Attachment Parenting and Feminism


When I was two days past my due date, I started to read baby books. A little late, I know, but I had timed my pregnancy to the very end of my graduate program and somehow my homework always took precedence. And when I did manage to reflect on the future, childbirth was far more riveting. I could read Ina May Gaskin til the cows came home; diapering and newborn reflexes were somehow remote. I had to cross one major bridge before I could turn my attention to sleep schedules.

But a family I had babysat for gave me their battered copy of Dr. Sears’ Baby Book, and since I had nothing else on the calendar after my due date, I finally sat down and began reading my first introduction to attachment parenting. So much resonated with both me and my husband: babywearing, nursing on demand, sharing sleep. It all seemed beautifully reasonable, in tune with our inclinations and hopes for the era that would so soon begin.

The only thing that gave us pause was the seemingly rigid parenting roles the book described. Our plan was that I would start working full-time as soon as I could find a job, and my husband would stay home with the baby, working on his dissertation during naps. Dr. Sears seemed to suggest that the best thing for a baby is a mother who stays home to take care of her, while the father heads off to work. (No mention of same sex couples in the edition we were given). The overwhelming prescription was that fathers should do their best to support mothers, who should do their best to take care of their babies – at home.

This made us a little defensive. Weren’t our choices legitimate? Wouldn’t we be able to bond with our baby as well as any other family? After she was born, we both wore our tiny daughter, luxuriated in naps together, and spent lots of time snuggling in bed and gazing at her perfect form – basically the things new parents do. Bonding? No problem. My daughter was three months old when I started working. She refused to take a bottle, so I would race home on my bike at lunchtime every day to nurse. Then I’d race back to work, and race home again at the end of the day. The anticipation of meeting my hungry baby at the door would result in let down six blocks from home. I pumped during the day, to ensure sufficient supply. I’d nurse all night, wake up exhausted, then rush off to work all over again.

Would it have been easier if I’d stayed home? Maybe. But I loved my job, despite the challenge of doing it with a newborn, and my husband and daughter were given precious exclusive time together that few fathers and children enjoy. After my son was born, we switched: I decided to stay home with my two little ones while my husband worked. Nursing was indeed easier, but it fell entirely to me. Without even the possibility of a bottle, responsibility for nourishing my son was mine, and mine alone. I wore him constantly that first year, and we developed an intense bond. But it was exclusive, which meant that it was very hard for me to leave his side during those first two years.

No matter your approach to parenting, this job is a sacrifice. We sacrifice for the privilege of helping new people grow, and supporting them as they slowly but surely become themselves. Nursing my babies was a joy I would never give up; it also posed unique challenges to me and my husband as we struggled to find equality and partnership in parenting. Being attached to the baby means being attached to the home, to the hearth, and in some scenarios that are easy to imagine, traditional gender roles. Here’s the thing: I am drawn to the home and the hearth. I am drawn to being with my children, and this is why, three years later, I have not yet returned to full time work.

But I am troubled by the patterns my husband and I fall into, and the division of labor the settles in when we aren’t paying attention. It takes some vigilance to avoid the pitfalls of 1950s gender role traps; I suspect it takes even more vigilance if you are a strict adherence to attachment parenting. And sometimes when the baby has been up all night, you don’t have the energy to worry about the problems inherent in a gendered division of labor at home. Sometimes its easier to say I’ll do it, don’t worry about it, see you tonight.

This is an issue I haven’t brought up much with friends and acquaintances who are more enthusiastic practitioners of attachment parenting, because I don’t want to put anyone (myself included) on the defensive. Talking about parenting choices can be like walking into a minefield. But maybe this can be a safe place to explore the question: can attachment parenting be a feminist approach to raising children? Can mothers and fathers be equal partners? Can what is best for baby (nursing, babywearing, cosleeping) but what is best for mothers?

What has your experience been?

(For more on finding balance as a mother, visit my blog, Homemade Time.)

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.