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attachment fatheringAs May begins and Mother’s Day approaches, the American brain is primed to think of all things Mom and Motherhood. And so it is that the New York Times finds it opportune to ask, “Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism? In particular, has the trend of ‘attachment parenting’ been bad for working moms?”  Weighing in on the debate are experts and authors across the parenting spectrum, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik (Beyond the Sling) to Pamela Druckerman, whose discovery of wisdom in the parenting approach of the French inspired her to write Bringing up Bébé.

Rest assured, you will not often trip over ideological debates on Mom Psych.The focus here is on research rather than opinion; and debates tend to be opinion on steroids. But any excuse to bring up a good study will serve, and the NYT debate does open the door to a few interesting bits of research.

My favorite bit  has to do with how our brains work in debate mode. Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman would tell you that your political preferences go a long way toward determining what arguments you’re willing to buy into. Not necessarily because you’ve weighed the issues, but because your brain is good at jumping to emotional conclusions about what it likes or doesn’t like— pretty much at first sight. Fortunately, if you can be persuaded to consider the evidence, it’s just possible you might override the initial emotional response. But, says Kahneman, the brain’s analytical mode (what he calls System 2) is “more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions—an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs.” The brain, Kahneman explains, does not really like to examine where its beliefs come from or whether that source is reliable. It only wants to preserve them at all costs.

One of our unconscious but brilliant strategies for preserving them is to argue with “straw men” instead of the real opinions of other people. We unwittingly remold our opponent’s perspective into the most extreme version possible so it will be easier to knock down without requiring too much thought. After all, it takes effort to get inside another person’s head and accurately make sense of the contents, so we do what comes naturally: We make something up. You may have a straw-man habit  if people regularly interrupt you with, “That’s not what I’m saying.” We may even make up the entire premise on which our straw argument stands. These tendencies can clearly be seen in the NYT attachment parenting debate, and if we are honest with ourselves as we read through it, we may notice them in our own reactions too.

The first thing that may bother you is the debate question itself. It seems extreme to suggest that feminism has been destroyed, and the idea that attachment parenting might be responsible reflects a misunderstanding of the parenting style. As PhD in Parenting blogger Annie Urban points out, “It’s About Parenting, Not ‘Mothering.” Urban takes on French author Elisabeth Badinter’s assertion that this form of parenting enslaves women, and notes that there are enough responsibilities associated with childcare to keep men and women equally busy if dads will man up. Badinter says that in her country, at least, they don’t. Well, wise up, French dads, there’s a whole slew of research that says if they are lucky enough to have two parents, kids need both of them. That means dads too. You can say “I’ll do the cooking and you do the laundry,” but you can’t say “I’ll do the gardening and you do the kids.” Children are full-fledged family members who need to be emotionally connected to both parents equally. And connection is only possible when there is involvement.

As the debate continues, a veritable army of straw soldiers floods the battlefield. Attachment parenting is portrayed as a rigid system requiring mothers and children to spend all their time together” leaving none of the wise, French-parenting “distance” that would enable children to build “autonomy and resilience.” Of course, there certainly may be some in the attachment parenting fringe who can be described in these terms, but practiced with balance it is not about mothers and children spending all their time together. Nor is it about rigid co-sleeping rules, ignoring tantrums, extreme dietary restrictions, or any of the other straw man erected by those who don’t understand its basis. In fact, there is so much room for individual style within the attachment parenting “movement” (if it is to be so-called) that its families are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. What ties them together is one fundamental aim: to create a strong emotional bond that will encourage the development of children’s autonomy and capacity for resilience.

This is where the next bit of research comes in to clarify how children develop these important characteristics. We’ll go to the original source and you may be surprised  that it won’t be pediatrician William Sears, who perhaps deserves the credit for establishing “attachment parenting” as a movement.  It’s true he did lay down a long list of recommendations for achieving attachment, but Sears was merely interpreting the research, albeit through his own useful observations as a pediatrician. Attachment research actually began with psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and has since been taken over by neuroscientists, who have expanded on the initial theory. What the research shows is that the areas of the brain that support autonomy and resilience are sculpted and strengthened by emotional attunement with caretakers. It isn’t distance that performs this miracle. It’s connection. Sure, children need age-appropriate practice in exercising autonomy and resilience. But they need a secure base of connection to work from.

Of course, every good parent aims for this connection (which may make everyone an attachment parent to some degree). But another funny thing about the human brain is that it loves simple categorizations and it also loves the tangible chemical high it gets from being able to categorize itself as “capable” and everyone else as “incapable.” And so we classify as wackos all feminists, tiger moms, wise French parents, and attachment adherents and refuse to see ourselves in any of them. Whereas if we could see them—as well as ourselves—without polarized lenses, we just might be surprised to find that we have much more in common than we might think.

stress effectsIt will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps up with psychology research that much of who we are and what we do goes back to the quality of our family relationships. Positive, supportive family relationships contribute to our well-being in countless ways—while negative, abusive ones can be deadly.

Of course, most of us don’t tend to analyze what we do from the viewpoint of our own family history—we just want to give our children the best possible environment for their physical and emotional development because we love them. They’re an extension of us, we’re invested in their future. It just happens to be a bonus for society that when we focus on meeting the needs of our children, the wider community and future generations reap benefits too.

But it isn’t always easy  to carve out the necessary quality family time in our busy Western society. Increasingly, families need two wage-earners just supply the “basics.” School, extracurricular activities and other obligations also encroach on down time. How do these daily stressors affect familes? This was the question explored by Rena Repetti and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a peer reviewed study published in the April 2009 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

“The family is popularly imagined as a stable haven, a place where individuals come together to recuperate from the ups and downs of the outside world,” wrote the researchers. “But the family has ups and downs of its own; it is a dynamic system, not impermeable to outside influences but porous and continually in flux. For example, parents’ job schedules and children’s homework shape family time, activities, and routines. Other effects of work and school on the family are less overt.”

Certainly, as the researchers explain, people often continue to react to a stressful event long after it has occurred and may find themselves nursing too many work wounds at home as a result. How does the fallout affect family relationships?

“We have found that, following more stressful days at work, spouses and parents adjust their social behavior at home in two ways.” write the UCLA researchers. “One common pattern is an overall reduction in social engagement and expression of emotion.” Mothers as well as fathers withdrew emotionally and disengaged socially from their children after stressful or exceptionally demanding work days. Spouses “were more distracted and less responsive” toward one another. Children also showed lingering reactions to school stress. Both elementary-school-age children and teens initiated more conflict with other family members after a day filled with academic problems or difficulties with peers.

“A second short-term response to job stress resembles the stereotypic image of an agitated employee kicking his dog after an argument with his boss,” says the report. This plays out as “an increase in irritability and displays of anger with both spouse and children.” Ripetti and her colleagues note that this second pattern is most likely to occur in people who have a history of psychological distress.

How harmful is all this take-home stress in the long run? It depends. If the short-term effects are allowed to build up over time, there may be more lasting effects. Especially within families with high levels of conflict, or where one or more family members have a history of depression and anxiety.

We do know from other studies that family support and parental engagement are crucial to the well-being of children, so if our coping style in reaction to stress at work involves withdrawing from our families at home, it can’t be good over the long haul. As difficult as it may be to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, resilience experts suggest that connecting, rather than withdrawing, is our best bet for handling stress. Rapetti’s research is fascinating and important in several respects: but perhaps the most important thing parents can take home from this study is a new awareness of what they may be bringing home to their children at the end of their work day.

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