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You can be a feminist attachment parent, but promoting attachment parenting just ain’t feminist.

Do you sometimes read an article that makes you just want to get trapped in a broken lift with the author so you can scream incoherently at them for several hours? I read a piece like that this morning: Attachment Parenting IS Feminist.  So, I know it’s on the HuffPo blog, and they’re not exactly known for being picky about what they publish, but GP publishes *me*, so it’s not like I’m punching down.

Where to start with this traincrash piece of privileged special pleading masquerading as social justice? Let’s start with the title: “Attachment parenting IS feminist” Is so! Is too! Anyone else detect a little hint of desperation here? There’s one thing to say in its favour though – it’s nice to finally see this little slogan attached to an attempt to justify it rather than splashed over soft-focus images of smiling white mothers and babies on a Facebook meme.

It’s not more than two sentences in before we hit the biological predestination and pseudoscience. Attachment parenting is, apparently, “the way [parents] were designed to parent”, and it’s “evolutionarily advantageous”. Now, I’m not even going to get into the cod evolutionary science behind attachment parenting, or worry too much about the misunderstanding that we’re in any way ‘designed’ to do anything. What bothers me so much to see this in a purportedly feminist article is this insistence that doing what our biology suggests is normative is somehow superior or better. It’s a theme that comes up again and again, in the “natural parenting movement” in general but also in this piece: humans are “biologically programmed” to attachment parent, it all about a woman discovering “how awesome her biology is”, mainstream parenting doesn’t respect “the biology of the mother”, and women’s bodies need to be “utilised as the powerful life giving forces that they are”.

I am so puzzled how anyone who knows anything about the feminist movement could seriously promote the idea that it’s feminist to tell women that their biology should dictate their behaviour. I’m just, honestly, kind of bowled over. One of the greatest victories of the movement, up there with equal pay acts and the criminalisation of gender discrimination in employment and education, is the wide availability of birth control. One tiny pill a day which could unshackle us from our biological destiny to be mothers every two years has unleashed world-changing social progress and the empowerment and emancipation of women worldwide. So the argument that there’s something inherently feminist about women’s biology is just daft; if the second-wave feminists had thought that, we’d still be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

Talking of birth control, let’s talk about what patriarchy tells us about motherhood, because this authors thinks it’s telling her not to have babies. Apparently, the patriarchy ‘holds the status of maternity in beyond-insultingly low regard’, and tells women ‘their bodies are a statement of how dedicated they are to the cause of conformity, their bodies are to be looked at through the male gaze’ – it apprently tells us that we should be tight-tummied little sex kittens rather than saggy, sleep-deprived matrons.

Undoubtedly it’s true that there’s more pressure than ever to look like a pinup, even if you’re a mother (Maria Kang, anyone?), and it’s true that this sucks and feminists should definitely do something about it. But the message isn’t, and has never been, ‘don’t have kids so you can stay sexy’. Patriarchy is quite clear on what happens to women who don’t have kids – they turn into sour, withered, jealous, unfulfilled hags. In fact, while birth control made it physically possible to remain childfree, it’s still so far from socially acceptable that making it mainstream an important part of the feminist fight. So the idea that the patriarchy is trying to keep us sterile is just…well…go and read The Handmaid’s Tale.

And then we get into the bit about men. Because don’t be deluded by the title – the article so far has not been about attachment parenting, it’s been about attachment mothering. But don’t worry! “ATTACHMENT PARENTING IS NOT ANTI-MEN”. See. It’s in capitals. It must be true. And of course, the author goes on to tell us how men have a unique and special role to play in attachment parenting, which while it’s not nearly as important as what women do, of course, is nonetheless very worthwhile. You know what this reminds me of? Every Christian apologist I’ve ever read trying to justify how Biblical gender roles doesn’t diminish women’s equality, because God created them equal but different, and women are just as important as men except for the fact that they’re not allowed to be important. And here we have a self-identified feminist arguing that it’s not that men are the less important parent, just that they’re… not as important.

And then we have a bit about how “mainstream parenting”, or this parody of it where we’re all “brainwashed” into dumping our formula-fed children to scream in cribs in the shed or something, is apparently less consumerist. Yeah, right. I bought my second-hand crib, bottles, pushchair and newborn clothes for less than the price of a woven cloth wrap, and I stopped visiting sling forums because I was honestly disgusted at how brand-obsessed and avaricious they could be. Not to mention the growth of luxury nursing wear, or the plethora of products aimed at co-sleepers and extended breastfeeders found in shop of the main UK organisation promoting attachment parenting. It is maddening that the economic benefits of women entering the labour market have been mostly realised by everyone buying more stuff, but changing your ‘parenting philosophy’ is going to do bugger all about that.

