Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Detachment Parenting

Quite the discussion is raging over at Danielle Bean's blog, here and here, on the subject of attachment parenting vs. Danielle's own philosophy, described as Doing What Works Best For Your Family.

With all due respect to Dr. Popcak, I'm inclined to take the words and experiences of mothers of large families over the words of theoreticians, even Catholic ones. Some parenting methods won't work for all Catholic families, and by "won't work" I don't mean "capable of implementation but for our selfish sinfulness" but "not capable of implementation, period." It's fine and dandy to tell the five-foot-two inch tall mother that she should be wearing her thirty-pound eight-month old all day on her back and then sleeping with him beside her all night so he can nurse whenever he wants to, and that she really shouldn't even have his two-year old sister or three-year old brother because if she had done the "correct" method of parenting in the first place she would have had a three to five year space between all of her children, but that doesn't change her present reality. Like the Pharisee, all you're doing at that point is laying upon her an impossible burden which you do not stir a finger to lift, something that lacks charity.

I don't mean to attack Attachment Parenting (or AP) per se, here; it's not what worked for my family (and by "not worked," I don't mean "but for sinful selfishness" but for a reality that included a first baby born a bit early who had problems nursing from the get-go and who went to the bottle at five months, and a third baby who had to be bottle-fed for two weeks at two months of age while Mom spent a week in the hospital). But I am a bit puzzled by the insistence from Dr. Popcak that AP is somehow a holier and more Catholic way of raising children than any other method out there. It's not about the science, about which I don't yet know enough to comment; it's about the underlying presumptions, two of which I feel the need to address.

(To be fair, these presumptions can be found in other parenting methods, too; but whatever the method, one would think that Catholics would know better.)

The first presumption is the notion that the mother must instantly respond to the baby's every desire, because the baby is incapable of wanting anything that is not good for him. I think this is true in very early infancy; babies cry when they are hungry or too cold or too warm or wet/uncomfortable or sleepy or unable to sleep or lonely or tired of being held (yes, babies CAN get tired of being held, though I know that's practically heresy to admit in public). Figuring out which of these desires/needs baby is trying to express can be very challenging for a mother (and that's without the added complication of colic). But she does try to figure it out, and gradually a rhythm sets in--which will change completely just when she's really gotten used to things.

What about the older infant, though? What about the toddler? Does he cry only when he truly needs something? Is satisfying his every expressed desire immediately a good thing to do for him?

These parenting methods seem to think so; but Catholics know that even our tiny little ones have been born with the stain of Original Sin. Though that is removed by the sacrament of Baptism, it is an undeniable fact that the fallen human nature we all inherit because of the sin of Adam and Eve remains with us, and that it permeates our lives from our young childhood.

I have had the experience of "comfort nursing" a child and being pleased with myself for doing exactly what baby needed--only to have baby projectile vomit the entire contents of her stomach out over herself and me, because whatever comfort she wanted didn't actually need to include yet another meal. I have had the experience of taking a squirmy, fussy baby into my bed because I 'knew' that she wanted to sleep beside me--only to have her grow more and more hysterical, overstimulated, overtired, and unable to fall asleep despite my best efforts at soothing, because her desire to be with me didn't include sleep. I have picked up and held an irritable teething toddler--and had her grab the side of a hot pan before I could stop her, since that was what she wanted to get at in the first place, and it was out of her reach until I picked her up. Babies aren't capable of sin, but they are, like the rest of us, capable of disordered desires; forming our parenting around the instant gratification of all of their desires seems like a dangerous thing to do on a spiritual level.

The second presumption is that what our children most need from us is the sense that we respect them; this respect is supposed to foster that key sense of trustful attachment or bonding that according to the theory is so extremely vital to the child's life and future development. I love my children dearly, of course, and I do respect my God-given role in their lives, and theirs in mine; but somehow I get the feeling that this isn't what is being discussed in these sorts of parenting methods. I think that what our children need most from us is unconditional love, actually; that respect is a cold and distant substitute for the love which seeks to model the love of God for us, which parents should strive for with their children. Moreover, teaching parents to respect their children seems to put things exactly backwards; parents must love their children, but children are following God's commandment when they honor and respect their parents.

Don't get me wrong; I do think parent/child bonding is important. I just think that our job as parents is to accept the fact that one day quite soon our children won't actually need us any more, and that all the emphasis on attachment and bonding doesn't really seem to take this into consideration.

As I joked with a relative, no one ever talks about "attachment toilet training." In other words, we know that it is indeed our job to teach our children not to need us. This happens day by day, hour by hour, over a span of slow years that catch up to us all at once: perhaps the day our children leave for college, or perhaps the day they begin a vocation to marriage, to priesthood, or to the religious life. Our ultimate job is not to practice "attachment parenting" but "detachment parenting;" to accept with love and gratitude and sorrow the reality that neither our lives, nor those of our beloved children, are ordered toward this earthly vale of tears. Whether our children are the ones to bid us the final farewell this side of heaven, or whether the agonizing cross of performing that last act of loving service for them will fall upon us, the fact remains that our ability to return to God what He has given to us--our very lives--is the ultimate act of detachment beyond which lies the glorious destiny of every Christian soul.


