Attachment Parenting : You’re Mom Enough Without It

The latest cover of TIME magazine (5/21/12) with the beautiful 20something mom breastfeeding her 3 year old son had me shaking my head.

What WAS she thinking taking that picture, and having her full name on the magazine cover? Ten years from now her son is going to have to face his friends when they ask him what it was like to suck his mother’s breasts. Because they have proof. A million covers of TIME magazine, internet pages and downloads later. Really. The social insensitivity of that photo takes my breath away.

As for the topic, the so-called Attachment Parenting style advocated by Dr. Bill Sears, well. That, too, has it’s serious problems. Let me be brief:

Attachment Theory describes the emotional or relational attachment between a developing infant and mother. It was first studied in depth by John Bowlby (and later by Ainsworth, Main, Cassidy, Hazan, Shaver, and others) in the 1950’s. It posits that the emotional attachment between mother and child is the main determinant for that child’s internal sense of self-in-relationship throughout life. The mother, if she is relatively consistent in her caregiving, responsiveness, and mirroring of the child’s emotions, creates a “safe haven” for a developing self against the world. That same mother, as her child begins to reach out to the world beyond her, creates a “secure base” from which a child explores the world and can return to mom safely and with support for a developing independence.

This science has been studied for the last 50 years, and has developed a deep collection of research, data, and process that I subscribe to as a relational psychotherapist. About 55% of us are fortunate enough to have mothers that welcomed us to the world, sheltered, fed, changed, disciplined, loved, laughed, cried and protected us well enough that we emerged from our infancy able to approach others for support, and not worry too much about relationships. This is called having a “secure attachment” style. The rest of us, because of our mother’s own anxieties, environmental stress, illness, or other issues develop an anxious, withdrawing, or mixed attachment style that we carry from childhood through adulthood at about a 75% rate.

Now, here’s my issue: There is nothing in the research of Attachment Theory to indicate that mothers must breastfeed their infants and toddlers, co-sleep with them, or never put them down in order to create secure emotional attachment. Nothing. What the research indicates is that mothers who do their level best to hold, look at, speak to, and provide consistent emotional responsiveness to their child’s distress, and support to their developing independence despite issues like also being a spouse, or working, or using daycare, or tending to other children in the family, or having friends or hobbies, usually produce relationally secure children. Period.

So if you love your children, are relatively secure yourself, have the most stable marriage or partnership you can create, have good health, and manage the details of your life pretty well, you don’t have to give up your body, mind and self out of the fear that your child isn’t getting what they need. Pending unseen catastrophes, they will, they can, and they do.

Most of all, I’m sad that mothering can feel so overwhelming to some of us that following the direction of one single doctor seems safer than following one’s own common sense and the collective wisdom of the millions of mothers and fathers who have gone before us. Attachment parenting? Dump the pseudo-science and let your child sleep in their own bed. It’s safer for them, and you may actually get a (mostly) full night’s rest even when you’re up at 3am to nurse, change or rock them back to sleep. Honest.

College Mom: I’m Trying, But It’s Hard

We dropped our first born off at university this week. We have spent the last year plus supporting him as he got ready. From taking AP classes and exams, to doing half of his senior year of high school at our community college, our son was looking forward. We thought frequently about how the transition to college would be for us all, and he and I often would tell each other that we would certainly miss one another and that it would, yes, feel very weird.

Well, it does. I didn’t even shed a tear until I walked into the house after we drove home without him. Our house, minus one of our children, just doesn’t feel like our home. Walking into his bedroom brought me to tears. The boy is gone, at least until Thanksgiving break, and I have to get used to the change.

We left him seeming excited and confident, and for that, I am deeply grateful. He is competent to meet the academic challenges ahead, and has support for everything else.

I’ve been comforted by the texts we have sent back and forth a couple of times a day since we separated. Does that qualify for a helicopter parent? I don’t think so. I have told my husband that I think my/our job continues to be to love and support our son. As for decisions and problems? They now belong to him. And he needs to confront them so he can develop his individual skills with people and their strange, strange ways.

Of course, sharing space with others is always a challenge. I want him to be able to get his own needs met, live with compromise, and assert himself. This is what I am struggling with. He is a really, really nice guy, and doesn’t always speak up for himself. I’d love to swoop in and solve an issue or two, like a therapist could. But I. Must. Not. Interfere.

He knows where we are. He knows how to speak his mind. He knows what he needs. As my friends who have traveled this road before are good at reminding me, we have taught and modeled problem solving all his life. He has a set of values that are worth defending. I need to let him figure out his own boundaries, and how he is going to manage them. He’s just getting started.

Just so you know: it’s a lot easier to say than to feel. I think I have more to learn about this change than my son does. I used to know what being his mother meant. It’s something very different now. It’s pretty hard to stop being his champion, defender, provider and comforter just like that. But just like that, that is exactly what my life is asking of me now.

Thank you, God. Help us all.

Fear and What’s Possible

Today is 9/11. The bells toll, and the wars continue.

In an email from our school district, we have been informed that the H1N1 virus is up and running. Several children have tested positive, and we are all encouraged to be alert and aware. NPR reported this morning that a single vaccination (instead of two) may be all that is needed to immunize adults, allowing more vaccinations to go to more people this fall.

In listening to the media coverage of this story, I’ve learned that in an average year, fully 36,000 people die from the seasonal flu virus. That’s an average of 720 people per state. Do you know any of them? The predictions for this winter imagine up to 90,000 deaths from H1N1. That would be an average of 1800 deaths per state. The primary difference being many of those deaths are predicted to be our healthy, robust children.

I want to be ready. I will get my family immunized. But in the meanwhile, in the midst of the preparations, I have been wondering: what’s the difference between fear and vigilance?

We are washing our hands. We are covering our sneezes. We have a strategy for taking time from work. But I worry that all our worry makes us feel less strong, and more vulnerable. Less confident, and more anxious. Some preparation is the soul of wisdom. Thinking ahead is what keeps us resilient.

But too much hand wringing about what we cannot ultimately control just hurts the hands and stalls the mind. It puts our life on hold, waiting for the worst. A worst that may not come, and if it comes, is still never far from the grace of God.