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Mothering › Baby Articles › Attachment Parenting and Feminism

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.

Comments (23)

Survival mode is what you describe. Lasts 18 yrs, min. Suggest a weekly meeting w/ suggestions, deposited in suggestion box, like a game. Read w/ humor and compassion, bottle of wine, in turns, for entertainment and communication between Mother and Father. Leadership style is acquired gradually in parenting. Have fun w/ your weekly "bored" meeting, and spice up your life as a couple!
I have spent the last fifteen minutes trying to formulate an answer to your questions and I still can't quite find the words I am looking for. Instead, I will share with you my experience. I am a stay-at-home mom of 3 children, all of whom have fed from the breast, co-slept and worn by both me and my husband. I am not threatened by traditional gender roles because I do not feel that my role as caretaker of home and family is a lesser one. I actually have a problem with the modern feminist movement because I believe it undervalues what I do and leads women to believe they are not important unless they work outside the home and ascribe to traditional male values. I believe feminism should be about having the choice to live our lives the way we wish and valuing all women, no matter what they choose to do. My husband and I don't have to share everything equally in order to be equal partners.
Hi Kendall, I agree with you - and moreso since I've become a (mostly) stay at home mother. I think recognizing the desire many women feel to care for their kids and put creative energy into home life as legitimate - just as legitimate as any other path - is an important gesture for feminists to make. My own experience, and that of some of my friends, is that if most of baby care falls to us, and more and more of the home falls to us, we can miss the sense of partnership we once felt with our spouses. Division of labor becomes rigid. We have fewer shared concerns. And it can be corrosive for a relationship...but maybe a lot of this depends on your expectations. I agree with you in that we can take on different responsibilities and still be equal partners. And again, I think what I want to explore here is that sense I got from Dr. Sears, that there is one "best" way to do this parenting thing, and that men and women should have these particular roles and inclinations in order to provide baby with a soothing, nurturing environment. It doesn't seem to recognize the great diversity of individuals who become parents and care so very much about their children. Ideologies are hard. AP and feminism included. Thanks for sharing. Your comments helped me clarify what it is exactly that troubles me about "1950s gender roles." Maybe the most troubling is the idea that if women are really putting their babies' needs first, they should stay at home. There's little sense that we are all different, and we are interdependent: family-wide happiness and balance can be important for the individual members to flourish. yours, Meagan
It is the ability to choose that makes us equal, not the choice that we make.
Dr. Sears addresses just this concern in a more recent edition of the book. I agree with what you're saying. As a former lawyer turned stay-at-home mom I've struggled a lot with my new role. I love being home with my baby, but I often wonder if I would have more "equality" if I went back to work. If we were both working, for example, it would be easier to ask my husband to get up in the middle of the night. But then we'd both be exhausted and we'd both be working and it just wouldn't be what either of us want. It's such a hard call.
Sara, you are both working :)
Oh man. I was always a fem?n?st. Womens l?b womens r?ghts (?m ?n a fore?gn country on a fore?gn computer so bare w?th me on the we?rd typ?ng). anyways once ? had my daughter and started read?ng about the phys?olog?cal nature of attachment the most str?k?ng b?t be?ng about object permanence and how ?t ?s not establ?shed unt?l when the ch?ld beg?ns to enjoy peek-a-boo. ? became l?v?d w?th fem?n?sm and began to wonder who exactly thought women would ?n anyway benef?t from ch?ldren who were essent?ally emot?onally abandoned. my mother was a stay at home but she felt totally worthless and extremely gu?lty for g?v?ng up a lucrat?ve computer eng?neer?ng job. and we heard about ?t and felt ?t every day. poor th?ng was ra?sed be?ng told women could work and have k?ds and then we she had me she cr?ed all day at work and qu?t and then never forgave herself for be?ng so weak. what k?nd of l?berat?on ?s ?t when all of my fr?ends have the?r bab?es yanked out of the?r arms and g?ven to a total stranger at 6 weeks of age? so ?n short... no. not ?n the 1960s sense of the term fem?n?sm. but ? th?nk the cho?ce ?s ?mportant. and every woman should truly be able to choose and not have the?r hands t?ed by work and f?nances. ?f ? hear another fr?end of m?ne cry to me about leav?ng her baby at day care because she has to go back to work or else they cant pay the?r mortgage ? swear ?m go?ng to cry. ?t breaks my heart. and thats where fem?n?sm totally fa?led us. too much of a good th?ng. (p?ctur?ng some ev?l v?ll?an somewhere laugh?ng at how we women sure got what we deserved. we went from one form of ?ndentured serv?tude to another. let try balanc?ng th?ngs out a b?t.
