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Silent But Not Invisible – The Fathers of Attachment Parenting

“You know, I struggle to find balance in my life after having a baby, too!” my husband exclaimed after one of our parenting discussions that eventually led to me venting about how moms get the short end of the stick and how tough our jobs really are, etc., etc. I knew he was joking, but I could tell he was half serious. So you’re saying dads are people, too, huh?

Image Credit: Tatum Hawkins

Image Credit: Tatum Hawkins

His revealing comment, coupled with the tirade of annoying and crude articles following the risqué breastfeeding TIME Magazine cover, such as this one from The New York Times that screams: “Has Attachment Parenting Imprisoned Mothers?” I noticed that fathers and husbands, particularly from the attachment parenting relationships that had everyone abuzz, seemed to be completely left out of the conversation.

With mothers portrayed by the media as the sacrificial star of “attachment parenting,” the infamous and all-consuming parenting lifestyle (or what I liked to call, the Mom & Baby Show) championed by pediatric guru Dr. William Sears, I wanted to talk to real dads in real attachment parenting situations to put the spotlight on them, for once, and get a glimpse into their personal feelings about playing what perhaps too many, myself included, naively thought was merely a sub-par role.

While a few of the daddy clichés surrounding attachment parenting were somewhat true, for example, that they are a bit clueless about being one half of an attachment parenting team in the first place – particularly when one of my interviewees’ wife told him I’d be asking his thoughts on attachment parenting, he replied: “I have no idea what that is … but it probably has something to do with breasts,” – I have to admit, I still ended up being pleasantly surprised. Not by how secretly educated they were about attachment parenting, or by how often they wore their baby in an earthy wrap or sling, but more so by how devoted, hands-on and what a willing team player they were in their wives’ most recent and passionate project: motherhood.

When a woman has a baby, especially her first, something changes in her. It’s like her whole being is overcome with indescribable emotion, newfound tenderness, as well as what could only be described as an extremely fierce, fanged tigress who is willing to do anything and everything to protect and care for her offspring. She is a natural, an expert mother to her child from the get-go. Dads, on the other hand, while many do get emotional and are struck with awe over the miraculous birth of their son or daughter, they sort of stumble along wondering where their place is in a world that seems to be suddenly revolving away from them, unsure of how to proceed or lend a hand. So, they continue doing what they’ve always done – sleep with no interruptions (it’s imperative to be fully rested in order to function at work), go to work, come home, watch TV (necessary to wind down from the long work day, no?) and hang out with his buddies on the weekend (why should that change?) – and then a few months into things, the mother after holding in her frustrations from “doing it all alone,” blows up. This is the typical story of how things go.

The difference with attachment parenting, it seems after speaking to these dads, is both parents are equally invested in the heavy load that is child-rearing. For example, both are tired from sleepless nights (since in most cases the baby not only shares their bedroom, but their bed as well), both are energy-spent after weekends and any other spare time spent with the children (babysitters and weekend get-aways as a couple are practically unheard of), yet both are sharing equally in the exhilaration of raising their baby.

Attachment parenting, or, as John, a systems analyst from Houston and attachment parenting father of four prefers to call it, “child led parenting,” requires that both parents make their children and their children’s routines the number one priority. “Everything else takes a back seat,” he says.

Robert, a teacher from Washington state and attachment parenting father of two describes attachment parenting as an “approach which emphasizes parents and children working collaboratively to meet the children’s needs.” But, some ask, what about meeting the parents’ needs?

Many attachment parenting critics worry that by centering their worlds around their children, attachment parenting moms and dads not only lose their identity in the process, but are also giving their children an unrealistic taste of the “real world” where things like disappointment, frustration, sadness and loneliness are natural feelings, not ones to completely avoid, and are what each of us need to experience in order to grow into a well-rounded child, teenager, and eventually, an independent and successful adult.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a father of nine from The Huffington Post and an attachment parenting critic says in his own article examining the aforementioned TIME Magazine story, “It seems to me that elements of attachment parenting are extreme and lack balance. And in the same way we should avoid religious extremism and political extremism, perhaps we ought to avoid parenting extremes as well. Inappropriate helicopter parenting potentially snuffs out a child’s initiative, individuality, and sense of self. Attachment parenting runs the same risk. …Families are well integrated machines and they require balance above all else.”

However, attachment parenting, like any other personal family code of beliefs – whether it’s raising your family to be vegetarians, or to live strict moral standards of a certain religion, or simply to live as a family who doesn’t watch TV – whatever it is, every family has a right to its own individuality and should be allowed and proud to say, “This is how we do things in our home, and it works very well for us. Thankyouverymuch.”

