Intro – My Stab at “Attachment Parenting” and Subsequent Detox from Mommy Martyrdom
Three months into parenting, my husband sat me down and told me that I had to stop breastfeeding for the sake of our children. It took a few weeks, but I realized he was right. My whole life had become about my breasts. My twins were born 7 ½ weeks premature, so I pumped breast milk while they were in the NICU. I was blessed (or cursed) with plenty of milk for both babies, but struggled with painful plugged ducts. I had to manually knead out the plugs for what totaled hours per day to prevent Mastitis. The babies had difficulty latching, and when they could latch, feeding them by breast was usually painful. I was told they had “tongue-tie,” which led to a gut-wrenching decision about whether to have the skin under their tongues cut. Then there were the trips to La Leche meetings, doctors, and lactation consultants. When direct breastfeeding couldn’t happen, I had to pump eight times a day as well as feed both babies eight times a day. There were times I fed one baby on one breast while pumping the other, then fed the other baby. By then the first breast needed to be pumped again. I spent approximately 12-15 hours per day in breast-related activities.
I remember the sinking feeling I had when I first read about Attachment Parenting during my three months of bed rest. At the time, I thought it was because things like baby wearing and co-sleeping would be nearly impossible with twins. I realize now it was because deep down, I knew it wasn’t something I could do. This was problematic because back then I believed AP was the “right” way to parent as a well-off, progressive, somewhat “crunchy” mother. So I did what I could with twins, which for me meant becoming obsessed with breastfeeding. Other moms of twins I met took a more flexible stance, stating “I’m going to try it and see how it goes.” I distinctly remember thinking that was not good enough. I was going to breastfeed these twins no matter what, because that was what they needed me to do. That was how I was going to attach to them.
But for me, breastfeeding was not a natural process that fostered attachment in a manageable way. It was torture. So why did I continue? I was a martyr. When those unacknowledged fears about not having what it takes to be the right kind of mother crept to the surface, I beat them back with self-sacrifice. I had three months of bed rest, and outright physical pain day in and day out to wear like a badge reminding me I was good enough. So week after week, instead of acknowledging my mixed feelings like loving my babies tremendously, but fearing the loss of my independence, I strove to prove what a good mother I was. I channeled all the normal terrors a new parent feels into managing my breasts. But my kids didn’t need me to be a martyr. Did that breast milk help them? Of course! What they needed most, however, was a sane, flexible mother who was in touch with her own feelings, strengths, and weaknesses. After three months, I had to let go of martyrdom, face who I was, and figure out how I was going to attach to my children.
This article is not a criticism of Attachment Parenting or any particular parenting style. I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, and any and all parenting strategies that work well for a given parent-child pair. This article is, however, a criticism of the societal standard that mothers be selfless martyrs who want nothing more than to focus on their children’s needs. For me, Attachment Parenting became the stick with which I beat myself with that societal ideal. Women have to be able to talk about the ways in which the ideal of the blissful, selfless mother oppresses us. We have to be able to discuss where that martyr ideal intersects with Attachment Parenting, “helicopter parenting,” and other parenting trends, without being seen as damning those practices or the parents who practice them. I think breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, and a general nurturing, child-centered stance can work great for many parents as ways to attach to children for whom these practices are feasible and welcome. I do have a concern with the term “Attachment” Parenting due to the implication that other parenting somehow does not foster attachment. If one needs to practice a technique that is extremely child-centered and does restrict a mother’s freedom quite a bit in order to attach, than what does that say about mothers who can’t sustain that loss of freedom? The implication is that their children will be less securely attached. But the research shows that’s not true.
