AP MOM 7.0: Revisiting the Attachment Parenting Approach, by Bridget Shetty

Bridget writes:

The seventh birthday of my oldest child is just around the corner.  As that milestone approaches, the end of his first seven year cycle in this lifetime, I find myself pondering the significance of those repetitive seven year cycles in each of our lives. It has dawned on me that this has been a transitional year in my own journey, the end of my own first seven years as a parent. While certainly one can look at any journey in a continuous fashion, year after year with a linear progression of growth and understanding, it is also worthwhile to see how things come full circle.  

In many ways, I find myself back where I was seven years ago as a new mom, but this time it is our recently arrived third child in my arms.  In many ways I’ve remained the same parent I was with that first baby, repeating much of what I’ve learned caring for my two boys before this little girl came to join us, but certainly I am a wiser, calmer, and more informed parent than I was seven years ago.  And while my basic parenting style has remained the same, I find myself in a new place, looking at the same issues through a new lens. 

I started this parenting journey with fairly clear ideas of how I wanted to parent, but as anyone who has brought an infant in to their life will tell you, what you think you’ll be as a parent and what you actually become often diverge in ways you never expected.  A new baby, especially your first baby, takes you by surprise.  All the books you read, all the baby gear you bought, and all the advice you received before and during a pregnancy somehow fall short when your infant doesn’t follow the expectations you had.  You find yourself seeking answers in places you didn’t know existed. 

Seven years ago, after the homebirth of my son, I found a whole community of people who gathered together because of shared values surrounding the beauty and mystery of natural birth.  I made new friends, bringing my infant son to “playgroups” not so he could play, but so that I could learn.   Our common values surrounding birth translated into a similar mindset about parenting, which for many of us included some specific practices like breastfeeding, babywearing, cloth diapering, and co-sleeping.  Many of us declined vaccinations and antibiotics, choosing instead to take our children to chiropractors and naturopaths.  We all read Dr. Sears, and most of us, if asked, would have sworn by his Baby Book as our own personal parenting bible.  That book was a totem of something bigger–a philosophy, an affiliation, a widespread community of mothers united by our commitment to parenting our children in an authentic and natural way.  Baby slings and wraps were our uniform, and Dr. Sears was our hero.  We certainly felt far outside the mainstream, united by our decisions to choose a distinctly different path for our families than the broader culture of western parenthood and medicine.  On a personal level, I felt I had found myself as a mother and, more importantly, I’d found my tribe.  I was part of the Attachment Parenting movement.  I was an AP Mom.  

Now, seven years later, what is surprising to me is that something drastic has shifted in such a gradual way that I didn’t even realize a shift was occurring, a shift within myself and a shift in the cultural paradigms surrounding me.  Personally, I have become lighter.  Not physically.  But lighter as if I’ve shed a protective layer.  I’m like the six-year-old child who, without even noticing, has misplaced the blankie that for years was indispensible.  My parenting “blankie” was that Dr. Sears book, that parenting “bible” that got me through those early years of motherhood.  My blankie was also that label, AP Mom.  

The other day, in the grocery store, a woman noticed me carrying my baby in the Ergo carrier, and she asked a somewhat obvious question, “Are you wearing your baby?” I nodded, thinking, of course, she’s right here.  Then she said “Ah, Dr. Sears.”   I then realized her first question was more of a philosophical one, as in “Are you a babywearer?”  “Are you part of the tribe?”  What surprised me the most was my internal cringe, my desire to distance myself from a lot of the baggage that has become associated with the Attachment Parenting movement.  But, I just smiled sweetly at the lady, cooed at my baby, and packed up my groceries, wearing my baby. 

I don’t wear my baby as a political statement.  I don’t wear her to prove that I am “mom enough,” as Time magazine so ridiculously framed the issue with their unbalanced, provocative, and downright exploitive cover story on attachment parenting last year.  I wear my baby because it makes sense.  I wear her because women all over the world have always and forever worn their babies (and nursed them and slept with them and given them herbal medicines when they were sick). I wear her because she’s close.  I can respond to her needs easily.  She’s not strapped in a carseat all day (and I don’t have to lug that ungainly thing around).  I can sniff her and smile at her, all while I pack my groceries.  I wore my first baby and my second for all the same reasons.  I nursed them, slept with them, and declined vaccinations for them for the same reasons I still do with this baby.  My parenting choices along the way have had nothing to do with some celebrity campaigning against vaccines or angry moms staging sit-ins about their rights to parent in a certain way.  I’m still close to many of the moms I met when my first was an infant, when we would gather out of our shared ideals of attachment parenting.  I still believe strongly in secure mother-child attachment as the foundation to healthy development.  So what has changed?  What has been shed and what has been renewed?

