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In which attachment parenting makes me a bad parent

You wouldn’t like Mom when she’s angry.
(Image by Sarah G via Flickr.)

Well, not a bad parent overall.  But I have noticed a big problem with my parenting lately, and I can trace its origins to my attachment parenting inclinations.

In short, I let my kids get away with too much, put up with their whining way too much, and generally don’t provide enough structure.  Then their behavior drives me nuts and I get too angry with them!  And while AP doesn’t endorse this by any means, and I’m sure many AP parents don’t succumb to this pattern, I do think being a crunchy, responsive, gentle, giving mother to my infants set me up to be a bit of a pushover to my older children.

The problem of course is that a newborn has only needs, no wants.  It’s perfectly reasonable, responsible parenting to respond to your baby’s cries immediately and constantly.  It’s very black and white.  Sure, especially as they grow older, you might take a moment to pee, or to eat before you keel over, but generally the baby’s wants are the baby’s needs. When the baby cries, you as the mother have an intense visceral reaction that spurs you to do what it takes to stop the crying.  This is how it should be.

But the rub is: they grow and mature.  And even when you’re aware that they have wants that can (and should!) be denied, it’s awfully easy to fall into that old “the loud, abject misery must be quelled!” approach.  I’ve forged such an emotional connection with my kids that I feel the desolation when they cry their guts out over not being allowed to have a snack 15 minutes before dinner, or when they have to pick up their toys.  My intellectual side knows that I’m being reasonable, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is I get so engaged with their emotional reaction to my reasonable rules that it exhausts me.

You can imagine what happens as a result – inconsistent discipline, and a stressed-out mom who builds up resentment and tension until I snap and, well, I have to confess it once got so bad I yelled, “Claire stop being a butthole!” (I apologized.)

So, for me, it has been helpful to use the system 1-2-3 Magic.  The absolute key to that approach is staying calm while setting limits, and I really need that.  A little distance, and frankly, being a little more of a hardass, has started to improve my own mental health and my relationship with my kids.  It’s easier to empathize with them and to be loving and gentle when I’m not sucked into an emotional maelstrom, and when I don’t feel resentment over the ten thousand times they’ve already resisted my directions that day.

I fully expect other parents to find other styles to be more appropriate for their families, but I think everyone has one thing in common – we need to navigate this tricky gray area where our children are still children, and require all the love, understanding, and responsiveness that we developed as AP-ish parents, but also have desires and behaviors that must be opposed by those same empathetic parents in an effective and consistent way.  It’s really tough territory, and it can make you crazy if you’re not careful.  Whether you go for the 1-2-3 Magic style or prefer Alfie Kohn, I think every parent would do well to stop and think about this issue once in a while, as our children grow up.

Ezzo and “Neoprimitivism”

Chapter 2 of Babywise is really dense.  Ezzo does a lot of work to confuse the issue, set up straw men, and create a fantasy scenario in which his method is a sane middle ground.  Unpacking all this may take some time.

First, he sets up two extremes of baby care philosophy – behaviorism and “the neoprimitivistic school of child care.”  Here’s how he helpfully “cites” the proponents of the latter: “That belief inspired the neoprimitivistic school of child care, supported by Ribble (1944); Aldrich (1945); Trainham, Pilafian, and Kraft (1945); and Frank (1945).”  Trying to unearth the actual writings he’s talking about is near impossible.  Google any permutation of “neoprimitivistic” and you get lots of interesting information about a school of painting that influenced Marc Chagall.  What you don’t get is anything about child care philosophy or psychology.  Search for “neoprimitivistic” and any of those names, and you get . . . Ezzo, and no other hits.

Now of course Wikipedia and Google are not the be-all and end-all of information.  I have little doubt that there’s at least one instance of at least one of those listed names being involved in a psychology movement labeled neoprimitivism.  But clearly this was not a highly influential group, at least under that name.  And given Ezzo’s previous disingenuousness, one wonders if he searched out and cherry-picked that term because it sounds pejorative.  Like he wanted to be able to say, “Do you want to follow a science-based, modern, enlightened philosophy, or a primitive way of life?”  To be fair, he says “The title “neoprimitivistic” is not name-calling, but a specific school of thought.” But he’s a tricksy one – I suspect by lampshading his word choice he’s really just trying to compound the impact of using an inflammatory word and thus leave a stronger impression with readers.  He’s all about constructing the appearance of sane moderation, while engineering all the information he delivers to paint any deviation from his edicts as a descent into laughable irrationality.

