Of stone-age babies and the victim I am not
Erica Jong got it wrong.
According to her, I am a victim. I am the type of mother who has “the most to lose by accepting (a) ‘noble savage’ view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness.”
All this, you see, because I am a follower of “Attachment Parenting.”
AP, a term coined by Dr. William Sears and his R.N. wife, and co-author, Martha, was introduced to the world shortly before I had my first child. (Wow…that was nearly 17 years ago!) Despite its relative newness, however, AP is a form of parenting that is essentially ancient. It’s grounded in the biological hardwiring of our species that tells our babies to develop and maintain a strong attachment to the mother because, basically, if mother puts me down I will starve or freeze or become lion food.
Babies are born helpless and nature has equipped them with a strong survival instinct designed to motivate the mother. And anyone who has heard an infant cry knows just how motivating it can be!
But though our hunter/gatherer days are a thing of the past, for the vast majority of humanity, babies the world over are essentially born into the stone age. Despite how our world has changed, the fact remains that our species hasn’t evolved much since those early days. Our babies don’t know that there aren’t any lions lurking nearby…they just know they must be with mother. At all costs. Our human evolution has been technological, not biological. Now, we don’t have to wonder if our men will be able to find meat. We go to the store and buy some that’s already been killed and processed for us–often with baby in tow! Our largest concerns, at least in “developed” countries like the U.S., are not about basic survival, they are about working to create a life wherein we have more luxuries and, thus, a more diminished connection to our basic survival needs. We can store large quantities of food at any time of the year–foods that we hunt and gather in relative climate-controlled comfort–and becoming food ourselves isn’t the greatest risk we take in procuring our own sustenance.
Still, we are hardwired, it’s a biological truth that not only drives babies but affects mothers too. The rush of hormones during breastfeeding has been shown to further a mother’s attachment to and love for her baby, and there are scientific studies to back this theory up. Back in the stone age, infants who weren’t breastfed, died. Simple as that. There were no milk substitutes. No bottles. And because birthing and caring for babies is such a resource-intensive undertaking, nature set up the mother/baby pair for success by covering those biological bases. To this end, breastfeeding and babywearing (or constant carrying) were the norm. These practices weren’t a fad, they were an integral key to our survival and success as a species.
It seems ironic to me now that those practices, which have essentially insured our species’ survival, have also laid the foundation for our current luxuries. We’re so successful as a species that we can choose not to do these things for our babies. There aren’t any lions lurking in the bushes anymore, and milk substitutes are a car ride away.
As a species, we have it easy.
I offer a caveat here–I want to acknowledge the real struggles faced by real people both locally and worldwide. There are starving people in my hometown, and I’m sure they would take exception to my assertions. However…I believe that political systems and organized culture have removed basic survival options from masses of people in many cases, by placing artificial boundaries and restrictions on land-based resources, for starters. Thus the need for soup kitchens to feed the homeless and hungry. Thus the reason “displaced” people generally aren’t cultivating their own food in public spaces or spending their days following herds of, well, cattle (not too many bison around anymore…and the mammoth has faded into the annals of history).
Simply put, the homeless and hungry in our cities can’t do this. It simply isn’t feasible.
But I digress.
Generally speaking, AP philosophy espouses the value of creating and nurturing a connection with children from birth that allows for the child’s needs to be met with the utmost love. It’s parenting that takes into account that basic biological hardwiring to the mutual benefit of child AND mother.
Or at least, this is how I interpret it.
I didn’t read Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book, the parenting guide that has so greatly elevated the ire of Ms. Jong. But worse, it seems that Jong didn’t read it either. To say that she lacks understanding of what AP is would be to understate it. Rather, I’ll just say this: she simply doesn’t get it.
Perhaps this is what bugs me the most. Having worked as a journalist, I tend to assume that if you’re going to rant about something, you first need to fully understand what you’re ranting about.
That’s why certain passages in Jong’s essay, like the one that follows regarding AP, piss me off:
“Attachment parenting, especially when combined with environmental correctness, has encouraged female victimization. Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It’s a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women’s freedom as the right-to-life movement.”
