Attachment parenting

Attachment parenting is the antidote to societal sadism

1 August, 2016

By Jove attachment parents get a hard rap don’t they? Between the “you only breastfeed for your own pleasure” and “you are a judgmental masochist” there is barely room to move!

I am impelled to respond to Hadley Freeman’s Weekend article – Attachment Parenting; the best way to parent or maternal masochism. Attachment parenting was so utterly misrepresented and the piece was so obviously written in a blur of scathing hatred that by writing this I feel like I am standing up to the class bully.

I have spent five years practicing attachment parenting and being amongst groups of attachment parenting mothers and have firmed up some stuff that I want to share.

Attachment parenting is intellectual
Attachment parenting arose from attachment theory, these days an established tenet in the field of psychology. But since the middle of last century there has sprung a wealth of  research in the fields of biology, neurology, psychiatry, and genetics that back up these findings in psychology. It cannot be plucked out and studied in a vacuum; “look at these strange mothers letting their toddler sup from their breasts – this is so visceral it must be anti-intellectual!” It is the only parenting philosophy I am aware of that works so hard to incorporate the latest cross-discipline scientific findings. Every year there seems to be more evidence suggesting that secure attachments made in childhood make for healthier well being later.

The people who have deliberately chosen attachment parenting are so often the people who have set out to find the most solid information on best parenting practice. I have sat in a room at an attachment parenting meet up with pHd students, doctors, lawyers. They did not eschew their brains and wobble into it – they chose it because of the wealth of research around it.

Attachment parenting is egalitarian
At the same time attachment parenting has a physical simplicity to it that makes it an economically accessible choice for anyone. It requires almost no financial outlay. No buggies, or cribs, or bottles. Having a baby for most people is one of the most expensive events of your life. Not so with AP. There’s no buggy shame going on the bus. When we lived in a poor corner of South London babywearing was common, a parenting practice that arrived in the waves of immigration and had stayed.

There is certainly some space within attachment parenting discourse to discuss privilege and the increasingly narrow parenting choices available to women. For some people straying from the mainstream/ NHS advice would feel like or even be a perilous route.

A good example would be here in NZ where there is a great fear of cosleeping, a traditionally Maori parenting practice, because infant mortality statistics are so impacted by poverty, a place where Maori are overrepresented. Here in NZ cosleeping is popular but largely done by stealth and never admitted to – particularly by those who need to keep their heads down. In response to these figures a cosleeping device has been developed and funding sourced to provide poor families with a way of cosleeping immensely safely (it eradicates problems arising from alcohol/drug use or overtiredness.) And just last week the government cut the funding for it. There are important conversations we need to be having about parenting practice and privilege. And the way certain parenting practice becomes associated, or not, with wealth, or the lack of. However the finger needs to be pointed somewhere other than at the middle class mothers resilient enough to turn up for tea and cakes at a hotel with a journo.Attachment parenting is the antidote to societal violence

Attachment parenting is pro-women
Attachment parenting says that parenthood is an incredibly valuable form of employment, and considering the vast numbers of women that continue to stay home with their babies, I’d say that makes AP pretty pro-women.

Personally, I returned to work part time both times when my children were 15 months old, and I loved it, and I felt really good about it. And everyday that I work I. LOVE. IT. And I am about as hardcore AP as it gets. I am to AP what Donald Trump is to evil.

Attachment parenting says children need secure attachments, and prescribes nothing after that. Many of the things associated with AP – babywearing and cosleeping- are tools that can actually assist fathers or other mothers/caregivers in providing that secure attachment to children when mothers return to work.

I am honestly totally sick to my eyeballs of people blaming attachment parenting for holding women back.

How about we get some goddamn laws in place that make it possible for men and women to work half time so they can figure out shared childcare? How about we up the salaries in the industries where women work so that when families have to make a choice about who goes back to work and who stays at home there is an actual choice that isn’t completely economically ridiculous?

You can’t blame attachment parenting for being unfeminist simply because we don’t yet have the progressive enough infrastructure to allow either gendered parent to do stay at home.

Attachment parenting is pro-women, it would be more so if it didn’t exist within this f*&king patriarchy we all live in.

(Actually struggle to say The Patriarchy without getting a f*&king in there. Sorry Aunty Heather.)

