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.