Last week, Time magazine caused shockwaves with a cover showing a glamorous young woman standing by her child – a well-grown three-year-old who was perched on a chair while breastfeeding from his mother.
The article inside was about attachment parenting, a method advocating continuous physical and emotional closeness between mother and child. And while most of the controversy raged over the image, the method itself has sparked a furious debate about how hands on modern parents need to be in raising their children.
One critic is French feminist Elisabeth Badinter, who has written a book called The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines The Status Of Women. Badinter argues that today's mothering ideals monopolise a woman's time and deprive her of a career. Nowadays, she writes, "you not only have to breastfeed 24 hours a day for six months, you have to make your own natural baby food and wash your own cloth nappies". New mothers, she argues, have to shoulder an enormous number of obligations, "which are dangerous for their ambitions and their freedom as women".
Women have always risked a kind of martyrdom in seeking to be perfect mothers. But today, there is endless pressure to do it all, as well as have it all. When I had my first child, I read several books relating to attachment parenting, including The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. They seemed to chime with how I felt I wanted to be with my children. As babies they slept in bed with us, and I breastfed each until nearly the age of two, despite going back to work four days a week. However, when I met followers of the Continuum Concept, I always felt apologetic, as if I was some half-baked compromiser. I hadn't done the cloth nappies. I had gone back to work leaving my child with others. I wasn't considering unschooling (the modern form of homeschooling). I wasn't embracing the full organic, child-hugging existence – mainly because the whole package was too much.
The truth is that what Badinter is objecting to is not exactly attachment parenting, but an alternative, and green-inspired, lifestyle that has evolved from it. Only a very small minority actually practise this. However its aspirations have begun to suffuse the mainstream. Even non-attachment parents will buy bedding made of organic cotton and Ella's Kitchen squeezy purees. They do this because they believe this is what makes a good parent. This trend, which Badinter describes as "organic ideology" has joined a steadily expanding white noise of aspirations that assail the modern mother.
However, Badinter's suggestion that it is attachment parenting that is "crushing" women is a red herring. Only 3% of mothers are still breastfeeding at five months, so if women are feeling crushed it is not by this. Rather, it is by our notion of mother as martyr and our increasingly child-centred culture. And here, Badinter's home country, France, does offer an enlightening example. The French are good at being not too child-centred. Children go to state-subsidised nurseries from a young age, they are expected to eat what they're given, their parents play with them less.
That's not to say the French do it better. Their approach assumes that we can only resist making children into little sun-kings through detachment. But there are other ways – and even attachment parenting is not necessarily child-centred. Liedloff often said that she saw problems with the approach her book inspired and that all too often it was interpreted in a child-centred way. Instead she emphasised that what she was suggesting rather was that parents also learn to take a back seat.
Recently, I thought of Liedloff when I was reading an article by a psychotherapist who was concerned by how many of her clients said they had wonderful parents. She had come to conclude that they had been afflicted with "too good" parents, those that had protected them from life's difficulties and always been available. We should bear this in mind when we try to be "too good". More than 60 years ago, the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott came up with the idea that what a child needed was a "good enough" mother. How alien that concept feels now – in these times when it seems that often nothing a mother does is quite good enough.
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