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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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Filed under Attachment Parenting, Breastfeeding, Feminism, Living, Mothering, Parenting, Partnership, Read, Simplicity, Working

Choosing to be here: a post in which I explain why I quit reading Erica Komisar’s book, Being There

Clarity: part one of three-ish

It is unfortunate, though perhaps ironic, that Erica Komisar’s tone-deaf book on mothering shares a title with the classic Peter Sellers movie about a naïve (& completely tone-deaf) gardener’s adventures in the world of the wealthy & politically connected. Unfortunate, because, now having encountered Komisar’s book, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, my pleasant memory of the movie is tarnished.

I have spent more time than I’d care to admit trying to patiently read & digest Being There (the book, not the movie). Heck, I even schlepped the book across the Atlantic Ocean & back! But I’ve finally realized that the best thing I can do for my sanity & time management is to give up, finish the two-part blog post I’ve already started, & gleeflully drop the book in my library’s return box.

My executive summary: If you are a mother & you work outside the home (or if you simply have any ambitions or desires outside of your children’s lives) do not read this book. It will be a frustrating waste of time. And it might make you a bit crazy.

And I say this as someone who tried really hard to glean something useful from the book. I am an attachment parenting mom who believes in the biological & emotional (& often inconvenient) needs of my children. And so, even though I work full time as an attorney, I am no stranger to the idea that presence, especially in the early years, is extremely important.

However, I am also no fool.

I don’t go in for junk science. And nothing I read in Komisar’s book has convinced me that our family arrangement is harming my children.

So, why am I writing about this book anyway? I’m doing a mini-dive into Komisar’s book because I believe strongly that her book is damaging to working mothers (& the sense of confidence we all need & deserve).

At the outset, I have to admit that I agree, at least in theory, with Komisar’s premise: that mothers are extremely important for their babies & toddlers; that parents should (to the extent they can) make choices that prioritize their family, especially in the early years; & that most parents (myself included) can use a reminder to be more present with our young children. Some of the practical tips that Komisar offers aren’t half bad. Some (though not all) of them fit with attachment parenting.

In other words, I am all for trying to achieve better outcomes for children by educating & supporting parents on the important role they play during infancy & toddlerhood. Ultimately, our projects are the same: Empower women to be more confident & happier mothers.

However, I found that this book is decidedly not supportive & its advice relies too much on a common but misguided view of choice. Just the introduction (where the book & my critique begin) is inflammatory & sensationalist, an obvious & self-congratulatory grab for the attention of an anti-woman audience. The allure was lost on me.

I have already tackled, long ago, some of the nonsense out there regarding a line of thinking that would essentially lock mothers in the house for the first three years of a child’s life. Though Komisar makes claims to the contrary, Being There presents more of the same, dressed up with ill-fitting citations & research.

Komisar sets the tone on page one: The first page paints a portrait of a writer who put off the project of writing her book in order to focus being a mother to her young children. She contrasts herself with mothers who she claims are the focus of her project: Those who “devalue, deprioritize, and neglect mothering.” (Also page one—technically page xi—emphasis mine.)

What a way to catch my attention & connect with me as a reader. Oh, wait, she’s talking about me?!

In all seriousness, a mother who honestly neglects mothering & devalues her children is probably dealing with demons that require & deserve compassion & professional intervention, not a finger-wagging “you should do better.”

So, from the very start (like, we’re still on the first paragraph…) we understand this to be a book about the choices mothers make. It is not primarily about a society that devalues children & caregiving; it’s about the choice we mothers make to neglect our own child(ren). Komisar starts with this rhetorical flourish, all while setting herself up as a (self-)righteous example of how to make better choices & structure those early years as a mother with (hypothetical) interests outside of family life.

But wait! She claims: “I am deeply saddened by the mommy wars still waging across this country between working and nonworking mothers.” (Speaking of “mommy wars,” who still considers, let alone calls, primary caregivers to be “nonworking”?! I mean, unfortunately, “working parent” has become the shorthand for a parent who is employed outside the home or otherwise works for a paycheck at home, but I think “nonworking parent” is really poor shorthand for a stay-at-home parent…)

We’ll get back to the issue of choice, but it’s her next move that really sets up the fallacy underlying the book. Komisar lists a lot of scary (& serious) statistics regarding the increase in reported mental illness in our children. Everything from ADHD to anxiety to bullying to eating disorders are on the rise. This is a serious trend, no doubt, and of primary concern to parents & mental health professionals like Komisar. But then Komisar suggests a single reason for this unsettling increase: It’s because we (women, not men, mind you…) are spending too much time “ambitiously pursuing our own individual needs” (at page xiv) at the expense of our children’s needs.

