Attachment parenting: who pays, who profits, who’s excluded and who avoids responsibility altogether?


Attachment parenting, also known as intensive mothering, is the dominant parenting philosophy today. By dominant I don’t mean that’s its the most widely practiced; instead it is the parenting ideology favored by elites: Western, white, relatively well off married women who view themselves as moral exemplars for their less fortunate sisters of a different color and economic class. From the front page of Time Magazine (Are You Mom Enough?) to the playgrounds and message boards of the internet, we are busily judging other mothers and how they comport with this ideology.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that there is no scientific evidence of any kind that attachment parenting is “better” and consider how this ideology affects society. Who profits, who pays, who’s excluded and who avoids responsibility altogether?

Who profits?

According to a recent position paper, Governing Motherhood: Who Pays and Who Profits?, written by Phyllis Rippeyoung and published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the profit is restricted to self proclaimed parenting experts like Dr. William Sears and family:

… In addition to the more than 30 books the various family members have co-authored, they also have developed, branded, or marketed numerous other supplements, snacks, beverages,
and baby care items with the Dr. Sears stamp of approval. Their celebrity status has also garnered son Dr. Jim Sears a seat on Dr. Phil’s spin-off TV-show The Doctors, while all of the Sears family members working in the field of medicine have been interviewed on major leading television networks. Further, patriarch Dr. William’s speaking appearances can be booked through the All American Speakers agency for a fee somewhere in the range of $10,000–$20,000 (All American Speakers 2010–11).

The Sears also have at least two websites from which they profit. In addition to the advice and products offered on their Ask Dr. Sears website, they also include endorsements for such products as goat’s milk, Dr. Sears’ “favorite” salmon, vitamin enriched juice, and a program to teach children to read at home. They also have a website for the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute. This “scientifically based, family approved” wellness institute, headed up by Drs. William and Jim Sears, claims to “provide high quality professional certifications, scientifically-based educational programs, and resources that empower individuals and families to live happier, healthier, longer lives by making positive Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitude, and Nutrition (L.E.A.N.) choices.” Here, parents and caregivers can take e-courses for $59.99 or find out where to get (or how to become) a certified “L.E.A.N.” coach.

Simply put, attachment parenting is a big business.

Who pays?

Mothers pay … in a myriad of ways.

1. Lost earnings

… They are paying not only for these books, courses, coaches, supplements, and other devices all created to make children healthier, but they are also paying with lost earnings. Although the Ask Dr. Sears website notes that mothers can successfully combine “attachment parenting” with paid employment, he suggests that women consider some “alternatives to spending the entire day away from your baby.”

2. Lost time for themselves

We are only in the earliest stages of measuring the impact of the dominant mothering ideology on women’s mental health. One of the first investigations, Insight into the Parenthood Paradox: Mental Health Outcomes of Intensive Mothering, found this:

The belief that mothers are the most capable parent (Essentialism) was associated with higher levels of stress and lower levels of life satisfaction. In prior research, mothers have expressed difficulty selecting an alternate caregiver because they felt that no one else, including the child’s father, could provide the same degree of love, commitment, and skill. If women believe they are the most capable caregiver, they may limit help from others, a practice known as maternal gatekeeping. This may account for the lower levels of social support reported by women who endorsed essentialist attitudes …

Believing that parents’ lives should revolve around their children (Child-Centered) was related to lower levels of satisfaction with life. According to Tummala-Narra, when women feel they must subsume their needs to the needs of their child, they lose a sense of personal freedom, which may result in women experiencing negative mental health outcomes (e.g., lower levels of life satisfaction).

3. Guilt

Attachment parenting is a philosophy of privilege. It is completely inaccessible to women who are poor, work at low wage menial jobs and lack the support of a partner who earns enough to make attachment parenting financially feasible. Now, in addition to struggling to provide their children with the basic necessities of living, they are denigrated for being unable to provide their children with the requisite emotional support.

Who’s excluded?

Fathers are excluded.

Despite its name, attachment parenting renders fathers peripheral in the exact same way as the oft mocked lifestyle choices of the 1950’s. The father exists to provide financial support; the mother exists to provide her presence, her labor and her emotional support.

Who avoids responsibility altogether?

Attachment parenting purports to mimic mothering in indigenous cultures, but actually differs in the most fundamental way. In many traditional cultures, “it takes a village to raise a child” whereas in attachment parenting only the mother can do it. While grandmothers, “aunties” and friends play important roles in child rearing in traditional cultures, attachment parenting imagines each mother has having sole responsibility for her child’s emotional health as well as her own. Proximity of the child to the mother is fetishized (baby wearing, family bed) and sharing parenting tasks with anyone else, even the father or grandmother, is implicitly discouraged.

In regard to the Sears’ website, the position paper notes:

… parents are encouraged to make individual decisions that make the most sense for their own families, rather than the collectivity of children and families as a whole.

The only role for government imagined by many attachment parenting proponents is to pressure women into practicing the tents of attachment parenting or at the very least, shame them for not doing so:

This individualizing of responsibility for child welfare has also been seen among breastfeeding proponents, as most explicitly illustrated in an editorial by Dr. Ruth Lawrence, a founder of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. In her essay, “The Elimination of Poverty One Child at a Time,” she argues that breastfeeding is the panacea for health and cognitive inequalities between poor and non-poor children. She ends the piece by writing that breastfeeding may be the only gift that poor mothers have to offer their children.

Although neglectful and abusive parenting has been shown to explain multiple forms of inequalities in child outcomes, I have been unable to find any research assessing whether breastfeeding, baby-sling wearing, co-sleeping, or the other attachment parenting practices advocated by the Sears Family or others will actually reduce either poverty or the consequences of growing up poor, one child at a time or otherwise. In research I have recently completed (Rippeyoung forthcoming), I assessed the relative impact of breastfeeding versus the family educational environment on reducing gaps in child verbal IQ between the poor, the near poor, and the non-poor … [A]lthough breastfeeding is correlated with higher test scores for children, it does less to reduce the gaps between poor and non-poor children than does reading to one’s children and increasing the mother’s education. However, even if we were to equalize all of these factors, a large and significant gap in the scores remains. This research indicates that individual solutions to low test scores will not solve the problems of inequalities in school readiness.

The author concludes:

If policy makers are truly interested in improving child health and welfare, more needs to be done to address the problems faced by families comprehensively and structurally; not only in terms of training individual mothers to behave in particular, culturally defined ways…

I couldn’t agree more.