Saturday, October 5, 2013

the missing ingredient in American attachment parenting

Ever since our dear friends the Huddles put a copy of Sears and Sears’ The Baby Book in our hands, we’ve been fairly consistent, traditional attachment parents. Since beginning down this road almost two years ago now, I’ve read everything I can find about attachment parenting, its debates and support. Spurred by media attention from TIME magazine, the Huffington Post and about a few gazillion mommy bloggers, moms from all corners of the parenting spectrum are throwing in their two cents. One sentiment that I’ve heard/read over and over again has to do with the “demanding” nature of attachment parenting. Mothers have blogged and tweeted and submitted letters to the editor many times over, effectively saying, “OK so maybe I’m NOT mom enough. I can’t just sit and nurse my child 24/7. I have a job and a home and husband and a dog to attend to. There is not enough room in our bed. I can’t stand carrying this pumpkin all day. All hail those who are strong enough to hack it, but please don’t make me feel guilty for not being able to make it work.” 

Well dear “Attachment-parenting-feels-like-a-crushing-weight-more-than-a-joyful-task” mother, my Zambian lady friends understand where you are coming from, and they have something to share that may encourage you.

Rural Zambian mothers are 100% attachment parents, 100% of the time. There is no debate or discussion about it. This “style” of parenting does not have a special name, its not considered demanding, and not a single woman resents the “choice” she has made. And I’m here to tell you that these women are just like you. They are busy. They have multiple children that need to be bathed and fed and put to sleep. They have jobs and meetings and life-business. They do not posses an extra measure of strength (wait, I take that back, thanks to hauling water and swinging hoes, these women are way buffer than you are…) But apart from freakishly strong biceps, these women really are just like you. The only difference is that they live and raise their children in the context of community.

All Zambian mothers are attachment mothers, but not a one is an attachment mother in isolation. Any time the baby does not really need Mom, she is strapped to the back of another girl or boy or neighborMom and sent off to play. Entertainment, even naptime parenting is often delegated to someone other than bioMom. When the baby cries for food, she is brought to bioMom immediately. The emotional and psychological attachment never skips a beat. But otherwise, mom is free to cook, attend a meeting or bathe without the “demands” of being literally “attached” to baby every second of every day.

I’ve gotten the impression that Americans assume that to be a successful attachment parent, the mother is required to be the one to hold, feed, sleep with, entertain cuddle and play with her babe all day every day until the kiddo goes off to kindergarten. I get tired just thinking about it, and I’m sure Zambian women would too if their understanding of attachment involved such an incredible one woman show.

There is no mistaking that Mom is Mom – an irreplaceable, all-important figure for a well connected child. My Zambian mama friends have learned so well to read the cues of their child to know when they need closeness to Mom or just closeness to someone. Sending the two and four year olds off with the six and eight year olds lets the newborn sleep peacefully while Mom relaxes a while. Letting little ones explore the world with other children keeps their minds stimulated and prevents them from crying and clinging to mom out of boredom.

It is lamentable that America is really not set up with community structures that would be able to support this kind of network. Most American mothers do not have a dozen ready and willing baby sitters milling around outside their door waiting to take a baby and play for a while. American kids who are 12 and under have not been caring for babies since they were 5 and are generally not considered appropriate caretakers of other small children. Neighborhoods are, for the most part, not set up in such a way that all women are looking after all children at all times, and all children are free to play at any house or in any yard at all times. Truly, America’s isolationist culture has serious ramifications when it comes what’s feasible in the realm of child rearing.

this is "Pharaoh Pharaoh" happening in our back yard. in case you were wondering

I’ve mentioned to Jeremy before that I sincerely hope we are not called out of Zambia before the last of our children is done nursing. I don’t know what I would do without Bana Chiti offering to take Bronwyn on walks around the village; how I would make fires and cook meals without the 3rd grade girls who fight over who gets to take Bronwyn home with them after school; how I would have quiet times, be with my husband or write things without the built in entertainment system that is THE VILLAGE. I don’t know what would become of my work if I couldn’t take Bronwyn to meetings without total assurance that playmates would appear out of no where, ready and willing to entertain my girl while I focused on the agenda. I have a feeling that if my current life were transposed into an American, no-community context, somebody would have to cry, somebody would get stuck in the pack and play, somebody would just have to deal, and that would be oh so sad for me.

mom's in there talking about important stuff like an HIV/AIDS pandemic...
and I'm playing with Mambwe and Mwewa. awesome.
I don’t have any practical, useful advice for struggling attachment parents in America short of changing the way the entire country does community. But since that is not overly likely, I guess all I can say is, I hear you. I understand why it’s hard. You are not lacking anything, but your culture is. Keep doing your best. Or just move next door to me. The village Mayo’s and I will be waiting.


  1. Bethany, I think about this all the time. I don't even have a relative nearby who can watch my kids at a moment's notice. Everything must be planned or a babysitter hired. We are reading through the Little House series foe the second time with Linnea and I have found myself wondering how Ma Ingalls made butter and soap and all that crazy stuff (out of necessity, not because it was trendy like today), without any adult help with her kids. There weren't any babysitters out on the prairie. Of course, American pioneer parenting was decidedly NOT attachment parenting, but she had a couple elements in there... Rocking the baby to sleep and presumably co-sleeping in some way. Tim and I talk about this sometimes... Not only is our culture isolationist, it is entitled. Pa and Ma probably never went on a date. Was there marriage terrible? I guess we'll never know but the point is, weekly date nights aren't in the bible. I think American motherhood culture demands me time, exercise time, quiet time, etc in a way that makes women frightened of motherhood and can psych them out before they really are overwhelmed to begin with. I have grown to realize I need a lot less of those things to function than I thought... And the bible certainly doesn't say I need them the way society does! I do wish our culture did community in the seamless way you describe. Tim's answer is to get all our friends and live in a commune... Oh wait. Nothing cultish about that. ;)
    Glad you have all the support you do! My takeaway is to ACCEPT help when others offer, and be willing to offer help even when it may be inconvenient for me to do so. I have been blessed both ways!

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