Saturday, 20 March 2010
Good For Babies - But is it Good For Mothers? Some Thoughts on Attachment Parenting and Baby Wearing
Since I first began my blog I have had a vague intention to write a post on baby wearing and attachment parenting. But my views on the subject are so conflicting that although half formed ideas have been floating around in the darkest recesses of my brain for a while, any attempt to gather them together and organise them into a coherent post seemed a near impossible task.
I became pregnant with my first child when I was 22. I was idealistic and impressionable, and when I look back now my heart bleeds a tiny bit for the naive young woman that I was. She was so desperately excited to be having a baby. She had no earthly clue how horrendously hard it would all turn out to be.
During my pregnancy a friend lent me a copy of The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. Liedloff had developed her continuum theory of baby care through her observations of Yequana indian women living in the South American jungle. She claimed that their babies almost never cried due to being carried constantly by their mothers as they went about their work and daily business, and that the whole community enjoyed a level of well-being and contentment unheard of in modern western societies due to having had their need for contact with their mothers consistently fulfilled as infants. Liedloff had come to the conclusion that western styles of baby care which involved separating babies from their mothers by putting them in cots and prams, and leaving them to cry, were responsible for the high levels of mental ill health in our society. I had what I thought was an epiphany reading that book, and vowed then and there that I would never ever put my baby down. Liedloff had mentioned very briefly that some house work, particularly bed making might be hard to do whilst carrying a baby, but had gone on to say that a resourceful mother would find a way. I was going to be a resourceful mother - I was going to find a way.
I am still of the belief that a baby needs as much physical contact with his/her caregivers as they can feasibly manage. I chose to breastfeed my children as and when they seemed interested, as opposed to trying to impose a feeding routine onto them. I also co-slept with my two younger children for the first six months or so, simply because it meant that I was actually able to get some sleep (a breastfeeding baby soon learns how to help herself during the night) and I also believe that if I had co-slept with my first child and therefore not had to endure night after night of broken sleep, I might have been spared the worst excesses of the post-natal illness that destroyed our early relationship. The basic principles of attachment parenting still make sense to me. And yet... so much writing on the subject, particularly the Continuum Concept itself, now makes uncomfortable reading for me.
Firstly, I would say that in my experience baby wearing doesn't 'work' in terms of its promises to create a happy baby that rarely cries. Both of my sons screamed as though they were having their fingernails pulled out with a pair of tweezers, almost continuously (or so it felt at the time) despite being held for the vast majority of their waking hours.
Secondly, I found that far from satisfying my own primal needs as a mother for contact with her new child, I didn't always enjoy it very much. I hated the lack of personal space that came from having a baby attached to me all the time, and found myself longing for someone to come and just take the baby away for a bit. By the time my babies were old enough to be carried in a back pack, it just plain did my back in. I struggled on regardless, still believing it was the 'right' thing to do.
Thirdly, I often found it more or less logistically impossible. I must have tried just about every sling on the (incredibly lucrative) market, but failed to find one that allowed me the freedom of movement I needed to go about my everyday tasks with ease, and which also felt secure enough that I could be confidently hands free. I became only too aware of just how miserably I was managing to fail Liedloffs resourcefulness test. The dirty dishes, dust and laundry kept creeping up ever higher around my ears.
By the time I got to baby number three my approach had, through necessity, morphed into a 'whatever works' type of pragmatism. The Youngest spent much of her time in one of those metal framed cloth chairs, watching her brothers play and the washing machine go round, and observing the general chaos that surrounded her with remarkable equanimity. Wouldn't you just know it, she was the happiest baby out of the three of them. I was so busy managing at home alone with three children that it was physically impossible for me to always pick her up at the first squawk, and the poor thing basically got offered a feed whenever I had a spare ten minutes to sit down in. But she took it all in her stride and I can certainly detect no ill effects so far.
So now as a more experienced mother, I can sometimes feel slightly uncomfortable listening to vehement advocates of attachment parenting and baby wearing. My discomfort comes I think from the idea that there is only one way to nurture a baby effectively, and the resulting pressure that attitude puts on women to do it the 'right' way. In order to be good enough mothers we must breastfeed on demand, preferably until our children self-wean. We must carry our babies in close contact with us at all times no matter how difficult or impractical this may be. We must sleep with our babies untill they leave our bed of their own volition, with no thought for our own personal space or how this may affect our enjoyment of our sexual relationship. But most of all we must always be there, and this has huge implications for women who need or want to work outside their home, or to have an identity apart from being a mother.
So with this post I am asking: Would a wide spread adoption of attachment parenting methods mean a huge step backwards for women in terms of their options and freedom of choice in how to live their lives? Does attachment parenting theory lean too heavily on the notion of endless maternal sacrifice being the true path to womanly fulfillment? Perhaps the reason that the Yequana women and other women all over the world practice baby wearing is because they have little choice in the matter. Has anybody ever actually asked them if they enjoy working all day with their babies tied to their backs? Perhaps given the option some of these women would give their eye teeth for a pram and a nanny and an office job. I don't know. I'm not trying to infer that our way of life is in any way superior, but equally I don't accept that it's necessarily inferior either. It's just different. I do however think that attempting to parent as if one lived in an interdependent and supportive community in the South American jungle - when one actually lives in a post-industrial western society in which most of us barely know our neighbours and have to parent alone for most of the day - can be strewn with difficulties. It certainly was for me. What do you think?