Now, while she cites statistics documenting the increase in the problems children are encountering these days, her evidence for the link to a lacking maternal presence is (almost) purely anecdotal. In other words, she provides no research to back up this huge claim. (She does try to cite to a number of studies later in the main text of the book, but I’ll share in my next post why many of her citations are deeply flawed.)

What exactly are the choices & ambitions that Komisar is talking about? Those distractions from mothering that she claims are at the heart of all that is wrong with children these days? That’s the real heart of the matter.

It’s easy to say that we should give up our ambitions & dreams & even our needs while raising very young children, that the trade-off is temporary (as in, just the first months, years of a child’s life…), but is that shift really so easy to make in the reverse? And what if you have multiple children & those early years start to stretch into a decade or more? Finally, what is the magical age at which it’s acceptable to be a person again?

I’m not going so far as to say that you should fall to the opposite extreme… that you should spend unproductive long hours at work if you can help it or that you should attend every spinning class your legs can handle, while leaving your children (of any age) in someone else’s care. I do not doubt that some women avoid mothering because of some real pain they experienced in their own childhoods or other mental/emotional roadblock. These women need support, not derision. A mother’s (or father’s) inability to form a proper attachment with a child is a real problem that deserves attention, but lack of attachment & presence is likely not a choice.

The fact is that mothers are individuals, with varied (& very real) needs & ambitions, which lead us to make any number of varied & legitimate choices. And some of us have concrete & very real (& I mean real) needs that severely limit the choices we can make. Not to mention the things we may choose to do to keep our sanity or be, you know, remotely happy. (As my partner says, a miserable parent will pass their misery onto their child!)

Of course, as Komisar correctly points out, we can only do so much at any given time, but that only gets you so far, as every parent knows. Life goes on.

What does “choice” really mean, anyway? In the “mommy wars” (& Komisar’s book is firmly situated in “mommy war” territory, despite her claims to the contrary), “choice” is usually a code word for some fatal flaw that other moms make & that will absolutely fuck up their children.

But what if we talk about choice differently? Instead of using “choice” as a battle cry, what if we discussed the myriad & varied choices any parent is faced with every day & every night? What if we empowered parents with knowledge & an understanding of their children that would assist them in making a few better choices every day, instead of insisting that mothers must make the ultimate, correct choice, as if there is only one?

Look, I like to think I’m important. That my role as parent, a mother, is making a difference for my kids. In fact, I know I’m important. But by elevating mothers above everyone else, we implicitly & necessarily devalue not only fathers (partnered straight dads, partnered gay dads, single dads, all dads…), but also adoptive mothers, foster mothers, grandmothers… any other mother.

The truth is, what matters is compassion. Love. Deep parental love. Consistency. Responsiveness. Unconditional acceptance.

Straight, upper-middle class birth mothers (because, let’s get honest… that’s Komisar’s target audience) are not the sole owners of rearing young babies & toddlers. They never have been.

And shame on Komisar for even suggesting that, where there are two parents, “an emotionally disengaged or physically absent mother” is solely responsible for the mental well-being of her children. Without any real science to back up her claim.

By blaming mothers for their so-called choices, she lets everyone else off the hook: fathers, employers, the government, mainstream culture, etc. Mere lip service aimed at these other responsible entities (as Komisar engages in) isn’t enough. We have to stop blaming & shaming mothers.

As if to drive my point home, toward the end of her introduction (at p. xv), after using scare tactics to get her reader’s attention, Komisar writes:

We see extensive discussion in the media about the needs of working parents, but the subject of children’s needs is noticeably missing from the conversation. For example, in a recent article in the New York Times, “Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers,” we learn about parents reshuffling their roles as provider and caregiver, but we don’t hear how these power couples’ children feel when their mothers are not present.

