Chances are you’ve seen this cover by now, even though it just hit newsstands today. It took the internet by storm, for obvious reasons (see here, and here and here). I’m super excited about it, actually, because not only does the feature in TIME’s May 21 issue address a bunch of the topics we discuss on the regular in this here blog, as well as serve up a pretty fascinating profile of Dr. William Sears and the Attachment Parenting model that’s developed out of his life’s work, but it’s also written by a good friend of mine (Go Kate Pickert!). She says, “I was curious about how Dr. Sears came up with his theories in the first place. He's so popular, so ubiquitous and so controversial, I was surprised to find out that very little had been written about him beyond what he chooses to put in his books about his family. Once I started reporting, I realized there is much more to Bill Sears than his public persona as a pediatrician and father.”
As much as Kate’s written a profile on Dr. Sears, she’s also written something of a profile of American Parenting in 2012, or at least of a growing alternative movement, the debate that swirls around its tenets, and its indisputable impact on even mainstream parenting approaches. Watch this video (that’s Kate—isn’t she awesome?) for a good little summary.
If you’ve gotten your hands on a copy of TIME, give that a read, too… You can also buy a one-week TIME.com pass to read the story online.
All caught up? Cool. Let’s discuss!
I suppose we should start with the cover. Here we have a smokin’ hot mama looking calm, cool and collected (no frizzy hair or sweatpants on this lady) while she and her almost-four-year-old demonstrate what’s known as ‘extended breastfeeding’. And public breastfeeding, to the tune of international distribution. Double whammy! Neither of these activities is typically very well-received in America today, as we’ve covered aplenty here on Natural Parenting. Yet both of these practices are gaining recognition and acceptance among moms and onlookers alike. Though American breastfeeding rates don’t come close to meeting AAP or WHO recommendations, they are at an all-time high since the 1950s, when formula first became available. And, as Kate writes in her piece, Dr. Sears “surely deserves credit for promoting breast--feeding and the idea that the bond between mother and baby is critical.”
Still, that’s kid on the cover is a pretty big baby. In fact, he’s not a baby at all – he’s a child – and the image thus succeeds in catching the reader’s eye. As Bonnie Rochman writes here, “In a society that still gets squeamish when a baby is nursed in public, the idea of continuing to nurse that baby until he’s a toddler or even a preschooler is a real show stopper. But much of the world doesn’t share the U.S.’s uneasiness.” Showstoppers, of course, sell magazines. And that the mom on the cover obviously doesn’t share the viewer’s uneasiness starts up the conversation: what’s changing in American approaches to parenting today, and why?
The answer: well, a lot is changing! It has been for about 20 years, since Dr. Sears wrote his most influential work, The Baby Book. As Pickert’s profile describes, both Sears and his wife endured difficulties in their childhoods, and encountered disconcerting parenting philosophies once they had children themseves, that influenced their emphasis on parenting in another direction: away from the MadMen-style (stick the baby in a playpen while mommy shakes up a cocktail), and toward high-contact mother-baby bonding based in large part on Attachment Theory. Sears’ approach is carried out by a growing number of moms via the AP Big Three: breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby-wearing, all of which have worked their way, to one degree or another, into the mainstream, as well; many parents who don’t strictly follow the Attachment Parenting model do carry their babies in slings, breastfeed, and generally parent with a greater sensitivity to babies’ experiences and needs than did the generations that raised them.
In fact, Pickert makes the important point, in her piece, that, like Sears and his wife, many AP parents choose that path as a reaction against to their own childhood experiences. (Although it’s worth noting that the issue’s cover model was raised by attachment parents, and is now embracing the philosophy as a parent herself). And many parents get pretty extreme in doing so. The piece opens with a bleak picture of a mom who quit her job, spent months on the couch breastfeeding her baby 24/7, and, now with a second child, never enjoys lunch with a friend or dates with her husband. She is never, ever separated from her two kids. (She’s happy with this setup, however; ‘bleak’ is in the eye of the beholder, I guess). This is the image of Attachment Parenting that draws harsh criticism from many corners, including feminists, and other moms who value mom-baby bonding but, as Pickert writes, “think Sears is out of his mind.” In addition to the ever oppositional pro- and anti-AP moms, Pickert makes note of a third group of mothers who find themselves “caught in the middle. These parents try to achieve Sears’ ideal of nursing, baby wearing and co-sleeping but fall short for some reason and find themselves immobilized by their seeming parental inadequacy.”
As thorough as Pickert’s feature is, something's missing from this conversation. There's little representation of the group of moms (and dads) who are in the middle – somewhere between the extreme attachment parents and their critics, but meanwhile making deliberate alternative parenting choices – because they want to be, and are doing just fine. These parents do ascribe, more or less, to those big three tenets, and so are more alternative in their parenting style than their mainstream counterparts. But they're also going out on date nights, have professional lives, and so forth. Sears is all about following one’s instincts, and I think increasing numbers of moms are opting to do exactly this in lieu of the “all-or-nothing approach” that some AP parents, upon reading his work, fall prey to when missing its nuances (or choose to take because all-or-nothing works for them). Lots of parents, through exposure to Sears’ work and AP philosophy in general, are adopting a more natural, attachment-esque approach to parenting, but making their (informed) parenting choices -- and sometimes changing those choices as they go -- based on common sense, and on what works within their own, clearly nuanced family situations. They do this not because they think they're 'supposed' to, or fear damaging their children if they don't; they do this so they can actually have it all, however they define that place. They want, and choose, to breastfeed, co-sleep, cloth diaper and wear their babies (give or take a tenet), but they don’t feel like they’re failing if they’re not with their kids all the time. As Pickert points out, research hasn’t shown AP kiddos grow up more happy or more well-adjusted than their peers who also felt loved and wanted, but may have done some time in cribs or childcare. It’s the ‘felt loved and wanted’ part that evidently counts the most, and more and more parents are choosing natural, high-contact approaches to parenting while still bearing this realistically in mind. As the extreme seeps into the mainstream, parents are becoming more fluent in the approaches available to them, and are hand-picking (or creating) their own according to what feels right.
TIME’s cover mom – attractive, urban, confident, calm – represents, at a glance, this shift more than she represents the AP extreme. What’s emerging now is a more natural approach to parenting, by far, than what came just before Sears, and a more flexible approach than his staunch followers are known for. It’s an alternative to the AP alternative, less extreme and less easily labeled, but, I’m certain, more widely embraced. It may involve breastfeeding a toddler, or it may not, but it definitely involves the awareness and acceptability of this option. Where attachment parenting may be about “devotion and sacrifice,” as Pickert writes, this new wave, I think, replaces devotion with conscious engagement, and nixes the sacrifice (though no promises on the exhaustion front—that’s just part of being a parent). And, after reading Pickert’s profile of Sears, I’m pretty sure this is right in line with what the doctor advocates these days, anyway.
What do you think? Are you a fan of Dr. Sears’? Do you breastfeed, co-sleep and wear your baby in a sling? Do you breastfeed a toddler? A preschooler? Are you a ‘natural’ parent making alternative parenting choices, but not ‘Attachment Parenting’ per se? Or do you love, and live, that label? I’m dying to know, too—what do you think of that cover???