Prescriptions

The thinking women's guide to health.

What Happened to the Good Enough Mother? She’s a Slacker

Understanding the perils of attachment-at-the-hip parenting

One of the gifts we received after the birth of our daughter was a book entitled Super Baby Food. As my daughter slept peacefully in my arms, I learned about super baby porridge, a magical mixture of brown rice, millet, and flax seeds. I imagined her delighting in such delicacies as mock ice cream and cucumber cups filled with low-fat yogurt. I dreamed of preparing homemade baby food from perfectly nutritious organic fruits and vegetables.


And on our shelves, there were piles of other parenting books and magazines. Most of these championed the benefits of attachment parenting, a term coined by pediatrician William Sears in the 1990s to describe an approach to childrearing guided by the belief that developing a strong emotional bond with a young child will help him or her develop self-esteem and empathic and satisfying relationships later on in life.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Most parents engage in some form of attachment parenting. It's hard to argue with its tenets. How could you find fault with an approach that fosters communication and mutual respect? We all want to understand our children and address their needs. We all want our children to grow up feeling confident and loved, don't we?

But it's a slippery slope. All parents want to do what is best for their children. But how far do you go? What's good enough? At snack time, the other mothers pull out all-natural fruit juice boxes from their climate-controlled lunch boxes; I pull out a Capri Sun juice drink. As I hand my daughter that shiny silver plastic pouch, I look at the other children sipping their all-natural, pure juice, organic, botulinum toxin-free beverages. A little voice inside me cries out defensively, "I do care about my child. Really! I do!" (Is high fructose corn syrup really that bad? At least it's not Hawaiian Punch, I tell myself.)

The problem is that attachment parenting has somehow morphed into something pathological, a form of aggressive (or "invasive", as Hara Estroff Marano calls it) parenting. Our drive to achieve and succeed has tainted our parenting practices. Emotional availability has evolved into intrusiveness - the helicopter mother hovering over her child. Thoughtful attention to our children's needs has led to incessant anxiety.

We have deluded ourselves into thinking that, as parents, we are in control, that we can singlehandedly steer the course of our child's development. By monitoring every morsel that passes their lips, we can nourish their bodies and protect them from disease. By dousing them with antibacterial gels, we can protect them from environmental threats. We believe that by playing soothing Mozart melodies and by flashing boldly colored cards before them, we can encourage their neurons to sprout faster and can foster superior intelligence. As parents, we will do everything to make damn sure that our children are healthy, happy, and headed for Harvard.

So what happened to that easygoing gal of earlier years - the good enough mother? By today's high-achieving standards, she sounds so .... well, unmotivated. Is she really doing enough for her children?

Attachment parenting carries a certain kind of inescapable absolutism; it is not just one theory on parenting but appears to be the only viable option. For many, not adhering to its tenets is tantamount to being politically incorrect. After all, if you veer from this philosophy, doesn't that mean you're engaging in DE-tachment parenting?

Under these circumstances, many women feel an inordinate amount of pressure, and I suspect that this movement has prompted many professional women to leave their careers in an effort to do what is best for their children. If emotional availability is good for a child, why not total immersion? While this may be an enriching experience for many families, many women find this monomaniacal approach to motherhood less than satisfying.

Channeling professional perfectionism, competitiveness, and ambition into attachment parenting can be a toxic endeavor. In devoting all their energy to attaining the optimal parenting experience for their children, many women are left feeling depleted and unappreciated. With no time to nurture themselves and attend to their own needs, women often feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied. In her book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Judith Warner refers to this approach to parenting as a "choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret".

So how do you fix the problem? How do we find an acceptable middle ground? The grim underbelly of attachment parenting is the belief that mothers are responsible for EVERYTHING their children do. And as a society, it seems that we are more prone to hold mothers accountable for our children's failures than their successes. (Think of the "refrigerator mothers" who were blamed for their children's autism.) We have to be able to admit that we have less control over our children's destiny than we would like. Obviously this is a tough pill to swallow. (Remember the furor that Judith Rich Harris generated with her book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do in arguing that peers matter more than parents.)

And we have to learn to take care of ourselves. If we do not take care of ourselves, who will be there to take care of our children?

At home we often listen to a song from Sweet Honey In The Rock. The song is far more Zen than I could ever hope to be, but it works for me.

Your children
Are not your children.
They come through you, but they are not from you,
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.

I think of it this way. As a parent, I can be many things - facilitator, educator, personal tour guide. (I acknowledge that I am also cook, cleaner of messes, and wiper of runny noses.) But I figure it's my job to show my children the world and help them to find their way. At the end of the day, I feel tired (often exhausted), but I can honestly say that I enjoy being a parent. I enjoy spending time with my kids, and (at least for now) they enjoy my company. They seem relatively happy and healthy. And on most days, I feel good about what I do.

 

Ruta Nonacs, M.D., Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Center for Women's Mental Health at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and is an instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

more...

Subscribe to Prescriptions

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.