First, this is just not true! There’s a whole movement fighting for family issues affecting work-life balance for parents along with numerous issues affecting the well-being of our children! Just take a look at the work of Moms Rising. The needs of working parents are closely linked with the needs of children. Paid sick leave for all (aka the ability to take the time necessary to care for a sick child with compassion) is just one example. Real, paid maternity leave (aka the right to have the time & space to bond with a new child) is another. Quality, affordable childcare. Need I go on? Children, not just parents, benefit from such policies.

Also, to pick this particular article out of all the possibilities is a bit disingenuous. Just the title of the article reeks of the problem of affluenza. “Wall Street mothers” are no less deserving than “minimum wage mothers” & “barely-middle-class mothers.” In fact, we should probably be more concerned about how the latter two are coping. (Engaging in such an inquiry might also shift the discussion of “choice.”)

Finally, since I’ve been “absent” (Komisar’s words, not mine) for most of my son’s life & he’s old enough to speak his (often very strong) opinions, I asked him how he feels about this. He said he loves me. He called me Wonder Woman. (Swoon!) And, upon further reflection, he was upset by the notion that men can’t raise babies (maybe because he sees his own dad knocking it out of the ballpark most days).

I will agree that we (as a society) need to talk more about what is best for our children. A culture that puts pressure on women to spend an outsize amount of time exercising soon after birth to “bounce back” is all sorts of upside-down when it comes to what is best for young children. A society where employers can demand mothers return to work six weeks postpartum (or less!) or lose the job that will provide food & diapers & fucking shelter for their families has serious problems… problems that just might be largely responsible for the list of horrors that Komisar presents at the outset of her book. A culture that treats children as pets to be trained, as accessories to be decorated certainly has room for improvement. A world where social media reigns & mothers must curate a picture-perfect family life is (I’m going to go out on a limb here…) probably not “best” for children.

Mothers who work (even if by choice)? Moms with ambition? We are not the problem.

Ok, that’s more than enough for one post, but these are some of the reasons I finally just had to stop reading the book (no one pays me to write this blog & there are only so many hours in a day for a working mom who is also a present mom…). In part two I’ll get into some of Komisar’s research, tackle the problems with gender essentialism as it relates to parenting, explore the “strange situation,” and more.

PS: As partner to a poet, I have to say Komisar’s reading of Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be The Verse,” is incomplete, to say the least. Even if we could be eternally present for our children, guess what? We will still fuck them up. And, by referncing “soppy-stern” & “half at one another’s throats” they seem to be the sort of unhappy parents who just might benefit from indulging in their own needs or ambitions for a bit. Just sayin’.

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“Science” vs. AP?!

A beautiful sky; makes me happy, like parenting.

Entering into a new phase of my parenting journey (back in the throws of babyhood), I quietly wondered whether Attachment Parenting (or, AP, for short) has relevance for me anymore. I started this blog as a space for writing about Attachment Parenting & pursuing a career. Would I want to get back to writing about working & AP’ing as a blogger? (Well… here I am, blogging about it…) Would I be practicing AP with the new wee one?

The answer to that last question is complicated.

My short answer is yes. But it’s not because it has “worked” so well with my first child. And it’s not because I believe that AP is the only or best way to parent.

Here’s the longer answer (sorry… long post alert!)…

Before T was born, MFA Dad & I had no clue what we were doing or how we were going to approach our new roles as parents. We were living away from our closest friends & family, some of whom were starting to have kids, so we really didn’t have any models close by. Our fuzzy (or non-existent) memories of our own early childhoods were not much help. Our parents had selective amnesia & seemed to suggest things were a lot easier than they ended up being for us.

And honestly, we hadn’t thought about parenting at all before I got pregnant. And even then, it took a while for our brains to catch up with all that my body was preparing for. (A law school classmate of mine who had previously been a doula, once warned me in the hallway about books that would scare or scar me… That’s when I realized that “Oh, people take this parenting shtick seriously & actually think about how they want to parent…”)

So it was with some relief that we happened across Dr. William Sears’s The Baby Book while shopping at my least favorite store in the world (Babies R Us). A lot of what Dr. Sears-the-Elder had to say just clicked with both MFA Dad & I. (Also, some of it didn’t click.) We didn’t think that our son would be messed up if we didn’t follow all of his “Baby B’s” (Dr. Sears’s short list of AP “do’s”) but in the book we had found a bunch of baby minding tactics that seemed to mesh well with our lifestyle & world views. (For example, the basic idea that wearing your baby is an easy way to integrate a child into your daily life while keeping them physically close seemed practical to us.)