1)Changing the Conversation from Parenting Content to Process – “Attunement” Parenting, a Strategy for Everyone
Early in my parenting journey, I had to let go of my fear that because I didn’t feel blissful about mothering infant twins, and because sleeping with them and wearing them didn’t work with my temperament, my children would not be securely attached. The haze of baby brain eventually lifted just enough for me to remember I had a Doctorate in Psychology. I thought to myself, ‘I know what secure attachment is and what is necessary to achieve it.’ I went back to my textbooks and watched videos of Mary Ainsworth’s classic “strange situation” attachment experiments. I paid extra attention to whether my children showed signs of secure attachment, instead of obsessing about what parenting techniques I was using. What I remembered is that attachment is about attunement.
Children feel secure when adults are responsive to them. Some children might respond well to a parent holding them most of the day, others might feel quite overwhelmed by this. Children need to feel a sense of basic safety and responsiveness. However, times when a child’s needs are frustrated are also a necessary part of development. This helps them learn to self-soothe. How do we know when to meet a child’s needs and when to give them space to manage things on their own? The only way to know is to be attuned to that specific child. If I were going to start a parenting trend, I would call it Attunement Parenting. It would stress the fit between the parent’s strengths and the child’s needs. Any parent or caregiver can practice attunement parenting, including moms, dads, grandparents, stay-at-home parents, single parents, gay parents, parents who work part or full-time, non-traditional families, families from a variety of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and those who practice a wide variety of parenting techniques, including Attachment Parenting.
2)Striving for the Ideal Parent-Child Match instead of an Ideal of Self-Sacrifice
The other critical aspect of Attunement Parenting is attunement to oneself. If being a stay-at-home mom, having my children in my bed, and lengthy breastfeeding come naturally to me and feel fulfilling then I am likely to be present and able to attune. If these practices lead me to depression and resentment, then I’m not going to be able to attune to my child. However, in a society that measures mothering by self-sacrifice, admitting one is not temperamentally well-matched with such practices can come with the price of social censure and extreme self-doubt, rather than a simple recognition that we all have strengths, weakness, preferences, and limitations. The crucial truth is self-sacrifice doesn’t necessarily correlate well with attunement, and thus, attachment. In fact, decisions like working or staying at home, breastfeeding and formula feeding, whether to co-sleep, etc. have not been shown by research to impact child adjustment. This means none of these practices are all good or all bad. For example, there is some point at which the damage of maternal stress would outweigh the benefits of breastfeeding. My guess is research shows similar outcomes regardless of these choices because parents who are choosing what optimizes the match between their temperament and their children’s likely have the best outcomes regardless.
Time parents spend with children and the way they spend that time doesn’t impact research outcomes because attunement is not measured in the time or content of interactions. It is measured in the intonation of interactions. Thus it can occur during breastfeeding or bottle feeding, between children with one main caretaker or a variety of devoted caretakers, and whether a parent is home one or twelve of the child’s waking hours. It’s about being responsive. Truly seeing and truly hearing. My son makes a silly face. I laugh. He makes a funny noise. I mimic it. He hugs me. I hold him tighter. He pulls away. I let him. He goes and plays on his own. I write or read. Twenty minutes later he tugs on my leg and I sit down with him again. Or, I make him wait a few minutes, if I see he can tolerate it. For me, I am most attuned when I have time away. I would be a worse mom if I didn’t work part-time, make time to write, go out with friends, and do yoga. I also don’t feel full-time work is right for me right now. This is my balance. For another mother much more time at home or work might be the right balance. But how can we attune to ourselves, and structure our lives to maximize the fit between our nature and our child’s in a culture that tells us good mothers are martyrs? How can we face our ambivalent feelings about parenting when we are being told good mothers should feel only bliss about parenting?
