Perhaps you aren’t familiar with attachment parenting (AP). I wasn’t before I got pregnant. But once I had a baby on the way, I soon found out. According to Attachment Parenting International’s website, “Attachment Parenting is an approach to childrearing that promotes a secure attachment bond between parents and their children.”
There are numerous ways to achieve this bond with your child, and some of them are controversial. I wish that Mayim Bialik’s book about attachment parenting, Beyond the Sling, had been available at the time. My understanding of AP would have been much clearer and more immediate.
If Mayim’s name sounds familiar to you, it should. Mayim has been gracing screens big and small since the late 1980s. Only in her thirties, Mayim has decades of experience under her belt. Her breakthrough role came when she was only 12, when she played the young Bette Midler in the classic film Beaches. As a teen she went on to star in no less than two sitcoms, one at Fox and one at NBC. The NBC show won the ratings game: Blossom was a hit show for five seasons, a major accomplishment on network TV, where most sitcoms don’t make it past the pilot. Mayim has exploded on the scene again on another hit show, this one from CBS, The Big Bang Theory, with her recurring role as Sheldon’s girlfriend Amy Farrah Fowler.
Add to this a PhD in neuroscience and becoming a loving mother to two children, and you begin to realize that parting a sea — my vote is for the sea of traffic on the 405 — is about the only thing she can’t check off her list of accomplishments. Refreshingly, Mayim’s style, both in her book and in person, is anything but intimidating.
Mayim presents chapters on each of the major tenets of attachment parenting in a style that is straightforward and accessible. She sprinkles each page with humor and with love, and her book will leave you thoroughly informed about this popular but often controversial parenting style.
I recommend that every parent read this book so that they can understand the tenets of attachment parenting and decide which or all aspects could work for them. Attachment parenting isn’t for everyone, and some of the ideas, such as elimination communication (which largely does away with diapers and helps children communicate their elimination needs by reading their natural signals), are unconventional and may be difficult for some parents to embrace.
However, parents with an open mind will be rewarded with creative ideas and new tools to use in their own parenting. Enforcing rigid adherence to the tenets of attachment parenting is not Mayim’s goal with the book. Instead, she hopes to foster understanding about AP, to educate parents so that they can decide for themselves which approaches might work for them, and to create a dialogue among parents so that they can share approaches that have been successful.
What makes this book so engaging is that Mayim uses personal experiences with her husband and own children, Miles and Frederick, to illustrate her points. While I don’t practice every tenet of attachment parenting, I felt more confident in my own parenting choices after seeing how confident Mayim is with hers. This approach is working for her family, and in the end, that’s what makes our parenting choices a success.
Mayim is a strong, educated, empowered woman both onscreen and off. She’s an inspiration, and I greatly enjoyed my opportunity to speak with her about her book. I also couldn’t help but ask her the burning question that’s been on my mind since the character of Amy was introduced on The Big Bang Theory: will she ever consummate her relationship not with Sheldon, but with Penny?
Note that my questions are in bold.
I really enjoyed reading your book, and I recently watched an episode of Blossom. I felt that the opening lyric — “in my ‘opinionation’ the sun is gonna surely shine” — could be applied to parenting. We all have an “opinionation” about parenting, and I wondered what motivated you to pick up your pad and pencil and give us a piece of your mind in terms of writing the book?
Actually, I wasn’t looking to write a book. I was blogging for a website called Kveller, and I kind of just became this unofficial voice for attachment parenting, but was not really looking to write a book. That didn’t seem at all to be where I was going. I was interviewed for a podcast by a comedian and author — her name is Teresa Strasser — and she said to me, “I would never want to parent the way you do, but you make it sound really interesting, and you make it make sense. She said, “I want you to meet my book agent.” I met with her book agent, and again I was thinking, “I don’t want to write a book,” and he said, “You have a really interesting voice, and you have a really interesting perspective.” Four months later I had basically written many of the stories that my friends and I had been navigating together, and that’s how this book came about.
How do you define attachment parenting?