That’s not to say that taking maternity leave, breastfeeding or using a sling makes you not a feminist – if it did, they would have been round to take my membership card off me long ago. Feminism, is, in essence, about doing away with gender-based prejudice and discrimination. Anything that helps further this end can legitimately be described as feminist. So that naturally means that I, as a feminist, do lots of not-necessarily-feminist things in between campaigning for better abortion access, breaking glass ceilings and voting Labour. I drink a lot of tea. I go to work. I change my son’s nappies. Is this feminist?? What about when I changed my name when I got married? What about the part where I do most of the cooking? What about my shaved armpits and long hair?

There are lots of times in my life when I’ve had the chance to challenge current gender norms in my own small way, by choosing the option that women have historically been denied. Some of those times I did – I work full time while my husband does more childcare, I chose a male-dominated career path – but other times I chose the thing that would make me happiest. That thing didn’t necessarily advance the cause of feminism (and let’s have none of that ‘it’s feminist if it’s my choice!’ crap), but I’m ugly enough and privileged enough to own those decisions for myself, and recognise that a more principled person might have chosen differently. I’m certainly not going to demand a Feminist Cookie* for making those choices but, frankly, that’s what this author seems to want. Because there’s nothing that says 1950s patriarchy more than white middle-class women staying at home to do the majority of the childcare while the men work. And while I will fight for every woman to have that choice, no matter their age race or income, (because let’s not forget that this article would garner a very different reaction coming from a black teenage single mother on benefits), I am not going to call your choice to do so ‘feminist’. And if you start telling other women that they should do it too, not because they might want to, but because it’s ‘normal’, or the only way to be a good mother, or even essential for a baby’s wellbeing, then I would honestly consider whether you might not find a better ideological home in the Christian Patriarchy movement.

The whole point of second-wave feminism is that most women didn’t look at full-time childcare and call it liberation. And honestly, I don’t care whether you’re trying to tell me that my having a career or not letting people touch my breasts is against God or against ‘evolution’. Either way, it ain’t feminist.

* What would a feminist cookie look like??


I'm currently trying to finish off my PhD in neuroscience and my medical training. I hope to get a proper job sometime in my 30s. I have a toddler who is, naturally, the bestest, most gifted, prettiest and nicest child to walk this earth, at least until I can persuade my partner to have another. I plan to use this platform to rant semi-coherently about people willfully misunderstanding neuroscience in the service of their favorite parenting soapbox, as well as trawling Medline for interesting stuff, so you don't have to.

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  1. Awesome! I like and agree with many aspects of attachment parenting, so when I saw the title of your piece I was a little nervous. However, after reading it I am happy to be able to give you the fistbump of solidarity – you are spot on!

    Also, I love the cookie!

  2. It’s funny, I’ve been told my some in the AP community that I can’t be a feminist (or atheist) because I seem so “normal.” And I don’t fit the profile being a married SAH, homeschooling mothers of four children who breastfeeding into the preschool years and ride in carriers and sleep in a family bed, etc. Evidently you must hate men and sacrifice children, etc to be feminist.

    And I’ve been told by other feminists that I not “really” a feminist for all the same reasons. And that I’m hurting other women and the cause.

    I don’t like all the biology is destiny and what is natural is “right” for women stuff in the AP world. It’s bunk and often a facade for religious crapola. When I hear “we are meant to do ______”, it’s annoying.

    The ONE thing I find helpful is that BABIES are born with certain biological expectations. I wish the AP community would focus more on the baby behaviors and not all the supposedly “maternal” stuff we are supposed to feel and do to allegedly be happy and ensure perfect children. I volunteer working with new mothers, and what I try to do is help them understand their babies and then find how we can best meet the needs of everyone in the family. Not trying to tell some people how they should feel because of nature or biology.
    We give birth to prehistoric babies with certain behaviors that don’t necessarily fit in with modern life – sure. Understanding that made me feel like way less of a crappy mom (like why my baby just wanted to be on my body and nurse constantly for months on end.) The AP community was the place I found permission to listen to my baby instead of making her needs pathological or a weird form of biological oppression. Many of my previous feminist friends told me I “needed” to get away, leave baby for myself, that the baby was manipulating and enslaving me, that my husband was a deadbeat for not taking over more baby care, etc.

    1. There’s just so much cultural bullshit around motherhood that whatever you do you’ll be going along with some of it and defying other bits…

      I like the idea if ‘biological expectations’, because that still leaves it up to the parents as to how they will meet/manage them, and that ‘meeting the needs of everyone in the family’ is something that seems to get particularly lost in AP – in this original article the idea that a husband might *not* like to be kicked out of bed for years on end is just a sign of his anti-feminist ignorant selfishness, not, y’know, a legitimate adult desire.

