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.


Women’s Groups Crack Shackles!

If you’ve been reading, you know that I’ve criticized groups, apologized to groups, been fired from groups, renounced groups, and re-entered groups on my terms. Sort of . So it was with some trepidation that I offered to show the new cut of my movie, Martyred Mom Cracks Her Shackles, to a group of mothers (and their partners) from the excellent Rockland Parent Child Center.

Well, let me tell you I learned a few things. First off, groups rock! I’ve complained about feeling restricted in groups but now I see that groups also can give permission to speak–especially semi-therapeutic groups who just finished watching a movie featuring a gut-spilling mother/therapist. Thank you to Katie, my co-facilitator, for encouraging me to go through with it.

We heard a dream of a woman being consumed by her breast-feeding babe. We heard about the agony of guilt. We heard about painful choices and the enormous pressure to mother in just the right way. Several women identified with the line about my mother: “She gave me the antidote to her mother. It was poison to me. ….is that what we’re doing?” We try so hard to do better than our mothers did. What came through so strongly was both the power of the love for our children and the immense frustration at having to give up so much in order to give them what they need, or what we think they need.

As the discussion continued, the women’s voices became stronger. Encouraging words flowed: “you don’t have to be perfect…I worried so much and she turned out to be ok in nursery school driving with her father at a playdate on the monkey bars in college…let them clean it up…follow your passions…be proud of what you do at home…”

I asked who would take responsibility if the mothers let go. And that’s when I really learned about women and community–what car pools and play dates are all about. When I asked, “but what if you work more hours and always feel indebted to the other mothers,” I heard “hey, it’s really no problem to throw another kid in the car,” and “it’s a karmic thing…I can’t always be even with every family but we’re all interconnected.” Yes.  Is that really true?

My favorite moment was when a Dad who was helping out at the free childcare next door entered the room with spit-up on his shoulder. He said to one of the mothers (in a cute way): “hey, this is your kid’s spit up on my shoulder.” She jumped up. There was a rousing sound from the group. “What? Sit down. He spit up already… what do you need to do about it now? Let him handle it!”

She sat.

I smiled.

Divided We Stand

By now, I’ve written so many posts on women’s groups that I’ve decided to add a category. Why is it so important? As study after study has shown, we humans thrive when we have social support. We are tribal creatures. And the really freakish thing to me is that simply the number of friends we have is predictive of health and happiness. So it all comes down to being popular, which is what any middle school girl can tell you.

My middle school daughter, Vita, was having a conversation with her friend during an interminable car ride yesterday.

Friend: “Are you a girly girl?” Vita: “no.” Friend: “Are you a sporty girl?” Vita: “no.” Friend: “yeah, I think I’m a mix. girly girl and sporty girl and some other things. I’m kind of girly when it comes to boys…” My daughter is not answering, but her friend is working out her identity. She is categorizing herself in a way that fits her personality and that will promote conversation. Unfortunately for her, since Vita has little interest in talking about boys, the conversational bid was ignored. I worried about the silence for a while but they seemed comfortable with it–with the help of some electronic devices.

The night before, I’m having drinks with 2 friends, both working mothers. working mothers!? Just by using the term, I expose all manner of assumptions and cultural values. Of course, all mothers work, really hard, at something. Very few of us are sitting around on our duffs, indulging in bonbons, and watching the tube. Either we are making a living, or we are doing something else. But, sitting with my friends, we join as working mothers to complain again about the unfair demands of the schools and the all-too-ready collusion of the “stay-at-home” mothers.   stay-at-home?!–see comment above.  But, listen!  Some SAHMs have actually advised my friend that her child would be damaged if she did not attend an event that was scheduled during the middle of the day:   Graduation from Social Studies, Part 1, or something along those lines.

As per my conversation with my sister-in-law, I bemoaned the cultural values that cause women to compete with each other on mothering styles.  Of course I have my opinions.  As a militant but still conflicted UnMartyred Mom, I really resent the implication that hovering is the best mothering.  But I know that if I did not have a career that reminds me of my effectiveness, I would sure put all my achievement needs into mothering.

What is mothering, anyway?  Most simply, mothering means having a child.  In that sense, we are all full-time mothers.  But mothering also means the jobs that we do as mothers and home-organizers. We vary in how much we like or value those jobs. I like to clean, bake, and talk at length with my child, but I hate hate hate field trips.  Why can’t we collaborate?

So many reasons.

At this moment in our civilization, we women are deeply divided; some of us breast feed, some don’t; some let our babies cry, some don’t, and on and on and on. And yet we have to stand together. The more value is placed on women’s work, the more we can exchange services fairly. If it is all legitimate, we can all feel good about what we choose to do. Until then, it really isn’t ‘choice.’

Let’s start here.  We can stand together by supporting the right policies and politicians.   We can stand together by noticing when we contribute to disrespectful criticism.  We can stand together by learning to disagree openly instead of covertly.  And we can stand together by supporting each other’s different paths.

Mommies of the Serengeti

Subtitled “playgroups, birthday parties, and learning to run with the herd,” this essay in Brain, Child, has been working its way through me like a koan. The author, a former loner, describes her journey from exclusion, e.g. “a playgroup is the social equivalent of surgery without anesthesia,” to membership in a tribe of women. Overcoming what she describes alternately as a fear of rejection or as contempt, she learns to conform to the standard of birthday parties and give her son a whopping one. It was a great success. Well written and thoughtful, it is a lesson in transformation and friendship.