? agree br?anna!! but sara ? know where you are. ?n the beg?nn?ng ? was l?ke... th?s ?s ?t? and st?ll somedays ? just want to leave the k?ds and run to the nearest... uh anyth?ng... and ask for a job. meet new people. d?scuss pol?t?cs and the world... dont get me wrong 4 year old have super ?nterest?ng ?deas on pol?t?cs and they are not a b?g fan of l?ars. haha. but my husband keeps tell?ng me how ? work tw?ce as hard as he does and he know and apprec?ates ?t and he w?ll make sure our k?ds real?ze how lucky they are to not only have a mom at home but have one that wants to be there. and ? th?nk th?s ?s why ? feel better about ?t. so ? treat ?t l?ke my job. my husband wouldnt come home and ask me to f?le anyth?ng w?th the ?rs for any of h?s cl?ents unless he was s?ck and really needed the help and ? dont ask h?m to get up w?th the bab?es at n?ght unless ?m s?ck or really need the help. ?t fl?es ?n the face of the share all tasks at home style ? was ra?sed w?th. but we are much happ?er and never f?ght about house related tasks... unless hes throw?ng h?s crap on the floor aga?n... haha. ? also get to do lots of read?ng and arts and crafts that ? loved to do as a young g?rl and probably wouldnt have the t?me for unt?l ? ret?red! so ? feel pretty lucky that each day ? wake up and can say What should ? do today? not a lot of people go to work and get to say that. youll start to love your job when you real?ze how free ?t makes you and youll really p?ty your fr?end trapped beh?nd desks scarf?ng down leftovers ?n 30 m?nutes wh?le catch?ng up on ema?ls. prom?se!!
I agree that it depends what one means by feminism. Being able to make whatever choice one wants is key; understanding and supporting biology is also key. To me, it's MOST feminist to understand how mothers & babies are designed and to respect it as the essential female experience- absolutely vital to humanity, important, and deeply meaningful. Putting ANY external, overlying grid onto women (be it 1950s homemaker or 1980s working barracuda) is sexist.
I really enjoyed reading your post. I too struggled with that part of Dr. Sears' book, but I talked to many friends in a variety of different situations (both parents working, father home, mother home, one or both with flexible work schedules) and I realized that I can follow most of the Sears principles while working and that mothers in all situations can feel pulled different directions. I was fortunate that I could start back to work part-time and we had an in-home caretaker who was wonderful. He'll be three in a month and he's still nursing. Still sharing sleep. Still be carried by me and my husband. And doing wonderfully at his "school," which he really enjoys. I don't feel for a MINUTE that my son was emotionally abandoned... That kind of language gets dangerously close to the Mommy Wars. I'm glad for the balance I have, and fortunate to have a flexible career that allows me to also be the kind of mother that I want to be. To me, the most recent wave of feminism is ALL about choice and not judging others. The choice to work at home raising a family vs. working away from home vs. flexibility doing both. The choice to breastfeed or not, etc. So I think whatever choice a mother/a couple makes TOGETHER for their family is the right choice, and provided each partner HAS a choice, it can reflect recent trends in feminism.
I cannot say I am able to empathize with going back to work, since being a stay-at-home mom was one of two dream-jobs for me. But I am very much a feminist, and I think the previous poster hit it dead on that it's not the choice but the right to choose. The most important thing I remind myself on a very regular basis is that you don't have to follow the ap book to the last detail of recommendations and doing what works best for your personal circumstances and beliefs takes precedence over what anyone else has to say about it. The partner/spousal challenges are there for all parenting styles, but there is a fantasic payoff for ap if one has the endurance to get there. After all, we are weird for nursing into toddlerhood, crazy for avoiding pacis, threatening our backs with long-term damage by carrying our kids, and have inclinations for endangering the very lives of our children by cosleeping. :)
For me it was the Dr. Sears assumption that there really was no choice if I wanted to take the best possible care of my children that really grated on my sensibilities. I both hope and believe that loving my job and loving my children can have complimentary roles in my relationship with my daughter and with my husband.