In short, it was simply nice to find an approach to this overwhelming endeavor that suited us as a couple & new family.

While we are not, perhaps, the AP “poster” family, I am grateful for what I have learned because of AP. It gave me the tools & confidence to parent in a way that felt right when I was a new & inexperienced mom. Even while I was making many first-time mom mistakes.

But here’s the bottom line. I don’t think, nor have I ever thought, really, that AP is the sole owner of “good” parenting. There are also many valid criticisms of AP, as it is represented by Dr. Sears & others.

I don’t know that any of my friends or family who are parents would identify as AP. But I’d babysit their kids or have them over for a sleepover any day. Like us, they all developed their own parenting styles. They’re all great parents & their kids seem to be normal & healthy & secure (most certainly securely attached). They are all delightful kids. And we all also have our challenges with our children.

Still, it is with some wonder (& frankly, confusion) that I observe certain types of blanket criticisms of AP. For example, take the “Science vs” Attachment Parenting podcast, wherein the host challenges the unscientifically-founded scourge of attachment parenting. The host of the podcast managed to find an overzealous follower of AP’s “rules” who takes the role of “motherly sacrifice” to an extreme & then uses the poor woman as a diving board into an equally overzealous critique of AP. (I knew the critique was off base when it started with the premise that the sample mom’s home was “child-centered,” which is opposed to my own interpretation of AP… My own take being that AP is family-based in a way that posits the child is not the center of the family’s existence & if you walk into my home it may take a few seconds to realize there are children living there too.)

Look, I get it… As the podcast’s host explained, there are books & websites & blogs (ahem…) laying out what may seem like “rules” at a quick glance. Dr. Sears & others use their authority as medical professionals and/or references to “science” to convince unwitting parents that AP is unquestionably better for babies & children. The idea of “rules” or getting things “wrong” (& possibly messing up your child as a result) makes AP simultaneously attractive & overwhelming to many parents.

Let’s get this out of the way: It’s never a good idea to blindly follow anyone’s set of rules when it comes to raising your children.

Discussions around different approaches to parenting typically present stark choices with severe consequences. The choices is almost never so stark (unless one of those choices involves neglect or harm—be it physical or psychological—of the child). But if you’re a parent, you are most likely an adult who should have learned the lesson that you don’t jump just because someone (even someone in a doctor’s or lab coat) yells “jump.”

AP’s “rules” are only rules if you let them be rules. Dr. Sears doesn’t care what you do or don’t do with your child. There is no test. You don’t have to prove yourself as parent of the century.

So, while I disagree with the “Science vs.” characterization of AP, I don’t disagree with the bottom line that using “science” to prove that AP is the only way to raise a healthy child is misleading & you won’t necessarily damage your child if you don’t follow the “rules” of AP.

But here’s the thing… There simply aren’t any such rules. Many AP families use strollers. 🙋 Many AP families have cribs (though we don’t always use them…). 🙋 Dr. Sears himself has advice on bottle-feeding. Sometimes, AP parents let their children cry because they’d like some privacy in the bathroom, it’s the nightly witching hour, or they literally just can’t handle nighttime parenting at the moment.

And I’d bet (if I were the betting type) that most of us don’t “do” AP because of science. AP empowers parents (or it has the potential to, in any case) to parent intuitively. That means I don’t need someone with an MD or PhD to tell me what to do when my baby cries, when she wakes in the middle of the night, or when my older child misbehaves. Nope, I got this! I know my children better than anyone & am not concerned with “outcomes” that have been tracked by researchers or artificially created in a lab.

This premise (that there are strict “rules”) pretty much guarantees “Science vs.” will get AP wrong out of the gate. I’ve already pointed out that AP isn’t necessarily a child-centered parenting philosophy, but it also isn’t parent-centered. The podcast’s host seems to corner the poor sample mom into stating that she doesn’t let her child cry because she can’t handle it. Then she leaves it at that, which is a totally inaccurate characterization of AP. I don’t like my baby’s cries either, but that’s not why most AP parents don’t purposely let their babies cry without responding.

So, let’s look at the topics the “Science vs.” attempts to cover: crying, attachment theory, and sleep.

