By Dr. Charlotte Faircloth
Health, Notebook - A selection of Independent views -, Opinion
Friday, 18 May 2012 at 4:00 am
Much ink has already been spilled on the recent, controversial, TIME magazine cover which features a photograph of a 26-year-old, white, American woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son, with the tag line ‘Are you Mom Enough?’
Some advocates have said that this is brilliant for the promotion of ‘Attachment Parenting’ (AP; the style of parenting which endorses ‘full-term’ breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby-wearing, as part of a philosophy of long-term parent-child proximity profiled in the magazine). Other advocates have said that this sensationalizes the issue, and makes an antagonistic spectacle out of what should be seen as normal, appropriate way to care for a child. But what does the cover – and the reactions to it – tell us about parenting culture more broadly?
Academics have noted for some time that that how people feed their children (or where they sleep, how they are carried, or any one of a number of day-to-day activities) has become a very moralised affair, both in the US and the UK. In what is termed a ‘risk-culture’, feeding might be said to be the most moralised of these activities, having particular ramifications for mothers in cultures where ‘breast’ is so strongly promoted as ‘best’. Rather than being seen as a personal decision, these choices about how we care for our children are seen as something much more significant than just pragmatic. They are increasingly linked to wider social problems by policy makers and advocacy groups – such as recidivism or obesity – and are seen as a signal about a parent’s own social responsibility, and one’s dedication to one’s child (being ‘Mom Enough’).
Yet, although they have the backing of policy (the WHO advocates breastfeeding for ‘up to two years or beyond’) many mothers who practice AP feel stigmatised, with people questioning their motivation. In a statistical minority, they are at the opposite end of the spectrum to mothers who might feel guilty about using formula milk in the early months, but are subject to the same pervasive culture, which politicises these personal choices. What was so irksome about the TIME cover, then, was the way it played into those tedious and well-worn positions in the mummy wars. It polarised and antagonised only too successfully, by portraying the decisions we make about how we care for our children as a matter of individual choice.
Yet the decisions we make about this are much more to do with government policies around working parents, advice over what constitutes good nutrition or what our societies think gender relationships should look like. (Lisa Belkin makes this point very well in in the Huffington Post). People make decisions about how they parent according to a huge amount of factors. There might be other children to care for, no parental leave provision, and no partner to support the other whilst they take time out of work: these factors can make being an ‘attachment’ parent more difficult. The idea we are all free to make the decisions we would want to, or that those who don’t make the same ones as us are selfish or misguided is disingenuous. It’s also a way of individualising wider social inequalities, by implying that parents (mothers) are solely responsible for how their children turn out.
But it’s also more than that. The idea that we would all make the decision to parent in an ‘attachment’ way, were we able to do so, is also very simplistic. Many advocates of attachment parenting argue that modern culture has interfered with our evolutionarily designed, optimal, instinctive style of care (or a ‘hominid blueprint’ of ‘full-term’ breastfeeding, co-sleeping and so on). The argument – made most notably by Katharine Dettwyler, the US biological anthropologist – is that humans, like any other mammal, are designed to breastfeed their children for ‘anything between 2.5 and 7 years old’. She comes to this conclusion by comparing various physiological factors (length of gestation, age of first molar and so forth) with archaeological and anthropological studies of ‘primitive’ humans – whether those from the past, or those who are understood to represent that past today, such as contemporary hunter-gatherer groups. (Clearly, this also taps into the wider social trend we have in the UK and the US for all things ‘natural,’ an interesting social phenomenon in itself).
The problem with this is that actually, whilst mammals can breastfeed for an extended period of time, this doesn’t mean that they actually do (or should, but more on that below). Indeed, primate weaning is characterised by flexibility – when resources are bountiful, primates tend to wean earlier, so that they can invest their energies in reproducing more young, or in other activities. The idea that early weaning is somehow ‘not natural’ is simply not right. Similarly, those hunter-gatherer societies that apparently did, or do, breastfeed for extended periods tell us more about the conditions they were living under at the time, rather than the ‘ideal state’ for all humans. In fact, looking back at the development of societies, there seems to be a trend away from this ‘primitive’ model, which is arguably a fantasy of the privileged (how many women in these mythical ‘African villages’ would not welcome running water, health care, pain relief or any one of a number of ‘modern’ inventions?) The idea that the manipulation of our environment is somehow ‘artificial’ (and therefore bad) is a very two-dimensional view of evolution: in fact, finding ‘best fit’ is what adaptation has always been about.
