Moomah the Magazine
You Are Mom Enough!

You Are Mom Enough!

By Seedlings Group's, Aliza Pressman

As if parents weren’t already hard enough on themselves following recent media headlines over working versus non-working mothers, Tiger Moms and French parents-superiority, TIME magazine’s contentious headline asked us, “Are you mom enough?” The article focused mostly on attachment parenting. Not a new topic, or one that is particularly newsworthy for that matter. But thanks in great part to the provocative cover of a model-like mom in skinny jeans, breastfeeding what looked like a 1st grader and the polarizing title, the parent community reacted.  Much as it has periodically since first surfacing over 20 years ago, the topic of attachment parenting, put forth by Dr. Sears, an accomplished pop culture figure and pediatrician, elevated anxiety and caused lots of moms to react, defend, compare and question their decisions. The topic of attachment parenting once again hit parents squarely in their guilt-nerve.

Almost immediately our inbox started filling up with emails from mothers. Some were anxious that having abandoned breastfeeding early on, they had “messed up” their child’s attachment.  Others wanted reassurance that working outside the home wasn’t going to hurt their kids. Many of these well-intentioned moms, although angry with TIME magazine for inferring that any one type of parenting was better than another, still couldn’t help questioning their decisions and worrying about whether or not they really were “good enough”.  Almost all got defensive.  “How dare they imply that there’s something wrong with my parenting just because I actually enjoy sleeping alone in bed with my husband?” one mom emailed.

In reassuring these moms that the ultimate goal of positive child well-being is what really matters and that many pathways lead to it, we realized that we were pretty outraged ourselves. Not by the cover, or the topic, but by the confusion over two distinct concepts: attachment parenting and attachment theory the article perpetuated.  Ironically, similarity in name only between attachment parenting and attachment gives those who argue for attachment parenting ammunition.  Thanks to mountains of support for the benefits of secure attachment from attachment theory research, extreme tension exists between those parents who do (attachment parent) and those who don’t. The feud though, is unnecessary and ill founded. Attachment Parenting merely borrows the developmental psychology term attachment, but the two are not related. Attachment theory, is grounded in decades of quantitative and qualitative research, and was never conceptualized as too much or too little, but rather in terms of an infant’s attachment security. Attachment parenting is a popular parenting philosophy that offers parents strategies and suggestions for nurturing strong connections between mother and child.

To be sure, both attachment parenting and attachment theory have as a parenting critical goal close emotional parent-child bonds. Many attachment-parented children who experience prolonged breastfeeding, baby wearing and co-sleeping with their parents show healthy attachment.  But, so do many formula fed infants who were crib sleepers, breastfed babies who were supplemented with formula and slept mostly in the crib, but sometimes in the swing and from time to time in the bassinet, etc... Bottom line, healthy attachment isn’t related to where the child sleeps or whether the mother works or the duration/type of feeding they experience. There is no one-size-fits all parenting prescription for raising children well.  Instead, there are many parenting strategies and choices that can all lead to the same awesome outcome: secure attachment.  But what exactly is that?

In a nutshell, according to Bowlby’s attachment theory, mothers who are sensitive and responsive to their infant’s needs provide a sense of security; the infant learns that her mother is dependable and can then feel “secure” to freely explore her environment. Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues expanded on Bowlby’s theory by creating what is famously referred to as the "Strange Situation". In the Strange Situation experiments, they observed infants 12–18 months old as they were briefly left alone, confronted with an unfamiliar situation, and then reunited with their mothers. Based on their findings, three types of attachment were identified: secure, ambivalent-insecure, and avoidant-insecure. Securely attached babies showed the most positive outcomes over time. Thus, a positive parenting goal became nurturing secure parent-child attachment.

But here’s the thing.  What constitutes sensitive and emotionally available parenting changes over time and is also dependent on the child and family. In some families, being responsive might mean breastfeeding on demand, child-wearing and co-sleeping.  Equally responsive in another family might be feeding an infant every few hours, engaging with them based on their physical and vocal cues, and putting them down in their own crib to sleep. In both situations, the infant is well fed, engaged and rested. Maternal responsiveness is not dependent on breastfeeding or bottle, co- or crib-sleeping.  It has little to do with whether or not you sleep trained, homeschooled, went to work, or stayed at home.  These are all parenting and lifestyle choices not requisites for emotional bonding.