I stick to Dr. William Sears’ description of it. He is sort of the founder of the “attachment parenting” phrase, and he gave support for this book. Attachment parenting includes things like natural birth and breastfeeding. Attachment Parenting International acknowledges that breastfeeding should mimic bottle feeding as much as possible. Sleeping with your children, gentle discipline, and wearing your baby in slings, things like that. Attachment parenting’s not all or nothing. There’s no attachment parenting police, but those are the major tenets of attachment parenting.
Why do you think attachment parenting is so controversial, and how do you respond to the critics of AP?
I think it’s controversial in light of the fact that this century especially has seen a real emphasis on early independence, on a sort of parent-centered philosophy with children sort of being seen but not heard. Those are things that make for a very productive family unit. Especially thinking about the Depression and World War II, those were things that were sometimes emphasized, but again it’s not the way the human body was designed to parent, and it’s not the way a lot of modern cognitive psychology is indicating is necessarily healthy for families.
One of the things that I really appreciated about your book was one of the take-away messages about the importance of advocating for yourself and your child, especially in a medical setting and when it comes to child birth. I wondered if you could give some advice for moms about how they can be empowered to advocate for themselves, either in a medical setting or a natural setting, especially with child birth, depending on what they choose.
Attachment parenting per se takes no stance on medical issues, but I think what you’re touching on is a really important aspect of attachment parenting: that you really are the authority on your child. A lot of the parenting styles that I talk about are largely intuitive. They are things that many people intuitively want to do, for example hold the baby, care for the baby in a specific way, and it’s a lot of “modern” conventional wisdom that’s sending people away from that. So I think that people like Ricki Lake, whose name is also on the back of our book, have done a tremendous amount to show what one voice can do to teach people about the human body and the way that it was designed to give birth, and the way our country thinks it should give birth. So I think that a lot of it is surrounding yourself with people who are like minded and open minded, but it’s very difficult. I know that, even though I live in Los Angeles, and I’m surrounded by progressive people, supposedly.
It was really interesting to relive my birth experience, which I did have in a hospital, when you were discussing your birth experience. I was remembering the times I almost had to fight with the doctor and nurses just to get things that I felt that I needed.
It shouldn’t be such a battle, but it absolutely is.
What are some of the common misconceptions about breastfeeding, and how can moms overcome some of the stigmas that society still places on breastfeeding?
The biggest is one that could be so easily remedied if we just spoke to women when they were pregnant. The human body gives birth with exactly the right amount of milk for the baby. Period! It’s a fact; it’s one that many doctors and nurses don’t know about. The human body is absolutely designed [for nursing]. There’s no waiting for milk to come in to feed a baby. We talk instead about establishing a milk supply after the colostrum phase, but even subtly shifting the language of how we speak about breastfeeding could significantly improve the lives of moms and babies. That’s one of the misconceptions. Another one is that babies need solids at six months. Of course the World Health Organization and the Academy of Pediatrics recommend exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months, but that doesn’t mean that you have to give solids at six months. We nursed for a full year and a couple of months with nothing but breast milk, and I know people who have nursed into the second year with nothing but breast milk. Breast milk builds the baby. That’s what it’s there for.
Another misconception is that it inappropriately ties you down to your child, and you need your freedom. I do acknowledge that that’s a normal fear. The fact is that you are absolutely building a relationship that is purposeful, and that does involve a certain amount of commitment on your part. For many of us it’s a struggle both emotionally and sometimes physically at first. But it is one that we believe in because it is so valuable, not simply because we are looking to be martyrs, which is one of the common accusations.
I was impressed to read that you’re a certified lactation consultant. Is that right?
I’m a lactation educator counselor. I’m not a full IBCLC (International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners). That involves many hours in hospitals and working. It’s something I’m hoping to work towards, but I’ve done the first step towards it.
Are you ever on the line when someone’s calling for nursing advice with La Leche League (an organization Mayim is involved in that provides breastfeeding support for moms)?
