Thoughts on Parenting Books
I’ve been really cautious about writing this post, but I think it’s important stuff that needs to be said. Like I mentioned, Ben and I have been getting a lot of books from the library lately, which includes some of the parenting advice books. I really, really want to emphasize that I have met several children being raised with advice gathered from these books, and they’re awesome people. I don’t in any way mean to diminish or disparage what their parents have accomplished. I have a good friend who has two beautiful, happy girls who slept through the night at 9 weeks because of techniques learned from Babywise. I have met several children raised through Attachment Parenting methods who are healthy and happy. If parents can glean something useful out of them, then I think that’s fantastic and should absolutely be celebrated.
I think there is some really harmful stuff in the books, and something ought to be said about it.
I first got Gary Ezzo’s On Becoming Babywise from our library. There were things about the tone that really bothered me, but I took it back to the library and didn’t get any quotes out of it. Having read a few more books now, I think I’ll go back and get the book again to find those quotes and, hopefully, address it in the same way in a future post.
The second parenting book we got was Dr. Sears’ The Attachment Parenting Book. I’ve been struggling to find a passage that really shows, in a brief section, the problems I have in this book. Because, like I said, they’re very subtle. But I think I found it.
In Chapter 9, he discusses “Balance and Boundaries”, or what can go wrong with Attachment Parenting and how to avoid those traps. Sounds good, right? Except all of them end up boiling down to Mom did it wrong, or something’s wrong with Mom, or you’re not trying hard enough. There’s no room for the idea that these methods aren’t necessarily for everyone; instead, he seems to proclaim that AP works for EVERYONE, and if it doesn’t work for you, it’s your fault. The first section in the chapter, “Is your Parenting out of balance? How to tell” (a title which, on the surface seems like the only way to phrase it, but underneath, with the rest of the book behind it, reinforces the idea that It’s All Your Fault), begins with a complaint in bold, followed by Sears’ response.
“Attachment parenting is simply not working.”
What is out of balance: Attachment parenting works well for most families most of the time. If it’s not working well for you, there may be other challenges and issues getting in the way.
Solution: Get professional help.
HOLD. THE. PHONE. If Attachment parenting isn’t working for you, seek therapy. I’m sorry, what?! You have theories, you have techniques, but you do not have The Answer, Dr. Sears. And telling people that if your theories don’t work with their situation, it’s a problem with them? That’s just not okay, especially when your target audience is emotionally vulnerable, highly hormonal women at one of the most stressful transitions in their lives.
He goes on in the next paragraph to suggest that problems with AP may be because the mother has issues with her own mother, a history of sexual abuse, or a marriage that was in trouble before the baby was born. These are apparently the only reasons why a woman might be struggling with his theories that the best thing for baby is a mother who is constantly at its beck and call, day and night, and should always always ALWAYS put her needs behind that of her child. And look, I totally agree that a really tiny baby doesn’t have wants yet, only needs (I mean, when you don’t know what your own hands are, clearly the thought process is not yet complex). And I completely agree that when a tiny baby is hungry, you feed it. But when you’re dealing with a two year old who refuses to sleep through the night and insists on keeping a sleep-deprived mother awake at all hours because they’re used to Mommy being snack food at 3am? There’s a line to be drawn here, and it’s totally okay for an exhausted woman to put her foot down and say, “NO. I want my body back.” And if it happens earlier than that, it’s totally valid too. I mean, I’m still only 6 1/2 months pregnant, and I have nights were I just start crying uncontrollably because she Won’t Stop Kicking and I just want to go to bed and not have anybody touching me for five whole seconds.
The other thing that struck me, as compared with other books (like Our Bodies, Ourselves, which devotes nearly a chapter to the topic) is that he makes absolutely NO mention* of postpartum depression or “the baby blues”, which most of the other books I’ve read say affect pretty much all women to some extent or another. I imagine a woman (another version of myself, maybe), struggling with the early days of baby and the huge hormonal drops and desperately trying to figure out why this theory, which is supposed to be so good, is just making her more unhappy. And then she reads this chapter, on how to “fix” AP. And all those subtle messages that say if it’s not working, it’s because you’re a terrible mother? She’s not going to respond to that in the most healthy way, you know.
