Guest Post — What is Wrong With Ms. Jong?

November 11, 2010 · 6 comments

Happy baby with mother

Happy baby with mother

Earlier in the week I posted a quick note in response to Erica Jong’s Wall Street Journal opinion piece where she claims attachment parenting is a prison. A reader, Alice Campbell, who is a Regsitered Nurse, a Certified Infant Massage Instructor with IAIM Australia, and a Regsitered Circle of Security Parent Educator, left a short comment and later emailed me this eloquent, apt, and relevant response. I learned so much from it I asked if I could share it, and she graciously agreed. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

I rarely get riled up any more about some of the rot that is on the internet. There’s just way too much of it.

But I do feel the need to break habit, and respond to a recent article by Erica Jong.

I have absolutely no interest in convincing anyone that Ms. Jong is “right” or “wrong” in her views, but to point out that simply they don’t make any sense. By all means, have a debate about “attachment” – but such a debate should at least be made from an informed, and dare I say respectful, perspective.

Ms Jong has – in some respects – done women everywhere a great favour. Her article highlights the common confusion that surrounds the term “attachment parenting”.  All in all, it is a pretty general term, that doesn’t mean much because can be interpreted narrowly or broadly, in many helpful and in many not-so-helpful ways. This thing called “attachment parenting” (however you choose to interpret it) is often confused with the attachment relationship which is a psychosocial theory developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth over 50 years ago, and has been continuously refined through the decades. This clinical theory, if you want to call it that, is based soundly in some very mainstream research across a variety of disciplines (medicine, psychology, anthropology, nursing, midwifery and early childhood education).

I make this distinction between the specificity of the attachment relationship and dearth of things that are called attachment parenting because it highlights a significant number of troubling deficiencies in Ms. Jong’s article. In one fell swoop, I think she has managed to discredit herself as an author of any intellectual rigor and has (albeit in sheeps clothing) placed herself firmly as a sensationalist, tabloid wolf.

The funny thing is, I would have no problem at all if Ms. Jong wanted to offer a counter-thesis to attachment theory, and has something new to offer that we (and by we, I mean professionals who have been working with attachment relationships for decades) haven’t thought of before. Should Ms. Jong ever want to offer some sort of intelligent perspective, I would only be too happy to listen with an open mind as to why she disagrees with a theory that has less “counter evidence” than global warming.

But did Ms. Jong seek out research? No. Did she talk to the likes of Dr. Bruce Perry, Sir Richard Bowlby, Cherry Bond, James Prescott, Glen Cooper (I could list 1000 others here) and offer a well-constructed argument as to why these people are “wrong”? No. She actually seems to have limited her research to the pages of celebrity magazines (and a bit about her own experience which she then generalises and assumes must be true of everyone). Frankly, I would fail a first-year uni student (I think the US equivalent would be a first-year college student) if they submitted an essay as sloppy and un-critical as this.

Instead of being founded in any sort of evidence (as, unfortunately, so much “parenting advice” is these days) Ms. Jong’s article simply comes across as a white, privileged woman whining about other white, priviliaged women. Not only this, but she does so without any reference to the very different social contexts between her two comparisons. Comparing the way modern-day celebrities do (or do not raise their children) on the basis of her experience x-number of decades ago makes about as much sense as my grandmother saying “Well, I survived without the vote, so you girls shouldn’t have it”. If changing social contexts have allowed some different (slightly better) choices for (some privileged) women today, then why should they not be able to make those choices?

This raises the question of what axe Ms. Jong really wants to grind? Is it really her concern that women feel pressure to parent in particular ways that don’t feel right for them? If she had the interests of women at heart I would suggest that she could talk to breastfeeding and bottle feeding mothers, co-sleeping and separate-sleeping mothers, mothers using any sort of this-or-that technique – and would probably find that mother-guilt and the “pressure to be perfect” is an open wound that bleeds deeply and freely across many parenting styles in our western society. It is not something that is restricted to people who make particular “choices” about parenting techniques.

To me, a far more intelligent (and useful) question is: “Why is it that us women simply can’t say “this is how parenting works for me. isn’t it interesting that you do things differently…”. Why is it that our discussions appear so completely and utterly obsessed with parenting “techniques” and “equipment” (rather than our relationships with our babies)?

And, as Ms. Jong has so beautifully (but I suspect, unintentionally) illustrated, why is it that our sense of self-esteem and “parent-worth” depends so deeply on proving our way is “right”, and that other women should make the same parenting “choices” as us or they are somehow being abused?

