How trendy child-rearing philosophies like attachment parenting unnecessarily alienate fathers.
The Mommy Wars flared up again last week just in time for Mother’s Day, thanks to that insta-infamous Time magazine cover of the pretty blonde provocatively breastfeeding her almost-four-year-old beside the inflammatory headline: “Are You Mom Enough?”
The accompanying profile of attachment-parenting guru Dr. William Sears was titled “The Man Who Remade Motherhood,” despite the fact that his movement—based on co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, and babywearing—has, y’know, the word “parenting” in its title. The 4,122-word article contained the word “father” only six times—including perhaps-related mentions of Sears’ father leaving when he was a month old and his wife (and co-author) Martha’s father dying when she was four. (Is it any wonder they fixate on moms?)
Well, I’m a dad who feels pretty damn attached to my two-year-old. I even occasionally wore my son Emile in a sling (until he stopped digging it after a couple months), though I’d never actually heard of attachment parenting at the time. But even if I had, there wouldn’t have been much there for me. On the vast Ask Dr Sears website, the peripheral AP Fathering section gets but three paragraphs, ending with a “for more information on fathering, see Fathering” message, which leads only to a “page not found” error. I don’t know how much more information might be missing, but clearly it’s not being accessed very much or someone might have noted the dead link.
Among the sparse paternal mentions, Sears does say “fathers also help to nurture their babies by loving and supporting their wives” and that “while mother preference is natural to the baby in the early years, the father is not off the hook. The father creates a supportive environment that allows the mother to devote her energy to baby matters.”
Important to be sure, but dads are more than support staff. It is not the 1950s, which is when the deeply religious Sears’ opinions on working mothers seem to have been formed, prompting feminist responses like Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. But perhaps it wouldn’t be so undermining if men were allowed more than token roles in child-rearing. We may not be able to breastfeed, however, attachment parenting puts so much focus on mothering that it necessarily keeps fathers on the fringes.
But so does parenting culture in general; it might as well be called “mothering culture.” There are mommy blogs, mothering message boards, women’s “parenting” magazines, and stacks upon stacks of parenting tomes that, unless very occasionally denoted with a dad in the subtitle, are for female readers. Even most daddy blogs seem to boast a primarily female readership.
And advertising? Well, that’s almost exclusively aimed at mamas, too, often mocking us supposedly bumbling dads as if Don Draper had written the copy. Why are moms so stressed out these days? Could it be that the Parent-Industrial Complex is a billion-dollar industry preying on the fears, insecurities, and anxieties of women while essentially ignoring men? (Yes, dads feature heavily in the trailer for this week’s baby book-turned-movie What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but alongside Louie and Up All Night, they are rule-proving exceptions.)
I am as involved as I possibly could be—and since my wife finished mat leave, we share the parenting equally. But what I do not do—and what many, if not most, other dads’ also don’t do—is peruse parenting books, blogs, and message boards (unless it’s for this column). Maybe it’s a guys-don’t-use-maps stereotype, but I derive great pleasure from winging it, just like moms and dads did before the parenting industry exploded over the past couple decades. Just like they do in the foreign cultures that attachment parenting aims to emulate. I do look up specific things, like ear infections or toilet-training, but I don’t stress myself out with preemptive research or pointless overthinking and certainly don’t subscribe to an all-encompassing parenting philosophy written by a stranger who has never met my son. I hardly need Sears’ 767-page book to tell me to love, respect, and cuddle my kid. (I don’t need a marketing label, either—I just call that “parenting.”)
Dr. “no cry” Sears says to follow your instincts, but then he denigrates instincts like my own, which balance structure and independence (including sleep-training, which Sears dubs “convenience” parenting by people with “hardened hearts” that will break your baby’s brain) alongside as much snuggling as E will tolerate.
“Studies on troubled teens and psychopaths have shown that these persons have one abnormal feature in common: a lack of caring,” he also fearmongers. “Not so the children who are the product of attachment parenting.” (Though I sure do like the part where he unironically slags his “prophets-of-bad-parenting-advice” competitors as “some third-party advisor who has no biological connection to your baby, no knowledge or investment in your baby, and isn’t even there at 3:00 a.m. when your baby cries.”)
Now, the overall purpose of attachment parenting—to raise happier, healthier children—is wonderful and I don’t want to pick solely on Sears. The Guardian reports that a recent study by the University of Warwick into 50 years of parenting books “says every manual designed to offer support and advice to women has had the opposite effect, leaving them dispirited and feeling inadequate.”
Well, I’m a man who doesn’t feel dispirited or inadequate. While my wife worries unnecessarily about being a perfect mother and career woman, feeling guilty about this or that, I thrive guilt-free on making it up as I go along based on my son’s cues. E loves daycare, having his own room, and independent play just as much as he loves brunching, co-napping, and the dance routine we do every morning to “Life’s a Happy Song.” Fatherhood is vastly more epic and intense than I expected, but it goes a lot smoother the less you stress about it.
I do get that men and women parent differently. Emile and I play rougher, watch more superhero cartoons, build more forts, and go out for more waffles. I taught E to growl before he could even talk, and his mom probably wouldn’t have done that, either. But different doesn’t mean more or less important. I don’t need nor want props for being involved, but I would like to see parenting culture stop freaking moms out and stop subjecting dads to the sexism of lowered expectations.
So am I dad enough? Here’s the thing: I would never actually ask myself that question—and moms shouldn’t either.