(Also, how about referencing some recent, female authors on attachment parenting, Hadley Freeman, rather than an old white male? Try Massaro and Katz, of The Other Baby Book, or Sarah Ockwell Smith, Babycalm. Pfft. Just a little bit of the internalised misogyny evidenced in your article.)
Attachment Parenting is the antidote to a violent society

Attachment parenting is the antidote to societal sadism

Lastly, and possibly most importantly as it is central to the reason why so many people choose attachment parenting, and it was treated so poorly by Freeman in her article; attachment parenting is part of the solution to the problem of injustice, cruelty, and oppression we have in society.

It sounds naïve- “the way we parent can change the world” – but some of history’s more tenacious world changers understood it. Mother Teresa famously implored one person who was asking about the best way to help change things “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.'”

And what is the love that matters? The one the child feels. The love that is tangible, that leads to floods of endorphins, that limits cortisol. The love that says a caregiver is present and not absent. The love that nurtures the empathy epicentre we all have within our brains, breaking societal violence in the process.

In the Science of Parenting Margot Sunderland says “Society reaps what it sows in the way it nurtures its children, because stress sculpts the brain to exhibit several antisocial behaviors. Stress can set off a ripple of hormonal changes that permanently wire a child’s brain to cope with a malevolent world. Through this chain of events, violence and abuse pass from generation to generation as well as from one society to the next.”

Historical studies find correlation between gentle parenting practice and less societal violence. (If there is one thing you do as a result of reading this it should be to go and buy Robin Grille’s book, Parenting for a Peaceful World.)

We need attachment parenting more than ever. 2016 has sucked. There have been hate crimes perpetrated by civilian and State, and a seemingly global rise of politicians peddling racism like it’s 1940. There seems to be a ruthless sadism marching across communities all over the world. We need solutions to this, they are long term, they are ordinary, quiet, some of solutions are in our homes, on our laps.

The Guardian was remiss to print something so clearly subjective, born of triggers, when it could have had a well-researched piece on the huge body of work linking attachment parenting to personal well being – and therefore, potentially, if practiced on a wide scale, societal well being.

“World peace is not only an entirely attainable goal, it is a modest one. The conditions that would bring it about require but a small fraction of the effort and expense we devote to fighting wars and fighting crime. A continued social evolution is quite possible, but it depends entirely on our collected efforts to keep improving the emotional lives of children. Our commitment to children’s emotional health will ensure our rapid evolution toward a peaceful, just, sustainable and enjoyable existence for all of humanity.” Robin Grille

More reading:
Read Sophie Christophy’s brilliant analysis of how attachment parenting is a social justice movement.
Read Milk Meg’s Debunking the Shit out of Attachment Parenting Myths – brilliant historical context for AP.
Read more on the science of attachment theory-  the biological roots of love.


There must be space for an honest analysis of attachment parenting, particularly if it is failing mothers. There are definitely times that advocates of attachment parenting can come across as judgmental, but that is a flaw of human nature, not the parenting philosophy. And there is often guilt within it – this is the burden of all parenting, I believe, and something we need to deal with internally, no matter what parenting model we subscribe to. As advocates of attachment parenting we need to call out any judginess – our work is empathy and kindness, not smuggery- and we need to call out any martyrdom; that’s not what we are about.

But the bones of attachment parenting are good – more so, they are world changing. If we could build more of an understanding about what nurturing attachment between child and adult IS I think we’d find more people were doing it, and more people would want to do it, than we think.

A parenting philosophy that can create a kind, nonviolent world? I am so in. With bells on. And no masochism.

More reading:
Attachment Parenting Isn’t Martyrdom Parenting (on the death of Peaches Geldoff)
Attachment Parenting – beyond breastfeeding and babywearing
It takes a village – to be the parent you want to be

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  • Gemma White 1 August, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Thankyou Lucy. You are one of my inspirations. I was so upset by that article but your and Sophie’s pieces are spot on. Much encouragement to you!

    • Lucy 1 August, 2016 at 6:22 pm

      Thanks Gemma. It was so upsetting wasn’t it! So glad everyone has rallied and gone “What the heck?!!!”