Babies cry. It’s how they communicate. I wouldn’t ignore my older child if he came to my bedside & whispered “Mommy, my tummy hurts.” I wouldn’t ignore my bleary-eyed husband if he asked me to pour him a cup of coffee as I pour my own. So why would I ignore my baby simply because she can’t yet use words? I want to investigate, at least. I can usually figure out what she’s asking for in her prehistoric way.

But maybe I can’t figure it out. Maybe she’s crying for a long time. Maybe I’m so sleep deprived I can’t take any more crying. Well, then, perhaps walking away is the best thing I can do for her & for me. That’s certainly better than losing my temper or harming baby in some way. But that’s not where I start.

I start from the premise that this little person is completely dependent on me & it’s my job to respond. She’s trying to tell me something important. No matter what time of day or night. No matter if I’m tired. No matter if I don’t want to (though that’s usually not the case). No matter what.

That’s why I respond when my baby cries.

Now, back to those pesky “rules.” Quite simply, there are none.

The “rules” aren’t rules. The podcast unfairly characterizes common AP practices as “rules” when they are guidelines at best. Most literature on AP that I’ve read presents these ideas as “best practices” of sorts, but by no means have I seen any proponent of AP suggest that bottle-feeding, for instance will ruin one’s attachment with one’s child. That’s preposterous & untenable. AP folks tend to be hardliners on the issue of sleep training, but other than that issue, I don’t think most advocates of AP would suggest with a straight face that there’s only one way to do this whole AP thing.

Of course, some will take things to an extreme. But I try to avoid extremes in my daily life & parenting is no different. I have criticized those AP proponents who suggest extreme views of parenting, especially when those views are aimed at women in particular & have the potential to restrict rather than liberate. If someone tells you you must do something as a parent (be it baby wearing, bed sharing, breastfeeding, etc.) pause, reflect on their motivations, and then consider your own reality.

Interestingly, while the podcast correctly separates attachment parenting from attachment theory, it doesn’t quite get that right either. To be clear, attachment parenting as described by Dr. Sears et al., has a tenuous relationship at best with attachment theory. That said, the New York Times recently reported on new discoveries in the world of attachment theory, in an article entitled “Yes, It’s Your Parents’ Fault,” no less.

Of course, it’s not all our parents’ faults. As the “Science vs.” podcast points out, our pesky genes do influence our dispositions & the ways we interact with the world & each other. But, according to the new research reported in the NY Times, it does seem that parenting matters for our future relationships & …

Luckily, as I’ve pointed out previously, “good enough” parenting will usually do the trick. But to suggest that it doesn’t matter at all (as the podcast host does) is flippant & inaccurate.

Which leads us to sleep. Ah, sleep… so elusive with young children in the house! Yet it’s the one area where most AP’ers will agree on an honest to goodness rule: Do not leave your child to cry in order to “sleep train.” Many of us would say you should consider not sleep training at all.

Unfortunately for us adults, babies’ sleep habits are different from ours. In fact, they’re rather inconvenient. They interrupt our nights and our days. Annoying.

At least, we’re culturally conditioned to think that our babies’ sleep habits are annoying or, at best, less than ideal. I’m not going to argue that adult sleep is unimportant—Parents need sleep to function… to support their children & to be living, breathing members of society, even if barely sometimes. And I’m not going to tell you how you feel. Or what degree of exhaustion you should be able to tolerate. Or that your baby’s sleep is normal. Or that you should sleep next to your baby. Or that you shouldn’t.

You’re the parent. You get to make that call. Not some random blogger. Not someone hosting a podcast.

All I’ll say here is that there are a number of sleep configurations that AP families adopt. I’ve done a little of everything, even sleep training (short of intentionally leaving a child alone to cry). (I do have lots of opinions about sleep & I’m working on a sleep-focused post.)

The “Science vs.” podcast presents an extremely simplistic overview of the issue of safe sleep & a singular vision of what healthy sleep might look like.

I understand that folks might have legitimate disagreements over safe sleep. Parents need to talk to & consult sources they trust to decides whether or not a given sleep arrangement is safe enough for them. (I say safe enough because there is no 100% guarantee no matter your sleep arrangement, unfortunately.) “Science vs.” provides some talking points, but only scratches the surface. And it presents the safe sleep question as clear-cut, when I don’t think that it’s at all simple.