Anyway, believe it or not, I found some writings to which he might be referring.  And it’s interesting reading.  It’s true that these writings indicate an element of Freudian (or maybe Rankian) psychology.  The one paper I found by Frank et. al. includes some brief discussion of how an infant’s experience might influence the development of later problems such as thumb-sucking, elimination difficulties, and even “negativism and hostility.”  However, the main thrust of the discussion is refreshingly in tune with modern, mainstream medical understanding about the physiological needs of infants:

As a young mammal, the newborn has the same organic needs as other young mammals. He needs close tactual contact, cuddling, licking, nuzzling, mothering and needs the opportunity to suckle and use his lips and he needs frequent, if not almost continuous, nourishment. These needs arise from the lack of homeostatic capacity in the newborn so that he gets cold easily, and cannot keep warm; his skin is exquisitely sensitive and needs contact for relaxation. He gets hungry quickly since his blood sugar may go down rapidly and he is unable to endure prolonged hunger without discomfort and distress.

I was personally blown away that medical professionals were writing stuff like this 12 years before the founding of La Leche League, and decades before Sears coined the term “attachment parenting.”  I find it delightful to read about men and women in the 40s and 50s who were advocating for an understanding of infant needs that is only now becoming mainstream.  We tend to think of anything before the 60s or 70s as a wasteland of Victorian-inspired “detachment parenting,” but clearly the field of child-care philosophy was much more nuanced, and more advanced in some quarters, than I ever knew.

According to Ezzo, these proto-AP proponents claimed that

the separation at birth momentarily interrupts the mother-child in utero harmony. Therefore, the goal of early parenting is to reestablish that harmony. How is this supposed to be achieved? Only by the constant day-and-night presence and availability of the mother to the child. New mothers are instructed to do whatever it takes to neutralize the supposed trauma of birth and offset its effect. By 1949, the birth-trauma theory, lacking objective verifiable data, was dismissed as a nonsensical theory.

However, I’m not seeing any talk about birth trauma.  Rather, the hypothesis seems to be that when you deny the most basic physiological needs of newborn babies, starving them and failing to offer the touch that helps regulate their temperature and neurological processes, babies get pissed off.  And perhaps leaving babies to starve and shiver and fend largely for themselves might be bad for their psychological development, as well as their immediate bodily health.  They also thought maybe routinely withholding food from infants whose blood sugar was severely low might be a cause for later feeding problems.

The frequent pattern of newborn care, especially in hospitals, is that he is taken away from his mother, deprived of cuddling and soothing and of opportunity for sucking and the comfort of breast feeding. He is also prematurely subjected to prolonged fasting after having been continuously nourished during gestation and is subject to strong emotional provocation, allowed to cry uncomforted and to undergo prolonged fits of rage or of fear and anxiety. In consequence, eating, which should be a simple, pleasurable experience, may become an occasion for tension and emo-tional disturbances which may be the beginning of frequent feeding problems observed among pre-school children.

Given that the infants they’re talking about might be fed as few as 4 times a day, their concerns are hardly the whacky, discredited psychobabble Ezzo wants to paint them as.  In this article, we’re seeing the origins of modern pediatric understanding about the biological needs of infants, which is most definitely informed by the knowledge that we are mammals, and have needs closely tied to those of other mammal neonates.  Come to think of it, perhaps this is part of Ezzo’s problem with mainstream, evidence-based pediatric thinking: it’s based on acceptance of evolution.  I haven’t found any reference to Ezzo’s beliefs about evolution/creationism, but it would not surprise me to find that he rejects evolution, given that his whole parenting philosophy grows out of Biblical interpretation.

In any case, Ezzo is once again misrepresenting his opposition.  He of course does it in a convoluted way that makes it almost impossible for parents to check on his assertions.  First, he manufactures a semi-mythological school of thought, neoprimitivism, then he assigns silly-sounding, discredited beliefs to it that may or may not have influenced its members, then he assumes without proof that modern attachment parenting is really a resurgence of this school.  All this without proper citations of course.  Ezzo fervently wants to believe that anything but his approach is extreme, loopy, and contrary to evidence, and he’s very clever at creating that illusion, as long as the reader has little context to check his assertions against.