3)Getting Comfortable with Ambivalence and Telling Each Other the Truth
Ambivalent feelings are part of being human. Every mother feels some ambivalence about mothering. This does not mean wishing one wasn’t a mother, but rather, having positive and negative feelings at the same time. Unrealistic cultural ideals actually increase ambivalent feelings because in addition to the natural negative and positive feelings parenting evokes, we feel inadequate and guilty for having the negative feelings. For many mothers, those negative feelings become so threatening that they can’t tolerate them, especially in the current cultural landscape. Being a martyr is a way to manage those feelings. When I was enduring physical and emotional pain “for my kids” while breastfeeding, I didn’t have to feel guilty if deep down I wanted to run away to a desert island somewhere, or even just take a nap. Normal ambivalence is confusing. Normal ambivalence mixed with the societal ideal of the blissful, martyr mother results in the paralyzing guilt so many of us feel. The way out of that guilt is to normalize ambivalent feelings – to tell each other the truth. Some days I fantasize about not having kids. Sometimes my kids annoy me. A lot of the things I need to do for my kids are nothing but hard labor, and I don’t enjoy them. Sometimes my writing, time with my husband and friends, and my work feel more fulfilling than my kids. Attachment Parenting, for me, would have been too overwhelming. These are my truths.
I was finding myself not only afraid to speak of these feelings, but afraid to admit to other moms that my husband and I were practicing equally shared parenting. I felt like admitting I was not martyring myself and doing way more than my husband was admitting to being a bad mom. I have a team of people parenting my children, including my husband, my aunt and uncle, a part-time nanny, my brother, and close friends. That team provides a level of energy and a consistency of attunement I would never be capable of on my own. I set it up this way because I knew that for me being an isolated, full-time mom would not provide optimal attunement for my kids. I believe other moms (and dads) have the right constitution to make that work well for them. I’m not one of them.
4)Letting Go of Guilt – No More Martyr Mommy!
Since that time when I stopped breastfeeding, I believe I have set things up exactly right to optimize my mothering capabilities. There is just one problem – the paralyzing, debilitating guilt. Author Pamela Druckerman writes that for many moms, guilt is a way to negotiate a way out of constant self-sacrifice. “If we feel guilty about these things, it allows us to do them. We’re not just being selfish. We’ve ‘paid’ for our lapses. Of course, guilt also saps the pleasure from these activities.” Thus, I take “me-time” and I spend it torturing myself about having it. So how do we make peace with our guilt and stop feeling like bad mothers? We do so by changing and expanding our notions of what a good mother is. We do so by insisting on shifting the focus from how much we are torturing ourselves, to the things children need most. Children need basic attunement, a physically and emotionally safe environment, adults who model effective, respectful communication with each other, and who are as emotionally healthy as possible. ‘Do my children feel a basic sense of safety in the world and that their needs are generally responded to within a reasonable amount of time? Then I’m going to go ahead and get that massage and not torment myself about it!’
Attunement to ourselves means staring down the intersection between our own psychology and cultural standards. Do we know why we are doing what we’re doing? If not, we run the risk of missing the forest for the trees. I took breastfeeding to an excessive, unhealthy place to manage my own anxieties and feelings of inadequacy, partly driven by a societal standard I knew I could never meet. “Overparenting,” “helicopter” parenting, and everything we hear about the “right way” to parent can lead us to such distraction that we are not attuned. Fixating on parenting “techniques” can also take our attention away from much more problematic family dynamics and emotional problems that could be impacting our families like relationship conflict and depression. Attachment parents can be wonderfully attuned if they know themselves and their children. All parenting requires flexibility. Otherwise, we run the risk of trying so hard to follow a parenting rulebook that we stop listening to our kids. Sometimes when I spend time writing or return from work and my own guilt is bubbling over, I come home determined to connect with my kids. In their toddler way, they make it known that they don’t need me hovering and distracting them from their play. They’ve been with an attuned, loving person all day. Kids are wired to learn and develop with basic safety in place and basic needs being met.