Speaking of how families do things, let’s look at what Dr. Sears describes as the three main tenets of the attachment parenting philosophy and what our panel of dads think about them: extended breastfeeding (when babies are no longer babies, but walking, talking little humans), co-sleeping (sharing your bed with your little ones) and baby-wearing (though, for some reason if you wear your baby in one of those “crotch-dangling” Baby Bjorns, it doesn’t count).

Regarding extended breastfeeding, Michael, a high school teacher from New Mexico and attachment parenting father of one admits, “There is a creepy cutoff point for me, but I’m not sure where it is. I tend to believe one day, I’ll see my wife breastfeeding, and it will just seem a little bit strange, and that will be the day I say, ‘Um, I know we wanted to self-wean, but…seriously.’”

“I find it funny that our Western culture refers to it as ‘extended’ breastfeeding whereas many places in the rest of the world simply refer to it as breastfeeding,” quips John from Houston.

Co-sleeping is also up for debate since critics argue that it is unsafe because too many children have died from accidently suffocating. Advocates explain it is natural and when done correctly, is good for bonding and helping the baby to sleep better.

“We lived overseas for years in a society where co-sleeping was the norm, and not co-sleeping was seen as somewhat bizarre, and even heartless,” says Robert from Washington state. “It seems like a fine practice to me, so long as it works for both the parents and the child.”

One of our dads, Michael, actually sleeps in his office while his wife and daughter sleep together in the master bedroom. “It sounds like a ‘husband in the doghouse’ arrangement, but sleeping separate has made our marriage so much happier,” he explains. “I’ve never had a problem sharing a bed … but I don’t miss her [my wife].”

Baby-wearing seems to be unanimously a mom thing. Perhaps moms just naturally want to carry their babies everywhere they go, like kangaroos, monkeys and koala bears? When I wore my newborn daughter in a wrap the first few times, her little hands would rest in fists under her chin and she definitely reminded me of a baby animal!

I guess it’s just not like that for fathers. “It doesn’t occur to me to go, ‘I feel like wearing her!’” says Michael from New Mexico. “I’m neutral on the subject.”

“I recommend it,” says John from Houston. “While other shoppers have screaming children, our children are close to us … my wife would wear them in a sling and they would sleep the entire shopping trip.”

Additionally, in many cases of attachment parenting, the dads have a hand in the decision to parent they way they do. It’s not like the mothers are evil dictators sentencing their husbands to a lifetime of torture (“No sex for you! I’m still breastfeeding, and I have no libido!”) as some media are quick to imply. These fathers are an integral part of the family unit, not merely bread-winners and sperm donors, but devoted parents who are going through many of the same ups and downs that the mothers are, and, I would venture to say that successful attachment parenting would not be possible or as popular today without a father’s attentive presence and shared commitment.

When I asked whether they felt like equal partners in their role as parents, all three fathers I interviewed said yes. Although, John from Houston sounded a little jealous about the fact that his stay-at-home wife “gets to spend more time with the children.”

So even though the media has sensationalized attachment parenting as falling on the shoulders of an over-burdened mother, perhaps we need to look at the whole picture to include the mother’s other half and recognize his significant contributions – and that he has feelings, too. And while some attachment parenting critics are getting their feminist feathers ruffled up by the potential downfall of the modern woman with attachment parenting on the upswing, let’s also reexamine how the more traditional mothers and their husbands are holding up at home. Are they faring any better? Or, how about instead of looking at the differences, we can simply focus on the similarities and offer each other a virtual shoulder squeeze of mutual understanding: “This is great, but it’s not easy!”

For example, in a question about how attachment parenting affects intimacy in marriage, given that almost all articles on attachment parenting point out that intimacy must be suffering due to the co-sleeping, Robert from Washington state says, “I don’t think the lack of time/energy we are experiencing in our marriage is all that different from what parents in general experience.”

Michael from New Mexico agrees: “The time for intimacy with attachment parenting is, I imagine, similar to other family triads: ‘The baby is asleep, let’s do it!’ It’s not quite as unromantic as it seems … the planning and patience required can up the appreciation level, since it is now truly savored time.”

“Pretty much all the parents of young children whom I talk to experience the same need to be much more deliberate about making time for their relationship with their spouse/partner,” continues Robert.

In other words, parenting is time-consuming no matter how you define it, and marriage will always be, and should be, a noble work in progress.

