Sunday, December 20, 2015

Attachment parenting - an inconvenient truth

I first got into attachment parenting when my younger siblings were born.  My mother had all kinds of parenting books, from the crunchy to the fundamentalist, and I used to read them all and try things out on my siblings.  But mostly I just watched what she did -- fed the babies when they were hungry, put them to sleep when they were tired, tried to comfort them when they cried.  It was very rare that she ever left any of them in the crib crying, and if she ever did, I usually ran and got them out of there because that's what you do with a crying baby, you comfort them.

So long before I had kids of my own, I had strong opinions about how I'd raise them.  And though some of them have changed a great deal -- for instance, on spanking -- the attachment stuff is all pretty much intact.  I've stopped being as legalistic about it -- I think you can be attached without necessarily breastfeeding or cosleeping, the point is that you are responsive to your children's needs and comfort them when they cry -- but the basic concept is still something I firmly believe in.  I can hardly help believing in it, it seems so instinctively right to me.  I can also testify to its effects on me -- when I am very attached and responsive to my kids, I get angry with them less and I enjoy them more.

But it's not all gut feelings here.  The science behind attachment parenting is pretty solid, as any science about parenting goes.  We've definitely seen some strong correlations between children who are fed and comforted on demand and what is called "secure attachment," and there are correlations between children who are securely attached and those who do well in school and have fewer behavior problems, less anxiety, less aggression, and so forth.

Critics of attachment parenting fall into two groups.  First are those who say, "Hey, you don't need to follow a certain set of rules to be attached!  I bottlefeed and my baby sleeps in a crib and I hate using a sling and my baby's as attached as anybody's!"  To which I say, of course!  It's easier to feed on demand when you breastfeed, and it's easier to take care of your baby's night needs when you cosleep, but if you still have the general principles in mind and are willing to go to some extra effort to make it work, I'd imagine you'd likely get the same results.

The other group disagrees with the whole premise of attachment parenting.  We shouldn't be responsive to babies, they say, because that teaches them they're in charge.  We shouldn't feed them on demand because it's important to get them on a schedule.  And you certainly shouldn't hold them too much, or they'll be spoiled.  These people claim attachment parenting creates needy babies, spoiled children, and delinquent adults.  There's no evidence that this is true, but they are usually repeating traditional arguments for the parenting practices of a few generations ago.  They are afraid that new methods are going to result in a different kind of person than they themselves are, because after all they were raised with the old methods and they like the way they turned out.

But it makes sense to me that attachment parenting has good results.  While at first it may seem intuitive that, to get a child used to giving up his own way and getting along well with others, you should make sure they don't have as much as they want of anything, social behavior usually works the opposite way.  We usually share best when we know there's enough to go around.  We are kindest when we're not afraid someone will take advantage of us.  Attachment parenting is all about teaching a child that he is safe, that there is enough of everything to go around.  These lessons aren't learned consciously in a pre-verbal child, but there is evidence that they are biochemically hard-wired into the child's brain -- high amounts of stress hormones in a developing infant can increase the intensity of his stress response for the rest of his life.

And increased stress often leads to increased aggression.  I see it with my kids daily.  When one feels threatened by another, he often lashes out.  When I ask why, the answer is, "He was going to hurt me!"  First law of the playroom, apparently, is "do unto others, before they do to you."  Diligent repetition of, "I am watching and will not let him hurt you," and follow-up as required, has cut fighting down drastically.  A year ago, when I was stretched thin with the baby and consequently didn't intervene much, both boys were constantly at each other's throats.  Now I'm more closely involved and break them up quicker, each feels safer, and by this time they hardly fight at all unless they're under some unusual stress, like being sick.

Of course, another factor here is that each is getting a lot more attention from me individually, too.  Each kid gets time on my lap every day, pretty much when they ask for it (though not entirely, because there's only one of me).  When there is some toy that's starting a fight, one kid can usually be persuaded to give up the toy and come hang out with me.