6)Stop Blaming our Feminist Mothers and Start Demanding More of Men
The focus on parenting “techniques” and the ideal of the blissful/martyr mother takes the focus off of men to take more responsibility for childcare, and keeps the lion share of responsibility for child rearing on women. These ideals can also be terribly alienating and invalidating to those many men who already take a great deal of responsibility for childcare. It is critically important to ask ourselves as who is benefitting from an unrealistic ideal of motherhood, and who is profiting when we reinforce that ideal by fighting over how we should be parenting. While we are busy making each other feel inadequate (even if simply by not admitting to each other any negative feelings about mothering), millions in profits are being made selling us products, classes, lessons, and books that will bring us closer to “perfect” mothering. While we are blaming our feminist mothers for motherhood getting lost during the feminist movement, we are distracted from demanding the political and structural change needed to finish what they started. The fact that our political and structural support systems haven’t changed much and men haven’t stepped up the way we needed them to, doesn’t mean our mothers’ efforts were wrong-headed and we need to focus our lives more on caretaking again. What we need to do is keep working to make those needed changes. Throwing another generation of feminists under the bus is just another way to keep pressure off others to change and keep it on us.
7)Fighting for Institutional Change
As women’s roles expanded during second wave feminism, less of our collective energy was spent on childcare. The way to reconcile that is not to convince ourselves that motherhood should be blissful for each of us, and we should be willing to lose ourselves completely to it. We need to re-structure society in ways that promote the nurturing of children so they can get their needs met without women giving up feminist gains. Men’s roles need to expand. Institutional barriers need to come down. My husband left a high-powered job with a low quality of life, 8 months after our kids were born, for one where he could be home more. He told his boss he was leaving because as a man, availing himself of the options utilized frequently by female employees, like 70% schedules and long maternity leaves, would have been career suicide. His boss simply agreed. We need to take the energy we are expending critiquing each other’s parenting and put it toward demanding generous paid leave for women and men, state-sponsored childcare, and flexible work schedules for women and men. In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir describes an ideal in which “motherhood would be freely chosen—that is, birth control and abortion would be allowed—and in return all mothers and their children would be given the same rights; maternity leave would be paid for by the society that would have responsibility for the children, which does not mean that they would be taken from their parents but that they would not be abandoned to them.” It truly does take a village. When we ask ourselves if we’re good enough, let’s ask ourselves if our village is good enough as well, or if it is “abandoning” our children to us.
Even without these structural changes, we can begin to structure our lives differently. We can speak up and admit we need help. We can ask fathers, family, and friends to do more. However, this requires not undermining those other participants in childcare and giving up some of our control over the private sphere. One of the well-researched barriers to father-involvement is feelings of inadequacy in fathers as parents. We need to believe fathers can parent in order for them to be expected to do so. Keep in mind how we would feel if men micromanaged our work in the public sphere or made it obvious they didn’t believe we were capable of running companies or countries. We can also hire help or and we can create exchange systems where we help each other without becoming overcome with guilt for utilizing childcare.
8)Viewing Raising Children as a Village Responsibility
We can put the focus of childcare on a village of which we are a part, rather than on ourselves as women, without our children suffering. In fact, children derive great benefit from more than one primary caretaker. A large body of research shows positive outcomes for children in a wide variety of areas when fathers are more involved, ranging from school performance to relationship satisfaction later in life, to having a greater internal locus of control, to greater flexibility in gender role identity. Although less researched, there is no reason to believe the addition of other adults, including same-sex parents, grandparents, nannies, etc. would not produce similar benefits. If we make the choice to stay at home with children and be sole primary caretakers, we should do so because it is right for us, not to make up for our mothers’ feminist leanings or because we believe it will harm our children if we don’t. All parents need support. Stay-at-home-moms and dads as well as working parents need their village. The idea that one parent alone with children most of the time was ever the best way for the majority of people to structure childcare is highly unusual in the course of history and in other cultures.
9)Taking back our Time, our Money, and our Mental Resources
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf muses about a fictional character, Shakespeare’s sister. She talks about what this woman might have accomplished if not for societal barriers and expectations side-tracking women. How much time and money are we spending focusing on what type of mother we should be, if we are “mom enough,” researching and buying the safest products, monitoring our children instead of letting them play and develop on their own, providing the absolute perfect environment for neurological development, spending hours online trading cloth diapers, attending classes we’ve become convinced our children can’t do without, or paralyzed by guilt that we are not doing these things?
