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I failed at attachment parenting and my kids got a lot happier

Reuters/Amir Cohen
Not happening.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Since becoming a mother two years ago, I have been haunted by the notion of attachment parenting. Its basic tenets—breastfeeding into toddlerhood, co-sleeping, and generally staying glommed onto your child at every possible moment—initially struck me as blissful, if wildly ambitious. No mother wants to think she isn’t doing enough for her kid, which is how I inevitably felt when I anguished over weaning my first child at a year old or letting him cry at night.

So I made up for the corners I felt I’d cut with my first child by hunkering down with my second. He slept in a co-sleeper attached to our bed, I breastfed on demand, and responded to practically every whimper.

As my six-month maternity leave wound down, I realized I had gotten myself in a pickle. I couldn’t leave the room without my two-year-old son throwing a tantrum. My infant had come to expect the boob every 45 minutes and wouldn’t take a bottle. And when my milk supply plummeted due to an onslaught of anxiety and busyness, he adamantly refused formula.

Things got even hairier when I started pumping and guzzling milk-promoting supplements and teas 24-7 to boost my milk supply, based on the advice of my attachment-subscribing lactation consultant. The intense focus on my infant obliterated any one-on-one time with my toddler, who was desperate for my dwindling attention.

At six months, my second child required up to an hour of rocking to go down for a nap, and was still waking three to four times a night, which only made me more tired, and less milky. Sleeping next to him during the day, as attachment parenting would prescribe, would have been impossible with a precocious toddler roaming around downstairs unattended. And without my income, we couldn’t afford to have a full-time nanny entertain him while I sequestered myself in a dark room with my infant to feed, or to entertain them both while I “power-pumped“ or slept off the fatigue.

I started to realize that every other attachment parent I knew happened to also be a well-to-do stay-at-home mother—and most had only one child. Attachment parenting advocates would call for paring down one’s lifestyle to devote more care to one’s child. But if the average full-time nanny costs roughly $700 a week, that means the typical American family earning around $1,000 a week cannot pay for the around-the-clock care needed to lavish each of their children with one-on-one attention, no matter how they budget.

Returning to work gave us the financial leeway to hire a nanny, and forced me to abandon a lot of our laborious routines. I couldn’t manage deadlines while nursing or pumping on the hour, which meant my infant had to take the formula and did. Getting a full meal made him sleepier and happier—and me less anxious.

I couldn’t focus on work without at least a few consecutive hours of sleep at night, so I finally let him cry in his crib for a while. And while it didn’t work every time, there were nights when he conked out after 10 to 15 minutes of crying—which amounted to a lot less than rocking him into submission while he was hungry and miserable.

As I relinquished more childcare duties to our new nanny, things got even better. My infant went down to sleep for her within minutes. When I stopping picking my two-year-old up from school, he stopped throwing mid-day tantrums and started cleaning his plate at lunch. He seemed genuinely happier to see me when I came downstairs to greet him after work, and for the rest of the day spent less time whining and more time enjoying my company.

It occurred to me that my husband, whose time-intensive career had taken priority as I’d gone into full-on attachment mode, had cultivated a far more joyous relationship to our toddler than I had during the six months I was on leave—despite my religious toiling over his snacks, meals, laundry, dishes and toys.

To be clear, I haven’t given it all up. I still nurse my infant when I can. But I don’t feel badly about feeding him a bottle when he’s distractible (which is often) or when we’re in a rush. I still pick up my toddler from school once a week, which gives me the window into his classroom life I feel I need. And I still give the nanny more of an earful about my whims and desires for the kids than she probably needs. But we are finding a balance—one that the strict mores of attachment parenting don’t acknowledge.

I wish all the warring academicians and bloggers had pointed out that parenting techniques, no matter how appealing in theory, only work if they don’t drive everyone involved insane.

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