And punishment?  The less I punish, the better they are!  I can't always help it, but I find that even a time out makes them unhappy, which makes them angry, which makes them behave worse.  Whereas taking the offender on my lap and hugging them lots and talking over the issue until they don't feel upset anymore leaves them behaving better all day.  That's not how I was brought up or how I thought I would parent, but it works.  When I throw a kid in time-out, I have to deal with him invariably starting a cycle of aggression with the others as soon as he gets out.  But when we hug and talk as long as the child wants, when he's finally ready to get up, sometimes he actually goes immediately to find something kind he can do for me or the offended sibling.

But here's the "inconvenient truth" part: it is more work.

That's why the two groups that I most often hear criticizing attachment parenting are feminists and large family advocates (Quiverfull Protestants, providentialist Catholics).  The feminists say, "It's not fair that mothers have to put their career on hold to form this ideal mother-child bond.  Give the child a bottle and put him in daycare, he'll be fine."  And the large-family advocates say, "There's no way you can do all this intensive parenting when you've got more than a couple kids and they're closely spaced.  Sleep-train that baby as soon as possible; he'll be fine."

I have tried, throughout my blogging career, to either refute or hand-wave away these objections.  I believe in feminism and I used to believe in providentialism.  I wanted it to be true that you can adequately raise children while having either a career or a large, closely-spaced family.  And it almost is -- if you sacrifice yourself completely.  It helps if you have lots of support and money.  A working mother can spend most of her earnings on a nanny who will form a real bond with her child and respond to its every cry, rather than an inexpensive daycare where the baby may be left crying in a swing or crib at naptime.  A mother of many can just go without sleep for years and years and blame any failures of temper on her own lack of virtue.  But I think most of us who try are going to fail in some degree, or else go half crazy.

Focusing specifically on the large-family aspect (because it's what I know), you just can't attachment-parent a baby every year.  Having a baby every year means getting pregnant with a new baby when the old one is a few months old -- so breastfeeding's pretty much out.  That's not so bad, but of course taking care of their night needs is going to be virtually impossible, since pregnancy makes you exhausted.  Once you've got three or four at that space, you're probably hallucinating if you haven't started sleep-training them early.  And you sure as heck can't pick each one up to comfort them when you need to if you've got a lot of them -- not unless you're an octopus.

Every two years is better.  I thought it would be ample, but it really isn't.  A lot of two-year-olds don't sleep through the night, for one thing; and they need a surprising amount of snuggling.  Marko was very mature at two, I'm now realizing, and didn't need as much, but Michael still needs a heck of a lot of hands-on time.  His behavior suffers when he doesn't get it -- after Miriam was born, he went on a tear of really outrageous naughtiness that lasted for months.  And he whined and cried a large portion of every day.  He's shaped up now, thank goodness, but if I were to stay on this schedule, I'd have to get pregnant about now and then Miriam could be needy and clingy for the next year.

Three years is what Dr. Greg Popcak recommends in Parenting With Grace, a book I'd buy every new Catholic parent if I could.  I don't have my copy handy, but he had some citations to prove that three years is a good minimum spacing between kids.  Certainly, those I know who have had a space like this say it's great -- at three, a child has pretty much graduated from the really intensely attached stage and is more interested in your mental attention than physical contact.  Three-year-olds are mostly weaned, or almost weaned, even if you've nursed them on demand.  And it leaves the mother time to replenish nutrient stores, apparently, as well as to hopefully get some good night's sleep when she's pregnant because the big kid is in his own bed all night.  (Unless the big kid is Michael.  LOL.)  And it'll result in a smaller total number of children, which means you're likely to have the time to invest in working out fights instead of just spanking everyone.

Of course, some people say the important thing is to make new souls for heaven and we should give up attachment parenting to that end.  To which all I can say is -- if you just want to make the soul, and you don't care about the moral development the child has afterward, you can do as you wish.  But if the goal is heaven, it seems the moral development would matter some.  The other Catholic objection is just that a three-year gap is difficult to attain using natural family planning, to which all I can say is, Yes it is.  Sorry.  Abstinence is miserable, but it's less miserable than the knowledge that your child needs more from you than you are able to provide.  And as far as its failures go -- well, it's one of the reasons I'm convinced that following Catholic teaching does not necessarily have good results, at least on earth.

