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Is Attachment Parenting a "Prison for Mothers?"

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Is Motherhood a Prison?

Is motherhood — and attachment parenting in particular — a prison for modern women? It is according Erica Jong, the novelist, essayist and poet best known for her bestselling book Fear of Flying.

In a provocative essay in the Wall Street Journal, Jong argues that attachment parenting, the brand espoused in William and Martha Sears’ bestselling The Baby Book sets unrealistic goals for mothers – especially working mothers.

“You wear your baby, sleep with her and attune yourself totally to her needs. How you do this and also earn the money to keep her is rarely discussed,” Jong writes.

Strict attachment parenting, for instance, doesn’t allow for multiple caregivers and not all women are able to breastfeed or pump at work (or at home, for that matter).

“It seems we have devised a new torture for mothers—a set of expectations that makes them feel inadequate no matter how passionately they attend to their children,” writes Jong, saying that modern mothers are bound to feel guilty when they can’t live up to this unrealistic ideal.

Jong’s argument recalls Elisabeth Badinter’s best-selling French book Le Conflit: La Femme and La Mere which also suggests that the enormous pressure on women to be super-moms imprisons women.

Jong recounts her own experiences as a single mother (to future writer Molly Jong-Fast). There was no way she would have been able to be an attachment parent and a successful author and lecturer, she argues. Instead, she hired nannies to watch her daughter and “felt guilty for my own imperfect attachment.”

For what it’s worth, her daughter  Molly Jong-Fast, and author and stay-at-home mom of three, appreciates her mother’s choices and sacrifices.

“She worked hard so that the women of my generation could have the choice to work or to stay home. She slept in hotel rooms in San Diego so that I could cuddle with my own children,” Jong-Fast writes in a sidebar to her mother’s essay. “My mother made sacrifices so that I could have choices, and perhaps that makes her a better mother than I will ever be.”

I found Jong’s essay to be compelling and persuasive on several points. Mommy guilt is ubiquitous and it often seems as if women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t….If they breastfeed more than a year, they’re deemed a hardcore lactivist. If they breastfeed less than a year, clearly, they didn’t try hard enough. If they stay-at-home, they’re lazy. If they return to work, they’re selfish. Sometimes, it seems as if moms can’t win.

Celebrity moms make things worse by making parenthood look so glamorous and easy without revealing that they have hired help.

Jong also raises the point that the cult of motherhood has had political implications as well. A woman who is fully engaged in child-rearing focuses all of her energy on cleaning cloth diapers, making her own baby food and carrying her baby. She has no time to devote to changing the world (I am guessing that so-called Mamma Grizzlies like Sarah Palin are not attachment  parents).

“If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don’t have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit. What exhausted, overworked parent has time to protest under such conditions?” Jong asks.

I take issue with Jong’s argument on one significant point. She overstates the popularity and the intractability of attachment parenting. While it’s common in liberal, affluent towns like Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I live, it’s not exactly promoted by mainstream society. In fact, breastfeeding in public, co-sleeping and baby-wearing are still frowned upon in most of the country.

Even in Park Slope, I know very few people who adhere strictly to the attachment parenting ideology. We do what works best for us and scrap the rest (albeit, not without guilt). Also, it’s not attachment parenting that’s the problem. (I’m as pro-breastfeeding and baby-wearing as the next mom, and who is against forming an attachment with one’s baby?) The problem is the notion that there is one style of parenting that suits everyone.

My Strollerderby colleague Madline Holler takes Jong to task for conflating attachment parenting with helicopter parenting “just to drive her point home that today’s generation of mothers is letting down hers, because we’re goofy and sentimental and too susceptible to images of Heidi Klum’s baby bumps and Angelina Jolie’s carefully curated international family.”

Still, while Jong’s claims about attachment parenting are overblown, I wholeheartedly agree with her closing point that women “need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.”

Too often, we get caught up in the idea that there is one right way to parent. Let’s all stop judging and do the best we can. My new mantra is: “There are no rules.”

What do you think? Is attachment parenting imprisoning women? Or do the potential benefits of attachment parenting outweigh any temporary limitations on mothers?

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photo: flickr/inhabitot

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