Opal said...

I spent at least 8 years worrying that I was parenting wrong, not doing things right, etc that I was not confident with any of our decisions. I lost battle after battle with our children and in laws. I now, feel more confident in what I am doing. Our first two children didn't sleep with us, but our 3rd has. Our third has been easier in some ways; but I am more confident parent too. I feel that I am more confident not because I have read all the books or agree with this expert or that one. I am more confident because I trust in God and we try to do what is best for our children.
So in that respect, I guess I would side with Danielle. Our sleeping arragement works well for us right now, but there are times it would not be right, and it is that rigidness in Popcaks comments that have me concerned.
Such as, we know the benefits of breastfeeding and I think every mom should at least try, but what about those moms that can not produce enough milk?
In the end, you really do have to be in tune with your family to know what would help and what you should just forget.

Mary Poppins NOT said...

I just want to say I agree and enjoyed what you wrote here.

Maria said...

Good post. I have always had the same basic problem with AP parenting philosophy. It seems to totally ignore the reality of the Fall and disordered human nature. AP seems to assume that our children are born in some type of preternatural, perfectly ordered state that fully understand their proper needs. It's crazy!

Also, just another small thing that turned me off to AP philosophy (not all the particular practices, mind you, just the dogmatic philosophy) is that in its most popular books - like Dr. Sears - it barely talks about the importance of stay-at-home moms. In fact, I remember reading some Dr. Sears book that had a whole section on working moms making attachment parenting work! I'm not saying anything about working/staying home here, but the idea that you could implement attachment parenting while working outside the home is ludicrious. It is also very unpopular to say something like that in today's culture. The AP folks seemed like such a sell-out crowd after that for me.

nutmeg said...

Excellently put, as usual, Red.

Maria, interesting info about the working mom/AP connection. You are so right... it seems to go against the very nature of what AP is! (the teenager in me wants to say "duh" but I'll refrain...)


Lisa said...

You continue to hit it right on, Red. It's all about common sense, in the end, isn't it? Some children do thrive on ap methods, some do not, but it's Mama that needs to decide what works for her. And, seriously, having done it several different ways, I'm all for a good routine for baby. Who says that doesn't include attachment?

Sheila said...

It's been a few years since I've read Dr. Sears or La Leche League's The Art of Breastfeeding, which promote AP, but I do recall that, yes, both books address how working mothers might practice AP. In the same vein, both Dr. Sears and LLL discuss weaning and bottlefeeding. But these discussions are utterly subordinate to the preferred role of stay-at-home mom, who, practically speaking, is more readily able to breastfeed and practice various AP methods of parenting, including discipline. In other words, although these books give a nod to the dominant cultural practice of mothers of young children working outside the home, they are resoundingly in favor of stay at home mothers. I don't think you can read them any other way. In fact, Dr. Sears discusses at length the option of going into debt or getting a medical leave in order to stay at home, esp. the first year of life. LLL was founded by a group of devout Catholic moms in suburban Chicago, all of whom had large families, who decided at a parish picnic to start a mom-to-mom group to promote breastfeeding.

nicole said...

I've not read the comments at Danielle's site, although I have read her posts and commented once. I think a healthy mother is as important as healthy, nurtured children. For me, AP would not lead to a healthy mind. I was so overwhelmed with guilt with my first child when I could not breastfeed. Why was that? I was still providing her with nourishment and love and attention. I was still being a mother. I especially cringe at the idea that failure to practice AP makes one a bad Catholic. As if we needed more sources of guilt and discouragement.

Great post Red!

freddy said...

I learned parenting the old-fashioned way -- as an apprentice to a great mom, though I'm no carbon-copy! I've not read any parenting books and don't really understand what "AP" is all about, but found the discussion at Danielle's interesting, especially the exchange between Danielle and Greg Popcak.

A couple of implications of Greg Popcak's bother me.

The first is that a parent's obligation to use prudential judgement in deciding how to rear children includes researching the best methods from a scientific as well as moral standpoint and of course then using AP. He states:"But your prudential judgment--that is your investigation of the best theological and scientific data available to you--should ultimately challenge you to be different and better than you already are. "(Heart, Mind & Strength, Mon Jan 7) I don't disagree that we should always try to do and be better than we are, but I question whether prudential judgement really requires parents to do such research. It seems a far greater burden than the Church would put on us parents, to "accept children lovingly from God" and "rear them in the Catholic Faith."