I just think that when children grow up, from the very beginning, never having had enough of anything they truly needed, whether it's food or attention from Mom, they never stop wanting it.  They may quiet down and stop asking for it, for now, but as they get older they'll still have those unmet needs.  But they won't feel safe or trusting -- they'll feel suspicious and angry.  Instead of calmly thinking through problems to find a solution that works for everyone, they'll clamor for their own piece of the pie because they're scared they won't get any.  They'll want to do to others before others do something to them.  And no amount of reasoning is going to change the way they feel, because it's hard-wired in them from the outset.

I know that sounds overdramatic.  It's just something I've realized more and more with the passage of years: that there is a strong correlation between the statement, "My parents smacked my butt when I acted up and it made me the person I am today," and the statement, "Keep the refugees out because they'll take our jobs and murder us in our beds."  And I don't mean the correlation of conservatism, because there are conservatives who don't appear to be terrified and aggressive, but who just want a smaller government and so forth.  There are also liberals who seem to be waging a defensive class war.  Meanwhile I've noticed that attached children really do share their toys better and that people who grew up with lots of affection from their parents seem to be happier as adults.  And the science backs me up on this, as far as it can -- though of course temperament itself is mainly genetic and is probably the largest factor.

But the other thing I've slowly learned, over time, is that there really is a conflict between attachment parenting and closely-spaced childbearing.  I've listened for years on Catholic mothers' forums where people ask over and over again how in the world they can be attached, peaceful parents when they have a lot of kids.  And I've listened to other people say it can't be done, not without losing your own mind, and they should give up the ideal.  Make yourself believe that, when you leave your baby in his crib crying for an hour, it doesn't do him any harm.  But I haven't been convinced by this answer, even while I've failed to find another one.

I still think it's worth trying, even if you're overwhelmed.  I mean, I do and am.  I'm not going to tell myself comforting lies about what kids need, because I know the truth.  If I can't live up to it, I'll just keep trying.  Better to spread myself thin than to deny my kids something they need as they grow.  But I think I'm finally forced to confess, I wouldn't recommend this to others.  The inconvenient truth, the thing people would like to deny, is that children really do need all of you.  What you choose to do with that truth is up to you, but there's no easy no-sacrifice answer.

7 comments:

The Sojourner said...

I like the principles Popcak puts forth (obviously), but I do think he makes it all a little too neat. If you use NFP, your marriage will be a haven of good communication and selflessness! If you attachment parent, your children will be paragons of virtue and the envy of all your friends!

Maybe it will turn out that way when my attached child is older than 2 and not quite so attached. But I don't do attachment parenting because I think it's going to give me bragging rights. I do it because I can't bring myself to do anything else. Even if it was ALWAYS going to be this hard, I'm not sure I'd do it any different.

And really I don't think you step outside Catholic teaching to say that. I mean, isn't that a core tenet right there, that Catholics *don't* believe in prosperity gospel? Instead it seems like the general idea is that you're supposed to struggle on in darkness because you have faith that there's something bigger and better waiting for you at the end, where the end is not "your child turns 3 years old" but the end is "You die and get to go to Heaven."

(Of course, somebody could come along and argue that our earthly suffering is supposed to take the form of rugged individualism and mortification--in fact, somebody probably will. :) But I don't think you can argue from a Catholic standpoint while saying, "No, we're not supposed to suffer, so don't do anything that's hard.")

Sheila said...

Oh, I think I agree with you entirely. The trouble, though, is if the rules produce misery for just about everyone who practices them, you start to ask the question "so why would a good God even give us these rules?" I always believed it was because God had a birds-eye view of earthly life and would make rules that were generally beneficial (even if of course for some of us they are not, for one reason or another). But if I can get as close as possible to a birds-eye view by looking at science and statistics and so forth, I wouldn't expect to be seeing that the rules result in misery for most people.

And while I can't see the heaven side of things, you would think that the same sort of behavior that would result in kids making virtuous choices would be the most likely sort of thing that would result in them going to heaven -- if we can be said to have any influence over the question at all, which maybe we don't.

But it's true, for sure, that you don't really need a scientific backing to treat a small person like a person. I find evidence-based reasoning helpful when dealing with the people who think that because they're coldly rational and ignore both their feelings and their child's feelings, they're necessarily being somehow wiser than the rest of us. When something is true, it should be true from a variety of angles, hopefully, and attachment parenting seems to meet that standard,

Sheila said...

