Is Attachment Parenting a Plot to Force Women Back Into the Home?

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Photo: Constance Bannister/Getty Images

“Attachment parenting” has been controversial for a while. The parenting philosophy, developed by Dr. Bill Sears and his wife, Martha, first went mainstream with the 1993 publication of their book The Baby Book. It stresses the importance of continuing to breastfeed a child to a relatively advanced age, wearing babies in slings as often as possible, and having infants “co-sleep” in a bed with Mom and Dad. It got a major moment in the sun with a 2012 Time cover story with a, uh, memorable cover.

Since attachment parenting stresses the importance of, well, attachment, and of extreme attentiveness to a child’s every need, the idea has naturally sparked all sorts of conversations about parental insecurity, coddling, and so forth. But there’s also an important gender-roles component of this, and in a fascinating Ask Me Anything over in Reddit’s science section, the physician Dr. Amy Tuteur, a.k.a. the Skeptical OB, goes hard at attachment parenting from this angle.

The following exchange, which I’m formatting as a back-and-forth, captures her argument. It starts with a question from Reddit user ImNotJesus:

ImNotJesus: As a parent of a young child and someone with a knowledge of psychology, I was really struck by how attachment parenting seems to lead to the exact opposite of secure attachment. From my anecdotal experience, it seems like … all three popular myths you listed, and attachment parenting in particular, are propelled by the incredibly damaging sense that women should have everything they need to make their baby happy all the time. It seems that the most anxious mothers are those who don’t allow their children to deal with distress in small, controlled doses and thus constantly confirm their need to be overbearing with their children because of their inability to deal with distress.

Firstly, do you agree that these myths are attractive to women for that reason? If so, how do we fight against the guilt associated with not being able to fix all of your child’s problems instantly? Finally, for the anxious parent how do you short circuit that cycle of deskilling their child leading to greater anxiety?

Tuteur: The irony of attachment parenting is that [it] is completely opposite to everything we know about infant attachment. As [John] Bowlby and others showed, attachment requires only the “good enough” mother. Attachment theorists never studied infant feeding, baby wearing or the family bed because they found that it wasn’t specific parenting behaviors that led to attachment, but rather the child’s sense that his or her needs were being met.

One of the greatest changes of the 20th Century was the emancipation of women (some women in some cultures). Nothing so dramatic happens without backlash and I suspect that natural parenting is part of that backlash; it’s an effort to force women back into the home by labeling them bad mothers if their children are not literally attached to them.

TooManyBeersies: I disagree that Natural Parenting/The Breastapo are specifically trying to be anti-feminist and force women back into the home.
I think that it’s an inadvertent side effect of the natural movement in general, focusing on organic food, yoga, and other “healthy, environmentally friendly” ideas and products. It’s very much entrenched in class politics, not gender politics. The people that are pushing the Natural Movement the most are the upper middle class, who can afford to take 6 months to a year off to breast feed a child.

Tuteur: Natural childbirth, lactivist and attachment parenting were started SPECIFICALLY to force women back into the home. It’s not a side effect; it’s the desired effect.

VeryThing: Where is your evidence that they were started for this reason?

Tuteur: [“Natural’ childbirth proponent] Grantly Dick-Read was a eugenicist who was concerned that white women were becoming “over-civilized” and he told them that’s what causes childbirth pain.

LLL [La Leche League] was started by 7 devout Catholic women who were distressed to find that the mothers of young children were working outside the home. They thought that by promoting breastfeeding, as Mary breastfed Jesus, they could convince women to stay home.

Dr. Bill and Martha Sears are fundamentalists who have written that attachment parenting was revealed to them as the way that God wants families to be organized, with the father as head and the mother as subservient and occupied with the children. [brackets and links mine]

Given that online discussions of parenting tend to be calm, measured affairs not at all prone to hysteria, I’m sure Tuteur will not be getting any angry emails about her fascinating AMA.