UnMartyred Attachment?

I send my heartfelt thanks to the mothers who posted such thoughtful comments in response to my question about Attachment Parenting. AP UnMartyred Mom tells us that the goal of AP is “to raise infants and toddlers to feel confident enough that their voices will be heard and their real needs met that they develop into capable, independent older children.” The premise that children’s confidence grows from their needs being met encourages the mother to choose the young child’s needs over hers. As Pegasus says, “My priority is definitely my daughter, and I’m happy for that to always be true. Doesn’t feel like martyrdom at all.”

But let’s get real for a minute. Not every mother is happy at every moment to nurse a baby change a diaper listen to a story instead of doing all those other things that non-parents do: chill out read a paper pee in peace sleep until you want to wake up. All of us, not just AP parents, do what we need to do, and mostly we love doing it, but sometimes, SOMETIMES we are stressed out by the combination of work demands, not enough support, and the expectations for mothers nowadays.

I include AP among the expectations that stress us out because I have heard many mothers lament that they failed to measure up to the AP model. (See MoJo Mom and UnMartyred Wannabee, for example.) While it is easy to say that we should just do what works for us, the truth is that in the uncertain world of child-rearing, we look to the experts and to each other as guides. Some of these guides exude so much morality that it is easy to feel inadequate. If you ‘should’ meet your child’s needs so that your child will be confident, then every failure to do so will be a kick in the gut.

So, I have to ask:
Is it true that the more we meet their needs the more confident and independent they will be? Not according to Jessica Benjamin, the eminent feminist psychoanalyst:

“No psychological theory has adequately articulated the mother’s independent existence. [Theories] always revert to a view of the mother as the baby’s vehicle for growth, an object of the baby’s needs.” If the child, she says, cannot see the mother’s separate existence, he will attempt to ‘tyrannically enforce’ his demands in order to continue a “fantasy of absolute control.” Benjamin is not describing a bad child, only a child who has not reconciled with the reality of another being. If the mother identifies with the child’s disillusionment, and does not “accept that she cannot make a perfect world for her child,” she will tend toward “self-obliteration.”

Is that a problem?

It is, according to Benjamin: “The child who feels that others are extensions of himself must constantly fear the emptiness and loss of connection that result from his fearful power.”

Does that sound like a confident and independent child? Not to me.

But this is just a theory, right? Right. And so is the theory upon which Sears bases his detailed advice. I’m not advocating one theory as truth but I do want us to consider the effect on mothers of these differing views.

If I believe that a good mother never frustrates her child, I will take my child’s suffering personally. If I have an easy child, I will pride myself on my accomplishment. If I have a difficult child, I will berate myself for having failed to meet her needs.

However, if I believe that being a good mother includes existing as a separate person, whose needs on occasion trump the child’s, then I will be free to help my child manage the inevitable frustrations of living in the real world.

One more thing, I understand from the unmartyred and feminist (true, Pegasus, they are not equivalent) mothers who posted, that it is possible to AP in a way that nurtures the mother too, especially when there is support from a father who is unshackled from male cultural stereotypes. If it really works for you, then you are living Benjamin’s theory too. I’m just afraid that in the world as it is—most jobs are not flexible, most mothers have to work, most fathers do not expect to share child-care or housekeeping—the Sears theory punishes Moms for doing what is actually good enough parenting.


9 thoughts on “UnMartyred Attachment?

  1. pegasus says:

    I think you have a straw man (woman?) argument here. The Sears’ don’t advocate that a mother needs to *always* meet the childs’ needs. Just most of the time, so that the child gets a secure sense of being able to count on the parent and being important to them. Which seems to be what you’re saying, so . . . what do you know!? You’re an attachment parent!

    Sure, there are going to be people who misinterpret what AP folks say to mean that you always need to do exactly what your child wants/needs all the time. And, sure, when they’re little babies, the Sears’ do say that their wants are pretty much the same as their needs. But that’s only for the first year. So, that’s going to be a lot of work, but *only for one year*. Good luck if you believe that prioritizing your own needs at times is going to teaching a 6 month old the lesson that the mother needs to be respected as an individual. I mean, honestly, save it for when they’re developmentally ready at least.

    After a year, I, and the Sears family, will totally support your view that it’s good for the child to see the parents do some things for themselves when the child wants something else – in moderation, of course. I can’t imagine that you disagree that it’s also important to give kids a message that their needs are important and considered, though.

    Also, there is tons of research supporting the notion of secure attachment, and what it takes to form one. That is the basis of what you are calling the Sears’ theory. They are not researchers, they only write books about parenting, based on other people’s research and theories. But those theories are pretty well founded at this point. I’d be interested to know how well founded the theories that Benjamin is working with are. They sound fairly Freudian to me, and Freud’s theories have never been very empirically supported. (Which, I know, doesn’ t mean they’re not right.)

  2. To clarify two points:
    1. I am not criticizing the research on secure attachment. I am criticizing its interpretation by Sears and the effect of that interpretation on mothers.
    2. Of course, the developmental needs of a baby are different from those of an eleven-year old. However, habits formed are habits continued, and I see a lot of mothers of older children struggling to take their own needs seriously. If that isn’t a problem for you, then you don’t need my advice.

