I feel like I need to begin this post with a thousand caveats, because I know all too well how fierce the passion of an attachment parenting (AP) mama is. Both the passion for her kids (of course) and the passion for her choices.
I’ve been there, I was one. I was the textbook extended-breastfeeding-bed-sharing-baby-wearing-cloth-nappy-using-never-let-them-whimper-run-a-side-business-as-a-doula-and-hypnobirthing-teacher-enlightened-AP-blogger type of mum. My business was called Earth Mama, for heaven’s sake. So I get it, I really do.
Meet the Attachment Parenting Community
The attachment parenting community is a strong and passionate force of (mostly) women who create a world that is pretty difficult to leave, once you’re in it. In this world, the overwhelming feeling is that everything we do should be for our children. That our needs come second-place to our children’s needs.
Sleep deprived? It’s for the best. Feeling touched out? Just par for the course. Stifled, depressed and lonely? This too shall pass.
The pages you follow on social media shower you with articles about how to be a better parent. Even when you unfollow, your friends still share them and there is no escape.
Why this thing that sucks for you is best for your child, so you should do it. Why this thing you thought was right is actually wrong. Why what you’ve been doing without thinking might have damaged your child. Why you should stop doing this other thing right now. Why you should do things this way if you want your child to be happy.
I reached the stage where I was so ground down from trying hard to be ‘better’ all the time, but never managing to be good enough. I was sick of feeling perpetually crap. So I started getting angry. I became angry each time a “how to be a better parent” article was shoved under my nose. I became indignant at the cheek of people on the internet who think they get to tell me how to parent. The worst part is that I used to be one of them, while always wrestling with the secret that I was never really good enough, selfless enough, giving enough. Every time I thought I was doing okay, another article, another study would be shoved under my nose that highlighted the error of my ways.
Attachment Parenting is Not the Only Way
Over time, I gradually realised that attachment parenting is simply one ideology. That’s all it is. By that, I mean it is a system of ideas, beliefs and values that join together to form a worldview that influences the things we do and the way we think. And that’s okay. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, or that it’s wrong. If it honestly works for you, it can be pretty awesome actually.
All I’m saying is that it’s just one way. Just one.
In my personal experience of mixing predominantly in AP circles both offline and online, there is a school of thought (often unspoken, sometimes not) that attachment parenting is the right way to parent. It’s the way that puts our children’s needs first. It’s the unselfish way. It’s the only (good) way.
That is pretty typical of any ideological way of thinking.
The Theory Isn’t Always Right
I cringe when I think how many times I must have faithfully (desperately) recited the AP mantra, in response to non-AP friends & family who questioned my parenting ideas when they resulted with the clingiest toddlers on the planet:
“This is just a phase. AP creates an incredibly secure attachment, which means they will soon be confident to explore the world knowing that their foundations are here to stay.”
The idea of enhanced security and attachment is really one of the cornerstones of the attachment parenting ideology, and of course there is plenty of research that APs will wave under your nose to back it up. However, there is also a great deal of conflicting evidence as well as evidence that distinguishes attachment theory from attachment parenting methods.
My kids who received the most intensive attachment parenting were exceptionally clingy during their first 2 or 3 years of life. They grew out of it. One is pretty shy and occasionally clingy to this day – it’s who he is. Another is the cruisiest, most outgoing child on the planet. Also who he is. The one I stopped breastfeeding and spent three months away from when he was a baby – he’s totally cruisy too. The one I didn’t manage to breastfeed (#1) but implemented aspects of AP over his first year as I learned more about it – he’s now a confident young man, and different again.
They are all different personalities, and I am now of the firm belief that the extent to which I followed the attachment parenting methods with each of them had little to do with the type of child they turned out to be.
My Confession: I Was Wrong
I did not cope well in the long term as an attachment parenting mum. It burned me out. What felt like endless consecutive years of breastfeeding all day and night reduced me to the feeling that it was all I was worth. I was touched out and worn out and wanted to be more than just a body. Years on end of long, lonely, sleepless nights were terrible for my mental health. Spending all day every day alone with my kids over the best part of a decade, usually with at least one of them clinging to me every moment of the day and night, left me feeling crazy, depressive and socially inept.
The Hidden Danger
It was the intensity of these years that nearly broke me. It took such a toll on my own mental health and self-care that I completely lost sight of how to look after my own needs. By baby #4, I was physically and mentally sick with the effects of an eating disorder, depression and anxiety. I was a total mess.
The sad irony was that any remnants of my attachment parenting journey were cut short when I had to leave my 11 month old baby (as well as a 3, 5 and 8 year old) for three months as I recovered in a specialist inpatient unit, a 3 hour drive away.
When I told some of my AP acquaintances (formerly friends) that I would have to stop breastfeeding at 11 months, the response was not so much understanding and support, but ‘friendly suggestions’ that I could express milk while I was recovering in hospital (at a BMI of 13.5 and so depleted of nutrients from a combination of breastfeeding and starvation that I was given days to live) so that my child wouldn’t miss out.
I felt pretty fucking shit when I explained that he had actually been dry nursing for a while as my useless fucking body was no longer healthy enough to produce milk anyway, and that I actually really needed to focus on getting me better right now.
This highlighted to me how fixated the attachment parenting community can be at the expense of maternal mental health, to the point where it can be dangerous for those mums who are really struggling.
So, is Attachment Parenting Wrong?
No. No one parenting style (within reason) can be fairly labelled as “wrong”. However, I think we need to recognise ideological thinking when we see it, and be flexible enough to make changes when things aren’t working for us. I also think we should accept that the needs of the parent are just as important as the needs of the children.
If it was a ‘me or them’ situation, I would give my life for my kids in a heartbeat. But in practical day-to-day life, now, we make compromises to ensure all our needs are taken care of. This means my kids making compromises sometimes too, and I’m okay with that, because they are growing up understanding that they are not the centre of the universe. That they are an equal part of it, just like anybody else.
Since moving to New Zealand, parenting seems to be a lot less black and white. Funnily enough, far more parents where I now live practice elements of attachment parenting than in my home of the UK. Babies are commonly breastfed into toddlerhood, baby-wearing is everywhere and bed-sharing is common. But so are pushchairs and sleep training methods and babies in cots.
Parents seem to mix and match what works for them and their kids, and what is most noticeable is that nobody seems to judge anybody for doing things differently.
In my humble opinion, this is just how it should be.