mothers is even remotely responsible for the rates of mental illness we are seeing today.

For example, Komisar also cites to a study that

[…] noted that children of full-time working mothers were more likely to show signs of behavior problems and insecurity than the children of mothers who were not employed during their first three years.

However, this “finding” is not a conclusion at all & simply prompts more questions than it answers. Were the children studied receiving care from a single or small group of consistent caregivers? Were they attached to their other caregivers? How much time did the full-time working mothers have for bonding after childbirth? What were their economic & work situations like? 

In other words, for such a finding to truly mean something, we’d need to know how secure the living & caregiving situation was for each group compared to the other, and whether there were opportunities for attachment with primary caregivers.

To ask these types of specific, probing questions, I think, would get us closer to reality & to the best possible outcomes for children: identification of the precise needs of young children (which are actually already pretty well-documented in the best parenting literature out there) & ideas for achieving those needs, whether that’s through real, paid leave, higher standards for childcare centers & paid caregivers, compassionate parent education, or some combination of all the above. But Komisar’s doesn’t go there… Instead, it’s all foisted on you, mama!

But suggesting that women are damaging their children by working is both disingenuous & ignores the fact that women have always worked. The myth of the ubiquitous stay-at-home mother is just that, a myth.

And then there are the non sequiturs. Komisar’s writes:

We would like to believe that our children are “just fine” when we leave them, so we can hurry back to our careers and social lives as quickly as possible. The truth is not always this simple. In an article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers James F. Leckman and J. S. March were emphatic on this point: “All children are not ‘resilient’ and there is now compelling evidence that adverse developmental and biological disruptions occurring in the early years of life are rapidly increasing, as is their consequences in the declining mental health of our children.” As we struggle to explain the increase in the numbers of children diagnosed with conditions on the autism spectrum, ADHD, and other social and developmental disorders, we have to consider that this rise may be directly related to increased maternal stress and the lack of consistent, intimate engagement of mothers (and other caregivers) with children.

So, you want a social life or a career, which leads to some sort of “adverse developmental and biological disruption” in your child, which may be your partner’s disengagement (‘cause, you know, you’re out socializing…), and that is to blame when your child is later diagnosed with a social disorder. “Simple,” right?

There is so much to unpack in that paragraph, but it’s all nonsense, so I’m not going to bother. But since I’m primarily critiquing Komisar’s use of research, I’ll just point out that without defining “adverse developmental and biological disruptions” the citation to the fancy sounding “article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry” is completely meaningless.

But Komisar is relying on your tendency towards guilt for you to connect those adverse events to your leaving your child with some other caregiver. After all, mere pages before, she discusses research about how infants “mourn” their mothers’ “absence.” (So you’re primed for the guilt…) But there again, she engages in this discussion without defining key terms like “absence” (are we talking about babies separated permanently from their mothers at birth or a solo run to the grocery store?) & “mourning” (how are we measuring what it means for an infant to mourn? and who are these mourning infants left with?).

I could go on, but I hope it’s clear enough that Komisar’s use of research & “science” does not advance her argument.

2. Gender essentialism is essentially lame (even if moms have boobs & dads don’t).

The fallacy of gender essentialism as it pertains to parenting is apparent by the fact that this book exists. If mothering were so instinctual (a simple function of hormones), women wouldn’t need books on how to be a proper mother!

The fact that Komisar believes that fathers need lessons (or even drugs!) to “mother” (aka, nurture) is ironic considering the fact that she has written a manual for women on how to do the same.

And, seriously, Komisar actually advocates drugs for dads, writing that “in the future, a single father, or a two-father family may be prescribed intranasal oxytocin to improve their sensitive nurturing.” (At p. 39.) (Unsurprisingly, this is the point at which I finally stopped taking this book seriously…)

But there is no there there. Nothing I have read about attachment suggests that oxytocin is necessary for the creation of a secure attachment. In fact, Meredith Small, in her excellent book Our Babies, Ourselves, deftly debunks the myth or hypothesis that oxytocin (or a cocktail of birthing hormones) is the necessary ingredient for human adult-infant attachment. Small recognizes that attachment is possible (even necessary for human survival given historically high rates of maternal death in childbearing) between an infant and an adult who is not the child’s birth mother.

The truth is that we all have within us the instinct to bond. We simply need to foster that instinct & allow it space to develop.

Further, if we want to play the game of isolating hormones & chemicals, why not offer “intranasal oxytocin” to c-section mothers, adoptive mothers or the like, since those mothers don’t experience the rush of oxytocin that laboring mothers get during the course of a vaginal birth? If oxytocin is necessary for facilitating bonding in those first moments after birth & for mothering later, don’t we have to determine if these mothers are also lacking in the optimal amounts of the hormone? (Of course, I’m not serious … just taking Komisar’s suggestion to its ridiculous extreme.)

I’m not saying oxytocin doesn’t serve a real purpose. I’ve experienced its effects first hand. I’m also not saying that a woman’s experience of birthing & mothering isn’t unique or special.