I was horrified!

She even made fun of how apparently ‘fashionable’ it is to complain about an alienated state. So, where do I go from here? If a fellow alien found her way into the herd, what is my excuse? I should suck it up and join. Especially because I can’t stand the thought of doing anything fashionable.

Do you see where I’m caught? I can’t join and I can’t not join. Not only do lavish parties stress me out, but I also actually believe that it should be ok to do it differently. On the other hand, I most definitely do not want to foster contempt or fear of rejection or actual rejection; I do not want my child to be without a social group; I do not want do not want do not want do not want…

I want to be able to have a quiet and cheerful party. I want to be able to question ‘attachment parenting’ and feel tender toward attached parents. I want to say what feels true to me and still have friends. I want I want I want it all.

I’m going back to my meditation cushion. Ring the bell when the next century arrives.

Pulp fiction

Do you find it as agonizing as I do to confront the proliferating choices at the grocery store? All I wanted was to buy some orange juice. But because some child somewhere wouldn’t drink orange juice if it actually contained tiny bits of orange known as ‘pulp,’ a whole industry responded.
Pulp fiction

Now I have to decide between some pulp, no pulp, and extra pulp. What is regular orange juice? and why can’t a kid just drink it as it is? Come to think of it, who is responsible for the absurd varieties of any given product? Was it you? Or was it me on some weird food trend? Read Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice and you will understand why going shopping nowadays engenders debilitating self-doubt and dread.

We live in a kid-centered culture, where most restaurants provide ‘kid menus,’ where the child is idealized and where the need of the child trumps all other priorities. My question is how do we know what a child needs? Is it the same as what the child wants? Sure, she refused to drink the juice with pulp, but if she had no choice she eventually would have swallowed those pesky bits. Doesn’t she need to learn to tolerate some discomfort? I know I do. I go to yoga; I meditate; I torture myself in a variety of ways just so that I can experience the freedom that comes from being able to tolerate some discomfort. Do I want to take that away from my child just because it is easier to please her?

Women’s Groups Redux

I spent the weekend at the Psychotherapy Networker with a Group of Women. As you know, I have renounced groups, renounced my ill-fated attempts to fit in and stand out simultaneously, renounced renounced renounced. If you’ve seen any of my videos , you know how I like to repeat repeat things.

Not only did I survive but I learned a few things. Like a participant anthropologist, I studied and practiced the ways of women. I learned that while we usually prefer to agree, it is possible and even stimulating to disagree as long as we attend to each other’s feelings. This requires an atmosphere of mutual respect and caring, and a willingness to be challenged at a fairly deep level. And, of course, humor! Disagreeing about child-rearing or religion, for example, is a lot easier after some rowdy banter about sexual exploits, or lack thereof.

I learned, too, that competition between women is complicated business. We rarely brag, unless it is about our children, yet we occasionally compete in misery. It is relieving and even fun sometimes to share stories of embarrassment or failure, and we play ‘one upswomanship’ with each other on the badness of it all. Now, this can be a very good thing. I pity the members of the other gender who are unable to show weakness; and yet I wonder if our relative comfort with weakness perpetuates our position. Are we polishing our glass ceiling?

Anyway, I managed to play well enough, and felt accepted by The Group. Mind you, although I have renounced groups, I do enjoy good company. What I renounced was carving myself up to fit the image that I thought people needed to see. It isn’t easy feeling all that longing to join and still take conversational risks. In one workshop, we learned about women’s characteristic response to stress: tend and befriend. Me, sometimes I fight. But I applaud all the women who manage the mental gymnastics of including their authentic and diverse selves as they nurture their friends. You know who you are!

Dancing with my Prius

Driving my Prius is related to Renouncing Groups, which is related to Martyred Moms.


Well, you see, when I first got the Prius, I was quite impressed with the feedback screen which shows MPG in real time. Captivated, I made every effort to keep it low by maintaining a steady speed, curbing my TypeA tendencies, etc. Then, I topped out. I couldn’t seem to increase beyond 44 MPG, so I decided to just drive normally. My mileage began gradually but steadily slipping….til HORRors!…one day it dropped below 40. Resolving to do better, we reset the car and I became attentive again–so attentive that I became quite tense. Still the MPG climbed to 48 or so. It was hard to maintain, though, so I relaxed and began to dance with it. Gentle on the pedal but speeding up when it made sense. I’m averaging 45 MPG now, and enjoying the ride.

Do you get the connection?

Vision followed by determination and very close attention followed by setback followed by another dose of determination and very close attention followed by the dance of the middle way.

So here’s what made me so tense when I was driving steadily and relatively slowly (only 10 mph over the speed limit): I was not keeping up with the other drivers! I was one of the people to be criticized in the slow lane. Believe me, I’ve done some criticizing myself. I know I know, you can’t imagine that I would ever criticize anyone, but I’ve done it. So, driving in an energy efficient manner requires settling down and managing my reactions to the other TypeAs.

Being an UnMartyred Mom means managing my reactions to the more self-sacrificing Moms out there. Can I maintain my intention to be an equal player in my family? Can I do it without judging the other moms? It is tricky business but I’m learning the steps. I can hear the music.