When normal becomes notable

This week’s issue of TIME magazine with its crazy, sensationalist cover of a camo-clad preschooler at the breast, features articles on “attachment parenting” and Dr. William Sears, who they say “has made parenthood more physically and emotionally demanding than ever before.” (Great commentary about the visuals on KellyNaturally.com.)

Interesting, but my personal experience was that it was just not all that demanding to breastfeed, carry my baby around or hold her most of the day and sleep with her (what they’re describing as 3 tenets of this philosophy—there are 8, actually…). In fact, to me, these things were very simply easier than the alternatives. That these practices are somehow new or revolutionary, or  in need of a scientific basis—some proof of their safety, benefit or efficacy—seems silly to me, also. These are things that human beings naturally do, instinctively, I believe, when they are in touch with their primal humanity and they have the liberty to do so.

Instead of positioning attachment parenting as a “thing,” a philosophy with adherents and such, we should recognize it for what it is: normal human parenting. And we should recognize other practices for what they are: accommodating other things—be it parental preferences, corporate/capitalist culture, whatever. I won’t even pass judgment and say there’s anything wrong with such accommodations. But, let’s not paint the normal human way to be as some new-fangled, cultish, out-there hippie trend with a Dr. as the “leader.” It’s how humans have lived for millennia.

I’m currently reading The Continuum Concept and learned from the TIME Sears feature that one of his early books was based on his reading of this book. It’s a rather un-scientific book. There are no references. It’s mostly the reflections of a writer, Jean Liedloff, who spent some time living with Stone Age Indians in the South American jungle. But it is very compelling. The book tells of revelations that led her to form a radically different view of what human nature really is, and challenged her Western, industrial preconceptions of how we should live—much of it dealing with how babies and children are handled (literally, handled, as in held in hands and in arms).

In her book, Liedloff observes of the treatment of infants in Western culture that “Babies have, indeed, become a sort of enemy to be vanquished by the mother. Crying must be ignored so as to show the baby who is boss, and a basic premise in the relationship is that every effort should be made to force the baby to conform to the mother’s wishes. Displeasure, disapproval, or some other sign of withdrawal of love is shown when the baby’s behavior causes ‘work,’ ‘wastes’ time, or is otherwise deemed inconvenient. The notion is that catering to the desires of a baby will ‘spoil’ him and going counter to them will serve to tame, or socialize, him. In reality the opposite effect is obtained in either case.”

She explains that humans are evolutionarily programmed for certain expectations, noting that for millions of years newborn babies have been held close to their mothers from the moment of birth and that just because in recent history we’ve taken this to be optional (or inconvenient), doesn’t change the millions of years of programming.

“The period immediately following birth is the most impressive part of life outside the mother’s body. What a baby encounters is what he feels the nature of life to be….

…he has come prepared for the great leap from the womb to his place in arms…

What he has not come prepared for is a greater leap of any sort, let alone a leap into nothingness, non-life, a basket with cloth in it, or a plastic box without motion, sound, odor or the feel of life. The violent tearing apart of the mother-child continuum, so strongly established during the phases that took place in the womb may understandably result in depression for the mother, as well as agony for the infant.

Every nerve ending under his newly exposed skin craves the expected embrace, all his being, the character of all he is, leads to his being held in arms.”

The TIME article says “Some parents subscribe to [Dr. Sears'] theory that attachment parenting…is the best way to raise confident, secure children. Others think Sears is an anti-feminist tyrant, or that his ideas are just totally unrealistic.”But my experience (and those of other mothers I know) was that I really just did what came naturally to me in the early days, weeks and months of motherhood and it just happened to be in line with this stuff. The thing is, it worked. My child was healthy, she ate well and grew and grew. She slept well, curled up with me, and we were very close. Still are. And for me, of course, it was an adjustment, having a baby, but I never felt particularly sleep deprived (thanks to co-sleeping) and was relatively calm, thanks to the hormone flow and baby bonding.

Now, don’t take this to be an implication that people who may not have done these things do not have healthy children or are not close to them—this seems to be a common response. I am only sharing my experience. I will observe, though, that I have seen many complaints of sleeplessness, frequent wakings and such, and about how difficult life with an infant is, among those who don’t likely understand instinctual human parenting, and it seems they’re having a harder time of it than I did.

In The Conflict, Elisabeth Badinter cites anthropologist Sarah Hrdy’s work on maternal instinct. Badinter seeks to make some negative point about the tyranny of breastfeeding, but instead reveals the powerful chemical bonding that occurs between a mother and child during the earliest days of breastfeeding. Hrdy speaks of a “cascade of physiological consequences in the mother, suffusing her body with a sense of wellbeing…within moments of nursing the mother’s cortisol levels subside; oxytocin courses through her veins. As if she were getting a masage, the mother’s blood pressure drops, oxytocin suffuses her in a beatific calm…the mother is endocrinologically, sensually and neurologically transformed…it will be a long time before she is again emotionally and physiologically so at liberty to cut bait…” If a mother doesn’t experience that, or is too weighed down by baggage about the  difficulties of breastfeeding or how it might be interfering with other aspects of her life, she is not going to reap those same benefits as the mother who can get high on it, let go and float in that magical place of being with her child in such a special way.

None of this means that people who don’t do these things aren’t necessarily loving parents or aren’t close to their children. It’s just a vastly different experience. And many who haven’t had that experience become very defensive when discussing it, and it seems they just don’t get it. If you don’t do the instinctual things, it’s likely you wouldn’t understand them. You’re just not operating in that way on these kinds of things.

I’ve seen comments already from people regarding the TIME story that focus on defensive cries about how they tried to breastfeed and it didn’t work and it reflects such a massive lack of understanding about breastfeeding, both culturally and biologically. For those who might stumble upon this blog and may be in search of quality information on the mechanics of breastfeeding, I highly recommend kellymom.com and for less on the mechanics, but more on social and cutlural matters, Ph.D. in Parenting has a lot to offer on this issue (and others).

I think it’s odd that we’ve come to a place where what’s normal has become something of note. In the way TIME—and mainstream folk in general nowadays—seem to consider Dr. Sears’ advice and the “attachment parenting” movement, or philosophy, some extreme departure from sanity. I personally don’t like to say I follow AP, really, because I don’t think of my parenting as something from a book. Sure, I have learned things from books and books are great for reference, but the basics of eating, sleeping and being close, well, you shouldn’t need a book to confirm those things. That we do says something about how far we as a society have drifted off course. “Attachment parenting,” if we must call it something, shouldn’t need  explaining—it’s the cribs, baby buckets and bottles that do.

2 thoughts on “When normal becomes notable

  1. Pingback: When images mean vastly different things to different people: TIME magazine « GLOG

  2. Pingback: When images mean vastly different things to different people: TIME magazine cover analysis | the secret

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