For instance, the podcast appears to entirely dismiss the research of Dr. James McKenna (without explicitly naming him) because he’s not an MD. But he happens to be the only researcher to study bed sharing & infant sleep in a lab. His work appears in peer-reviewed journals (some are medical journals). And his approach to bed sharing & safe infant sleep reads to me as being very nuanced. I don’t think he should necessarily be your sole source of information, but I also don’t think his work is so easily dismissed.

As for the sleep training bit, I have to admit that I just don’t understand why critics of AP much care that we don’t sleep train at all or in the conventional ways. I found sleep training to be more trouble than it’s worth. My older son has “slept through the night” (that silly but all-important “milestone”) since around 2 1/2, more or less. He’s 8 & just had his first sleepover with friends away from home, so he can sleep independently. I share these details only to stress that sleep happens. With or without parental fussing.

My 11-month-old does not sleep through the night. She still nurses a couple-few times every night. I’m tired most mornings when I have to wake up for work. Meh. … This, too, shall pass… So for now, I try to enjoy smelling the top of her head or the touch of her soft cheek during those nighttime feedings. For me, the stress of sleep training is not worth it.

I will sleep again. You will sleep again. Soon.

Perhaps critics of AP just want to make sure parents are getting enough sleep. Maybe. But I have a suspicion that the motivations are less generous. There’s a cottage industry built on selling us bleary-eyed parents on various sleep training techniques. And because some of these techniques don’t feel right, there’s a cadre of parents who have had to convince themselves that whatever sleep training they’ve engaged in is at best innocuous. Maybe, just maybe, critics of AP resent the non-mainstream, but more palatable, approach that AP’ers take to sleep. Maybe.

My point is not to make you feel guilty if you personally have tried sleep training. My point is that there’s a strong cultural current moving in one direction & I think AP’s approach to sleep is the focus of so much criticism (as seen in the “Science vs.” podcast) precisely because it resists that current. It’s really no one’s business how you or I, individually, approach sleep.

We deserve to be able to make informed decisions without folks badgering one particular method, particularly when there is absolutely zero evidence that choosing to forgo sleep training (or choosing gentle sleep training techniques) will harm children or babies. And yet, parents are pressured constantly to “do something” about their babies’ sleep. The “Science vs.” podcast host practically begs parents to sleep train for their own sanity with no discussion of normal infant sleep patterns.

It’s just weird. I mean, it’s worth exploring whether your child’s truly deplorable sleep has an underlying medical cause, but beyond that I truly do not understand the cultural pressure to sleep train.

And I say this not as the parent of a unicorn child who slept or sleeps well. Nope. I’ve been to the depths of exhaustion & back. I’m there again. Sometimes I still touch upon that irrational anger that is the special gift of sleep deprivation. I have fitful sleep. Weird dreams.

In other words, I can sympathize with parents of “bad” sleepers. And if your baby is an normal bad sleeper, I have been there. I’ll be there again tonight.

AP is an easy target for parent trash talk, but it doesn’t have to be a caricature. For most thoughtful families who have picked up a technique or two or three from AP, it’s not a silly, old-fashioned, anti-feminist endeavor. It’s not a cult or even a club. It’s just another set of tools in the parenting toolbox.

Just because the science has not definitively shown that AP is the best way to parent doesn’t make it any less or somehow worse than other ways of parenting. It is not necessary to prove that it’s somehow awful. It’s not. Engage in in-depth critique with an open mind, but don’t dismiss out of hand for no good reason.

It is telling that almost none of the critiques that I’ve come across recently have posited another parenting philosophy as a replacement as the proven winner in the (unfortunately) endless competition between parenting styles. Because, let’s be clear, “science” hasn’t proven that other approaches to parenting are “the best” either. We may turn to science for a lot, but on parenting, the science is lacking.

