There’s this misconception floating around that Attachment Parenting is the same thing as helicopter parenting. I run into it frequently whenever feminist publications like Jezebel comment on parenting; in the comments section at Free Range Kids; and just about anywhere people are talking about problems with kids these days. Even the New York Times’ often smart and funny parenting blog The Motherlode makes this mistake this week with its post Open Letter to the Mom Who Can’t Stop Following Her Kid Around the Playground. This last article prompted me to finally sit down (or in my case, stand up) and write down some thoughts I’ve had on this issue.
I’d like to write a long and eloquent post on this, but I have about 15 min before SuperWhy is over and I have to get everyone in the car to head to work and preschool. (ETA, now I’m finishing this while the girls watch more SuperWhy and I make a frozen pizza for dinner. Winning!) But I will say this, which I’ve said before:
Attachment Parenting is NOT helicopter parenting. As Eddie Izzard says, I’d like a bit of a crowbar here.
Attachment Parenting is a philosophy of parenting that promotes bonding between parents and child in a variety of ways, including but not limited to or defined by practices such as breastfeeding, co-sleeping, etc. Like any good philosophy, AP offers guiding principles that help parents decide how to care for their children, especially in early years, so that they feel confident and secure in their relationship with caregivers, and therefore will feel confident and secure in their growing years as they become more independent. Indeed, the entire reason I was drawn to AP was because it focused on caregiving in the early years that would pay off with independent older children who would move confidently in the world, having had a strong foundation of love and respect from their parents.
AP is about developmentally appropriate dependence between adult and child, that is: it’s appropriate and healthy for babies to need their Mom, or a trusted caregiver, constantly. You’re not spoiling your baby by carrying her in a sling or nursing her when she is hungry, because babies’ wants and needs are the same thing. Later, it’s appropriate and healthy for a toddler to need the occasional support, encouragement, or intervention from a parent as she learns to navigate the playground. But as they get older, it is appropriate and healthy for children to want to do things on their own, and for parents to support and encourage them in their independence.
This is why I (and some other AP blogging mamas) feel like we are more “free range” parents as our kids get older, allowing them to explore, learn, and try without our constant monitoring and presence. For example, I allow my girls to play outside unsupervised. I encourage them to entertain themselves and not rely on me to find things for them to do. Etc.
Which is pretty much the opposite of helicopter parenting.
Helicopter parenting, to my mind, is an unhealthy parenting practice in which parents teach children that they are unable to function in the world without parental support. They undermine the independence and agency of their children by organizing their lives completely, participating actively in every endeavor, and intervening at every opportunity. Helicopter parenting does not have healthy boundaries between adult and child, instead blurring that line between them, creating a kind of crippling codependence that I do believe has negative consequences (e.g., when those kids become my advisees and can’t make a decision for themselves without consulting Mom or Dad). Helicopter parenting is all about the continual identification of parent with child and vice versa, creating a perpetual state of need between both.
Which is pretty much the opposite of AP.
Sure, the Venn Diagram of AP and helicopter parenting overlaps, just like the Venn Diagram of mainstream parenting or Parenting with Love and Logic or any other guiding principles of parenting overlaps with helicopter parenting. But I do not believe, and have not experienced, that AP overlaps with unhealthy parenting any more than any other parenting practices. Lumping AP in with “intensive parenting” or “DIY parenting” strikes me as ignorant and uninformed because it confuses guiding principles with specific practices (e.g. the dig at organic juice boxes in the Motherlode piece, or bagging on breastfeeding Moms for oppressing us all, etc). It puts into places “rules” or “have tos” that really don’t exist.
Sure, a lot of AP parents do breastfeed our kids, and a lot of us are kind of in to organic juice boxes. Hey, it’s a parody, I get it. But you never know, that mom sitting on the bench shouting to her kid to DO IT YOURSELF while texting a friend might just be a co-sleeping, still-breastfeeding, gentle-disciplining AP mom. She might give her kids those organic juice boxes just to get them to shut up. And that Mom chasing her kid around may just have a derring-do, risk taking, non-good-choice-making four year old. She may desperate for a break from monitoring her, but your judgmental ass won’t even offer to keep an eye on her while she sits and texts for the first time that day.
And this is my problem with ignorant, judgy stereotyping of parenting practices like the (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) Motherlode article: it’s ultimately divisive.
It reinforces the idea that we can’t get along because we do things differently.
It reinforces the extremely damaging notion that because I made different choices than you, I am implicitly judging you, and therefore we can’t be friends.
It’s also insulting. I feel just as insulted at the notion that my parenting practices will breed needy, codependent children as you probably do when someone says bottle feeding isn’t as good as breastfeeding. It’s deeply hurtful to imply that. It feels like some kind of weird backlash against AP for being the perceived source of the revival of oppressive rhetoric and practices of natural/perfect/better parenting and all that carries with it. I don’t want to be the enemy of Amanda Marcotte or Emily Matchar because we experience and perceive AP in vastly different ways, practice parenting differently, or have different desires around family and stuff like that. I really want to be able to sit around and drink coffee with other smart, feminist, neurotic Moms and really grapple with these complex issues of motherhood and bonding and kids and happiness without it becoming a huge argument that makes everyone feel sick. I need the support of other Moms, and I need not to be judged as much as you probably do. And I’ve been judged very badly by society — glares while I nurse my daughter in a restaurant, lectures from strangers about the (exaggerated) dangers of homebirth. I’ve had some profoundly negative experiences that I don’t even want to go into because it’s too deeply upsetting, but they involve institutions that also believe AP to be inherently damaging and dangerous when it is not. I have done what feels right for us. I’ve tried and failed at different things. I’m still learning. AP has been wonderful for us and I feel passionately that more people should know about it, but I don’t write much about it because I don’t want people to unfollow me or to think I hate all formula feeding Moms.
I’m saying this to myself, too: I’ve definitely been on the judgy end of the stick when it comes to matters dear to my heart like the care and feeding of my child. I’ve angered and hurt more than one friend or, ya know, internet commenter. I mean, I don’t have all the answers: I’m a feminist, a mother, I practice AP, and I am not sold on this whole parenting thing! I truly thought I would love it more, in certain ways. I thought I’d take to it better. I didn’t realize I would spend so much time fantasizing about being single with no children or even pets.
But if we keep getting hung up on the potato/potahtos of parenting, we may never get to those richer conversations that are so desperately needed. Because it becomes a blame game. I don’t love mothering and it’s AP’s fault because it told me I would and should love this and I don’t. And you like AP therefore you oppress me.
Or, as I experienced, I’m a feminist and a smart and ambitious woman who wants a great career, but I just had a baby and am dying to be home with her all of the time and I never knew I would want this so much but I feel awful because I’m supposed to not want this so much because feminism told me I wouldn’t! (And later, the dramatic reversal of that. Because it isn’t easy or simple.) You’re a feminist and you aren’t having kids and you love your job and you will judge me for wanting to be with my kid and think I’m not a good feminist anymore.
What I’m dying for is great conversation about these issues. What I’m dying for is more good mom friends. I fear that this backlash and misconception of AP is going to drive a wedge even further between parents grappling with these huge choices. It will stop the texting Mom from chatting up the frantic Mom and finding out that, haha, they both hate Angelina Ballerina and come to the park at the same time every day, so they could team up and give each other a break!
This feels especially important within the feminist community, where AP is alternately elevated or reviled. I wanna hang with Mayim Bialik and Hanna Rosin. I want for us all to talk about how we make sense of this intense, amazing, completely life changing experience: mothering.