Which is where my favorite quote comes in. Again, Chapter 9 (page 110 in the copy I’m staring at):
Your child needs a mother who is predominantly happy. If you radiate unhappiness much of the time, your child is likely to take that personally. She may decide that you are unhappy with her, and that feeling may become a part of her personality.”
Yes, the next sentence tells people who are totally overwhelmed and unhappy to talk to a professional. Which is good. But telling women that if they’re unhappy it will harm the baby? That’s just not fair.
Women are fed so much crap to make them feel worse about ourselves, especially when it comes to raising children. Every single choice we make is Not Good Enough, whether you can afford to choose to stay at home or you can’t afford to go back to work, or you have a job that makes you feel fulfilled and want to go back, or you can’t afford to stay home. Or you choose to put your children in daycare, or hire a nanny, or ask your parents to help. Whether you choose “sleep training” or “on-demand feeding” or “babywearing” or “cosleeping” (and can we take a moment to mention this whole other language you’re expected to learn as a parent? Because, seriously, I’d rather learn Spanish.)
There are a thousand different choices you can make. Every single day in our lives is a series of opening doors and closing others. If I defrost the pork, we can’t have chicken tonight. If I go back to work full time, I can’t spend all day with my baby. If I stay home, we can’t continue the lifestyle we like. There are as many ways to raise a child as there are parents and children. When the “experts” start telling us that making the “wrong” choice will make us bad mothers, it doesn’t help anything at all. It certainly doesn’t make us better parents. It just makes them more money.
* Okay, so yes, he mentions PPD twice. By which I mean the phrase appears in the book twice. The first one says if you room-in with your baby at the hospital, your risks of PPD are lower. The second says if you breastfeed, your risks of PPD are lower.
Update: I wrote this post before I’d finished reading the book (I know, bad Megan). I’m actually really glad I did, though. In Chapter 10, “Beware of Baby Trainers”, Dr. Sears goes on a ten page diatribe about how you shouldn’t listen to those he defines as “Baby Trainers”. My favorite part of this chapter is the two sidebars on page 120.
As you will see throughout this book, there is essentially no research supporting the advice of baby trainers.
Well, yes. I didn’t really expect you to cite all the research that shows someone else’s technique works better. Thanks for stating the obvious, doc.
The second sidebar is larger, titled “Profile of a Baby Trainer”:
Most official baby trainers (BT’s) are authoritarian males, so caught up in their role as advice giver that they ignore scientific evidence that shows they may be wrong. Some baby trainers even discount science altogether, rather than hold their own advice up to any scientific standard.
In contrast to uncredentialed [sic] BT’s, other advocates of baby training are psychologists or pediatricians with lofty degrees and academic appointments in high places.
You mean like Dr. Sears, a man who boasts of his own pediatrics practice and the famous children’s hospitals he works with? As far as scientific advice, I direct you to the page long “study” he and his wife performed on their daughter to look into cosleeping. Look, I have no problem with cosleeping. My issue is with a study with a sample of two babies being touted as proof that cosleeping is better. That’s not science. That’s anecdote.
And then there’s the chapter titled “Working and Staying Attached”. This one makes me so mad I almost wish I hadn’t read it. Staying at home with your baby is a great choiceif it works for you and your family. Dr. Sears spends an entire chapter hinting that a mother who chooses to go back to work is somehow harming her child. Oh sure, he lays out guidelines for how you can go back to work while still following his “rules”, but when the last three pages of the chapter are a section called “How a baby can change a mother’s career plans”, you know there’s going to be a second message. Silly me, I thought he would keep it subtle.
I tell [mothers], “You might as well enjoy some full-time mothering while you can, since these six weeks of maternity leave may be the only time in your life that you have so much time to devote to your child.”
I really just don’t have the words to describe how wretched it is for a pediatrician to guilt his patients’ mothers for choosing to continue their lives, to behave in any other way than his 1950s notion of a housewife who, once she has her first child, is supposed to happily, gratefully bury the woman she has spent the past twenty to thirty years of her own life building up and creating. To give up everything that she IS so that she can become his ideal of what a mother ought to be. For all his cries that you shouldn’t listen to someone who (in his own words) “sets up an adversarial relationship between parent and child”, he then so clearly sets up a dichotomy of mother’s career versus baby’s well-being.
At this point, I’m sort of terrified to read the rest of the book. I will, though, because if I’m going to be this critical of something this prominent, then I ought to have at least finished it. After all, I’ve got at least another week before it goes back to the library.