Friday, May 25, 2012

Breast Wars part 2 : I Once Practiced Attachment Parenting

by Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, Guest Blogger

Ok, now that I have scanned Time magazine’s recent “Are you mom enough?” article I can safely say that I’m not too surprised. My initial concern regarding Time’s attempts to pit mothers against each other still stands but this time Dr. William Sears’ theory of attachment serves as the maternal battleground.  I personally happen to be in recovery from attachment parent theory as it was a central part of my doctoral studies at University of Maryland’s Department of Human Development and Institute for Child Study. My doctoral studies and my introduction to William Sears’ and Mary Ainsworth’s work also coincided with the birth of my two sons.  I breastfed my son, Kimathi, on my lunch break during my doctoral comprehensive exams.  Less than two years later, I breastfed my younger son, Cabral and took him along with me on many of my doctoral data collection interviews. I regularly taught Attachment theory in my courses but critiqued its lab-based experiments. This popular lab based experiment was designed to “assess” young children’s attachment to the primary caregivers and included a component that aimed to induce fear in children. I may have been a worker bee, but I had my own ethics as a budding scholar.  In hindsight, I would say that my husband and I were my children’s primary caregivers and attachment figures largely because we had no family around. However, I can uncomfortably but truthfully say that I did initially buy into some of the retrograde rhetoric regarding parenting.

So who is “mom enough”? Joanne Beauregard, the mother featured in the article, contends that her brand of intensive mothering is the ideal for healthy child development. It is safe to say that most women do not have the leisure and material resources to live this kind of child centered, selfless life but that would also assume that all mothers desire such an existence. Her claims also imply that all children require intensive nuclear family based parenting in order to be emotionally healthy.  This could not be farther from the truth.

©Helen Keller International/Bartay
Yes, it is true that some mothers enjoy the physical intimacy of mothering and breastfeeding but others do not or may not all the time. Does that make them bad mothers? I think not. One can still provide all the sustenance of breast milk without the emotional intensity that is suggested by Sears and others. Breast-feeding is an infant feeding practice. That is it. Many mothers nurse their children because their children need food. They are feeding their children and as black feminist theorist, Patricia Hill Collins, reminds us, providing is good mothering. We place added burden on mothers when we tell them, not only are they supposed to feed their children but they should feel a particular set of emotions while doing so. Where is the room for the breastfeeding mothers who don’t look into their nursing infant’s arms thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts? What if she’s thinking, “When will this child be done so I can get back to my life”? Her life involves other relevant events like eating, sleeping, working, resting and simply being.  Is she less of a mother if these are the thoughts that she is preoccupied with while nursing? 

 I breastfed all three of my beloved children and as I gazed into their eyes I sometimes thought, “Man, do I have to pee!!” or “I really have to get this chapter done!”  Our parent-child relationship is in tact, no emotional damage inflicted for possessing my own physiological needs and intellectual desires.  Also, mothers (and fathers) who feed their babies infant formula have equal capacity to have intimate connections with their babies when feeding!! My husband is just as attached to my children as I am. So let’s stop the mother breastfeeding mother/bad formula feeding mother madness once and for all! Inducing guilt in mothers for not being self-sacrificing does not make sound theoretical or practical sense in my humble opinion.

Feminist clinicians suggest that mothers who feel pressured to perform happiness and contentment with the rigors of motherhood may also have increased risk for mental health problems.  It is perfectly legitimate to acknowledge the drudgery, isolation, frustrations as well as the joys of mothering.

My second gripe with the theory of attachment parenting is that it privileges one model of parenting as the ideal. Most children are raised in multigenerational families and communities. Family theorists of color have long argued that children do not have to form one primary bond but can form multiple primary bonds with caring adults. Those mothers (and fathers) that share their role with extended family can be as effective as those parents who chose to intensively parent on their own. Many women of color and working class women do not have the privilege (or desire) to mother in such an intensive way.  Despite, current misrepresentations, this does not mean we are inadequate as mothers.  Contemporary mothers feel undo pressure to mother in isolation however communities of color and working class communities have historically embraced collective parenting practices.

I would not have completed my PhD or been granted tenure as a professor without the mothering support of other women in my community. The term “other-mothers” was coined to acknowledge not only the mother work that non-birth mothers performed on behalf of other women’s children but also to acknowledge the intimate bonds that children have with adults that were not their parents. This sometimes included breastfeeding another woman’s children in her absence! This is the parenting model that most people in the world embrace. It is the model that my husband and I embrace as we raise our three children. I believe that much of attachment parenting, particularly mothering, has less to do with the child’s needs than the woman’s desire to fulfill a gender prescribed maternal role.  Parents, families, and communities must parent together on behalf of children’s healthy development.  Black feminist scholar, bells hooks, would call this collective act revolutionary parenting. She and other feminists of color have long advanced these counterpoints on mothering. In these times of continual “mother attacking” that we must center ourselves and push back with more affirming theoretical perspectives.

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