Advocates of attachment parenting might claim that their approach places demands on both genders, but we fathers know the truth. Regardless of our best intentions as equal partners, attachment parenting is really attachment mothering.
It’s the mother who has to keep constant vigil over her diet while pregnant to ward off suboptimal fetal intelligence. She’s the one who is encouraged to suffer authentically during natural childbirth. Dads can give back rubs and coach her on deep breathing, but those are just grains of sand thrown into an ocean of labor pain. At home, a father can be the most valiant promoter of mother’s milk, waking for the 3 a.m. feedings and stripping to the waist to promote skin-touch while giving the infant a bottle (pumped, of course) in the breastiest way possible, but he will still never know the horrors of mastitis. Mom is on her own on that one.
There is one valuable role for the father when it comes to attachment parenting, however: he can argue against the whole thing.
This is a natural argument for fathers to make. If a mother’s instinct often pushes toward more protection, a father’s instinct tends to be that the kid is going to be just fine. Fathers already have a slight — and I would argue, healthy — sense of distance in parenting. In my marriage, for example, I was the one who always wanted to have kids. For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted children — two of them, to be exact. My wife wasn’t nearly as sure about having children until much later. And yet, when they arrived, they were hers, in a deep, unspoken, irrevocable way.
This is, at the outset, a bit of a bummer for dads. A father is plunged into the same chasm of sleeplessness and Baby Einstein videos as the mother but is often on the outside looking in. Attachment parenting can exacerbate this alienation. Take co-sleeping. On paper, it’s a way for the entire family to bond and, supporters say, an important step for an infant to feel secure and loved. In practice, it usually means getting rib-kicked until Dad finally decides to sleep on the couch, where he will stay until the child graduates to his or her own sleeping arrangement, whenever that may be. But long-term exile to the living room is not nearly as stressful as the heavy set of expectations faced by the mother. Here, the father can help.
Call it detachment fathering. This can mean many things. It’s not feeling a twinge of guilt if you don’t want to splurge on organic vegetables. It’s letting your kid watch a cartoon if you’re too tired or busy to dive into a more enriching activity. Again, without guilt, because you know the kid has the important things — love, food, shelter — and that his intellectual diet can slack from time to time. It’s all grounded in the knowledge that children can, and often do, get by without a father in their lives. Sort of takes the pressure off.
Not that I’m arguing for the kind of detachment where you go out for milk and never come back — the world doesn’t need any more songs about how daddy done run off. But a little dose of fatherly distance from the expectations set by everyone from William Sears to your peers in mommy-and-me yoga can be just what the doctor ordered.