Time magazine did not invent the mommy wars

A cover image of a mother breastfeeding her four-year-old has aroused ire, but debates about parenting aren’t new.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

Are You Mom Enough?

That’s the question posed on the widely circulated and wildly debated Time magazine cover this week. It features a photograph of 26-year-old Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her nearly four-year-old son. Too big to be carried, the boy stands on a stool so that he can reach his mother’s breast. She does not look at him but stares defiantly at the viewer, as if challenging us with that question: ‘Are you mom enough?’

Time is marking the twentieth anniversary of so-called attachment parenting, the lifestyle popularised by Dr William Sears. His 1982 tome, The Baby Book, is arguably the most influential child-rearing manual in the United States. Even if not all mothers and fathers co-sleep with their babies, ‘wear’ their infants on slings or breastfeed them, as Sears suggested they should, and even if they reject every practice of attachment parenting, the idea that a child’s supposed needs should serve as the default organising principle of parenthood still largely goes unchallenged today.

So far most of the discussion about the latest Time magazine edition has focused on the cover image, falling into dreary, well-rehearsed arguments about the pros and cons of breastfeeding. Advocates say it’s ‘biologically normal’ to nurse for an extended period; others say it’s not healthy. But the more interesting responses have come from mothers, best represented by Lisa Belkin of the Huffington Post. She writes: ‘No. I Am Not Mom Enough. I am not mom enough to take the bait. To accept Time’s deliberate provocation and either get mad at this woman… or to feel inferior or superior or defensive or guilty — or anything all if it means I am comparing myself to other mothers.’

Time magazine cover

One phrase pops up over and over in conversations about the magazine cover and in comment fields under the articles that discuss it: ‘I’m sick of the Mommy Wars.’ Many, like Belkin, blame Time and the media for inciting a culture war between parents, while others point to the often strident insistence of some attachment parents that their practices are ‘normal’ and that everyone else has got it wrong. But regardless of whom they blame, it’s clear that many parents are feeling weary. They are weary enough to argue that someone else — the media, extreme parents, mummy bloggers — is inventing disputes that aren’t really there.

But these conflicts really do exist and they are not being stirred up by magazine editors or extreme moms; they are endemic to parenting culture today. Whether they take the form of a clash over a particular parenting practice, like breastfeeding, or simply manifest themselves among parents as a vague feeling of being judged all the time, there is an undercurrent of apprehensiveness that accompanies everything moms and dads do. And so by highlighting the anniversary of attachment parenting, Time is merely exploiting tensions that are already there.

From the timing of its rise to prominence to the way its supporters view it (not just as a way to raise children but as the cure for a variety of social ills), attachment parenting expresses the dominant beliefs and prejudices about contemporary parenthood, clearly and in their most extreme form.

Having said this, it’s important to make a distinction between attachment parenting as a philosophy and as a set of things people do to raise their kids. There are many approaches to childrearing and as long as they make sense in the context of an individual family there is not a great deal to say about them. But when a parenting philosophy and lifestyle becomes a quasi-movement, however, it deserves a second look.

Dr William Sears wrote his first book in the early 1980s in the context of profound changes to the institution of the family. Over the previous decade, divorce rates had increased rapidly, more children were born out of wedlock, and there was a growth in the number of single-parent households. But the most important change was the mass entry of women into the workforce on a permanent basis. Though the ability to work outside the home had overwhelmingly positive consequences for women, giving them more financial clout, social status and the ability to pursue ambitions beyond being wives and mothers, it wasn’t always experienced in a positive way. For many women, the ‘choice’ to work became a necessity as postwar prosperity gave way to recession and uncertainty. It also created new problems for families with young children. Daycare centres were a solution but not one deeply rooted in American culture. Their quality varied (there are still no national standards for daycare in the US) and many women felt the stigma attached to leaving their children to be raised by someone else.

In the years immediately after the Second World War, women who willingly departed their jobs, eager to put the war behind them and to start families, soon discovered that their ‘choice’ had become a de facto imperative with no room for ambivalence or remorse. Women in the Seventies and Eighties felt similarly conflicted. No one wanted to go back to the way things had been before — even if they could — but the new realities of participation in the workforce were not entirely rosy either, especially when it came to raising children.