  3. Gail, thank you for reading so carefully. That was sloppy writing and I’m happy to clarify. Basically, it depends on what you mean by feminism. Yes, in my opinion, a real feminist is an UnMartyred Mom. Strictly defined, a feminist is a person who supports “political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” But “equality” is such a rigid word that many self-identified feminists have embraced gender difference as a way of empowering women. Here, there could theoretically be a confusion between feminism and martyrdom. If you value nurturing over assertiveness in women, it is possible that you will, whoops, find yourself a teensy bit martyred. But I’m not arguing against applauding nurturing. We can nurture our children and each other without being martyred.

  4. Katrien says:

    I don’t recognize myself or my daughter as the persons Benjamin describes. “Does that sound like a confident and independent child? Not to me”. To me neither! But that’s just not my child.
    You can interpret this any way you want, which is what you seem to be doing anyway. For instance, in your answer to Pegasus you write “If that is not you, then you don’t need my advise”. It reads like: if you don’t agree with me, why are you here? But I thought you asked us, APs, to discuss this with you. Reading this, it is clear to me that you indeed set us up beforehand like so many straw men, and nothing we said could change your mind.
    I thought this website was about nurturing, a word you use a lot…

  5. You are right, Katrien. I’ve regretted that sentence ever since I posted it. I do welcome your opinions and experiences. And, as Pegasus said, in some ways I am an attachment parent myself. It is often said about psychotherapy theory and technique that no matter what the orientation, we look more alike than different in actual practice. However, I do have some problems with the implications of AP theory. They are not inevitable implications, as your experiences make clear. I’ll post more on this later, but I wanted to apologize as soon as possible. I’m still learning about how to handle disagreement.

  6. Erin says:

    As the mother of a very easy and confident older child and a very needy and more demanding younger child I can tell you that people attributed the easy going nature of our older daughter to our wonderful parenting skills and the “in your face” personality of the younger to a defect in our parenting skills.

    I read Sears when my older was young and it made me feel so horrible! I did not measure up, could not measure up. When I breast fed I felt like I had one of those fish that clean sharks stuck to me. Both my daughters slept in the bed with us while I was breastfeeding (and still do occasionally) but that is as far as I was able to take it.

    My older is naturally confident, my younger less so. I can tell you that at 43, I am asking myself “who am I” and “what do I want” and “how do I fit” more than I’d like to.

    A dear friend was killed in a car accident on Monday – Just 43 years old. He was living in Botswana with his wife and 2 young girls. He was living the life he had always dreamed of. Geologist working to make the lives of people in Africa safer and better. If I died today what would flash before my eyes? What kind of example have I set for my daughters about growing up and fulfilling your self? your goals? We tell them they can be anything they want. President, if they want. Then we show them that you have to give yourself away to be considered ‘good’ – Maybe that’s not true – maybe that’s just my fear.

    I am learning that my being independent helps them. Makes them see possibilities.

    For the whole time that both of my daughters were babies I struggled to keep a hold of myself. Now I am finally doing it.

    Is that anti-AP? I think any theory that excludes rather than unites is dangerous to us as women who can derives so much support from one another.


  7. kate says:

    I wonder sometimes if the emphasis on parenting styles has increased in line with the decrease in the number of children per family. As Erin says, the same parents get children of very different temperments. The more children you have, the more obvious that would presumably become (my Nanna had ten, they were all different, despite having the same parenting style).

    I don’t want to sound like I’m having a go at attachment parents, I’m not, we all have to find our own way and do what works for our families. Before I had my son I didn’t mind if he slept in our bed. We tried it. All three of us woke every 20 minutes, and both parents had bad backs the next day. I know co-sleeping works really well for some families and everyone gets more sleep than they would in other arrangements, I know people who loved it, and people who thought it was the best workable option (although not their personal ideal) but it’s not for us.

    This wouldn’t be an issue except for the breastfeeding counsellor who basically instructed me that this was the only way to successfully continue breastfeeding my (underweight) baby when I go back to work and glanced over the phrase ‘of course it’s hard to go to work if you haven’t had much sleep’ as if it wasn’t really important. For me it’s a central issue, and strongly associated with my need to avoid depression. I’m glad I was feeling confident enough to ignore that advice that day. There were several other brand new mums there that day and I hope it didn’t cause them distress somewhere along the line. Co-sleeping (and associated nighttime breastfeeding) isn’t bad or wrong but it isn’t essential either.

    I guess what bugs me most in the parenting advice situations is that people talk about what worked for them, without acknowledging the potential downsides of their course of action which may be significant for others. For example, I personally am happy to feed my baby every couple of hours if he’s hungry, cranky or freaked out by strangers, until he goes to bed at night. Then I’m not feeding him any more until morning. Feeding a baby every two hours would drive some women bonkers. Other people would rather feed a baby over night than resettling and teaching him to sleep alone. For me and my baby what we do now is working, a compromise between my needs and his.

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