  • Sarah 1 August, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Hadley Freeman makes a passing comment in the article discussed above about becoming a mother to twins last year, and I believe it might be this experience that has coloured her opinions. The attachment parenting you refer to is quite different from what is presented in mainstream media, which attacks parenting, and particularly mothers, just as it attacks body image of women. As a mother of a singleton and subsequently twins I can confirm it is pretty much impossible to follow prescriptive attachment parenting of twins without an unusual amount of support. I had a fair amount of support (NZ has an amazing universal benefit for parents of twins who already have other kids under 5 – 240 hours of $16/hour nanny help) but it was impossible to follow through with exclusive breastfeeding and co-sleeping let alone baby wearing, and attending to my 2.5 year old without physical collapse on my part. Of the people helping us, only my partner is able to wear babies as well as me and he is our breadwinner so not on tap for physical help. I had to mix feed for various reasons and as soon as they were capable of fighting over me my girls proceeded to scratch me to pieces when bf together. This was easier for me to take than either crying while it was the other’s turn but I was relieved to wean at 13 months, it wasn’t a nice experience although I see a few mums bfing toddler twins successfully on IG, so I guess it depends somewhat on temperament. Co-sleeping was out of the question especially post cesarean. It has never worked, they hate sharing me in bed too although individually will sleep in bed with me sometimes. Lucky having already had a kid I had discovered nurturing an attachment with your children doesn’t boil down to following a particular ideology to the letter. And luckily I have had the resources to educate myself enough to wade through so much conflicting advice and get to what I think I have good reason to believe is the nub of compasionate, effective parenting, which is as you say, how to create, nurture and maintain connection through secure attachment. But I think the merits of baby wearing, bfing extended or otherwise etc etc are actually best removed from the centre of discussions of attachment parenting. If we were paid better and could work half time and had decent job security etc etc I think we would step back to look at parenting practices and see more bfing etc. But also many more relaxed and securely attached people. It’s hard to imagine how much better our world would be.

    • Lucy 1 August, 2016 at 6:22 pm

      Yes, i absolutely agree that being mum to twins would be such a challenge, and I fully believe this piece springs from a sense of being unable to do many of those AP practices she mentions. It is sad that such an intelligent woman couldn’t sift things out a little better – I beleive your comment would have made a far better analysis for the Guardian!!!

  • Melanie 1 August, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    “A parenting philosophy that can create a kind, nonviolent world? I am so in. With bells on. And no masochism.”
    This! Hell yeah! Thanks for a sensible well-articulated response to that article which was so judgemental and based only on anecdotes, not a skerrick of evidence – based research.

    • Lucy 1 August, 2016 at 10:11 pm

      Thanks Melanie!

  • Anne Git 1 August, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    I’d like to add that decent childcare needs to be essential to support the needs of AP parents, needing or wanting to return to work. I’m so tired of the quality of childcare being discussed in the very limited realm of how many hours they are open for, and how much they cost. My LG goes to a kindergarten on a farm, enjoying hours paid for from the UK EYFS funding and the benefit of having a well-paid (commuter 🙁 ) Dad. They open at 7.30 for us, and close at 6pm, having fed and engaged with children all day. They unjudgementally accept the children of London commuters who work horrendously long hours, and only child HEers like us, (whose child wakes at 5am and so is ready for some Kindy play and interaction at 7.30, but completely shattered and ready for home by lunch). They serve food that is sensitive to the needs of children and parents. (Lots of fruit, veg, variety and little pressure to eat if it’s not possible).

    I only put her in when we decided to HE for reception, and I got sick last summer and had a wobble. I’m so so glad I did. Because, when you see the space and the standard of the care, which is both responsive but independence and risk-encouraging, you can really have a discourse about what childcare should be.

    They have truly filled the void in my parenting left by lack of support. So, my child and our lifestyle are embraced, and the only outcome that they care about is that the child thrives. And she has.

    Now…. This, in my opinion should be the standard offering. Because sometimes I wonder if the savagery surrounding our discourse on AP stems from the damage the limited choices for working mothers does to their choices. Their heart is telling them that it’s not good. That their baby or child would do better with them. But the system says the child will be “fine”. And the AP world refuses to bow to the illusion that they will. So many of us inadvertently twist the knife by giving word to the narrative of an anxious mother’s heart. And the low self-esteem those poor options and resulting decisions gives that mother, mean that she not only becomes defensive but goes on the offensive. Thus, so many of us, who have enjoyed Hadley Freeman’s work for so many years, feel like we’ve been attacked by the schoolyard bully. (Lovely analogy, by the way).

