Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Maternalist Fundamentalism: Attachment Parenting

Modern mothers are being subjected to a wave of pseudoscience promulgated by doctors, psychologists, churches, and assorted busybodies that seems intended to generate guilt and a feeling of inadequacy if they do not stay home and spend constant time with their infants. Feminists worry that this is another plot generated by males to regain control over women’s lives. These issues are discussed in an article in The New York Review of Books by Diane Johnson: Mothers Beware! The phrase "maternalist fundamentalism" was taken from Johnson’s article.

We will return to Johnson’s deliberations in the near future. The subject here is a specific example of maternalist fundamentalism: "attachment parenting." This phrase is used to describe the theories of one Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician who wrote The Baby Book in 1992. Sears and his hypotheses are nicely covered by Kate Pickert in an article in Time Magazine: The Man Who Remade Motherhood.

"....the practicalities of attachment parenting ask a great deal of mothers. The three basic tenets are breast-feeding (sometimes into toddlerhood), co-sleeping (inviting babies into the parental bed or pulling a bassinet alongside it) and "baby wearing," in which infants are literally attached to their mothers via slings. Attachment-parenting dogma also says that every baby's whimper is a plea for help and that no infant should ever be left to cry."

"Attachment parenting says that the more time babies spend in their mothers' arms, the better the chances they will turn out to be well-adjusted children. It's not a big leap from there to an inference that can send anxious moms into guilt-induced panic: that any time away from their baby will have lifelong negative consequences."

And then there is this enlightening comment:

"Sears says on his website that ‘excessive’ crying over ‘prolonged periods’ can damage an infant's brain."

Surely there is some hard science behind these claims aimed at generating guilt in any mother who chooses to not breastfeed, who lets her child cry in an attempt to let it know who is boss, who uses a childcare provider, or who chooses to work outside the home. Pickert addresses this point and concludes that Sears has no conclusive evidence that would support his theories. She points out that Sears bases his beliefs on his limited personal experience, his religious beliefs, and the hypothesis contained in a book written in 1975 by Jean Liedloff: The Continuum Concept.

"In the early 1950s, Liedloff, born and raised in Manhattan, dropped out of Cornell University and was traveling around Europe, working as a part-time model. On an impulse, she accepted an invitation to travel to Venezuela on a diamond-plundering expedition. After seven months in the jungle, Liedloff returned to New York with about $1,000 in profits. She returned to the Venezuelan jungle four more times over 2 years."

"During her travels, Liedloff watched indigenous people in the South American jungle care for their babies. She observed that the infants were carried all the time and seemed to cry less than their Western counterparts. Back in New York, Liedloff turned this observation into The Continuum Concept, writing that the jungle children (she called them ‘little angels"’) ‘were uniformly well-behaved: never fought, were never punished, always obeyed happily and instantly.’ In contrast, she wrote, Western parents will leave a baby to cry ‘until its heart is broken and it gives up, goes numb, and becomes a "good baby"’."

The amateur sociologist/anthropologist/neurologist/model/diamond-plunderer came to a conclusion about the nature of human evolution by observing South American mothers in the middle of the twentieth century.

"....mothers and babies evolved to be close to each other"

What "close to each other" has come to mean to attachment parenting believers is illustrated by an example (hopefully, an extreme one) presented by Pickert.

"Joanne Beauregard is nothing so much as she is a mother...she chose to give birth at home, without pain medication. Then, for months, Beauregard sat on the couch in her Denver-area living room, nursing her infant from sunup to sundown. She nursed much of the night as well, since the baby slept in bed with Beauregard and her husband Daniel....."

"When Beauregard got pregnant with her second child, she continued breast-feeding her daughter. This led to a hormonal release that caused contractions and nearly sent her into premature labor. But Beauregard persevered, and the second baby.... now breast-feeds alongside his big sister, who's nearly 2."

"There are no date nights. Joanne doesn't get away for afternoons to have lunch with her girlfriends. In fact, the only time Joanne has ever left either of her children in anyone else's care was when she was in labor with her second child."

This indicates that a life of great sacrifice has been pursued in hopes of producing physically and psychologically sound children because they were raised according to the manner in which humans evolved, and therefore in the manner they were supposed to be nurtured. But is there any truth to this theory of human evolution? Let us turn to an expert.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has written a book titled Mothers and Others. We have previously discussed her research in Of Chimps and Men: Mothers and Others. Hrdy’s specialty is evolutionary anthropology, and she is a widely-respected researcher in that field. The parenting behavior most like that encompassed by attachment parenting does not resemble that of early humans, but is most consistent with that of the other major apes such as chimpanzees. The following is a summary of her findings.

Consider the infant nonhuman ape and its interaction with its mother. In ape societies, infants are at continual risk. As long as the mother is suckling her infant, she is not available to a lusty male. Infanticide by male apes desiring to mate with the mother is the most common cause of infant death in some societies. The mother must also be concerned with predators, including jealous females who might choose to steal her baby. The result is that the mother never leaves her infant alone. They are in constant physical contact, a process that is aided by the hairy body of the mother and the grasping instinct of the infant.

What is it about the mother-infant relationship that is unique to humans? Again based on Hrdy’s conclusions:

Humans, as we exist now, are characterized mainly by large, efficient brains, ever so slow maturation, and exceptional language skills. There was a time when the female of the species was only about half the size of the male. If large-brained, slow-maturing infants were to be produced, the females would have to grow larger. This required the acquisition of much greater quantities of food, and created the need for the mother to spend much more of her time out gathering—a process hindered by having to carry around an infant at the same time. Thus developed the necessity for "cooperative breeding," and the need for "alloparents" to assist the mother in caring for her infant. These alloparents were, ideally, kin, mothers, siblings, neighbors—and the occasional father. This approach to caring for infants allowed women to give birth more frequently than the other major apes, increasing the chance of survival of the species and allowing the population to grow more rapidly.

Given Hrdy’s conclusions, the mother who drops her child off at a childcare center or with a relative and goes off to work is following the correct evolutionary path. Those who choose to sit at home clinging to their infant all day are following the path pioneered by chimpanzees.

Woe to those who believe the ravings of a man just because he has an MD after his name.

1 comment:

  1. As a child psychologist with a specialization in trauma, I would like to point out that in order to create what we call in the field a "trauma brain" a child must suffer repeated, extensive, and intensive abuse over a considerable period of time. This is when the brain can become altered due to prolonged release of cortisol. However, even in these kids, the brain has a high degree of plasticity and often makes alternate pathways. The idea that the average crying that infants engage in would result in brain damage if not immediately attended to is almost insulting to the children and babies who suffer actual real trauma.

    "The child psychologist who thought she had all the answers to parenting until she became one herself." www.themommypsychologist.com


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