Well, for starters, let’s go back to good old Dr. Sears.  He was a revolutionary pediatrician.  He was kind, wise, and full of great advice for parents.  He wrote a book that was a godsend to parents who wanted an approach different from what they were finding in the mainstream with its vaccination schedule, infant formula, cribs, and baby containers.  Lots and lots of people read his book and adopted some or all of his practices.  He became the figurehead for a movement that gradually became less alternative and more widely accepted in the mainstream.  But he did not invent babywearing, swaddling, or co-sleeping, and he certainly did not invent breastfeeding.   Those have been around since time immemorial, and they are practices embedded in cultures with a strong tradition of child-rearing, with knowledge and wisdom passed from one generation to the next (often within the same household). 

Somewhere along the way, without that strong generational wisdom in our own culture, Dr. Sears and attachment parenting practices have become like an invasive species.  These practices are being widely adopted and, while beautiful when allowed to grow in their proper season and place, they have spread too far and wide, showing up in places they certainly do not belong.  The garden of American childhood is not thriving.  At the root of attachment parenting is the essential developmental struggle of infancy, the need for an infant to form a strong bond, a strong attachment, with his or her caregiver. The fact that many of those practices Dr. Sears espoused were approaches to caring for babies is overlooked.  We’ve forgotten to notice when the baby is no longer a baby.  We can’t contain them in a sling forever.  But as children grow, and parents get busy chasing toddlers and enrolling kids in school, the Dr. Sears book gets put away on a dusty shelf, and no longer is it opened for every question.  We don’t read ahead to the later chapters, or better yet, connect with elders to find out what happens next.   Instead, the principles of infant attachment just continue being applied through the years, through every phase of child development. Helicopter parenting, hovering over every move our growing (and grown) children make, has become not only the butt of many jokes but is so ubiquitous that we don’t even recognize how most of us hover way more than necessary.   As children grow, we can’t respond to their every cry and every need and especially every desire.  It isn’t possible, it isn’t healthy for the child or for the sanity of the parent, and it is most definitely detrimental for our older children. 

As my children have grown, I’ve been blessed to be immersed in trainings that focus on child development.  I made fortunate encounters with other equally brilliant parenting approaches (including the LifeWays training) that opened my eyes to the changing needs of the growing child.  While the Dr. Sears book got put away in our house, other books became my “bibles”.  For all that, I still feel like the same mom, the one who revered Dr. Sears and probably looked at his book every day for the first year of my son’s life.  I still do essentially the same things with this baby that I did with the first.  But I do them with the baby.  For the older ones, in new and different phases of development, I’ve learned along the way that they require something different of me as a parent.  They need me to say no.  They need loving authority and far fewer choices.  They need to experience disappointment and  to cry when they don’t get what they want.  They need to know they can leave, go far and play out of my sight, all the while knowing I’m where they can find me when they come back. The attachment, that lovely bond we formed by being close day and night through their infancy, is our solid foundation, and now I can slowly let them go while providing them with a safe, predictable, rhythmic home life to flow in and out of on their own developmental journey–a journey that is meant to lead them away from me.  I would be doing them a disservice if I led myself to believe otherwise.

Seven years in, I find myself having come full circle.  A new mom and an experienced mom all at once.  I’m part of a new playgroup with this baby and I’m still connected to many of the moms I befriended when my first was born.  We gather and talk about how we are raising our children.  All those things that Dr. Sears taught us to do with our infants, those lovely things, those oh so very practical things, we still embrace them.  But we talk about our growing older children too.  The ones we don’t wear anymore.  The ones losing their baby teeth and going through the six-year change.  The ones we are strongly attached to, yet are willing to let go for their own good.   

So yes, sweet lady in the grocery store, I am wearing my baby, and I will hold her close in these fleeting months of her early years.  And when she’s ready to toddle off, I’ll let her climb trees and go play unsupervised with the neighborhood kids.  I’ll let her risk things and make mistakes and get hurt.  I’ll be there to comfort her, dust her off, and send her back out into the world. And before I know it she’ll be a teenager, and I’ll even let her leave the house without a cellphone, even if that means I won’t be able to locate her at all hours.  Because I did read Dr. Sears, and he set me on a journey with my kids that is enabling me to let them go a bit at a time.  I am the new, revised version of my former self.  APMOM 7.0. 

Bridget Shetty has been teaching and working with young children in many capacities throughout her life.  She is currently tending the growth of her own three young children and their backyard garden, while daydreaming of squeezing a chicken coop and beehive under their play structure.

We thank you for stopping by to enjoy this article. If you would like to share your experiences working with children in a LifeWays home or center, please feel free to contact Mara Spiropoulos at linearmara@gmail.com. She would be thrilled to work with you to share your wisdom and experiences on the LifeWays blog.