Just as easy as it would be to locate a stay-at-home, breastfeeding mom who tends to turn on the TV and tune out from her children, for sure, there are working moms who can’t help but check out from child care duties after a long day at the office.  But other working moms swap running shoes for heels, so not a minute is lost in their race home from the subway each night that could be spent cuddling and reading and chatting with their children. And for sure there are countless stay-at-home-moms who relish most moments (maybe not every single) with their children each day.  So really the lesson here for parents is to ignore the hoopla that makes them doubt themselves as parents and feel guilty that they’re not living up to some arbitrary set of parenting requisites. In all of the thousands of scientific and rigorous child development and parenting studies, never has there been one speck of support justifying the uproar over to attachment parent or not to attachment parent.

Think about how many ways the 10 commandments have been interpreted over the years; each interpretation supposedly more accurate than the next. Well, the parenting world has many bibles too, though gratefully we can scientifically measure them, and it turns out that the importance of strong child attachment to responsive caregivers is paramount.  But that’s the neat thing about science and parenting. We can say something pretty confidently, but the road to get there is often different and personal.

That’s why we felt compelled to respond to the TIME magazine article.  We believe that when parents are equipped with reliable (not controversial or emotional) child development and parenting information they become freed up to feel more confident in their own parenting decisions since they can be made based on the best information available and applied to their own specific circumstances and family.  Parents become better able to ignore alarmist-parenting propaganda and to steer clear of competitive parenting pitfalls. Armed with accurate information, it’s easier to get past surface differences regarding personal-decision parenting techniques (like sleeping arrangements and feeding schedules). Ironically the fact that articles like the one in TIME inspire all kinds of mothers to worry and react and defend means that they’re all more similar than they realize. Most share core values of raising happy and healthy and confident and compassionate people and care deeply about being good parents.

But just as there are no “universally right” answers when it comes to parenting decisions, even “optimal mother responsiveness” (loosely defined in research as responding and being sensitive to child cues, communication and basic needs) changes over time and in the context within which decisions are made. And, given that no two children are alike, being a responsive parent often means being willing to be flexible and to accommodate the unique needs of each child. During the first few years of life, for example, when maternal supportiveness is especially important in establishing secure attachment, critical responsive behaviors to an infant might include sensitivity to cues, physical affection, warmth and eye contact (to name a few) but for toddlers, with increasing language skills and needs for autonomy, playfulness, modeling, and scaffolding also begin to play a critical part in responsive parenting. Of course, some parenting traits like warmth and communication remain key components of strong parent-child emotional bonds throughout development.

Sadly, given frequent media attention to the most provocative parenting trends of the moment, moms in general can’t seem to win. In the spirit of equal-opportunity-guilt-induced parenting, one of the last big parenting articles popped up in The Atlantic last summer, with a similarly anxiety-provoking headline that promised to detail How to Land Your Kids in Therapy. This time, in stark contrast to TIME, through inflammatory quotes, but almost no research, the damage caused by overly-attuned parenting (aka helicopter parents) was described. Back then too, we got a lot of emails from worried parents. Families who were running themselves ragged trying to create what they imagined were “near-perfect childhoods,” were horrified by claims that their incredibly good intentions were actually robbing their children of self-reliance and the ability to roll with the punches and persist through challenges.

In the end, the most likely reason these articles-of-the-week create such fury and cause so many parents to question their parenting is because at their core, all imply that there is one best way to nurture perfect children. Regardless of what parenting philosophies one adheres to, such a message inevitably leads to disappointment and stress because parents become even more motivated to strive for the unattainable (perfection). Ironically, it would serve parents well to pause and listen to the voices of the children themselves.  In a landmark study published as “As the Children” (Harper, 2000), Ellen Galinsky asked more than 1,000 children about their “one wish” for parents. Many “grown-ups” speculated that time spent with parents would likely top the list. Instead though, children’s top rated wish was for their parents to be less tired and stressed.  That’s right.  They just wanted their parents to relax.

Learn more about Seedlings Group >>

Posted in: Parenting   

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