Saturday, May 14, 2011

Can you be a feminist and an attachment parent?

I believe so, but Erica Jong makes the excellent point that attachment parenting unrealistically ties women down (and is a practice of white privilege, actually). It's hard to be an attachment parent if you are a single parent. Or if you have to work most of the hours of the day to put food on the table for your family. Or if your baby doesn't like to be cuddled and worn (those types of babies do exist--I've known a few).

In our case, we didn't necessarily set out to be "attachment parents." The NICU was responsible. It started out with the fact that we did not get to hold Chris until he was 6 weeks old. Until then, this was the extent of our ability to touch him or hold him:
Chris in the NICU
We became converts to kangaroo care, which involves holding the diaper-clad baby "skin to skin" on the parent's chest. Both Mike and I did kangaroo care, and those times were some of the most meaningful, poignant moments of our NICU stay. We were able to hold Chris for only 1 hour a day, and at first we had to take turns (one person a day).

By the time we brought him home 117 days into his NICU stay, we did not want to put him down. I would often snuggle with him on the couch until he fell asleep. He slept in our room in a bassinet, and he was hooked up to an apnea monitor, a laptop computer (the hospital was researching the effect of oxygen on the development of retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disease), and supplemental oxygen. With all that paraphernalia, he was not in our bed. Eventually we moved him into his own room, and I will never forget that transition. He screamed for hours, and got so upset about being on his own that he would throw up. (He had gastroesophageal reflux, so that contributed.)

Because of the way Christopher's birth went, when we had our younger children we rarely put them down. They slept in our bed and I nursed them on demand through the night. Attachment parenting at its best! I know that many people do not approve of bedsharing, cuddling as much as possible, and nursing past babyhood...but I do not have any regrets. They are only babies once, and all three of them have close, loving relationships with us. One of my very favorite memories of babyhood was sleeping and cuddling. Part of me misses that stage. (Although I was also very ready for them to leave our bed when it was time!)

It's so easy for people to pass judgment on parents. Everyone thinks they know the right way to raise children. (I remember a friend lecturing my sister about how she believes that children deserve to have one parent at home, preferably the mom. This was as my sister was preparing to go back to work part time after giving birth to her son. Not exactly what she needed to hear. And this woman would describe herself as a feminist!) Some people find it easier than others to disregard the criticism and do what they know is right. Fortunately, most of the people I know (with a few exceptions) kept their opinions to themselves.

However, I do think that attachment parenting is easier when you have a partner (isn't everything easier, in fact)? I have always worked full-time outside of the home, and I faithfully breast pumped until my kids were over a year old. It wasn't convenient or easy, but I felt it was important.


Sleeping with Kieran

Cuddling with babies

Newborn in papoose
Back to Jong's article. She says,
"In the oscillations of feminism, theories of child-rearing have played a major part. As long as women remain the gender most responsible for children, we are the ones who have the most to lose by accepting the 'noble savage' view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness. We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules."
I agree that women remain the gender most responsible for children. More dads are staying at home like Mike to be the primary caregiver, but in most cases it's still the mom who puts her career on hold. Even if the mom is working full- or part-time, she tends to do the majority of the childrearing and domestic chores on top of her outside job (this is often the case even if the dad is very engaged). It's only when dads put their careers on hold as well and begin staying home more to care for the kids...or take on the equal share of domestic and child care if both partners are working full-time...that parenting responsibilities will become more equal. The times they are certainly changing, but slowly. And as Jong reminds us, we need to be released from guilt.

Attachment parenting (lack of, or what others perceive as inadequate) can carry a great amount of guilt. Are you nursing exclusively (ban that formula!)? (The woman who gave my sister shit about going back to work also never gave her baby a bottle--ever--she nursed completely, exclusively--and didn't even pump.) Do you use a stroller? Or heaven forbid, a Baby Bjorn (the "proper" baby wearing is a sling or wrap)? Some people claim that Baby Bjorns do not qualify as "baby wearing." Did you drink alcohol while you were nursing? (I did.) How about send you child to day care? Bad mommy.

This is what we do to each other...and that's not what feminism is about, making other women feel guilty about their choices.

Jong's daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, writes about her mother's mothering in this linked essay. Even though Erica Jong was obsessed with her career and certainly was not an attachment parent, Jong-Fast turned out just fine.

Bottom line your kids and show them that both women and men can be loving, equally engaged caregivers. You don't have to attachment parent for them to turn out fine. The reality is that growing up secure contributes more to your child's success than whether you babywear, breastfeed, or practice the family bed. And women, let's stop berating each other for our parenting choices and instead focus on getting men to carry an equal load!

Daddy bonding

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