My ability to nurse my children has provided me with a very special relationship with them. Obviously, that’s not something my male partner can enjoy. I don’t think there is anything like the experience of nourishing your child from your own body, staring into each others’ eyes. But do I think that experience makes me a better mother? A better parent than my partner? No. It is one opportunity for attachment among many.

For someone who puts so much stock in “choice,” Komisar seems awfully willing to accept that human behavior is simply driven by hormones. I, for one, do not want to be defined by my hormones, even though I am happy to accept that they provide a strong influence in my life.

And I’ve known some truly sensitive & nurturing dads, so there’s no way I’m buying into the “dads need drugs” argument. My partner is amazingly patient & “mothers” beautifully. My own father had always been sensitive & loving. More publicly, check out Scott Noelle, an advocate for gentle parenting & unconditional love, or the men (& fathers) who wrote Raising a Secure Child, a fantastic new book on nurturing your child’s secure attachment.

(A bit of unsolicited advice on “training” dads… No mother trying to engage her partner should attempt to train him to parent in a particular way. That tactic is sure to backfire. Every parent deserves to be empowered & supported in their parenting journey. Don’t treat men as if they can’t be gentle parents when their truest & most earnest parenting is fostered. Dad’s have paternal instincts, too. Give men space to find themselves as parents.)

3. The “strange situation” is strange… Do not let it into your home!

In another gross misuse of scientific research, Komisar imports the “strange situation” experiment into your home. Again, she does this to create fear & guilt in working mothers.

The “strange situation” is a lab experiment used in attachment theory work to classify different attachment styles. It is not a diagnostic tool, though a researcher’s observations of a particular iteration of the experiment might lead to classifying a child’s attachment type in relation to a particular caregiver.

You can read a great description in this New York Times article (fascinating in its own right). But, in short, the experiment involves bringing a young child (the age range possibly doesn’t go later than 18 months) with a caregiver, usually his or her mother, into a lab. They play a bit, then a stranger enters. The caregiver leaves after just a few minutes & the stranger tries to interact with the child for a brief time. The caregiver returns & is reunited with the child. Then the whole thing plays out one more time.

The thrust of the experiment is the child’s reunion with the caregiver. The researcher classifies the child’s attachment type based on this reaction. There are, generally, four accepted attachment styles, but there’s only one golden ticket & that’s the secure attachment type.

Some argue, pretty convincingly (as in the Times article linked above), that attachment at this young age has a big influence on future relationships & learning & all sorts of important stuff.

But while attachment is important, using the strange situation protocol as a DIY, on-the-fly test for your child’s attachment to you, as Komisar suggests in her book, is actually a really bad idea. Not only will doing so do nothing but wrack you with worry & guilt, it will lead you further afield from your instinctual feedback loop with your child. It’s also probably not going to be all that accurate.

Here’s why: Usually, I’m sure, your baby or child is going to be happy to see you when you come home from or pick up your child after work. Seems like the normal, baseline reaction to seeing mom or dad after a day apart.

But sometimes, you walk in the door & big brother is tickling your baby. Or your toddler is deep into an activity with his daycare teacher. Or your nanny is feeding your child delicious (& very messy) blueberries.

Guess what? In those moments, your child may react to your sudden appearance as an intrusion. She might give you a look of a teenager (“Oh, hey, Mom…”) & get back to giggling. Or, he might be upset when his nanny or teacher says goodbye.

Komisar says that these reactions would be cause for concern. Possible signs your child is not securely attached, even!

I call bullshit.

Komisar’s importing of the “strange situation” into your daily routine is specious at best & reeks of fearmongering. That experiment was designed in a lab, with strangers. Perhaps if you were asking a complete stranger off the street every day to watch you child while you worked (not a good childcare strategy, by the way!) the “strange situation” experiment would have something to say about your after-work reunion with your child. But, hopefully your child’s caregiver is not a stranger. Hopefully, you’ve gently transitioned to a loving, engaged caregiving situation. In which case, the “strange situation” has nothing to do with picking up your child after work.

Komisar cites to no research to back up her claim that you should worry if your child displays certain reactions at that transitional moment when you return to your child after work. Not even the “strange situation” research. That’s probably because there isn’t any research to support her incindiary fear mongering!

Your child loves you & is most likely securely attached. He or she comes to expect your return each day. That return, therefore, will sometimes be a non-event for your child. That’s ok.

Do I have any fancy study to back me up? No. (I have a pretty serious day job & lovely children, so the time I can spend slaying terrible parenting advice is quite limited.)

I can say that I have experienced the non-reaction & even the very occasional adverse reaction (as in, my child briefly preferring a nanny or grandma… if baby prefers my partner, that’s not an adverse reaction). My children are securely attached. My oldest is a confident child & he still loves me. My baby-toddler seems to think I’m ok, too.

*****

So there you have it. Three concrete reasons why you should pay this book no mind. Enjoy your child. Learn her language & needs. But chuck the guilt. You don’t need it & you deserve a better shot at enjoying motherhood!

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