Fear of Crying… Attachment Parenting on the Couch (or on the Hot Seat?)

I knew Erica Jong from my furtive erotic readings of pre-pubescence.  Fear of Flying sat modernly on my parents’ bookshelf, right next to The Happy Hooker (“What did she do with the German Shepherd?” was one of our eternal in-joke lines between my brother and our two best friends, also brothers).

Fear of Flying was less than satisfying to the curious and vaguely horny tween in the elephant-bell early 70s—I suppose it was more intelligent than The Happy Hooker, but for intellectual-sexual I could better relate to Portnoy’s Complaint.  All I really remembered from The Fear of Flying was the concept of the “zipless fuck” (I apologize if you carry a fear or repulsion at the F-word, but Erica started it).

Imagine my surprise, all these years later, to learn that Erica Jong was weighing in on, of all things, attachment parenting.  I learned of the controversy from the blogosphere, but then went to the source—The Wall Street Journal (another unexpected place to host a heated, and rather misinformed, debate on parenting)… but now that Rupert Murdoch owns it, the call to controversy may have resounded in those venerable halls.

I also read the counterpoint to Erica’s diatribe against her understanding of attachment parenting at Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode (see, in particular, Erica Jong’s response to the kerfuffle at Motherlode.

As I contemplated the whole absurd situation—lurid sex and neurosis writer railing against her perception of attachment parents—I thought again about Jong’s “zipless fuck.”  To be honest, I had mostly skimmed Fear of Flying, looking for the naughty bits.  Thus I had mistakenly thought that a zipless fuck was something that happened when two people on a train looked at each other and had sex in their imaginations.  This made sense to me personally, since it was the sort of sex I was mostly having those days, except that the other person wasn’t on a train, she was usually sitting in front of me in honors English.  And I’m pretty sure even my zipless fucks went utterly unrequited.

And then, thanks to Wikipedia, the irony finally struck me:  what Jong actually meant by “zipless fuck” was the notion of full-on sex but with no attachment.

So it may be no wonder that the doyenne of non-attachment in the bedroom (or airplane lavatory, or cheap motel) would be a natural champion of non-attachment in the mommy and me world.

But like some vaguely addled remnant of the sixties/seventies, Jong’s good politics get all jumbled up with her absolute misunderstanding of attachment parenting.  But then nobody’s perfect, as the final line of Some Like it Hot goes; hey, I missed the boat on the zipless fuck and Erica Jong misses the point of attachment parenting—perhaps we might all meet in the middle, kiss, make up and sing Kumbaya in our global parenting village.  There’s no winning in war, not even in parenting philosophy wars.

There is no doubt that Jong touched a nerve with her essay.  These days parenting is big business, and the key way the money is made is by stirring up fears and then offering solutions—suggesting that you are not a good parent and that if you really love your child you will do x, y and z for them.

I’m interested in attachment parenting, but as a psychologist my interest harks back to people who did not write parenting books.  Whether the Sears go too far or not is fine to debate, but they did not invent attachment parenting—mothers did, in Paleolithic times (and if they hadn’t, humans would not have continued to this day and our diverse opinions).

So while it’s fine to rail against fear-driven parenting, guilt-driven parenting and helicopter parenting, none of those are in keeping with the actual and natural spirit of attachment parenting.  In fact, while we don’t need new terms to confuse the issue, I might offer up “Containment Parenting” as a potential way of re-thinking enmeshed over-involvement in favor of unobtrusive presence, as being there only as much as our children need, not too little not too much.

In the service of clarifying some of the misconceptions Erica Jong seems to carry and promulgate, (on our way to kissing and making up), we might contemplate some of the incendiary words that the fearless flier tossed off in her Wall Street Journal piece:

“Attachment parenting, especially when combined with environmental correctness, has encouraged female victimization. Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It’s a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women’s freedom as the right-to-life movement.”

I hear strains of Rosanne Rosanadana here, a hot rambling build up to a chastened “never mind.”  I mean, really, this is just plain ridiculous.  Yes our culture is overly competitive, but being with our children is not a threat to freedom—attaching and bonding with children in order to create security and allow later independence is more of a solution than problem.

In fairness, some of the things Jong rails against, such as helicopter parenting and narcissism, truly do represent a bit of a disaster in enmeshed and anxious parenting; yet practicing attachment parenting is really about creating security in the first months of life, a philosophy that leads to increasing autonomy as a child develops.  Parents who cannot let go of college-aged children may be guilty and confused, but they are not practicing attachment parenting.