    1. I absolutely hate it when people try and define who is and isn’t a ‘real feminist’…. so I will just say that The Feminist Breeder and I disagree in almost every way about what the aims and strategies of the feminist movement should be.

  3. I also agree fully with all your criticisms. Thanks for this article.

    The original article on HuffPo is very thin. She doesn’t back much of anything she’s saying up with examples or research to illustrate her points. Basically an insensitive (to poor people, single moms, single dads, and adoptive parents) puff piece with a lot of feminist buzz words with little behind them.

    Her whole “breasts and beds” argument that people are anti-breastfeeding and anti-cosleeping because men’s sexual needs are supposed to come first – sounds plausible, but in reality it SO FALLS FLAT. I know a lot of women who chose not to breast feed and NONE of them did so to make hubby happy. In fact I know one who chose not to against her husband’s wishes. Not to mention that nursing doesn’t interfere with involving boobs in sexual play – plenty of women have a husband/boyfriend who enjoys the perkiness and novelty of nursing boobs, and it’s not like a man is going to be playing with his wife/girlfriend’s boobs while she feeds the kid, however she’s feeding the kid. As for beds, I kicked my kids out of the martial bed when each turned a year old because *I* wanted to go back to spontaneous sex with hubby/masturbation.

  4. We accidentially co-slept with our first.
    I say accidentially, because it was NOT my choice. My husband was home on a holiday for two weeks and whenever the kid breathed loudly he would get up and let her sleep in his arm. And I was just too tired to protest. and then i was too tired to fight uphill toget her back to her own bed.
    The next kid was strictly forbidden in our bed, but she slept in our room.
    We made good use of the bedcouch in the living room…
    And oh dear, slings. I simply could not believe what I was supposed to pay. I just used a nice semi-sturdy fabric which got upcycled into dresses for the girls.

  5. I’m also always wondering when that time was in the history of humankind when our babies’ alleged natural biological needs were ever met.
    Not only is biology=destiny (that’s why we shun glasses) crappy ideology, it’s also crappy science.

    1. Ah, but tribes in Africa have all read Dr Sears and practice AP, donchaknow?!

      In Tudor England (which is about as close as we got to a pre-industrial stable rural idyll) it was common to strap babies to boards and hang them above the fireplace, because then they were out of the way while you worked and the smoke kept the lice off them. I have no doubt that mothers then loved their kids just as much as we do but I think people don’t realise just how much work it was to just live before industrial food production came along, and how little time that would have left for raising your children in anything but the least labour-intensive way.

  6. I can give some weight to the no breastfeeding/bedsharing because of men’s desires kind of thing. I think it definitely varies by culture/region, BUT I work with new mothers and specifically to address breastfeeding. And one of the more common reasons expressed for not breastfeeding or early weaning is the father’s desire to have “his breasts” back or because he’s jealous of the baby. It happens to be very common among one specific demographic in my area. I hear it over and over and over. From the mothers and the fathers themselves. I had one dad say to my face that he couldn’t stand to see his son nurse because it made him so jealous and angry. I have helped many a mother unhappily wean her small baby to please the baby’s father.
    Many of the younger moms have their mothers and grandmothers telling them that their breasts are “for their men” and they need to keep their men happy. They say this AT our breastfeeding support group. Same thing for the bedsharing. A lot of “you’re going to ruin your marriage” type comments.
    This was quite surprising to me when I first started working with the mothers. Even when others told me to be on the look out for “dad” issues.
    So I don’t think it’s true for everyone, but in my experience it is certainly a significant deciding factor for certain people. The perception of the prevalence of this issue can be colored by region and demographics. I am always amazed at how the cultural norms and expectation vary in just my neck of the woods (Coastal South of the USA) It’s very difficult for the women who struggle with this issue as they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

    1. I think there are also very big cultural differences between the industrialized western nations.
      I hear a lot about women in the US having to fight for being able to breastfeed publicly and people getting all upset about the idea that there might be a nipple visible for a second or so.
      I breastfed both kids in public and I did neither buy expensive special breastfeeding clothes nor did I stuff my babies under a blanket or a second shirt and never ever did anybody comment on it negatively.

  7. Yeah, the (mother’s) biology is destiny/we were “made” to to this as mothers argument doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight with me. Aside from the fact that I’d probably be dead without modern medical intervention, it assumes an element of essentially “intelligent” design to evolution, as opposed to just marginally better than the alternative. Our bodies aren’t “designed” to do anything and if only women who are able to give birth naturally and then breastfeed and co-sleep successfully should have kids…well, fuck that.

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