Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Attachment Parenting : You're Mom Enough Without It

The latest cover of TIME magazine (5/21/12) with the beautiful 20something mom breastfeeding her 3 year old son had me shaking my head.

What WAS she thinking taking that picture, and having her full name on the magazine cover? Ten years from now her son is going to have to face his friends when they ask him what it was like to suck his mother's breasts. Because they have proof. A million covers of TIME magazine, internet pages and downloads later. Really. The social insensitivity of that photo takes my breath away.

As for the topic, the so-called Attachment Parenting style advocated by Dr. Bill Sears, well. That, too, has it's serious problems. Let me be brief:

Attachment Theory describes the emotional or relational attachment between a developing infant and mother. It was first studied in depth by John Bowlby (and later by Ainsworth, Main, Cassidy, Hazan, Shaver, and others) in the 1950's. It posits that the emotional attachment between mother and child is the main determinant for that child's internal sense of self-in-relationship throughout life. The mother, if she is relatively consistent in her caregiving, responsiveness, and mirroring of the child's emotions, creates a "safe haven" for a developing self against the world. That same mother, as her child begins to reach out to the world beyond her, creates a "secure base" from which a child explores the world and can return to mom safely and with support for a developing independence.

This science has been studied for the last 50 years, and has developed a deep collection of research, data, and process that I subscribe to as a relational psychotherapist. About 55% of us are fortunate enough to have mothers that welcomed us to the world, sheltered, fed, changed, disciplined, loved, laughed, cried and protected us well enough that we emerged from our infancy able to approach others for support, and not worry too much about relationships. This is called having a "secure attachment" style. The rest of us, because of our mother's own anxieties, environmental stress, illness, or other issues develop an anxious, withdrawing, or mixed attachment style that we carry from childhood through adulthood at about a 75% rate.

Now, here's my issue: There is nothing in the research of Attachment Theory to indicate that mothers must breastfeed their infants and toddlers, co-sleep with them, or never put them down in order to create secure emotional attachment. Nothing. What the research indicates is that mothers who do their level best to hold, look at, speak to, and provide consistent emotional responsiveness to their child's distress, and support to their developing independence despite issues like also being a spouse, or working, or using daycare, or tending to other children in the family, or having friends or hobbies, usually produce relationally secure children. Period.

So if you love your children, are relatively secure yourself, have the most stable marriage or partnership you can create, have good health, and manage the details of your life pretty well, you don't have to give up your body, mind and self out of the fear that your child isn't getting what they need. Pending unseen catastrophes, they will, they can, and they do.

Most of all, I'm sad that mothering can feel so overwhelming to some of us that following the direction of one single doctor seems safer than following one's own common sense and the collective wisdom of the millions of mothers and fathers who have gone before us. Attachment parenting? Dump the pseudo-science and let your child sleep in their own bed. It's safer for them, and you may actually get a (mostly) full night's rest even when you're up at 3am to nurse, change or rock them back to sleep. Honest.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Monogamy: It's Not for Everybody

Back in the day when I performed weddings, starry-eyed couples would come to my church office to do premarital counseling and plan their (elaborate) wedding ceremony. I guess I never stopped to consider it much, but I assumed, as did they, that the promise to be "faithful until death parts us" was seriously considered and solemnly promised before and during the wedding service. They only had eyes for one another.

Yet, I knew that about half of all the weddings I would perform over the years would end in divorce. That statistic didn't stop anybody, it seemed, from being certain about themselves. We can do it, the couple assumed. We can be each others' partner for life.

I now have been in the marriage counseling field for 8 years, and practicing full-time for 6. It's not a lot of experience, but believe me: it's enough. Enough to feel like I have a new sense of the difficulties of pledging a life-long partnership, and the challenge of not only growing and aging in some kind of parallel line with one another, but often raising children, dealing with work demands, managing health issues, sometimes moving across town or across country, or going to war, or dealing with trauma and grief.

I now think that it's pretty awesome that 50 percent of those marriages make it a life time. In fact, I think that is nearly close to miraculous.

I've been thinking about the various, very human, reasons that marriages don't make it a lifetime. And the list keeps piling up. Now, granted, my sample of the human spectrum is rather narrow, since happy couples are generally not calling me for appointments. And I do practice in a very narrow economic and cultural range in Dakota County, MN. So, that said, here are a few thoughts on the matter. I hope to write some more about it later.

1. Monogamy, sexual exclusivity with one partner, isn't for everyone. I used to think that monogamy was just a choice, and that adults could manage it. I now believe that some of the most devoted of husbands and wives suffer from sexual struggles around having just one partner for ever. And that sexual simplicity drives them to have affairs, or other kinds of sexual acting out. What I once thought of as a cop-out I now consider a simple fact of human sexual life. Not everyone will enjoy monogamy. Many people get around this not by having affairs, but having multiple marriages, amounting to a serial monogamy with several marital partners. Half of all marriages go this way.

2. When partner family of origin preferences are very different, whether around matters of alcohol, or vacations, or habits around conflict or gender roles, or religious practice, child rearing or politics, I see those habits beat out intention more times than not. The power of family habits is hard to resist.

3. Personalities are notoriously hard to change. We are individually shaped by our genetics, our nurturing by parenting, good, bad or indifferent, in families, and all the unique things that happen to us in our lives. Many people marry their partners, despite clear problems and pain, believing that they will change their partner for the better. While we do influence our partners all the time, I have never seen a marriage based on the belief that "marriage will change them" work. Never. EVER.

With all the things getting in the way of a successful lifelong partnership, I have become a person who sees the 50% success as a definitely glass-half-FULL issue. It's amazing that that many people getting married stay married, and say they are happy. If you are one of them, congratulations. You are a relationship rock star.








Friday, March 23, 2012