Jong tosses off an odd statement:  “I liked breast-feeding. My daughter hated it.”

This sounds like a problem in attachment, yet I doubt if this represents an accurate understanding of her daughter’s true feelings as a newborn.  I could better empathize if Jong were to now realize that perhaps it was she who did not really want to nurse (as she had a hot career to pursue) and who then projected this “unacceptable” feeling onto her child.

Jong says, “I try to imagine what it would have been like for me to follow the suggestions of attachment parenting while I was a single mother and full-time bread-winner. I would have had to take my baby on lecture tours, in and out of airports, television stations and hotels. But that was impossible. Her schedule and mine could not have diverged more. So I hired nannies, left my daughter home and felt guilty for my own imperfect attachment.”

She felt bad, and yet she turns around and implies that it was the concept of attachment parenting that made her feel bad, rather than the ruptured bond between her and her child.

Maybe she had no choice, but to be sad and conscious might be more persuasive than to attack the notion that parents should be there for kids if at all possible, even if that means making sacrifices.  Jong comes from the “me” generation—the generation that left social security empty for the rest of us, the generation that leaves us with a big mess (and now the assertion that it is we, the younger folks who are greedy and overly focused on nurturing)—all while actually believing that they were making things better with greater and greater production of goods and mass pursuit of luxury and pleasure.

Worst of all, Jong strives to make attachment parenting a political issue:

“Indeed, although attachment parenting comes with an exquisite progressive pedigree, it is a perfect tool for the political right. It certainly serves to keep mothers and fathers out of the political process. If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don’t have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit. What exhausted, overworked parent has time to protest under such conditions?”

I don’t see attachment parenting as a tool of conservatives.  Parenting, more than anything else we collectively care about, is a chance for us to come together across all sides of the spectrum around loving our own children, and each other’s children.  Such politicizing of parenting as Jong stirs up is bait we parents must not take.  No matter your politics, your faith or atheism, I choose to stand united with you for the good of all our children.  There is plenty of room for vigorous debate on all this, and Erica is a part of that debate, but we must ask ourselves, when we encounter various voices, “whom are they seeking to serve?”

If Erica is serving to support burned out parents who feel shamed by the imagined demands of “perfect parenting,” then I join her in wishing love and relief to such parents.  But controversy for the gain of those who fan the flames is at the heart of many of our social problems—of fighting in the media and fighting in Washington (none of which serves the people, much less the children).

Thus I don’t wish to dish against smart-smart sexy Erica Jong, rather to say that if she pushes our buttons as parents we need to ask ourselves, “what is the threat?”  The threat, I believe, is that we all want to be our best Selves as parents; and we all fear that we are falling short.  I can relate to Erica on the topic of parenting being hard; I can relate around guilt and concern; I cannot see the gain for kids or parents in mothers burning their nursing bras.

Attaching and attachment parenting does not, as Erica suggests, mean that you have to make your own baby-food or be as glamorous as a supermodel.  Erica appears out of touch with what modern moms actually feel (other than over-burdened and sometimes guilty); moms need societal support to be able to stay home and bond with their babies.  Challenging the value of attachment parenting flies in the face of what Jong seems to want for parents; you can use her argument to cut maternity leave and “support” moms to get right back into the workforce (where they have the “power” to do what?  To run on a hamster wheel?).

Power is the power to attach.

Jong continues:  “Our cultural myth is that nurturance matters deeply. And it has led to “helicopter parenting,” the smothering surveillance of a child’s every experience and problem, often extending as far as college. It has also led to pervasive anxiety (among parents and children alike) and the deep disappointment that some parents suffer when their kids become less malleable during their teenage years.”

Nurturance does matter—and I challenge the notion that it’s a “myth.”  Young children die without nurturance.  How is that a myth?

Is Jong really saying that nurturance leads to pervasive anxiety?  Perhaps she herself is so anxious that she doesn’t know what helps someone feel safe and calm.

Parents who are smothering their children need the same thing as parents who abandon their children:  love and accurate understanding.  Parents cannot transmit security to children by way of a parenting theory; they must themselves become secure (otherwise they are teaching what they do not know, and this may be at the root of anxious parents raising anxious children despite all the love and good intentions).

Despite Erica Jong’s inflammatory rhetoric, I suspect that most of this tempest in a teacup is due to semantics and erroneous misunderstandings (or perhaps deliberate controversy-mongering).  Parents do try their best; still, our culture does not adequately educate children, it does not adequately support parents nor foster trust and community; the people and institutions with the most power (including government, media, publishing) are adept at maximizing profits for stake-holders—and this has NOTHING to do with assuaging fears and facilitating confidence in parents.

The revolution in parenting will not be televised… and so long as you stay plugged into the big corporate fear-mongering freak show you will miss it.

If we feel we’re overstressed as parents, or overdoing things, or struggling because we go without, let’s support each other to know that we do care about each other, and know that we are cared about, if not by everyone, at least by plenty of quiet, loving, compassionate people.

Jong opines:  “Giving up your life for your child creates expectations that are likely to be thwarted as the child, inevitably, attempts to detach. Nor does such hyper-attentive parenting help children to become independent adults. Kids who never have to solve problems for themselves come to believe that they can’t solve problems themselves. Sometimes they fall apart in college.”

Again Jong confabulates attachment with hyper-attentiveness.  An inability to let go and facilitate independence as kids grow ought not to be blamed on attachment parenting any more than the Inquisition should be blamed on Jesus.

Finally, Jong gets to a true social point:  “Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child’s home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.”

Perfectionism is a true problem that dooms us to feelings of shame and inadequacy.  And to the extent that we are under the yoke of some perfect parent paradigm we are well advised to break our chains.  Still, this does not mean failing to attach and nurture—we must direct more resources, not less, in the support of families in the first year or two of child-rearing.  It is precisely because we are not perfect that we need to be that village that it takes to raise kids.

Jong says, “Some parenting gurus suggest that helicopter parenting became the rage as more mothers went to work outside the home. In other words, it was a kind of reaction formation, a way for mothers to compensate for their absence and guilt and also for the many dangerous and uncontrollable things in the modern family’s environment. This seems logical to me. As we give up on ideals of community, we focus more and more on our individual children, perhaps not realizing that the community and the child cannot be separated.”

Here she gets to the place I most agree with her as far as the importance of children in the context of community, however, we did not individually give up on community, we collectively made a lemming leap into untrusting, winner-take-all individuality.  The way back out is by working together, by attaching in healthy and more trusting ways, not by confabulating narcissism with attachment and then savaging the very medicine that can heal us.  (BTW, saying that her own baby did not like nursing is a splendid illustration of a “reaction formation”).

Also, whoever these “gurus” may be, if helicopter parenting is an over-compensation for not being there in the beginning, wouldn’t being there in the beginning (i.e. attachment parenting) be a good solution moving forward?

Ultimately I think I really agree with Erica Jong (with what I imagine she is trying to say), but her message is garbled and aggressive and feels as much a zipless fuck-you to parents as it does a call to love each other’s kids, which I believe it really is meant to be.  It’s just that you don’t heal narcissism with criticism, but with accurate understanding and compassion—be it for each other or for our larger culture.

In the 70’s they said, “If it feels good do it.”  So perhaps for attachment parents it does feel good (or at least right path) to make sacrifices for our kids and give it our all.  Sure we bitch and moan and blow off a little steam, but that doesn’t mean that we are oppressed by caring for our children (we may be oppressed by how little collective support we get, and so here we are, offering collective support to each other).

At no time in history did parents not love their children.  We all do our best, and the experts keep changing the tune.  Meanwhile, moms birth, nurse, soothe, teach, feed, facilitate and love their children; moms know what to do.  My clarion call is to trust your instincts; live your animal; be the village; have a good time.

Jong concludes:  “In the oscillations of feminism, theories of child-rearing have played a major part. As long as women remain the gender most responsible for children, we are the ones who have the most to lose by accepting the “noble savage” view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness. We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.”

In my estimation naturalness and attachment (in a group, community or extended spiritual family context) does release us from guilt.  It allows us to love and care about each other.  Still, I am more than happy to stand beside Erica Jong and say:  Do the best you can.  There are no rules.

Namaste, Bruce

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22 Responses to “Fear of Crying… Attachment Parenting on the Couch (or on the Hot Seat?)”

  1. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that your notion of the zipless fuck was led you to imaginings of girls in honors English class.