Over the next two decades, poll after poll revealed this contradiction: a substantial percentage of working mothers, even those who loved their jobs would, given a choice, like to stay close to their kids. The Baby Book, with its message that it is only natural for women to be physically close to their babies and young children, appealed to women on an emotional level. It also reflected the growing importance of the parent-child relationship within the family. As marriage became less stable, men and women tended to focus less on their roles as husbands and wives and more on their roles as fathers and mothers. Parenthood and motherhood in particular began to occupy a special place in American culture.

Sears, of course, was not the only expert stressing the importance of parent-child relationships. Parenting advice became an industry. But Sears’s brand of child-rearing advice was uniquely suited to the era. According to Time, he based many of his ideas on the writings of Jean Liedloff, who published her observations of baby care amongst tribes in the Venezuelan jungles. In her 1975 book, The Continuum Concept, Leidloff claimed that jungle babies were always well behaved, never fought and always obeyed ‘happily and instantly’. If Western babies were quiet, she argued, it was only because they were left to cry until their little hearts were broken and their spirits crushed. Sears adapted the child-rearing practices Leidloff described into a method and a set of practices combining the authenticity of jungle peoples with the reassurance of scientific research.

At its most basic level, Sears’s science rests on attachment theory, a form of infant determinism first popularised by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. The theory was that the failure of mothers to bond and form secure attachments with their babies led to child abuse and complex social and emotional problems in children. Sears takes this idea further by arguing that leaving children to cry can cause physiological harm in the form of permanent brain damage, behavioural problems and lower IQ.

To prove his assertions, Sears cites a jumble of animal studies and extrapolates from research looking at hormonal responses in babies who cry. He often reaches conclusions that the study authors explicitly reject. But the point is not so much whether the science Sears uses to support his claims stands up so much as his intuitive understanding that in today’s conditions a scientific imperative is as, or even more, important than a moral one.

The final element in the success of attachment parenting is the way in which it has managed to cross the line from child-rearing advice to a becoming a quasi-political lifestyle movement. Attachment practices are not mainstream and following them requires a high level of commitment. As a result, independent organisations like Attachment Parenting International, publications like Mothering Magazine, and support groups like the Holistic Mom’s Network have emerged to cater to the needs of attachment parents. In addition to the advice on feeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing and dealing with extended families who ‘don’t understand’, they also advocate for attachment-parenting practices. Attachment parents are ‘lactivists’ (proponents of breastfeeding) and ‘intactivists’ (opponents of circumcision). Some of them campaign against mandatory vaccination.

Attachment Parenting International describes its principal goal as heightening ‘global awareness of the profound significance of secure attachment – not only to invest in our children’s bright futures, but to reduce and ultimately prevent emotional and physical mistreatment of children, addiction, crime, behavioural disorders, mental illness, and other outcomes of early unhealthy attachment’.

Attachment Parenting as a lifestyle may seem extreme and even a bit cultish at times, but its philosophy is consistent with more mainstream ideas. For instance, the rejection of modernity and the search for authenticity is evident in discussions of everything from the environment to genetically modified foods. Today, we also commonly look to neuroscience to explain the inexplicable, like why we feel attracted to other people or why music makes us cry. And there is a strong consensus among pundits and policymakers that parenting skills and involvement are keys to transforming education and overcoming poverty.

Could mothers, as blogger and attachment parent Katie Allison Granju suggests, ‘start a movement to finally end the mommy wars’ by declaring that we’re ‘not mom enough’? It may be a comforting thought, but such a movement could not be built by pretending that parenting clashes are conjured up by the media and don’t truly exist, or by standing back and refusing to be judgmental.

A better approach would be to have confidence in our own judgments and in the ability for others to judge for themselves – regardless of what the ‘experts’ tell us. Confidence lessens the need for support or advocacy and it is the basis of genuine tolerance.

Not mom enough? I prefer to paraphrase that famous paraphrasing of Voltaire: I disapprove of attachment parenting, but I will defend to the death your right to do it.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics Politics


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