After interviewing fathers of attachment parenting, I gained some valuable perspective about the attachment parenting team as a whole. Unlike other journalists who have painted a picture of radicalism and over-bearing arrogance about how attachment parenting advocates think their way of parenting is best, I wanted to discover something different and found an authentic and rather softer side in the fathers. It was humbling.

“Attachment parenting has been proof-in-the-pudding for me, and so it’s not hard for me to get behind,” adds Michael from New Mexico. “I see the positive results, and so I keep supporting it and doing it.”

The fathers of attachment parenting may be quiet and not looking for a spotlight, but they are there, strong and ever-supportive. It also helps when they look at their children and see nothing but perfection as a result of their parenting. But then again, what parent doesn’t?

Thanks, dads!

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4 Comments on “Silent But Not Invisible – The Fathers of Attachment Parenting”

  1. John Jones November 4, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    Okay, now we need the “secret confessions of an AP father” portion of this piece, where the men are allowed to comment anonymously and without the fear of repercussions that are involved with a domineering female partner.

    While I, an AP father myself, have experienced some of the great positive effects myself from this type of parenting, I must say I do fear for what my child may become based on this type of upbringing.

    I would like to see her more strong willed and independent than she currently is, seemingly unable to “go it alone”, ie. play alone, sleep alone, handle stress or emotions without constant guidance or coddling. I feel as though her mother is unwilling to let her fall down, experience the pain from it and learn not to do it again, choosing instead to tell her what would happen and then hover around her like a human cushion, stopping her from having to experience life. I feel terrible for admitting this, but isn’t failure a very important and real part of the human experience?

    I know that attachment parenting is supposed to help create a more understanding, empathetic child. My wife constantly reminds me of how our daughter can see when someone is in pain, says all of her please and thank you’s, etc. but I don’t know how much is empathy and learned response. She doesn’t naturally say please- my wife has to remind her nearly every time, and when she sees pain I don’t think she feels it although she recognizes it. I must admit she treats the other children much more kindly then they seem to treat each other and loves to give hugs etc. but when my child does things she shouldn’t, like hit my wife when she is upset, my wife is always quick to make an excuse for her actions rather than correct the problem.

    I worry the constant attention has made my daughter narcissistic- focusing on herself because everything in her world is constantly focused on her, confusing her wants for needs and holding her desires above others because she has been taught that her wants and needs are the most important thing in her world.

    And I must say that I absolutely HATE co sleeping at this point! She is old enough now to tell me when she is tired, that she wants to nurse, that she is ready to go to bed. If she is old enough to be put down in her own bed and fall asleep, why does my wife feel the need to pick her up, still asleep, and put her in our bed?

    One thing I can say is thank goodness she sleeps through the night now. The first 18 months were really hard. The mixture of no sleep, no sex, no time to be intimate (yes, that is different from sex) with my wife was really hard. I remember feeling like their was a constant child sized wedge between my wife and I, the extreme parenting made me feel like for 15 months I had only a mother and never a wife, she only a father and never her husband. It was very stressful on our marriage.

    Look, I know I’ve got a large list of gripes but I must stress their are a ton of positive points as well. Yes, the bond my wife and daughter have is phenomenal, one I have never seen before in my own life. Yes, my daughter is very intelligent and advanced for her age and I have no doubt that the constant guidance has been a huge factor in that. I suppose I just fear that my daughters world may come crashing down later in life when the real world tells her she isn’t as special as she has been raised to believe she is; I fear she won’t know how to be her own individual.

  2. Heather March 27, 2015 at 9:49 pm #

    Well, here’s the deal on co-sleeping. I am not an ‘attached’ parent. I would be considered a regular parent or maybe a 1950’s black and white tv show parent. My husband and I never even considered co-sleeping with our daughter as any kind of real arrangement so I have no real co-sleeping experience. We have 4 sets of close friends. Three of these friends practice co-sleeping.They are our friends because we all have kids around the same age. Ages 10 and 11…years…not months. The scenario is: mom sleeps with the kiddo or kiddos. Dad sleeps in the guest room…and has been in the guest room for YEARS. Three out of three of these marriages is on the rocks with dad unhappy about the sleeping arrangement. Dad complains once in awhile….mom makes a short-lived effort to move kiddo to his/her own bedroom….things go back the way they are…dad gives up. Here’s the real kicker. MY daughter thinks the it is all very bizarre and how can you blame her. She goes for a sleepover at a friend’s house. They snack, play games, watch movies…and then she sleeps ALONE in her friend’s room because her buddy CAN’T physically sleep without mommy present. These kids all have perfectly wonderful rooms of their own, decorated with their input….which they NEVER sleep in or really even spend time in at all for that matter. It just seems so weird because my daughter simply loves her room. She retreats to it to read, draw, study…whatever. It’s HER place…and she’s 11 for goodness sake..doesn’t she need a place? All these parents started out with co-sleeping as a babyhood/ toddler arrangement. My concern is: when is the co-sleeping thing just too bizarre for the kid’s growth and destructive to marital relations? Any answers?

  3. BinaryShakespere May 1, 2016 at 1:20 pm #

    If “standard” American child rearing is stressful, AP is more so. If there are any problems in the relationship going into rearing a child, they will be magnified that much more. If extended family support is not available, AP is that much worse. You won’t sleep. I was one such Dad.

    From the moment my daughter was born, until she was about 1 and a half months old, I was on night duty. I was able to sleep lightly during the day. My wife (let’s call her Susan) was nearly incapacitated the first 2 weeks, and the breast feeding “drained her energy” all day. I was a one man show. I could not invite my mother over to help, due to anger issues between Susan had toward her. I had to make a vow to not let my mother over until Susan was OK with that. Susan never allowed that to happen. The rest of my family lives in other states. So help from my family was entirely ruled out. Susan’s family was not much help either. Her family had medical issues, and are not really people who could take on responsibility. That left us with intermittent help from friends, and a wedge that was being driven deeper and deeper. Arguments started happening, and stress was building up.

    Here is what I think of co-sleeping. Invest in a large bed. If you are a Dad who wants to share the co-sleeping duty consider what kind of sleeper you are. I am a light sleeper, and I move a lot. I had a scary moment where my daughter moved, and my pillow and arm were on top of her body and part of her face. From that moment on, I woke up every 20 minutes checking myself and my position in the bed. I did this for 2 years. I developed a long term sleeping pattern and became extremely irritable and sleep-deprived. There was also an issue with the occasional bug climbing into the bed with us. When you have your mattress on the floor and live in an older building you are going to have bugs climbing on you. I moved to another room and slept on the futon after 2 years of this. It was the room I had hoped would become my child’s room, which never happened. It was either sleep on my own or not sleep at all. Susan was adamant about not having a traditional bed. She and my daughter slept on the floor mattress for 4 years. Our daughter was also being breastfed through age 4. Susan did not believe me that our daughter was saying things about how breast feeding wasn’t giving her milk, and her Mom wanted her to breastfeed. The question embedded in my mind was, “who is this for anyway?”

    My life was hell, I endured a lot, and got a verbal lashing for it from Susan. I wanted out of this situation like nothing I felt before. I grew to hate my wife, and looked into getting an attorney. AP parenting became a dirty word for me, even though I agree with a lot of the tenants in it. Children don’t need to be yelled at. I believe in being an interactive parent. I like kids, and have always been able to engage in play with them, while simultaneously setting limits. This AP obsession Susan acquired where any little squawk, and I mean little, was a sign of a need to cuddle and throw smothering affection on the child. At some point reason had taken a vacation. At some point, I was endangering the kid, by asking my daughter to eat her food, or to help me clean-up. At some point big shows of affection were displayed over small potatoes, and we argued over them. At some point I was a bad father for wanting to give my kid a hug on my way out the door. At some point, questioning anything about AP, was a license to start an uncontrollable argument. I had to stay away from Susan for the sake of stopping arguments before they got out of hand. I isolated myself from Susan for a year in that apartment, and thereby ended up isolating myself from my daughter. I said to myself, at least I can hear my daughter’s voice when I get home. It was unhealthy for all involved.

    I attempted to leave. I managed to stay away for a night with the intention of hiring an attorney, but made the mistake of having a spell of wishful thinking and came back. A week later we had an argument, and Susan left with the kid. I wasn’t able to see my child until My lawyer sent out the petitions for divorce to Susan’s family and friends. I now see my daughter with supervised visitation. We had years of family therapy, we had issues.

    What is the moral of this story? Don’t have a kid if your marriage is struggling. Don’t think for a moment that Attachment Parenting will help your marriage. If you are a Dad, and your wife is getting more and more militant with you about AP, get family therapy and/or get out. If you are arguing, and not able to agree with simple things, get out. AP is a great philosophy for a healthy couple that is in agreement with its premises. Unfortunately, AP is stressful without the right resources, and it can also be used as a tool to manipulate and degrade your sense of self.

  4. tom May 8, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    For me, attachment parenting is destroying our relationship. Sadly, it means junior will not be having a sibling. I would have thought a sibling and a father who is in his life would have been more valuable then extra added securities and immunities to an only child, but my partner has different ideas.

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