Friday, May 25, 2012

Thankless: attachment parenting and the Time Magazine debacle

The international breastfeeding sign.
For those of you who haven't been reading Internet news lately, Time Magazine recently ran an "article" with the cover line "Are You Mom Enough?" and a breastfeeding photo that was clearly designed to generate as much outrage as possible. Based on the author's incredible lack of understanding of attachment parenting, I'd say that Time was basically trolling for attention ("How many readers can we piss off this week? Really? That'll put sales through the ROOF!") and didn't really care who they stepped on as a result. There have been enough articulate responses across the web that I'm not going to respond to the article's content here; instead, I want to focus on something else.

The concept of "Mom Enough."

In essence, the question of whether or not someone can be "mom enough"- or, as I'm going to call it henceforth, "parent enough"- highlights one of the fundamental problems of parenting in most of Western society: it's hard. Parenting is a full-time job that limits your sleep and social life, requires you to get intimate with nasty things like poo, and means that a significant percentage of your daily conversation will sound like limit-setting and "Because I'm the parent, that's why!" It means being afraid that this person you've put your time and energy and love into will be injured or killed; it means caring so much that it hurts; it means an entire reshaping of your worldview. It means always second-guessing yourself in case you're not doing a "good enough" job. And in Western cultures, it often means being expected to do it alone (or, at least, as a nuclear family without the "interference" of grandparents). When someone asks the question of whether or not someone is "parent enough" because of their childrearing methods, the underlying truth that is exposed is that the baseline of parenting- the things I've just listed- will already drain you and anything additional will obliterate you entirely.

The challenge is that there are a lot of very good arguments in favour of attachment parenting methods, whether you use all of them or pick-and-choose (as most parents do). Neurobiologically speaking, humans are incredibly social creatures whose brains absolutely require repetitive social stimulation (from humans, not televisions!) in order to develop. We're born with the wiring for most things, but that wiring doesn't get connected unless we have input from the people around us (even basic things like eyes don't work if they're deprived of sensory stimuli!). Combine that with the fact that humans function on rhythms (including the regular, sine wave pattern with which we engage and disengage during a lecture), and it makes sense that babies tend to develop best when they're given pattern-repetitive stimulation that involves all five senses. Even co-sleeping- the option that many parents choose against- is involved in this (warmth of parents' bodies, sounds of their snores and heartbeats, scents of their bodies). But ask any parent or guardian of a small child how they'd feel about ceding more of their time and space to their babies, especially when everyone is grouchy and fussy, and you'd probably get a Glare of Despair. Attachment parenting, in a society that likes to emphasize the nuclear family, is very very challenging- hence the concept of "parent enough."

What they don't tell you with attachment parenting and Western culture is that the two- while not incompatible- certainly are at odds. One of the beautiful things about early neurobiological development is that having multiple "safe" people in a child's life has a positive impact on a child's future coping skills, social skills, overall functioning, and- depending on how diverse those safe people are- even racism. In a culture that emphasizes two-parent families and labels more adults (especially grandparents) as "chaotic," "interfering," or "dictatorial," the idea of allowing other adults to influence your child's early development so strongly seems weak, inferior, or (again) chaotic. Then factor in reality- the cost of living, the number of parents raising children alone, the cost of childcare- and think again about how challenging attachment parenting truly is. How many parents even have the opportunity to consider attachment parenting, let alone the means to implement it?

To me, the fact that we have to turn parenting into a competition of who's "enough" of a parent to utilize a given parenting methodology indicates that we already know something's wrong. We know that, as a culture, we make parenting a lot harder than it already is. Weknow that we isolate families and stay-at-home parents. We know we don't make good childcare affordable and accessible. We know we set up parents to fail by suggesting that some parents aren't parent "enough" by virtue of their choices. We know we make it hard for employed parents to take time when their children are sick or newborn. We make it so that parents who choose attachment options- breastfeeding, co-sleeping, Ergo wraps- are demonized for sexualizing, infantilizing, and overindulging their children instead of recognizing that these are healthy (yes! really! healthy!) and should be options for all parents.

What we need to do, as movers and shakers in our world, is take the question that Time poses and revert it to our policymakers and ourselves: are we "parent enough," whether or not we have children of our own, to advocate for access? Are we "parent enough" to demand a more parent-supportive culture? Are we "parent enough" to change parental leave policies, child sick time policies, and the current child care industry? Are we "parent enough" to validate the non-neglectful, non-abusive choices the parents in our lives are making? What can we do to reshape the way we conceptualize parenting and child-rearing?

Maybe then we can stop pitting parents against each other and start cooperating instead.

Note: for an engaging, accessible discussion of neurobiological development, check out "The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog" by Bruce Perry.

1 comment:

  1. Apparently, no one was reading Time which is exactly why the editors published it. It was like dumping gasoline all over a simmering fire and then throwing a match on it. We all know what you get. A hell of an explosion. And we all proved we were lemmings. Meanwhile, all of the marketing executives and editors are high fiving each other backstage. I talk about the end of my role as a lemming here: