Many Catholics believe that attachment parenting (AP) is the only parenting style compatible with Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Answers message board for parents is rife with accusations that sleep training and spanking constitute child abuse. Many Catholics also claim that non-AP methods are based in Calvinist views of children as naturally depraved.
Insisting that AP is inherently Catholic is an odd claim–after all, it’s hardly in the Catechism. Yes, Dr. Sears and his wife are Catholic, and have successfully reared eight children under this method. But AP as a coherent philosophy is only as old as the 1980s. (AP proponents claim that it’s the oldest parenting style on the planet, but their anthropological research appears faulty). The AP philosophy can only be partially supported by Scripture: while the Bible repeatedly mentions breastfeeding, it offers little support for co-sleeping (the Virgin Mary laid Jesus in a manger, not in bed with her) or for a fanatical anti-spanking attitude (see Proverbs 13:24).
In my discussions with Catholics raised before Vatican II, I’ve gathered that, in the days of yore, Catholic parents didn’t attend to their babies’ every cry; that they liberally applied the belt once the children got old enough to be disciplined; that they sent their kids to Catholic school (nary a homeschooling group in sight!) where the kids then got a brief respite from the belt and instead got to experience the flat end of Sister Mary Margaret’s ruler. You know, for variety.
AP proponents may dismiss the historical experience of the Catholic family and insist that AP is clearly superior. We live in more enlightened times; surely we must treat children with greater humanity and affection. Isn’t that what building a culture of life is all about?
I’m sympathetic towards these claims. After all, a pro-life attitude demands that we treat children as ends in themselves, not as inconveniences to be managed or controlled. AP can be a welcome addition to a culture of life because it reminds parents that babies are persons in their own right, and that we should consider the emotional needs proper to their stage of life.
On the other hand, though, a pro-life attitude demands that we recognize the messiness and complexity of, well, life. By insisting that any other method, no matter how well-intentioned, is child abuse, AP proponents push a procrustean approach that undermines their own goals. When families feel pressured to adopt attachment parenting despite its unsuitability to their circumstances, they often do end up viewing their children as inconveniences, because of sheer exhaustion and frustration. Before long, the idea of having another child–let alone the five or six that often result from foregoing contraception–seems overwhelming.
I freely admit that much of my disillusionment with AP comes from personal experience. I’m a failure at babywearing; I’ll do it from time to time, but overall it’s just too hard to get anything done with a Giant Hunk ‘O Baby strapped to my front–possibly because of my stupid short dinosaur arms, to steal Simcha Fischer’s awesome phrase. I also happen to have a squirmy, curious baby who often seems happier in a stroller than snuggled against my chest. Co-sleeping and night nursing, though, was definitely the biggest AP disaster for my family. At nine months, my daughter was still waking up every hour at night, despite the fact that I had desperately applied the entire gamut of solutions from The No-Cry Sleep Solution. I knew that sleep deprivation couldn’t be good for her. When I finally just put her in the crib and let her cry for an hour–staying with her the entire time–she learned to fall asleep on her own and began sleeping 3-4 hour stretches at night. After that night, her daytime moods improved and she suddenly hit a bunch of long-overdue milestones.
I bring up my experience to show that parents are often driven to non-AP methods precisely because they do care about their families and precisely because they are open to life and therefore need to make child care manageable. I think that we Catholics ought to behave charitably and supportively towards mothers instead of making a dangerous idol of any one parenting practice.