Wait, I think we are talking at cross-purposes, because you're talking about AP and I'm talking about NFP, when I talk about rules that have good or bad results. Considering that AP has good results, and we know it, I'm not sure why it isn't one of the really clear-cut Catholic teachings; and considering NFP doesn't always have good results (in fact I've watched it have very bad ones, for some people) I don't know why that rule is there at all. I mean, sure, do hard things sometimes, but wouldn't you expect the rules to exist for SOME benefit of SOME people?

The Sojourner said...

"wouldn't you expect the rules to exist for SOME benefit of SOME people?"

Yes, I would, which is one of the things I struggle with figuring out in terms of the whole determining God's will thing. On the one hand, life isn't supposed to be EASY, but on the other hand if a whole system seems contrary to our fundamental happiness, then I am not quite sure what to do with it. I mean, God was supposed to have made us to be fruitful and multiply and so forth even in the pre-Fall perfection, so it seems like there must be some kind of ideal in sex and child rearing that we could find if we had that big-picture perspective--an ideal that would be difficult but ultimately fulfilling, like childbirth or running a marathon rather than just...I dunno, getting hit with big sticks repeatedly?

And I don't mind if you talk about NFP while I talk about AP. They're so incredibly intertwined I'm not sure you can talk about one without the other for any significant amount of time. (Unless you assume a context in which the AP practitioners do not have objections to frequent and long-term use of birth control. Which is not necessarily an assumption you want to make even in non-Catholic circles!)

The Sojourner said...

Personally I feel like my AP principles reinforce the views of artificial birth control that came with my theological formation. (Your body is not broken! The things that it naturally does are the things it is supposed to be doing!)--but the whole ecological breastfeeding as birth control thing doesn't necessarily get you a nice long gap between children either. And using NFP to avoid pregnancy for more than a few months at a time is kind of awful.

I dunno. I should go take care of my child or grow in virtue or something instead of rambling. :)

Meredith said...

I don't really have a parenting philosophy, but James is 19 months old and I am just starting to relax a bit about the idea of another pregnancy... all this time my whole body screamed HELL no! at the idea. I had a "normal" pregnancy, but it was the most grueling health thing I've ever been through. Anemia, throwing up until I blacked my eye, and labor, the final boss. It took a year for my body to go back to its original weight, and I'd kind of like to enjoy feeling normal for a little longer.

It's weird, when I was younger and more absolutist I always liked reading blogs by moms of large Catholic families, and having ten kids and homeschooling them seemed like a super fun adventure while the work world was very intimidating. Once marriage was in the cards, though, it all became more real and I realized that I didn't want to have a giant family after all. And as for homeschooling, I have been teaching for a number of years and it is hard. I seriously doubt my abilities to do a good job in every subject and at every grade level, plus it can be awkward for a sensitive child to write essays and stories knowing that his mother will critique them. We'll see, maybe I will change my mind again!

Anyway, I am not interested in having four kids in five years. Nope nope nope. And if some guy at Crisis magazine thinks that I am a selfish materialist, he can try s*****g blood for four months post-partum.

Sheila said...

Meredith -- I usually leave considerations of the mother out of these discussions because I'm afraid of being called selfish. Which is silly, because if everyone has dignity and value, obviously that includes women!

I have my own issues -- severe back pain (my pelvis actually dislocates during pregnancy apparently) and depression. Seems like most everyone has at least one really unpleasant symptom ... except my mother, who gave me false expectations by never even having any morning sickness. Anyway, I read the other day that the reason we give birth after 40 weeks is actually not because the baby's head is too big but really because the metabolic load is so huge it would kill us if it went on any longer. Certainly being nine months pregnant is kind of a lot like having a parasite. You're too tired to function, or even think. Or breathe.

Not that I think nobody should do it or anything, but it should be appreciated as something heroic that we don't have to do every year if we don't want to!

I am finally feeling somewhat normal for the first time in six years and I LOVE IT. Hope it lasts awhile.

Sojourner -- I agree with everything you said again. You're great.

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