Babies Are Assholes: The Problem With Attachment Parenting
By Jef Otte
The baby wakes up and he's hungry. He wants some food and he wants it right fucking now. Unfortunately for the baby, there are a number of things that need to take place before that can happen: He needs his diaper changed, he needs to get strapped into his high-chair and his food needs to get mashed up, and daddy needs to make some coffee before he loses his shit -- and even though we go through the same routine every morning and I know he knows he's going to get fed just as soon as the routine is finished, every morning he screams at me pretty much until the first bite of food goes in his mouth.
That baby is a real prick.
Still, as a stay-at-home 30-something dad, I run into a fair amount of babies (and their mothers) from day to day, and in comparison to a seemingly large majority of them, mine is an absolute gem. And it's not because of his natural disposition. I've got two kids -- the older nine years old and the younger coming up on nine months -- and of the two, the older has always been the kind of kid people dream of having: easygoing, docile and naturally cautious enough never to get himself into much trouble. He's pretty much the definition of an easy kid. The baby, though, not so much.
The baby, it's evident, has got the evilness in him: a natural-born willful bastard with a generous naughty streak and a mission that occupies his every waking second to do the thing he senses you least want him to do. Which sort of makes me love him even more, because I've got a soft spot for willful-ass little kids. And the fact is, even with the propensity for evil, he's still a sweet little guy who smiles at strangers, responds well to "no" (he might ignore it, but he won't flip out about it), sleeps fifteen hours a day without complaint and, except for right after he wakes up, seldom cries.
So if this innately dastardly baby is, even in spite of his innate dastardliness, such a pleasure to be around, then why are the babies and even the kids of so many of my cohorts (I think we all know at least a couple of these) such belligerent, unmanageable, anxiety-ridden little fascists? The answer, I strongly suspect, has a lot to do with "attachment parenting," a phenomenon so baffling and ass-backwards it defies logic, but which nevertheless provides the philosophical bedrock of every self-named "mommy club" you know.
Attachment parenting has been getting a lot of traction since the latest issue of TIME hit stands just in time for Mother's Day -- you know, the "Are You Mom Enough" one with the bizarre cover featuring a preschool-age kid suckling his mother's tit with an expression that, weirdly, seems to reflect our own unease at seeing it. The image depicts an extreme example of the lengths to which the phenomenon can go, but that's in keeping with the subject of the story, so-called "father of attachment parenting" Bill Sears, a pediatrician whose particular philosophy stands on the three central tenets: breastfeeding, co-sleeping and constant carrying, which in turn flow from the idea that "every baby's whimper is a plea for help and that no infant should ever be left to cry" and that "the more time babies spend in their mother's arms, the better chance they will turn out to be well-adjusted children."
Basically, then, attachment parenting hinges on the presumption that if, through perpetual satisfaction of their every desire, we prevent our babies from crying -- and indeed, perpetual satisfaction of their every desire is the only way to prevent a baby from crying -- they will grow to become well-adjusted. And right there, right off the bat, it's a contradiction in terms.
First off, the term "well-adjusted" implies, you know, adjustment. The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget described it in terms of assimilation and accommodation: The infant perceives information from the outside world and must reconcile that information by adapting to it. In babies, this adaptation has much to do with learning how to live within the society we inhabit. Which is no easy task. Freud, for example, makes much of the toll that living in society exerts on us in its requirement that we sacrifice our most basic instinctive desires and aggressive impulses in order to coexist in imperfect harmony. Essentially, the nice, polite, well-adjusted adults we hopefully become are a far cry from our natural state -- the state, that is, in which we arrive in the world, as infants.
Because babies are assholes. They're demanding, they're utterly self-centered, they have no empathy and they shriek horrible, horrible shrieks when they don't get what they want. And that's okay, because they're babies. They're adorable and they don't know any better.
But nobody likes a grown adult who acts like a fucking baby.
Hell, nobody likes a kid who acts like a fucking baby, either, but that's exactly the kind of kid attachment parenting produces, because, by definition, the model requires no adjustment. It encourages babies to do what they do -- be demanding, utterly self-centered assholes who have no empathy and shriek horrible, horrible shrieks when they don't get what they want -- because it rewards that behavior, their natural behavior, so what possible motivation could they have to adjust? Adjustment, after all, is painful. It causes them to cry. So the idea that not requiring the painful process of adjustment will produce well-adjusted children is patently absurd. And that's saying nothing of the myriad Oedipal implications of breastfeeding a kid until he's old enough to mean-mug the father.
Still, attachment parenting rejects this logic, presumably on the basis -- according to the good doctor Sears, an evangelical/catholic quack who also holds that attachment parenting is the way "God wants" babies to be raised, by the way -- that long bouts of crying in babies can cause some vague neurological damage by releasing stress hormones. It's bullshit junk science that doesn't hold up to scrutiny, and, tellingly, it's seldom touted by attachment parenting's most fervent proponents.
The TIME piece was not exactly an indictment of the practice, but neither was it sufficiently laudatory to appease the hyper-sensitive ranks of the mommy blogs, most of which -- as is pretty much everything stamped with the "mommy" moniker -- are heavily steeped in attachment philosophy. The substance of their ire was revealing. In Mommyish, Bolaji Williams wrote, "Why is it inconceivable that a woman can be fulfilled by being 'just' a mom? If a woman feels fulfilled by wearing her child, feeding on demand, making homemade lentil soup, and spending her days in non-stop contact with her offspring ... why do we presume that something is radically wrong with that woman?"
Oh, I don't know, but probably because I've yet to meet a single attachment mother who's fooling anyone but herself with her supposed "fulfillment," who doesn't wear the constant plastic smile of the cheerfully oppressed while suffering her old-enough-to-know-better kid from grabbing at her tit and refusing to sleep, meanwhile desperately reminding herself that she actually likes this shit and uttering the cry of the attachment mommy: "But my baby loves me."
It's not about the kid. It's about the symbiosis of martyrdom, about the satisfaction and control of constantly being needed, while everyone else who has to be around the kid and the mother suffers the consequences of the kid who still -- still -- acts like a fucking baby. Who grows into an adult who acts like a fucking baby. Because although attachment parenting is only supposed to last through infancy, the reality is that infancy never ends. The baby never adjusts.
I love my baby like crazy, every single day. But unless he's actually injured, I do not give a fuck if he cries. It's good for him. Every time I ignore his screaming, it's a reinforcement of a crucial truth in life: that no amount of screaming will get him what he wants. And I pity the kid who never learns that lesson, and I pity the parent who never teaches it. But more than that, I pity the poor souls who have to live, work and coexist in our civilization with the fucking baby that baby is destined to become.
Jef Otte is a freelance essayist and writer. He lives in Denver with his girlfriend and two kids, who probably wish he would get a real job.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.