I’ve recently finished reading Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small. She also uses science to provide an analysis of parenting styles from biological and cultural perspectives. You can find a lot to support practices typical of AP families in the book (e.g. bed-sharing, breastfeeding, responsive parenting, etc.) but the interesting thing is that it is clear from the book that these practices are not owned by AP or any particular parenting philosophy. And Small, though she has a clear preference for these AP-type practices, accepts that every culture will place its imprint on parenting practices. She also insists that babies are adaptable little beings & that science has not determined that any one parenting style is likely to result in better adapted or happier adults. (Not that results should be a goal of parenting…)

Now that I’m doing this baby thing for the second time, I can say that I love AP because it makes life easier &, more importantly, it makes being a parent more enjoyable. And even more importantly, I do it because the little person in my care is weird & has prehistoric needs built into her DNA & she doesn’t talk & AP is the best way for me to learn her language. I don’t do it because science or even pseudoscience tells me it’s better. I don’t do it because some “professional” says it’s better.

My journey on this earth as a human has made me appreciate that we are living every day we get to be here (wherever that happens to be). That is, our hours here are not (solely) in service of some yet-to-be-attained goal. My journey as a parent has taught me to enjoy the simple things in life & to connect fiercely with my family, among others. The two together have taught me to enjoy parenting. Sure, not every moment. But, most moments. Even the moments that don’t seem enjoyable at first blush.

AP is just one tool that helps me work toward that connection & enjoyment. It’s not perfect. I’m not perfect. That’s ok. What’s not ok is the hell-bent determination with which some approach AP, on either side of the fence. We are more than our parenting philosophies.

If you’ve read this long post: Thank you! And let m know what you think. What did I get wrong? Right? What helps you enjoy being a parent?

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Filed under Attachment Parenting, Breastfeeding, Gentle Discipline, Living, Mothering, Parenting, Read, Simplicity

Focusing on the best

“Loving”—A reminder of my son

A mere 4 1/2 years ago (oh, where does the time go?!), I shared the parenting motivation that helps to keep me on my game. That motivation comes from Scott Noelle at The Daily Groove. Noelle’s format has changed a bit since then, but he still sends out nuggets of gold a couple-few times a week. Sometimes, I’m too lazy or busy to read the emails, but thankfully my partner (MFA Dad) will forward to me the ones that are resonating with our current parenting challenges. 

This morning he sent me one called “The Power of Attraction.” In it, Noelle suggested writing a reminder on your hand of one characteristic of your child that you “really, really adore and appreciate.” I chose “loving” because my son’s big heart is so endearing. At least, it is when I stop to allow him to fully express his loving nature, including both his capacity & need for love. 

The idea of Noelle’s experiment is to think about this particular attribute often throughout the day & observe how it affects your interactions. Noelle writes:

“Psychologically, attraction means you can focus on certain things, and your mind will ‘pull’ matching thoughts and conditions into your awareness and experience. …

“Can you see how, through your intentional focus, you created (attracted) that experience?”

I enjoyed thinking about T’s loving nature throughout the day, especially as we were apart for most of it. These days I have to admit that I am often rushed with him, as the baby’s needs are so urgent & ever-present. This experiment has forced me to (re-)create some space for him, which he deserves. 

And guess what? It worked! We had a delightful & playful evening. 

I find myself wanting to do this for MFA Dad, too! And even baby M. 

Try it!

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Miscarriage issues in the news

The New York Times has just published a lovely visual story on miscarriage. Everything Jessica Zucker writes in the piece rings true to my own experience with pregnancy loss, from her description of the deep grief to the more mundane (“On top of losing a baby, now I have to lose weight, too.”)

I love this best:

After miscarriage, the body grieves. Depending on the length of pregnancy the body may continue to look pregnant after it’s not. Living in a no-longer-pregnant body —longing to be, looking like you are—is a complex aspect of pregnancy loss that gets lost in conversations surrounding grief.

This was definitely part of my experience. While I was not at the point where my pregnancy was outwardly obvious when I lost my pregnancies, my body already looked pregnant to me. Body image issues were confusing & confounding.

Also, be sure to find Jessica Zucker on Instagram (@ihadamiscarriage) to see other brave women share their stories of loss & infertility.

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Having it all… except time for writing

20130604-105339.jpgI’m starting to understand the ebb & flow of writing & the importance of habit… I just haven’t been in the writing mood lately. I have a handful of notes & unformed ideas but I can’t seem to connect thoughts to typing out text.

That & I’ve been reading a ton.

And I’ve been riding my bike to work (which cuts out my train-commuting-writing time).

Ok. I could think up a million excuses. But the truth is I’m simply feeling uninspired & I don’t have a disciplined writing habit to help push through.

