Mothering and Smothering

By Brauna Doidge
Tuesday, March 20, 2012

When did "natural" become a synonym for "good" or "better"? Advertisers tell us that everything from our food to our skincare is better when it's used in its most natural state.  But haven't the philosophers—Hobbes, Locke, and Kant (though not Rousseau)—tried hard to get us out of the state of nature?  Is it good that tornadoes destroy everything in their path or that bigger animals prey on smaller? No—it's just natural. And yet the up-and-coming trend in parenting is to birth and raise children the way nature planned.

Mayim Bialik's first book is a salvo in this argument.  The former child star of Blossom has blossomed into an observant Jew with a family, and Beyond the Sling, geared to a general, rather than Jewish, audience, presents Bialik's happy family as an example of the philosophy of "Attachment Parenting" at work.  Bialik has ventured into this territory before; her blog on the Jewish parenting site offers readable, relatable accounts of contemporary family life and religious observance—albeit from the rather unique perspective of a famous vegan actress with a PhD in neuroscience.

Bialik insists that her parenting methods are feasible for the average parent, PhD or no PhD.  And what exactly are they?  "Attachment Parenting," a term coined by Dr. William Sears, is a parenting philosophy based on the principles of attachment theory—a theory of developmental psychology developed in the 1970s—with the aim of building a strong emotional bond between parent and child. Or, as Attachment Parenting International puts it, the goal is to "return to the instinctual parenting of our ancestors." Indeed, the first part of Bialik's book is called "Trust your instincts." She reassures us that what we need to be the best parents is already programmed in our DNA.  This sounds easy, but in practice Attachment Parenting can be a lot of hard work, time, and money. It can include breastfeeding your baby on demand and letting the baby self-wean, holding your baby as much as is possible (otherwise known as "babywearing"), and sleeping with your baby until he or she wishes to leave the family bed.

It goes without saying that most parents seek to bond emotionally with their children. And it's comforting to think that if we just dig deep enough within ourselves, we'll all have the best possible guide: nature itself. While we can all agree that the goal of Attachment Parenting is lofty, the underlying justification of this parenting philosophy—that if only parents follow their intuition, or what is most natural, they will be better parents—is up for debate.

Maybe there is something wrong with my parental instinct, but if I always listened to my first instinct, and impulses, I'd always give in to my one-year-old. I'd still never let him cry at night, thereby preventing him from learning how to sleep on his own. I would stay with him all the time, never get a babysitter (which is a practice among some Attachment Parenting parents), even though I've been amazed to see how social, playful, and adventurous my child has become since he's had to learn to have fun without me sometimes. Ironically, in trying to become a more "natural" mother, I would become a stereotypically overprotective Jewish mother.

But Judaism from the start has had a more nuanced relationship to the idea of nature, our instincts and our impulses.  Even in our most "natural" state, in the Garden of Eden, God commands Adam to rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28). This command puts us in charge of nature—meaning both the natural world and what we moderns call human nature. From there on in, God gives the Jews many commandments, a sure sign that we cannot just rely on nature, or our instincts (which may be good or bad) for a roadmap to life.  When practitioners of Attachment Parenting stand behind the anti-circumcision movement, as many do, we see the stark contrast between its underlying principles and Judaism's. 

A more "Jewish" philosophy is offered by parenting guru Wendy Mogel in her book on raising teens, The Blessing of a B Minus. Drawing on Jewish sources, Mogel preaches "compassionate detachment" that may at first feel painful and unnatural, but is ultimately best for the emerging adult. Drawing on the mystical idea of tzimtzum, parents, like God, must shrink themselves and relinquish control over their children for them to thrive. Take these practical examples from the book: when your teenage son asks for help on a school project he's left to complete at the last minute, your instinct will be to rush to his aid and fix it for him so he doesn't get a bad grade. But since he procrastinated, perhaps he needs the life lesson of discovering what happens when one doesn't complete one's work on time. Fight the impulse to make all his problems, big and small, disappear.

Or, when your daughter tells you excitedly about her new desire to skydive, don't just blurt out that she will kill you with worry. Overcome your instinct to respond and chastise before you open your mouth, and be glad she wants to include you in her life and has come to confide in you.

At the beginning of the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that being created in the image of God means humans share God's intellectual apprehension—in other words, His rational form. Our reason and intellect, then, make us human and humane. While our natural instincts may lurk deep inside ourselves, they don't always make us better people, let alone better parents.

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