On labels and limits: why I no longer call myself an "attachment parent"

As much as I identify with this feel-good parenting philosophy, I can't allow it to be my whole mothering identity.

By the time my oldest son Jacob was a couple months old, I was pretty burned out on reading. I’d devoured at least two-dozen pregnancy and childbirth-related books during my last two trimesters, and then lived inside my Nursing Mother’s Companion as we worked through some early breastfeeding issues.

But after we got breastfeeding down, I was ready to quit reading about motherhood and just enjoy being a mom for a while. So while I had become a walking encyclopedia on pregnancy and childbirth, when it came to parenting I’d never got past the instructions on how to bathe a baby and buckle him into his car seat. I had never heard of attachment parenting as a philosophy, had yet to be introduced to Ferber, and hadn’t a clue that there were dozens of sleep-training methods out there. When it came to soothing, holding, and caring for Jacob, I was winging it…and mostly loving it.

I remember visiting my mother around that time, and going to retrieve Jacob from her bedroom when he awoke, fussing, from a nap. “You know, it’s okay to let that baby cry a little,” my mom advised. “He might go back to sleep if you do.” I paused for a moment, listening to his sounds grow from a bit of gurgle-y fussing to a more urgent cry to a wail. Listening to him wail did not feel good. And based on my (admittedly limited) experience mothering this particular child, I didn’t think there was any chance he’d put himself back to sleep. Plus, I would just rather go and get him. So without another thought, I shrugged off my mom’s advice (which she wisely did not repeat) and went to my baby. Picking him up when he cried–along with rocking him to sleep and putting him in my bed at night–just felt right, so I kept doing it, without giving it too much thought or analysis.

Six months later or so, how things had changed! Specifically: I’d gotten online. Home with Jacob all day and rather bored, I’d spent hours and hours on the ParentsPlace and StorkNet forums, the predecessors of mom blogs. I’d learned that the style of parenting I had so far gravitated toward had a name: attachment parenting. (I liked the sound of that. It sounded lots better than “detachment parenting,” for example.) And because I liked feeling like I was doing the right thing, and liked having a community of other moms to tell me I was doing the right thing, I went for it full gusto, giving myself a little pat on the back every time I accomplished one more thing on the “AP laundry list.”

Around this time, Jacob developed a habit of sitting straight up in his sleep at night without warning, and then toppling over backward and sideways. And every time he did it,  his hard little head slammed into my nose with a crunch. Every other night or so I woke up shrieking and seeing stars, sure that my nose was broken. I had trouble sleeping because I was never sure when Jacob’s head might strike.

He was no longer getting up to eat at night, and went to sleep pretty easily in the evenings without needing a lot of rocking or holding. Though I’d never mastered the art of lowering a sleeping baby into a crib without waking him up, it occurred to me at one point that if I just laid him in the crib  (which had been used as a giant laundry basket for months) when he was sleepy, he’d probably fall asleep without much fussing and sleep all the way through the night, sparing my nose in the meantime.

But…

then I wouldn’t really be attachment parenting, I told myself.

I’d be letting my baby cry. (And though I personally didn’t feel that a few minutes of whimpering really qualified as “cry it out,” I sure knew what my online buddies would have to say about it.)

I wouldn’t be co-sleeping. One of the very tenets of attachment parenting.

I’d be an impostor. A wanna-be. A detachment parent.

So I never moved Jacob out of our bed, or even tried it, until he was old enough to climb up on his own into a big-boy bed and fall asleep there…some years later. And while I don’t regret that, necessarily, I do regret my motivation for making that second decision.

In the first scenario, I made the choice to pick Jacob up, not let him cry, and sleep with him because it felt right, even in the face of opposition.

In the second scenario, I avoided trying something that my own gut told me was a good idea, because I was afraid of what other people would think and worried that it didn’t match up with a label I’d assigned myself.

Over the next year and a half, I made many decisions with that label in mind. “What would the other AP moms think?” “Is this really attachment parenting?” I’d ask myself before I…well, before I did pretty much anything, from taking a much-needed part-time job, to buying a certain baby toy, to playing the “stinky feet game” with my toddler (once, a particularly influential AP mom in my online world had suggested such games would cause my child to feel shame about his body for the rest of his life.)

The irony? A style of parenting that is supposed to put us in touch with our parenting instincts was actually getting between me and what I deep down knew to be right. Instead of the AP philosophy serving my children and me, I was serving a label: feeling obligated to sign on for everything that seemed to fit, even when its link to actual attachment parenting was questionable (Dr. Sears, the father of Attachment Parenting, did not, to my knowledge, have a position on the stinky feet game.) But the label had been co-opted to mean “crunchy” and in many cases the label became a contest to see which mother could be the crunchiest.

Finally, when my second son was a toddler, I had an epiphany:

Parenting is not a competitive sport. And this label is not helping me be the mother I want to be.

So I dropped it. And I’ve never looked back. I have not called myself an Attachment Parent for many years.

Don’t get offended and hit the “unsubscribe” button just yet. I still think attachment parenting is fantastic, when used as a VERB. A verb is active. It doesn’t judge. It doesn’t limit. It allows you to make your own choices–you can practice attachment parenting while also doing other things that don’t necessarily fit under the label, just like you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Or walk sometimes and run other times.

But using a parenting philosophy as an adjective or noun to describe us as people is far more limiting and potentially dangerous. We can start to judge ourselves based on how well we live up to the label, instead of really listening to what we feel is right in any given situation. We start to think the label should shape all our future actions, and use it as a way to condemn our past ones. We can use it as a way to exclude, in the name of belonging and inclusion. Other people often misunderstand us based on past experiences with others who’ve used (possibly misused) the label.

I still breastfeed, on demand and extensively. I still sleep with my babies. In many, many ways, I practice attachment parenting. But no, I am not an “attachment parent”, any more than a mom who uses Ferber is a “Ferberizer” or a mom who values achievement is a “Tiger Mother.”

I’m just me: a person, a woman, a mother, making the best decisions I can from day to day. Parenting books, methods, philosophies and techniques can serve as tools to help me be the best, most effective parent I can be, but I don’t owe them anything.

At the end of the day? The only people I have to answer to are myself and my family. And recognizing that makes me a better, more confident, and way happier mom.

This week, we’re talking about trusting your gut. Have you ever found that a parenting label got between you and listening to what your instincts were telling you?

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