i too thoroughly enjoyed reading your article, as i can realte to much of what you went through. i was under the impression i would be working full-time soon after my daughter was born. i had NO IDEA parenting would require SO MUCH of my physical & emotional reserves. fortunately, i am lucky to have a flexible work schedule & for us to be financially afloat with me only working part-time (3 days) & my husband working full-time. my daughter will be 3 this coming Christmas. she is still breastfeeding, we still share the "family bed," she still asks on occasion to be carried in a sling & "be a baby kangaroo." she is very much still our baby, but can be so fiercely independant & so brightly outgoing that other children & their parents can't help but look at her funny :) if you would have asked me 3 years ago where i would have thought i'd be today, i would have nonchalantly said "working full-time with my daughter in school." but today, i know that i, personally, do not have the physical & emotional capacity to work full time & be as "present" in my daughter's life as i am. mostly because i too find that as much as my husband would like to help & as much as we both would like to make us equals in the home, in parenting & to society, the fact of the matter is that it feels practically impossible. he works 6 days a week, 12 hours a day as a salaried manager in a workplace that is constantly cutting hours. he cannot afford to or is not willing to work less so he can help out more at home. he is often so exhausted when he gets home that he usually just eats dinner then sleeps. i work outside of the home too. and though it may only be 3 days out of the week, i often feel as though i have to just suck it up and take more of the work-load at home for the sake of keeping peace. mind you, i contribute more financially to the family income as well, so there is a disparity in that sense too. your comment here totally resonates with me: "My own experience, and that of some of my friends, is that if most of baby care falls to us, and more and more of the home falls to us, we can miss the sense of partnership we once felt with our spouses. Division of labor becomes rigid. We have fewer shared concerns. And it can be corrosive for a relationship…but maybe a lot of this depends on your expectations." maybe i am expecting too much out of our lives. maybe i am wanting too much to want both my husband and i to agree harmoniously when it comes to parenting, caring for our home & caring for ourselves... i don't know. i just know that as much of an "independent woman" i want to make myself believe i am, there are a lot of moments when i hate this feeling of being isolated & utterly lonely. phew...thanks for letting me get that out...
It seems interesting to me that this is viewed in terms of feminism. If we as women were to stop looking at it in terms of feminism and instead looked at every individual situation in terms of family, I think there would be less issue. Some mothers (truly good mothers too) are just better mothers working outside of the home. They are more sure of themselves and have an outlet that prepares them and encourages them for what is at home. Some mothers, I would argue most, are suitable stay at home moms. I don't necessarily consider myself to be an attachment parent. Mainly because I don't want to have myself viewed in terms of parenting style. I am the mother of my two individual children. We work things out according to what is best for each of us. I share sleep with my children sometimes but mostly they like to sleep alone. It just worked that way despite my efforts. I try to not let my baby cry it out, but some days there is just nothing left in my bag of tricks and I am frustrated and need a break. It always works out best because we, as a family, work together to find a rythym that works for us and a solution to each problem instead of one idea for every situation.
I so appreciate all your thoughtful responses. It is all about choices, and feeling that we are able to make choices, together with our partners, that reflect our values and desires for how our families will grow. I do think my approach to parenting was the same when I was working as it was when I was home. Most of us find approaches, ideas, techniques, practices from so many sources, including AP but not limited to it - we put them all in the toolbox, try them out, and hang onto those things that feel right and true. Because each kid comes out unique, particular, unlike anyone else in the world (just like we did!) and there could never be one "philosophy" that contains and accounts for all the fantastic diversity that is our children. Thanks again, everyone, for helping me think this through. Meagan
Kathryn, thank you for being so honest. It isn't too much to want harmony and shared responsibilities at home! But it is also a tall order, I guess. I remember once reading a 1970s Penelope Leach parenting book, and at a certain point, in her straightforward British way, she said something like: being a young family, and raising small children, is awfully difficult. It brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes you just want someone to validate that what we are doing is indeed REALLY hard! And it is harder today than it was for our parents because of heavier economic pressures. Your feelings are so very legitimate. Thanks for sharing them here.