Some advocates talk about this style of parenting being what ‘feels right’ to them – which is a much more powerful argument, if also a culturally constrained one: what ‘feels right’ to some people, will feel very different to others, so trying to advocate on this basis can be quite problematic. Bodies are experienced, and celebrated in a range of ways across time and space. What’s more, this argument can be seen as an essentialist one: what are women ‘designed’ to do and how does that match with what ‘feel is right’ to them? What are men ‘designed’ to do? And what implications does that have for our ideas about feminism, or sexual and gender equality? How do we explain why we enjoy using our bodies in ways we might not be ‘designed’ to do?
The other problem with the idea that we would all do what was ‘best’ for our children, if only we could, is that much of the evidence about the various ways of caring for children is speculative and inconclusive. Indeed, recently, several scholars (such as Joan Wolf in her recent book Is Breast Best?) have questioned whether – in a developed context – breastfeeding is really all it is crept up to be, when compared with formula feeding. There is certainly a difference, but it is much more marginal than much of the advocacy literature would suggest. And whilst there is not space to dwell on this here, suffice to say that the evidence about the benefits of long-term breastfeeding is even more inconclusive, partly because there’s a limited number of children to look at. One of the few studies done on long-term breastfed children in the US (Buckley 2001) found little more than the 38 children were in the ‘normal’ range of growth in kids.
It’s important to state at this stage that there is absolutely nothing wrong with ‘attachment parenting’ from a psychological perspective: there is no evidence that it is harmful. But nor is there evidence that it is damaging to parent in ‘non-attachment’ ways (such as, by putting the baby to sleep in its own cot, or similar). Indeed, it is very hard to separate out correlation from causation when assessing parenting styles. That middle class children tend to do better than poorer children, and since AP seems to be a trend amongst very well educated women, who are usually (though not always) well-moneyed, or supported by a partner,makes it hard to separate out the causal factor at play. For example, whilst there was a study in 1981 by Gulick, which agued that that long-term breastfed kids get ill less, this might be as much to do with the fact that they were not in childcare (and close to multiple sources of infection) as much as because of the immunological agents in breastmilk.
The list goes on – there are lots of arguments made by AP advocates about the psychological benefits of AP, based both on the arguments of psychologist John Bowlby, and more recent neuroscientfic studies. Each of these bodies of evidence are problematic, because of their leap between extreme cases of neglect and everyday activities of parenting as discussed here. An important point too is that however conclusive any ‘science’ is about the best way of raising the healthiest children, parenting is not a science, and science should not dictate what we do with our children. As above, there are numerous other factors that need to be taken into account about what works for us, and for our families, beyond the purported brain development or psychological attachment benefits to our child. A myopic perspective can be deeply unhelpful to new parents, who will be made unnecessarily anxious about these implications, which are often spurious in any case.
Attachment parenting, for many people, is great – and they absolutely find that it works for them and their families. But the suggestion here is that if one does not parent in an attachment way, one is somehow lacking, and not ‘Mom enough.’ This is, in part, one of the problems with when personal decisions about how we parent are made into social movements: AP is not just about how I want to raise my children, but ideas about how children should be brought up in general (and, whilst one can understand that advocates are on the defensive, this is a very serious problem indeed). Our own motivations and justifications can very easily become evangelical proscriptions. On AP international’s web site, they state:“Through education, support, advocacy and research, our principal goal is to heighten 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, behavioral disorders, mental illness, and other outcomes of early unhealthy attachment”
These sort of statements (which are equally common in policy documents in the UK today) put the cause for most of society’s ills at the door of parents. And once one accepts that parents are ‘responsible’ for everything, it then makes it difficult to object when one’s own parenting choices are put under the microscope.
What academics might suggest is that we need to firmly reject the notion that parenting is the source of, or the solution to, these complex societal issues. Instead, it might be more helpful to cool the debate down by recognizing that this is more than about individual choice. It is a very sad thing that there has been such a tribalisation of parents, as bringing up children (in the US and the UK, in particular) can be a very socially isolated time. These questions need to be de-politicised and people need to be supported to care for their children as works best for them and their families, not as how policy makers, advocacy groups or media outlets think best.
Dr Charlotte Faircloth is a research fellow at the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, at the University of Kent. She discussed the recent TIME magazine cover on Channel Four News over the weekend