The other problem I have is the assumption that those who have difficulty with AP are somehow just Doing It Wrong. Greg Popcak doesn't seem to wish to give this impression, and Dr. Sears' website seems very clear that AP is to be used as parents see fit, but somehow the implication is out there and this, too, gives parents an inappropriate burden. Greg Popcak states: "I think we need to ask ourselves if the reasons AP isn't working for us is because we have certain aspects of our own attitudes or expectations that are fallen and need work. Many times, the reason AP doesn’t work for a person is because they have gone into it without proper formation, support, or education. Sometimes, AP challenges parents in ways they didn’t expect to be challenged. Sometimes these challenges can seem more difficult that the challenges inherent with more conventional parenting methods."(Heart, Mind, & Strength, Mon. Jan. 7)

Finally, maybe I'm just a child of my age, but I get extremely uncomfortable when people start crowing that "science PROVES" this or that is best. I've seen too often science turn around and prove something completely different a few years later to do anything more than be skeptical and take a "wait and see" approach, yet Greg Popcak has no hesitation in exclaiming: "But as I say, recent advances in brain science have moved the discussion about parenting methodologies out of philosophy and squarely into the area of science. It is now possible to prove--using functional imaging technologies, hormonal monitoring, and other methods common to hard science, that attachment parenting strategies are hands-down better for the developing brain and nervous system (and by extension, the biological seat of morality and virtue) than other parenting strategies." (Heart, Mind, & Strength, Mon. Jan 7)
But I remeber that science has been used to extoll the virtues of everything from baby formula to shock therapy, and remain leery.

Thank you so much, Red, for your great post -- you really helped me get my head together on this one! Thanks, also, with your patience with this rather lengthy comment!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I am really qualified to comment on this topic, since I am single and have no children, but I'm going to anyway.

It seems to me that in all this talk of 'AP' the role of the daddy is ignored or neglected. All I've seen is how important AP practioners think it is for the baby to be in constant contact with his mother, but nowhere do they reccomend that the father take a turn.

I've seen my father, brothers, and brothers-in-law all take an active part in their families from the time their children were born and there are times when the men were better able to soothe the fussy infant than their stressed-out, exhausted better-halves were. (Yes, normal mommies do get stressed-out and exhausted from a little tiny infant.)

And there are times when a fairly young baby is fed, dry, comfortable, not teething, not sick, but still fussy. Babies, especially pre-mobile babies, need exercise. Sometimes this comes from a good crying-my-little-heart-out-all-by-myself session. (Monitored of course, and not to last too terribly long.)

I like Red's idea of Detachment Parenting and Danielle's of Doing What Works Best For Your Family.

Anyway, just thought I'd weigh in on this one!


Anonymous said...

"I don't know if I am really qualified to comment on this topic..."

You're not. Me neither.

Sheila said...

Umm, again, it's been a few years since I read the AP bibles (Dr. Sears/La Leche League) but all the combined works strongly/heavily/emphatically (choose your adverb) underscore the importance of the father in AP. Not only that, these works discuss AP exclusively in the context of a married family. So read it for yourself, make your own decisions based on your family's needs. What I take from Danielle et al is not a trashing of AP--far from it--but a urging to do what works best for you, not because of ignorance but because of reflection.

Anonymous said...

I reject the idea that to be a good mother or father you must read a particular book about it. No. Both of our (husband's and my) parents raised many, many terrific children and never felt required to sit down and read what someone else thinks they should do. The vast majority of human history holds the same story, including all the parents of all the saints that I can think of.

Never heard of AP before. Not interested in any one particular parenting theory. Except my own love and well-formed Catholic conscience.

CMW said...


I liked your comments! :)

Willa said...

I think the idea is that attachment parenting gives your kids the foundation to become independent when they are ready. Though I haven't read much of Dr Popcak's work I am pretty sure that's what he would say.

I am sort of an AP mother. I have seven children and when I started out almost 22 years ago, we hadn't heard of the term and we didn't really know anyone who was practicing AP. We just did what seemed to work for our temperaments and those of our children.

The kids got independent somehow. Whether because of or in spite of co-sleeping, who could tell?

Even though I am more AP than not, I am sort of on the Danielle Bean side of the argument. I think Dr Popcak went beyond logic in presenting his side of the case.

I deeply dislike that "my way is God's way" approach, even though I doubt if he meant it quite that baldly. When I was raising my kids it was the Ezzo-type "schedule your babies" Christians that were saying all kinds of ominous things about how badly your kids would turn out if you did AP. A few generations ago parents were being scared by "science" and "experts" into bottlefeeding their kids and not picking them up except once in a while for a few minutes.

Yes, I do think there's a role for advice from older, possibly wiser people. My parents and my husband's parents both made suggestions when we were just starting our family but they also kept their boundaries and did not try to tell us that the only way to do it was their way. In fact, they spent a lot of energy building us up and supporting us. That helped us to be better parents, and we did adopt suggestions from them without feeling pressured or scared into doing so. So I guess I am thinking that Dr Popcak's advocating of AP is fine and may have a lot of truth in it but his style in the recent discussion seemed to encroach on individual families boundaries a bit too much.

It looked like he was trying to point out the dangers of relativism -- the Disney-style "follow your heart" that is so prevalent nowadadys-- but didn't acknowledge that prudence in some family situations might not always add up to specific AP practices.

Whew -- I don't think I've commented on your blog before, Red, though I read it regularly -- but this is enough for about 10 comments, I think : ). I guess it is still National Delurking Week, isn't it? : ).