  • Miss Thrifty 2 August, 2016 at 1:19 am

    I wouldn’t describe myself as an Attached Parent – I had short maternity leaves and, to my annoyance, both my children abhorred being “worn” – but Hadley Freeman’s conclusions bear no relation to my own experiences. Like you, I think she is barking up the wrong tree. The description of AP as anti-feminist doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. One could make a similar argument that mothers who choose to return to work have been “sold a pup” by feminism too.

    Then again, Hadley Freeman has previously written in similar terms of what she calls “the current fetishization of so-called natural childbirth,” so perhaps this is a predictable follow-up?

    There is a certain irony in a columnist denouncing AP as anti-feminist and its adherents as masochists “in the pursuit of maternal perfection” – by suggesting that AP parents are ‘doing parenting’ the wrong way.

    • Lucy 2 August, 2016 at 9:45 am

      Yes I completely agree- I think her article smacked of an unanalysed internalised misogyny

  • Anne Git 2 August, 2016 at 2:07 am

    I missed that. I tend to avoid articles about natural childbirth being cobblers, because I had a terrible emcs after pitiful NHS care. But I LOVE the natural childbirth movement, and once spoke to the very kind Sheila Kitzinger about my grief. And her kindness was immense. And reassuring. And I didn’t feel like a freak. Because I LOVE natural childbirth stories. I find them liberating and reassuring. I dream of my daughter having the experience that both I and my mother before me, missed out on.

    But I feel like such a traitor to my fellow traumatised mothers, who speak of crushing levels of jeolousy of those who squeeze their babies out in beautiful surroundings with dark candle-lit rooms full of love and support. I don’t feel that way. Every one of those little mine a bit more.

    So has Hadley Freeman lost out in her dream birth and felt very disappointed with the promises of motherhood not living up to the reality? Is she basically a very entitled person who was expecting her privilege to open the doors of motherhood? And is that the reason that she’s angry at the “club” she sees as having barred her membership by setting her tests she couldn’t pass? its such a pity if so, because she has the chance to really grow. And has opted out. Which everyone in the family loses from.

    • Lucy 2 August, 2016 at 9:42 am

      I really really resonate with this- felt the same regarding child birth and can see how it would trigger Hadley to respond in this way

  • Lucy 2 August, 2016 at 5:09 am

    Another lovely read! I really agree with one of the comments that the actual day to day practices (co sleeping/buggy use etc) are a lot less important than the ethos behind it, parents/careers who make an active choice to try to value connection with their child and bring them up in a loving, well attract he’s kind and gentle way is way more important! I’ve met plenty bottle feeding mums who are totally down with the AP vibe but are just doing what works for them. I don’t know any AP type families who would judge or exclude them because of that.
    It’s such a shame when the press get hold of stories like that. Also as a nhs worker I get riled up by the whole co sleeping thing. The only mathematically significant factor found to be significant in increasing cot death is smoking. All the rest is best guess. And there is actually plenty of evidence saying con sleeping is bennificial (especially in stabilising preterm infants breathing patterns) so why we are not promoting safe ways to co sleep with parents that want to, I do not know!

  • Lainie Liberti 2 August, 2016 at 5:18 am

    Excellent article! The other thing I’d like to add, as still an attachment parent to a 17 year old teen, is that attachment creates safety throughout adolescence. I work with teens and can tell instantly the ones who come from an “attachment home” and those that do not. The way a person views the world around them is based on attachment principles and that effects how the brain develops and how a person sees how they fit into the world. So yes, indeed! Attachment parenting can and will change social make up of society and the world at large.
    For anyone who has a teen, will have a teen or was once a teen, please read Dr. Siegel’s book about the teen brain and adolecence, foundations based on the principles of attachment called Brainstorm. You’ll be happy you did!

    • Lucy 2 August, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Thank you for the book idea – awesome to hear from you

  • Mothering is not masochism | All Mothers Work 3 August, 2016 at 12:10 am

    […] I am not the only woman to have felt moved to respond to this article. For more reading, please see this excellent letter to the Guardian by AMW member, Dr Karem Roitman, which is particularly excellent at destroying the myth of AP being privileged and anti-feminist: and these fantastic articles from Sophie Christopy and  Lulastic: […]