Everything I’ve been reading is related to topics I write about here, so I expect I’ll be getting some fully-formed posts in a bit. I’m working on finishing Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I had to return to the library mid-way through). I started reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (which is due back at the library very soon). And in the down time between, I picked up Smart Casual by Alison Pearlman (a critical book about restaurant & “foodie” culture).

Phew!

Meanwhile, I can hardly believe that MFA Dad & I just celebrated 10 years of marriage. T is about to finish his first year of preschool. I’m looking at wrapping up my current job in a couple months. I’ve acquired a couple bacteria-yeast pets (kefir grains & a kombucha SCOBY). The garden needs serious tending. Summer is here & life is full… & there are only so many hours in the day.

Thinking of life as full (& not obnoxiously busy) reminds me of one more project I’m working on: shifting my focus from less worry to more confidence & happiness. Unsurprisingly, there is a chapter in Lean In on the notion of “having it all.” It’s (in part) about how mothers beat themselves up upon discovering that, despite empty (feminist?) promises, women cannot “have it all.”

On a certain level, I don’t think Ms. Sandberg is wrong. But I’m proposing a shift (or positive spin). Instead of telling myself that I can’t have it all, my mantra is that I do have it all. Because I have all I have in this moment. If I want something else I have to either make it a goal (& work towards that goal) or I need to forget about it. Sounds cheesy (& it probably is) but it’s working for me right now. More later.

What are some of your summer projects? Or summer coping mechanisms inspiration?

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Reading: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Spoiler alert: I don’t think you’ll want to read this book unless you’re prepared to feel a bit guilty about eating a red pepper in April.

I read it & felt a little guilty about some of my food choices. But mostly it helped me gear up for the coming spring & my expanding garden. The book also made me more aware of food choices beyond organic & non-organic. I already support my local food producers when I can, but Ms. Kingsolver’s adventure is inspirational on a whole new level.

Let me start at the beginning: The book chronicles Ms. Kingsolver’s family’s year of local, mostly home-grown eating. It covers beautifully the changing seasons & celebrates food as a family & community effort.

The book is also chock-full of practical knowledge & delicious sounding recipes. I can’t wait to get my seeds in the ground & try my hand at canning this summer.

About half-way through the book I had this realization after reading this exchange between Kingsolver & a Lebanese shop-keeper in Montreal (they’re talking about cheese-making):

“You make cheese yourself,” she repeated reverently. “You are a real housewife.”
It has taken me decades to get here, but I took that as a compliment.

This is radical homemaking.

I may (or may not) try my hand at cheese-making in the near future, but it was inspiring to read about the home adventures of a successful career woman. And to read about Ms. Kingsolver embracing of the domestic & making it work with her other commitments & ambitions is really refreshing.

She talks about her family’s involvement in the whole endeavor & her husband & oldest daughter both contributed to the book. Ms. Kingsolver’s inclusion of friends in growing, harvesting (animals & vegetables) & preserving is inspiring: The is community & we have to cultivate our community as we cultivate our gardens.

While the book is for the most part joyful, toward the end I found it got a bit too doomsday for my taste. I think the descent into ecological-disaster-thinking, while no doubt accurate, undercuts the beauty of the book. Ms. Kingsolver had me at her story of how asparagus grows (slowly & intentionally & only for a very short season); I didn’t need the reality check disaster-preparedness talk, too.

Besides which, such doomsday discussions are a bit alienating to us city-folk who want to support local food producers or grow our own but face constraints Ms. Kingsolver did not during her year-long adventure (she travelled a lot in the book but not to any US cities).

“Local” food is far more expensive in the city: My pastured eggs are $5/doz. when they’d cost $3/doz. on the farm. (I agree with Ms. Kingsolver & her husband, who contributed to the book, that we should pony up for our local farms, but for most of us, this is a careful budgetary balancing act & while I gladly pay for my eggs, there are many things I continue to get from the grocery.) Space is tighter: I have the luxury of (shared) yard space but no where near enough to grow even most of the vegetables my family consumes.

But, of course, her alarms ring true. And we have to face it.

Overall, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a lovely book. And I can’t wait to try out some of the book’s recipes (once the vegetables are once again in season, of course!). In some ways, though, I just wish I had stopped reading about two chapters before the end.

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