I am hard-pressed to even begin to understand how she could compare the legal restriction of safe abortion to a parenting philosophy that encourages the most natural way to feed a baby. There are no legal mandates for infant feeding (or diapering or food prep or….)—the choices are clear and available.
Later in the essay, though, as if to cover this argument, Jong speculates that laws requiring breastfeeding are not entirely far-fetched:
“…politicians may yet find ways to impose rules on motherhood. Mandatory breast-feeding isn’t imminent, but it’s not hard to imagine that the “food police” might become something more than a punch line about overreaching government. Mothers, after all, are easy scapegoats.”
Mandatory breastfeeding isn’t only not imminent, it’s not even remotely realistic if for absolutely no other reason than this: our culture is driven by corporations, and corporations can’t make a dime off of breastfeeding. Formula companies lobby for mitigated pro-breastfeeding language, and have their hands in scientific “studies” purporting that formula is just as good, if not better, than breastfeeding.
How many politicians are willing to undercut this extremely profitable industry by legislating breastfeeding? None that I know of, that’s for sure. I’d wager that those who do fully support and encourage breastfeeding are also of the mindset that this is not an appropriate realm for legislation.
The sad truth in our society is this: breastfeeding is not as well supported or accepted as bottle-feeding. Breasts are viewed as sexual before functional, generally, and women who do choose to breastfeed need the support and protection of the society at large. This inequity has given rise to state laws designed to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public. Women need that protection, lest they get tossed out of stores and restaurants…or off of airplanes. (Though not literally, thank goodness.)
What fortunately is not true is what Jong seems so determined to make us believe: that women who opt out of the cultural system of work and “freedom” by choosing to stay home with their babies, breastfeed, cloth diaper, make baby food, etc. etc. ad nauseum, are victims. What is not true is that they are imprisoned, disempowered, and guilt-ridden by their choices.
Unless they choose to be.
What’s not true is that the people to blame for this apparent culture of victimized mothers are the medical professionals who developed and promote the philosophy of Attachment Parenting.
Don’t get me wrong–becoming a mother limits personal choice unless one is independently wealthy (and I’d argue that becoming a mother limits personal choice even for the wealthy, to a certain extent….how can it not? This isn’t a Brave New World, after all….yet). Becoming a mother can and often does put women at a disadvantage in the workplace and society at large. This is because our capitalist society doesn’t place a high enough value on childrearing, a fact that Jong, to her credit, acknowledges in the little video interview embedded in the article.
“Our society doesn’t make it easier for parents–I wish it did,” she asserts.
With that I can agree, because I wish it did too.
But is AP the problem? NO. AP can be the solution. AP parents don’t have to be imprisoned, disempowered, guilt-ridden victims.
For those who truly understand its tenets, AP can be liberating, empowering, and guilt-relieving.
And though I wish Jong had taken the time to understand AP, before bashing it…though I wish that she would edify herself by perusing the info readily available through all the little links I’ve included below that define AP—what it is, what it isn’t…
I don’t expect she will.
And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.
What matters, truly, is this: motherhood is the end-all-be-all of a woman’s existence…except when it isn’t. Motherhood will thresh your very soul and lift you to heights of joy you never thought possible…except when it doesn’t. Motherhood will sweep you up to the pinnacle of beauty….except when it’s anything but beautiful. When you have shit on your hands because the baby decided to do gymnastics after you removed the stinky diaper and the phone is ringing and the dog is barking and the older kid is whining about cookies or some such…and the diaper pail is full and the room smells like digested green beans and you haven’t showered in two days and your breasts start leaking and then the baby pees all over the changing table and all the while you suspect, in a grim sort of way, that your mortgage check will bounce this month….
Nope, that’s not beautiful at all.
Motherhood isn’t always anything except raw, demanding life. Base and beautiful humanity.
And we are only victims if we choose to be.
Tomorrow: mother judgment and what I gave up for my kids. No, my path is not for everyone.
LEARN MORE ABOUT AP–WHAT IT IS, WHAT IT ISN’T, AND DECIDE FOR YOURSELF: