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Free Range Is Not the Opposite of

You know, there’s an awful lot of sneering about “Attachment Parenting” on the Web. (Actually, there’s a lot of sneering about all kinds of parenting, for that matter–and I’ve done my share!)  But most of the snark seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what AP even is.  So let’s talk about it–and how a self-proclaimed slacker mom such as myself, who openly advocates for Free Range parenting and benign neglect, can also embrace (as an ideal, mind you) Attachment Parenting.

So here is what AP is, from the actual website of Attachment Parenting International, and with a link to click if you want to know more:

Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting

Prepare for Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting
Feed with Love and Respect
Respond with Sensitivity
Use Nurturing Touch
Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
Provide Consistent and Loving Care
Practice Positive Discipline
Strive for Balance in Your Personal and Family Life

Doesn’t sound as crunchy and weird and extreme as you thought, maybe? It doesn’t mean that you have to breastfeed your six-year-old and have a family bed until middle school.  It does mean that you don’t leave your baby propped up with a bottle in a crib alone in his own room as soon as you possibly can.  It doesn’t mean you have to give birth unassisted at home.  It might mean that you do a little research and preparation for birth instead of just believing every word that falls from the lips of your doctor.  It doesn’t mean that you are a failure as a parent if you ever raise your voice.  It does mean that screaming and smacking aren’t the preferred choices in your parenting toolbox.

For me, it meant extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and staying home with my kids, but you can practice attachment without doing any of those things.  One thing AP theory stresses is following the cues of your child.  Some kids don’t sleep well in bed with someone else.  Some babies self-wean early and never look back.  It’s not AP to force your children to conform to some ideal that that has nothing to do with the people they are.

Which brings me to the Free Range part of this post.

Free Range parenting also gets mocked online by parents who call it neglect, who would never leave their kids alone for one second, who hover over their big kids because they are so scared of the big bad dangerous world.  But Free Range doesn’t mean leaving your baby in the car in the Kmart parking lot for an hour, or abandoning your six-year-old to fend for herself for the day.  Simply put, according the website:

The short Free-Range Kids and Parent Bill of Rights is this:

Children have the right to some unsupervised time, and parents have the right to give it to them without getting arrested.

Now, how does that go along with AP?  It’s all about listening to your child’s cues.  That means when your kid WANTS to stay alone at home, you let him.  You don’t go off for the day.  You make sure he has a phone, and knows what to do in an emergency, and you go to the grocery store five minutes away for half an hour to begin with.  When he wants to stay in the car and listen to the radio while you pick up some milk at the convenience store, you leave him there.  When he asks to walk down the street to play with his friend, you teach him about watching out for cars and you wave good-bye.

A securely attached child, in my experience, is very likely to want to do all those things, because she has learned from experience that you are there when she needs you.  She hasn’t been raised to be fearful, because her needs have been met, she has been listened to, she knows the world is a good place, and she is confident.

Our society is seriously messed up.  We put babies in cribs alone and expect them to sleep through the night and do our best to put them on schedules and make them conform to our needs, and then when they are teenagers we won’t let them out of our sight.  Think about the animal kingdom.  Mammals keep their babies close at the beginning, then start teaching them independence a little at a time, and eventually actively push them away.  That’s the way it is supposed to be for us too, and if you DON’T give your kids a little freedom at the right time, just watch how they will push YOU away.

Free Range v. Attached

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rescuing julia

I am so happy that Tina Traster offered me the chance to read and review this important story of her daughter’s adoption from Russia (Siberia, to be precise) and the family’s struggle with Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Let me start by explaining why this subject resonates with me, and why I was excited to read this book.

I have long been an advocate of “Attachment Parenting,” which sometimes receives a bad rap in the popular press by people who misunderstand it as a rigid set of rules. Really it’s more about rejecting rigid rules, trusting yourself, and following your baby’s (and later your child’s) cues. It was already something I was doing at least in part when I learned what it was called from my sister (who founded the Knoxville Chapter of Attachment Parenting International), and I’m now friends with someone who actually wrote the book (or at least one of them!) on it. So I know how important secure attachment is for children, and how we as parents should be fostering that from the moment of birth.

But what happens when children don’t get that kind of parenting, or indeed much parenting at all? As Melissa Fay Greene asks in her foreword to Ms. Traster’s book: “[W]hat of babies who . . . are unable to attract permanent devoted caregivers and cannot seem to locate an adult to adore? . . . What happens to such a baby if she is not rescued before the light in her eyes has gone out? . . . When a baby or young child has learned that no one is coming, that no one thinks he or she is the cutest little baby on earth; that he or she must weather hunger, cold, and sickness in solitary, those are hard lessons to unlearn.”

Doesn’t your heart just break, reading that? I know mine does. And it’s something I often think of and worry about because of the work I do.

As many of you know, my husband is an attorney, and we do a lot of work in the juvenile court system. We see babies who are removed from their parents as infants, and allowed to see them for only 4.3 hours per month. Sometimes months and years go by before these children are reunited with their parents. Many times they are moved from one foster home to another. No one seems to discuss the effect this has on their ability to form attachments not just to their parents but to anyone. Conversely, I routinely read Petitions to Terminate the Parental Rights of some of our clients which claim that no bond exists with the birth parents (with whom the child may have lived for many years) and that a bond has formed with the foster parents (with whom the child has lived for a few months). We always question these non-evidence-based assumptions when we answer these petitions, and demand to see the science that would back them up, but of course there is no such science.

So we worry. We worry about these kids, and their futures, because we know secure attachment is so important. And that’s why this book is so important, not only for those who have adopted from foreign countries or are considering doing so, but for anyone who is interested in helping the troubled children in our social services system, or in doing something to reform that broken system.

When Tina Traster and her husband, Ricky Tannenbaum, set out to adopt a baby from Siberia, they did not even consider the idea that their child might have trouble bonding with them. On the contrary, Tina was more concerned about her own “queasy ambivalence.” She hasn’t read any parenting books. She is shocked, and not in a happy way, to learn that Julia’s adoption will take place much sooner than they had been told. She doesn’t even know how to change a diaper.

Tina’s honesty in disclosing her fears and her mixed feelings about adopting a baby strikes me as a bold move. It would be easy to blame Julia’s lack of bonding on a mother who has her own issues with attachment–one who is in fact in the middle of long-standing conflict with and estrangement from her own mother. But this tactic works because of Ricky, who is not ambivalent, who is deft and efficient in caring for the baby from the start, who is loving and nurturing and who seems to his wife to have it all together. We are accompanying Tina on her journey as she worries when she sees other babies and the way their mothers interact with them, and becomes certain something is different about Julia at the same time that she questions her own ability to mother. When Tina writes: “For the first two years after we brought Julia home, I thought I was the only one in the world who experienced difficulties with her, that I’d made a mistake, that motherhood and I weren’t meant to be . . . only in the last year have I seen Ricky become aggravated with her behavior. She’s just as unresponsive to him as she is to me,”  her concerns are validated, and any misgivings the reader may have had as to the origins of Julia’s inability to bond are swept away as well.

It takes a while for Julia’s parents to accept the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, and some time after that for them to decide to attack the problem head on, which they do not with the help of professionals but via copious research and then applying what they have learned on their own.  They don’t advocate this approach for everyone, noting especially that some children with RAD can hurt themselves or others and would require professional intervention. But it works for Julia.  While Tina is quick to make sure we understand that RAD is not something that goes away, that it will always be a part of Julia and will require constant vigilance by her parents, she has become “solidly attached.”

Rescuing Julia Twice is a gripping story, and Ms. Traster is a good writer (an award-winning journalist–this is no ghost-written memoir).  It weaves together seamlessly the linear events of Julia’s adoption and what follows with scientific information (accessibly presented) on RAD as well as flashbacks to Tina’s past and the conflict with her mother.  So this book is a lot of things put together, and that’s a strength.  You will not be bored by it, and you will also learn from it.  My only criticism is that I would have liked more story about Julia’s transition to firm attachment, and further information on the techniques her parents used.  This is primarily the story of the road toward Tina and Ricky’s definitive realization that Julia has RAD, and I feel that the ending comes a little abruptly.  However, to be fair, this may just be the story that Ms. Traster wants to tell, and she tells it very well.

Rescuing Julia Twice is available on Amazon both in hardback and Kindle versions.  You can read more about Julia here, and more about Ms. Traster’s other writing here.  Additionally, there are many resources on RAD listed in the Resources section at the end of the book.

As always, this review represents my own opinion.  My only compensation was the review copy I received.

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Inquiring minds want to know . . . does that woman on the cover of Time Magazine REALLY nurse her kid in that position?  And did she REALLY think she was furthering the cause of extended breastfeeding by posing for that controversial cover shot?  And did it ever occur to her that she was exploiting her kid and her relationship with him for personal gain?

I hate to give this any more attention than it has garnered already. (Good job, Time; your tactic worked!)  I haven’t even read the article and don’t intend to.  But if anyone ever doubted that the sources we once counted on to inform us of the news are now in the business of CREATING the news, look no further than this stunt.  Time doesn’t care to inform us about the truth of extended breastfeeding and the benefits of attachment; they wish to inflame us and create a controversy where there doesn’t need to be one.

The reason I’m responding instead of ignoring is because I’m an expert on extended breastfeeding.  And in the interest of my passion for the truth, I want to share my experiences so that the cover of Time won’t be all that rises to your brain when the subject comes up.

Just like anyone my age, I grew up seeing babies fed mostly with bottles.  For a variety of reasons having to do with the culture of the times and poor advice, four months was the longest my mother nursed a baby.  My impression of breastfeeding, even when I was first pregnant, was that it was something you did for a few months and then you switched to bottles.  I saved the formula coupons I received in the mail while I was pregnant.

But, as you know, I love to read.  It was inevitable that I would do a lot of reading while I was pregnant and a few books I read at that time changed my life.  Emily never had a bottle of formula and I nursed her for 26 months.  I nursed Jake for 38 months (and yes, that means I nursed him throughout my pregnancy with Teddy, and nursed the two of them together until they weaned when Teddy was 26 months old).  William nursed at least until Lorelei was born (which is 42 months) and I don’t remember exactly but I know Lorelei was past four when she stopped.  (Yes, I nursed babies for 13 years.  Give me a medal.)

When Emily was born, the above would have sounded just as weird to me as it may sound to you.  But it’s different when it’s your own kid, your own baby.  Sure, you look at a four-year-old next to a newborn and the contrast seems extreme,  But when you are in the middle of mothering, there’s little difference between nursing your four-month-old or your six-month-old, your one-year-old or your eighteen-month-old, and so on.  It’s a seamless transition.  Do you think anything about letting your ten-year-old sit in your lap?  Would you think it was odd if he wanted to climb into bed with you if he had a nightmare?  Is it strange that my eighteen-year-old son likes to hug me and say, “I love my Mommy?”  I don’t know, maybe you will think it’s strange, but whatever.  You probably have your own sort of strangeness in your house.

I didn’t stand around in the kitchen with my kid on a step stool.  I didn’t pose for any cameras.  I lay down with my preschoolers and bedtime and naptime.  We cuddled on the couch.  They wanted to nurse for comfort when they were hurt or upset.

There are many benefits to extended breastfeeding.  The nutritional and health benefits don’t go away as the child ages.  I have the healthiest children I know, bar none.  Emily has not visited a doctor for illness since she was TWO YEARS OLD.   We’ve had one earache per kid.  No strep throat.  One or two antibiotic prescriptions apiece throughout childhood.  My two younger kids slept with me from birth.  There were no sleep issues or problems.  I never had any difficulty getting anyone down for a nap or to sleep at night or back to sleep if they woke up (once I stopped stressing about solving sleep problems, which I may post about another time).  If someone was hurt or sad, I could comfort them easily.  And my kids are not clingy at all.  Having their needs fully met as infants, toddlers, and preschoolers helps them feel good about themselves, helps them feel secure and safe.  We live in a society that pushes independence on little kids and denies it to big kids.  We stick babies in their own rooms and expect them to sleep through the night and then we monitor our teenagers’ homework and grades and go with them to college orientation and tell them what classes to take.  That’s BACKWARDS, people.

And you know what?  Extended breastfeeding is NORMAL.  It’s  NATURAL.  Around the world, 50% of babies are still being nursed at the age of 20-23 months.  In many countries the figure is much higher.  The WHO recommends children be nursed until the age of two or beyond.  If you don’t want to, that’s fine.  But biologically it is not strange, not weird, not abnormal.  It’s what women’s breasts are FOR, and even though Time meant to be provocative, it’s pretty damn pathetic that people can be whipped into a fury over a woman using her breast for its intended purpose on one magazine cover while not saying a WORD about all the synthetic almost-bare breasts adorning the covers of all the other magazines.

extended breastfeeding

Courtesy of Mama Fresh (www.pusteblumenbaby.de)

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