    I think you are built to be zipped up. Attached. Nurturing. The world is better for it and for the discussions you bring as a result.

    I would love to hear more about what you mean when you say “container parenting”…

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Rebecca. As for container or containment parenting I might say, go to the mirror and gaze lovingly and without judgment at yourself, deep into your own eyes, past the veil of your current identity to see your Soul-self, held sparkly and patient within your Rebecca self (the deep or soul-Self is contained within the ego-self; but as you well know and write about, it is also contained in a stack of rocks, in a flower, in a field).

      Take this gaze to your child (or the world). This might be a way to describe what you already instinctively do (much as words contain more than overt meaning, the spirit perhaps even bringing them into being in the first place).

      Namaste

  2. Katrina Kenison Says:

    Bruce, You’ve written some pretty amazing posts in the year or so that I’ve been following your blog, but this one, well, it seems to me to be essential reading for every parent and a great contribution to the cultural conversation. I feel as if I could write a response almost as long as your original essay here, there are so many good points to ponder and discuss. But I’ll resist that urge, and instead send this around to the parents I know and love. Your thinking and writing is a great service. I’m grateful to Erica Jong, just because she inspired you! And as someone who is currently a mother to a teenager who is definitely not malleable, I’m learning that if there IS a problem here, it’s mine, and the way to solve it is not to cling, but to let go and fly on my own, just as I hope we’ve raised our son to do. That is not to say that I don’t miss our years of intimacy; I wouldn’t trade them for anything. When I think of what I miss now (that daily closeness and connection) I’m deeply comforted by what we had (years of daily closeness and connection).

  3. Laurie Says:

    Do much swirling in my head. Thanks again Bruce.

  4. Jenn Says:

    Wow, it’s all here Bruce, bravo! Interestingly, I had a different take on the “I liked breast-feeding. My daughter hated it.” comment. I took her to mean that she like to breast feed her daughter, but her daughter, as a new mom herself, did not like breast feeding her children. Her daughter wrote a response of sorts:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703805704575594213125914630.html.

    As you say, “more compassion and understanding” especially in supporting people in doing the best that they can.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Jenn, Maybe I had it all wrong on who didn’t like nursing… if so, it’s me who must say …never mind 🙂

      Either way, interesting response by Molly—sounds to me like Erica was really there for her much later and as a grandmother; also interesting that Molly characterizes herself as a helicopter parent, consistent with her own mom buying her lots of things, but not really being there in the beginning… anxious creating more anxious.

      No matter what way or which it is, here’s to compassion amongst us all, especially on helping the next generation feel secure.

  5. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Hi Bruce – I followed the flap over Erica Jong’s WSJ piece with some interest and am very grateful for your thoughtful perspective here.

    Despite my frequent wish that there were indeed a be-all-and-end-all parenting manual I might follow, I don’t subscribe to any particular school of parenting. I do some things Bill Sears & co. would love and others he would chide me for. And so I was able to read Jong’s article without feeling a sense of personal attack, but I nevertheless questioned her motives: perhaps she did intend simply to stir the pot? It seems to me that rather than start a real conversation, she retrenched the positions of many of her targets.

    All this by way of saying that I appreciate the openness with which you react to her statements and the spirit of conversation you bring to it.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Kristen, I’m also thankful for you, Kristen, and our good fortune to discuss amongst ourselves that which we are thinking about—and to support each other in a less controversial/stirring the pot manner.

      I’m with you in picking what I like amongst different voices more than following anything as dogma. Here’s to continued discourse—and good cheer this Holiday Season.

  6. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I’m with Kristen–I think Jong is stirring the pot a little. Some of the connections she makes are so faulty (eg: attachment parenting leads to sacrificing yourself as a person leads to helicopter parenting leads to emotionally crippling your child) that it seems ludicrous. Jong is smarter than that.

    I also think that you are correct in your assertion that she misunderstands attachment parenting in many ways; her idea that, in order to attachment parent, she had to tote her newborn with her to every book signing and be with her at every moment and breast feed constantly is NOT what attachment parenting is about.

    I think what makes me so baffled is that Jong is writing this in retaliation–the attachment parenting method, and all of its advocates/press, made Jong feel inadequate, that she was doing it wrong. She felt judged. So what does she do in return? She perpetuates the cycle of blame and making women feel rotten for the choices they make. How the Hell is that going to help anything?