No, I think Ms. Jong has a different axe to grind than simply having the well-being of women at heart (otherwise, why would she not represent more diverse voices in her article?).

The reality is that mothering is far more complex than “my needs or my baby’s”. Our needs are biologically, socially and emotionally linked and at odds at the same time (what some attachment theorists call the “great push and pull”). Finding our own way, in a way that works for us and our babies is far more complex than Ms. Jong suggests.

If Ms. Jong had bothered to do any research, she would have found that most (albeit not all – Prescott being a notable exception) of the great researchers and clinicians working with parent-infant attachment relationships rarely talk about specific techniques. Had Ms. Jong bothered to do any research, she would have discovered that attachment describes the quality of a relationship – not any particular set of tasks.

Oh, there are, to be sure, certain tasks of mothering which are more enabling of attachment  – but they are not exclusive. For example, Sir Richard Bowlby (son of John) talks of the very positive attachment benefits that children can experience from being in childcare arrangements that offer certain conditions. Ms. Jong was privileged enough to be able to afford a Nanny and meet many of those conditions highlighted by Bowlby, and in doing so was probably was able to continue to nourish and support the attachment relationship between her and her daughter during a difficult period. Good on her.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many families – those who do not have the capacity to afford a Nanny (or the education to find the sort of employment that would enable them to do this), nor the thousands (millions?) of women and children who have to settle for sub-standard (appalling) childcare that actively erodes away at the child’s opportunity to develop sound attachment relationships.

Nor is this the case for less-privileged women than Ms. Jong who are raising babies in conditions of poverty, violence, drugs, abuse, etc etc. These women want the same for their children as everyone else: the chance for a good, happy life. If Ms. Jong had done any research whatsoever (have a look at Harvard University – Centre for the Developing Child and Zero-to-Three for starters), she would have discovered that an attachment relationship is an essential prerequisite for this hope and dream.

Unlike Ms. Jong, there are many women do not have too many external resources to call on to help achieve this (clean water, Nannies, a good education, a safe place to sleep). Instead, they only have themselves and – dare I say it – people like me who have dedicated our lives to saying to these women “you are good enough. You don’t need stuff to form a great relationship with your baby and to give them a great start in life”.

Having said that, there are some things that are critical for attachment. These are not about techniques, but about the relationship between the parent and the baby. Some of those things are – respect for the baby as a person, responsiveness to their needs, sufficient pleasurable/ nurturing skin-to-skin contact, and economic and social support for the mother (yes – it is a community responsibility, something Ms. Jong also fails to explore with any rigor). Again, if Ms. Jong had bothered to do any research she may have discovered that it is well-supported by lots of evidence that this is not about being at a baby’s “beck and call”, but about developing a relationship that is responsive and secure for at least some of the time.

One thing I am fearful of is that through her single-minded desire to validate her own parenting choices (which, quite frankly I couldn’t care less about), Ms. Jong has in fact done an enormous amount of damage to thousands of other families by somehow trying to “minimise” the importance of attachment in things like life-long mental health, social skills, academic achievement and the prevention of abuse and violence (which, surely, is a feminist issue?). She has scoffed at the sheer work, dedication, and love that mothers everywhere (no matter what techniques they use) give to their babies.

Attachment is critical to healthy human development. The techniques we use to get there can vary greatly – though there are some essential principles. I do agree with Ms. Jong in some ways – our recognition of the importance of attachment and early brain development does mean that as a society and as families we can no longer treat our babies however we like (esp. those common cultural practices that are grossly disrespectful of both women and babies) without expecting some long-term consequences. And it is true that some women (from all walks of life) do find this genuinely difficult and confronting. But to suggest that “attachment” itself is irrelevant in order to avoid dealing with the intensity and complexity of the “great push and pull” (and to compare our interest in attachment relationships to violence) is not only ill-informed, but ridiculously dangerous to women and babies everywhere.

So for anyone who is uneasy about Ms. Jong’s essay – or who finds themselves embroiled (on either side) of a debate about whether she is right or wrong, I say don’t bother. You can’t “win” with something like this because it is so misinformed and illogical that it actually makes no sense. Rather than taking the easy option of writing such a divisive and mischievous essay that is a complete waste of people’s time, I would have found it more useful if Ms. Jong had opened up questions such as “how can women in difficult situations be supported to do their mother-work in a way that makes sense and feels good for them and their babies?”. I guess Ms. Jong can write whatever she wants, and in the meantime I will get back to the job of actually helping women answer this question in their own lives, and in their own voices.

Alice Campbell

Registered Nurse

Photo Credit: Mrs Flinger on Flickr

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