I would definitely consider myself to be a feminist and I would consider both my husband and I to be attachment style parents. For us, the two work together very well, but I'll admit we have a unique situation with our jobs. He works about 50 hours a week and I work 30 hours a week and we both have jobs that are exceedingly flexible. When our first child was on the way, we made a spreadsheet with our work schedules, deciding when I would take the baby to work with me, when I would work from home, and when he would work from home. The end result was that we were able to keep our son out of childcare for the first year of his life. We were (and are) BOTH very attached to him and I was able to nurse directly from the breast most of the time (though he did take about one bottle of pumped milk a day). We all slept together in our bed at night (which makes perfect sense for a family where we are both working!). We shared duties like cooking, washing diapers, and cleaning. My husband did most of the diaper-changing that first year to make up for time time I spent nursing (I got the better end of that deal, if you ask me). The dog did get ignored a lot. :-) Anyway, I'm just sharing all this to say that I think it is absolutely possible to be attachment parent adherents AND feminists. My husband and I are. But you definitely need the support of society in order to have jobs that make it possible.
The fact of the matter is that humans are programmed to spend the first 6 months nursing at the breast. Translation - ideal infant health involves mom and baby being together almost constantly. Once upon a time society understood that Moms can work most jobs w/ a baby. See Continum Concept for why/how moms _should_ work w/ baby. My husband and I have fallen largely into gender roles since we had children. I don't regret it or mind it. Its a temporary phase (although w/ this economy it may last longer than planned). As someone else said the point is its a choice we made. Before kids we split household chores evenly. When he retires (he's older than me) I will likely/hopefully still be working for several more years - guess who'll be doing all the laundry, grocery shopping, etc then? I think its unfair to girls/women/children that we don't say more often that leaving a child under 2 years of age in day care is detrimental to the child's health. How detrimental? No one can say but we need to be honest so we can make honest choices. PS - I have worked PT and pumped w/ my kids starting at 13 weeks. Its a choice I made knowing that I sacrificed some of my children's physical/mental well being in return for my mental well being and our family's financial well being. Again - its about being aware.
I'm an AP mama to a 3 year old baby...she has a mama and a mommy. My maternal instincts fiercely support the idea that it was I who needed to be home with baby full time.  Sears book aside, I do believe that a baby needs to spend the majority of it's time (initially) with the birth parent (if there is one) and have full access to nurse whenever desired.   However, this was not feasible financially, so I very slowly started to work a few hours here and there and now work outside the home something to the equivalent of quarter to half time, just enough to be able to keep our house.  I consider myself to be a feminist. And this is what needed to happen for my baby and for me. That said, other families (no matter what the parental make up might be) will benefit from a different arrangement as yours did when your husband stayed home with the first baby.  Our roles as mamas are ever evolving and not static. Sometimes I don't care that we have totally fallen into stereotypical roles where I'm (mostly) stay at home mama and my partner works full time. Our baby (and if perhaps she has a sibling someday) needs to be cared for and all the rest of the stuff that needs to happen in a household needsto happen. How it all gets done, for me, is irrelevant. THAT it is getting done the best way we can is more important for me.   I'm quite certain that this job I have taken on is the most important and amazing (and challenging!) one I'll ever have. And I know I'm no less a feminist or less of anything for doing it.   Families make the best choices they can for their particular situations. And the arrangements can be limitless so long as it works for baby and parent(s).  I applaud all mamas and especially AP families for figuring out how to make it work and it is a work in progress!  
What a breath of fresh air! I am a women's studies professor & co-parent with my lesbian lover to a 5 month old. We read Sears' most recent edition together and were horrified. The passage suggesting that mothers should go give fathers (sleeping on the sofa) BJs in the middle of the night (bc they have needs, too!) to make them more amenable to co-sleeping made us question whether we are missing a lot of mainstream sexism by hanging out in queer-friendly social circles. But we felt that the book not only excludes fathers, but also co-parenting in general. Yes, I EBF this baby. My lover plans to EBF Baby #2. But we share everything else. And we actually share EBF too, because my lover is in charge of the pump and all of its hassle. We also found Sears' lack of class analysis horrifying. Attachment parenting as he describes it cannot happen unless you have money and time. At the end of the day we both felt that this was yet another straight white wealthy man telling women what they should do. Hoping that Mayim Bialik's forthcoming book does a little better!
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