    Here’s what I wish: I wish new mothers were given the message that, you know what? You are capable of knowing (and doing) what is best for you and your child. Nobody knows your child better than you, and you have the right to listen to your heart where your child is concerned. I think it would make the world so much nicer.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi KW, I totally agree with your wish and join you in wishing it. I also think that a lot of us are quietly asserting this and living this and caring about each other in wanting to support us all to be real, trust ourselves and realize that there are better things to do with pots than stir up anxiety and controversy.

      Here’s to authentic parenting, loving and cooking.

  7. Rachel Says:

    I guess every parenting method, when taken too far, deserves a good backlash, and attachment parenting, with all its noble intentions, is no exception. Somewhere between over-attachment and benign neglect, there is probably something like “balanced parenting,” or “instinctive parenting,” or “good old common sense.” Also, Jong’s perspective strikes me as somewhat dated, back to the Gloria Steinem 70s, sort of out of tune with the fact that many feel the pendulum has swung back quite a bit…

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Rachel, Sometimes all this pendulum swinging makes me think of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” (where one can only hope for an end to Parenting Inquisition). All Good Wishes for balance, instinct and good old common sense—all leavened with compassion. Namaste

  8. Michelle Fulcher Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this tonight Bruce. I don’t really understand why ‘attachment’ parenting cops so much flack as it seems to, but I do wonder if there is an underlying longing to have a better attachment to their own parents. Or perhaps misunderstanding that attachment parenting isn’t about a strict set of rules that must be abided by for fear of being kicked out of the ‘AP’ club….The way I see it, attachment parenting is about doing whatever you can do facilitate a strong, healthy attachment/bond with your child. Every parent/child dyad is different and I think it is entirelly possible to conciously create a strong and healthy attachment with a child while parenting not following the ‘rules’.

    For me, it was being told I needed to leave my baby to cry and not being given appropriate breastfeeding support by the community that turned me to AP and it just felt right, for me and I’m so glad I found it. I guess what worries me about articles like Jong’s is that vulnerable, lost new parents might be put of Attachment Parenting by it….but at the same time, I know I would have found it and connected to it eventually during my mothering career.
    Enough rambling from me for one night….thank you for yet another touching, thought provoking post.
    Michelle

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Michelle, Thank you for your compassionate words, perhaps they will resonate to new parents who benefit from hearing the reassurance of others who have been there and who may also be lacking in support at the moment. I’m glad you found a good path and I appreciate you taking the time to share here. All Good Wishes, BD

  9. Jen @ Momalom Says:

    Well this is far more than I can take in. But I thank you. This ride is a bumpy one, and I hope we all can step back and give each other the benefit of the doubt that we are doing our best and that a little acknowledgment of that goes a long way.

  10. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I will also join the rallying cry (or better yet, the calm assertion) of Jong’s and your last lines: Do the best you can. There are no rules. And yet, I would say there are rules – but they are surely guidelines rather than anything hard and fast, and they are the guidelines that we choose and that work for us, as parents, at each point in time with our individual children.

    What “felt right” with my older son was one thing; and with his brother, has been a very different and constantly elastic journey. In that regard, I consider myself fortunate that exposure to other cultures (in Western Europe) didn’t seem to push a particular agenda or trend. And perhaps I parent by internal GPS, and a background of freer Euro style. Free of guilt? No, but fairly confident that I’ve done my best, and still learning.

    Your thorough (and entertaining) dissection of this topic was fascinating. Right down to “Never Mind” – and a few other cultural references that I suspect we share.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Having two children I also came to appreciate their differences, striving to attune to each via subtly different channels. I think it’s so important to support each other as parents, especially in the context of kids who are more challenging to soothe, read or attune with. The more all of our GPSs trust that we’re all in this together the more we realize we’re all home and connected at the same time, somehow drawing energy when needed from the float of each other, giving as well to the general fund when we can. All Good Wishes all around.

  11. walkingonmyhands Says:

    What a great post! I will come back to this many many times to center my self as a parent in my too much, too little? conversation with myself.

    I loved the line: I’m interested in attachment parenting, but as a psychologist my interest harks back to people who did not write parenting books.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with that line. Thank you for writing such an enlightening post.

    PS I did all the things Jong said would lead the the victimization of women and instead, it was liberating and not stifling.

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