Meanwhile whether we are working or not, we are modeling to our kids that a woman’s role is to obsess over caretaking. Making the choice whether to stay at home with children or how much of one’s time to spend focused on children is and should be a very personal one, and there are no wrong choices. But these choices as well as choices about parenting techniques and purchases related to our children are not made in a vacuum. They are made in the midst of societal standards, and social sanctions. At this point in history, meeting those standards is related to the extent to which one is martyring oneself – putting one’s own needs aside for children. Fathers are not subject to these same sanctions. Consider the choice for a father to stay at home with children. For the father, there would be sanctions about not being a provider, rather than not being self-sacrificial enough. For men, simply “babysitting” their own children is often seen as martyrdom. How can we truly make honest choices with such double standards in play? It is short-sighted to think that these norms have no impact on our decisions. Even when they don’t truly don’t impact our decisions, they can have a profound impact on how we feel about them and our level of guilt.
10)Asking Ourselves, “What Would I Tell My Daughter?”
So is parenting all about selflessness and martyrdom? Yes and no. Let’s ask ourselves, as mothers, is this something I really need to be a martyr about? Is this a time I need to be totally selfless? And then let’s ask ourselves if we would ask the same thing of a father. Parents must be selfless a lot of the time. They have to put their children’s needs first in profound ways. But there is a difference between meeting a child’s needs and making one’s identity about being a martyr. My kids may well have needed me to stay in bed for three months to give them the best chance of survival. This was one of the very, very few things my husband could not have done. But, they did not need me to suffer through pain and anguish trying to breastfeed them in the circumstances I was under.
In our culture, the only way to talk about self-care for mothers is to couch it as beneficial to children. What about self-care because we are humans and deserve it? Selfishness is part of human nature. Let’s take back the term “selfish” and own it. I am selfish. I want to eat a hot meal uninterrupted. I want to use the bathroom by myself. I want to have lengthy conversations with adults while my kids wait, bored, for me to put my attention back on them. I want to go out with friends. I want quality time with my husband. I want a career. I want hobbies and interests. I want to be an agent of social change. I want to be passionate about things other than my kids. I often catch myself feeling like admitting these things makes me a bad mother. But when I really think it through, I conclude that in my case, they make me a good mother.
When I am feeling guilty about my mothering, I have a little mental exercise that I do. It’s called, “What would I tell my daughter?” If my daughter was grown and had her own children and came to me with the things I’m struggling with, what would I tell her? Here are some of the things I would tell her. “Go to the spa. Accept all the help you can. Have sex with your partner. Validate that you have a wonderful village helping raise your child and stop beating yourself up about it. Read. Enjoy your work. Structure your life in the way that makes for the best match between you (and your partner) parenting well and your children’s needs being met. If your child has another parent, make the same demands of him/her that you make of yourself.” It is critical for us to remember that we are modeling being adults for our children. What does mommy do when she feels overwhelmed, stressed, and burdened? Does she squelch those feelings and keep pressing on or does she ask for help? Does she structure her life in a way where she feels whole and balanced, or does she make her life about being a selfless martyr? Does she take a night off and pamper herself, or does she get more and more resentful until she yells at her children?
Let’s Start a New Mommy War Against Mommy Martyrdom!
Let’s not send our daughters the message that mommy means martyr. If we can’t tolerate the thought of doing something for ourselves, perhaps we can tolerate modeling something better for our daughters… and perhaps… each other? Let’s start a movement we can all get behind. A “Mommy War” against those who are profiting off our insecurities and perpetuating ideals that keep our focus off the rights we should have as mothers and parents. A movement where we are trusted to make choices that make sense in our particular circumstances. One where we can truly join with men, rather than buying into motherhood ideals that subtly suggest men are lesser parents. Let’s draw our line in the sand and demand better for ourselves. Let’s not do more than we would reasonably ask of others. We are mothers, but first and foremost we are people. No more martyr mommy!
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