Off the Line
At first glance, I look like the average American mother. I've
got a well-stocked Loony Tunes diaper bag. I drive a nice car. I even wear the
pre-election Hillary Clinton headband. One could easily assume I'm a modern
day June Cleaver who adheres to traditional parenting philosophies and blindly obeys the
experts. But a closer look reveals clues that Wally and the Beav don't live at my
house. My banana stained dresses are all designed expressly for nursing. My
18-month-old daughter is welcome in our family bed. And since she goes just about
everywhere with me, Katie has seen and done things that most children her age have not
experienced. Like most families, we go to the zoo, the park, and puppet shows, but
we also attend lectures, concerts, and business meetings.
While attachment parenting has offered wonderful benefits for Katie, my husband, and
myself, it has also isolated us to a certain extent. We have many of the same
friends, and have made new ones through our attachment parenting group. But
attachment parenting has also made us acutely aware of the fact that we are living
in a detached world. We are truly a subculture in the United States.
When people ask me why Katie is such a well-behaved child, I often feel like answering
that in my tribe we breastfeed longer, sleep with our babies, and spend lots of time
together. But I learned that the natives aren't always friendly and accepting of the
customs of my people.
Katie and I were at the San Diego Zoo when she decided it was time for an afternoon
snack. She was standing as she nurse and maneuvered her hand into my dress to play
with the other nipple. Just then a double decker tour bus drove by. Every head
turned from the pygmy chimps to us, while I waited for the tour guide to announce,
"And to the left, we have the nursing human toddler..."
We live in a society that pays infinite lip service to the value of children, but invests
little time, energy, and resources into developing strong and healthy kids. When we
see images of success, they are luxurious homes, fancy cars, boats, Hawaiian vacations,
sumptuous food. There are few pictures of families simply enjoying time
together. While material possessions can make life more comfortable for many people,
family unity is the only thing that can make us all truly happy and complete.
Attachment parenting has been a gift for my family, but attachment parenting in a detached
world has presented me with some challenges as well. Before I left the work force, I
was employed at the largest pro-choice organization in the world. I was also very
active in the civil rights movement. The buzz words I've been hearing -- and using
-- for the past 10 years are choice and tolerance. And yet, as embarrassed as I am
to admit, I am sometimes terribly intolerant of parenting choices I don't agree
with. I find this somewhat ironic because it is this very intolerance from others
that isolates attached parents.
In the privacy of my own thoughts, I ask myself why it bothers me that attachment
parenting is not the norm and detached parenting is widely embraced by the culture.
The answer is simple and somewhat selfish. I want a playground full of
well-adjusted, loving children for Katie to play with today, and a world full of kind,
compassionate adults for her future. And I believe attachment parenting is one of
the most effective ways to achieve that goal.
In this detached world, I often find myself frustrated, offended, and heavy- hearted with
mainstream parenting. As a new parent, I picked up all of the popular books ad
magazines offered dire warnings about co-sleeping and sneered at breastfeeding past six
months, but now I've gotten pretty good at knowing where to avoid. Still, detached
parenting is so pervasive, it can catch you off guard anywhere.
My husband and I went to a toy store to buy Katie a gift for her first birthday. A
sales assistant offered, "This is a great doll to keep your baby company in her crib,
" she said. "It snores!" I thanked her, but said my husband did
that for free as we looked for another selection. The aisles were filled with dolls
that sing, talk, hum, vibrate, breathe. One even ticks as if it has a heart.
More parents are probably willing to buy products that simulate co-sleeping than would
ever consider bringing baby to bed. Yet, in many cases, it is what would make the
child feel most loved and secure. It may be free, but co-sleeping has greater value
for our family than anything we could've bought in that store.
As I was driving to my attachment parenting group, I heard a radio
commercial where a mother asked her son where the boa constrictor was. "I
dunno," he answered apathetically. "When was the last time you saw him,
" mom asked.
"Uh, three days ago," said the adolescent boy. On
and on the dialogue went with the boy repeating, "I dunno." Finally, the
announcer offered a "Get Away" super-saver airfare to rescue this frazzled
parent. While I haven't completely lost my sense of humor, I also found myself
annoyed and shouting to the radio, "If this is what your interactions with your son
are like, do not get on a plane and go anywhere!!!! He needs your time and
attention. Forget the vacation tan. Reconnect with your son."
Katie joined me on a visit to my doctor. The nurse came in to take my blood pressure
when she noticed Katie was nursing. "How old is that child?" she
asked. When I told her, she confessed that her son nursed past a year also and
immediately began reciting a laundry list of weaning techniques. She didn't stop for
a moment to consider that Katie and I liked our nursing relationship. She assumed
that I wanted to stop nursing, but just
didn't know how. "Sometimes you've just got to give them a jalepeno cocktail,
" she suggested. "Hot peppers
on your nipple and they'll never come back." This one saddened me.
"But I want her to come back, " I replied. "Children need to know
they can count on you for consistent loving care, not cruel tricks that violate their
trust." Naturally, my blood pressure reading was a little high.
I am always disappointed when people tell me that they slept in a crib, or they were fed
formula, or they were raised by a nanny, and they "turned out okay." I
respond that I was hoping to do a little better than okay in the greatest responsibility I
had. I get mixed reactions to this. Dr. Michael Commons and his
colleagues of Harvard Medical School recently reported that children who sleep alone are
more susceptible to post traumatic stress disorders and personality disorders, and that
these conditions are virtually unheard of in countries where co-sleeping is the
norm. Violent crime is at an epidemic high in our country. American teens are
seeking fulfillment through gang membership, drugs, promiscuity. More adults are on
antidepressants than ever before. Would attachment parenting offer a panacea to all
of our social problems? Of course not. But loving parents and a solid family
would be a great start.
The greatest resource for my family has been our attachment parenting group where we
exchange ideas and information with like-minded people. Through the group, I
discovered a playgroup where no one gives a second thought to nursing a toddler. One
mother told me about a morning program Katie and I could enjoy together. One mother
clips every article she sees about attachment parenting and brings copies for the
group. Another is a traveling library with a big box of books parents can
borrow. When one parent is experiencing challenges with this parenting style,
the others offer advice, share their experiences, and just listen. The group leader,
who has two grown children, often reminds us of the tremendous payoff of our choice.
Belonging to an attachment parenting group has helped my husband and I go from
feeling completely isolated to feeling as though we are part of a real community.
Our tribe is small and scattered across the country, but when we meet, it's as though the
whole world parents this way. At our group, I watch two-year-old Joycelyn lovingly
redirected as she goes through a shoving phase. Six-year-old Madeline and her younger
brother Gay run and laugh, and are never chided when they cry. A few months older
than Katie, Natalie share her cloth ball, they play, chew and giggle for a short
while. And for just a few hours a month, we are simply average parents in an lovely
Jennifer Coburn is a mother and award-winning journalist
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