I’ve counseled parents through word of mouth. I’ve counseled a nice bunch of moms and dads. Part of the reason that I wanted to get my lactation educator counselor certification and hopefully work towards being an IBCLC is that I had a lot of difficulty nursing: I was unable to leave the house for many weeks because I couldn’t put clothing on. So I just kind of wanted to be known as someone who makes house calls and does it just because I love it. I’ve been able to counsel a nice group of women and at this point we’ve had really fantastic success.
It’s so necessary to have that kind of support for breastfeeding, because there are so many questions.
Absolutely, and a lot of times they’re easily solved if you get on them right away, and that’s why it’s so important.
UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families, or CELF, recently released a study of middle class parents living in LA. A Wall Street Journal article about the study stated the following: “Among the findings: The families had very a child-centered focus, which may help explain the ‘dependency dilemma’ seen among American middle-class families, says Dr. [Elinor] Ochs. Parents intend to develop their children’s independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own, she says.” I took the study as a direct criticism of a child-centered approach to child-rearing. Did you happen to see this study, and if so, what did you think of it?
I have not heard of any long-term, statistically significant studies showing that that’s true. The general notion, and again this is one that is supported by pediatricians, is that encouraging early dependence does lead to later independence. Obviously it depends a lot on the temperament of the child. I would argue that I see a lot of interesting phenomenal kids come out of this style of parenting because it also does teach both to expect a lot of the world and to know your feelings very well. I don’t know all the factors in that study, but I think it’s important to point out that again for all of human history we have parented this way, in a way that’s consistent with the needs of the child. And it’s a recent innovation in our culture to encourage this kind of early independence. I don’t know that we have enough research supporting that that’s the way to go.
You say that “a whole parenting industry has been created it seems solely to confuse us.” I definitely felt confused and frustrated when I read the study. I only read the WSJ article, but there were different things that frustrated me. One was the wording the study used that moms tend to “gyrate” between their responsibilities. Instead of multi-tasking, they’re “gyrating” between doing laundry, cooking dinner and reading a story to her child, and it seemed to be portrayed as a negative thing. Sometimes it’s just a necessary thing. You have to achieve a balance.
I consider all of that normal. I’m super interested [in the study], and it’s one of the things the attachment parenting community has been saying, and it continues to be true that there is no long-term evidence that me sleeping with my kids or nursing a toddler is “bad” for them. A lot of the research is showing that things like holding children, not hitting children, those things actually do matter.
On a related topic, as a mother of a daughter who will be growing up quickly, I was so impressed with Blossom, and really felt that it was ahead of its time in terms of addressing a lot of the issues that modern families and teens face, and what a strong and responsible character she was. Then I saw your blog piece about the spread in W Magazine with its hyper-sexualized disturbing imagery (I totally agree with you on that one). What would be your message to young girls in terms of processing these hyper-sexualized or unrealistic images of beauty that they are confronted with?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I think the more adults can speak up on behalf of young women, the better. These things will not go away if there aren’t people to speak up for them, absolutely. I think also a lot of it does fall on parents to encourage a wide range of activities and interests for little girls, I mean starting very young. There’s nothing wrong with girls who like pink, but I think it’s important to note that there’s nothing evolutionarily beneficial about pink, or about fairies or princesses. Those are absolutely cultural constructs that a lot of little girls resonate with, but I think our media is very, very strongly trying to encourage a very, very simplistic presentation of what’s male and what’s female, and I think that’s part of where it starts.
There’s so much we could talk about with that, down to the pink Rock-a-Stack. It’s crazy!
For my last question, I want to ask you about The Big Bang Theory. People often ask you if Amy and Sheldon will ever consummate their relationship, but I’m wondering if Amy and Penny’s friendship might become something more, and Amy might act on her obvious attraction to Penny?
That’s really funny! Amy is bi-curious, and I actually think it’s a sweet aspect to her. I don’t know, but the chances are more likely we’ll see progress on the Amy-Sheldon front, but I actually have gotten some really fun and interesting support from the LGBTQQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) community saying that it’s kind of nice to have a bi-curious character represented, so I’m happy for that.