What is Attachment Parenting?

Recently someone asked me, "What, exactly, is Attachment Parenting?" For some reason I was completely flummoxed by her question and attempted a response that fast proved itself to be going no where. I don't know if it was not knowing her and her family and their specific needs at this point in time, and consequently not knowing where to begin, or if it was low blood sugar or lack of sleep that was my obstacle, but I felt lost and completely unable to focus. A dear friend jumped in to try to save me, but after all was said and done I was sure all the answer that had been communicated could be summed up in the word, "breastfeeding," which is only the tip of the iceberg. It bothered me all night, but I have learned that if I entrust the Holy Ghost with my nights, things are always much clearer in the morning.

Even though attachment parenting looks different in relationship with a baby than it does with a toddler, or a teen, there are some underlying principles which are constant. I hope that the following will sum it all up:

Human beings are needy and dependent. We depend ultimately on God, and in His wisdom He has made it necessary that we depend on one another, thereby affording each of us the opportunity to share in His power of sanctifying souls. It is in the vulnerability of these interdependent relationships that we learn to love. It is this neediness and vulnerability that is the fulcrum on which teeters the fall and elevation of man's nature. In seeking to be like God, our first parents fled from their vulnerability and denied their dependence on Him.  The loss of sanctifying grace through the fall is the primary attachment void. Concupiscence is associated with the anxiety aroused by this void--man fears that he is unlovable and unable to love. Since he was made to love and be loved (as a shark was made to swim and eat), the fear that he is not lovable and cannot love arouses his deepest, darkest passions. If he cannot love he can never be happy--neither in this life nor the next. He cannot give what he has not received. If he is not loved and cannot earn love then he will never be able to give love. The futility is in trying to earn unconditional love, which by its very definition and nature cannot be earned, but is a free gift, already merited for us by Christ. In becoming man--embracing our vulnerability and dependence, submitting unconditionally to the will of men, Christ elevated us to His level--the Divine level--tipping the scale, so to speak, in man's favor.  Peace and sanctity consist in embracing our vulnerability and dependence, coming to rest in the unconditional love and bountiful, merciful providence of God, and surrendering ourselves unconditionally to His Divine Will.

Babies and children (as with all human beings) have many physical and emotional needs all falling under the umbrella of their primary need to receive and give unconditional love: food, warmth, touch, security, empathy (emotional safety), autonomy, order, self-control, freedom, self-esteem (a sense that I am lovable and able to love). When these needs are filled in healthy ways children tend to behave as healthy children ought to behave, and their passions are subdued. When these needs are unfilled, their passions are inflamed and they become unruly and uncooperative, in exactly the same way that children do when their hunger for food is left untended. Prolonged deprivation triggers a defensive flight from vulnerability (pride) which can lead to serious habits of vice: rebelliousness, violence, drugs and alcohol, gluttony (and other forms of eating disorders), materialism, backbiting, loss of the sense of modesty, sin and the sacred; sexual licentiousness and perversion; sloth, despair and suicide. The deprived become the depraved. (Dr. Neufeld shows in Part II of HOTYK how prolonged attachment void leads to all these evils).

Gentle birthing, extended breastfeeding and giving children freedom within healthy limits to make their own food choices; holding or wearing your baby as much as he wants and as you are able; ensuring safe sleep emotionally and physically, i.e., co-sleeping or bed-sharing; avoiding separations and providing consistent loving care when they're unavoidable; responding with sensitivity; positive and gentle discipline which seeks to identify and fill the underlying need to re-establish equilibrium and only afterward to solicit cooperation (in the spirit of the words of St. John of the Cross, "Where there is no love, put love and you will find love."), rather than inflicting the suffering of deprivation, i.e. negative discipline: withdrawing physical comfort (spanking), affection (glaring, yelling, etc.), admiration and sense of self-worth (shaming), proximity (isolation in time-out), etc., in order to forcefully modify behavior; and balance--interior and exterior--balanced parents and balanced environment--all work together to provide for the child's needs, and at the same time help parents to become more virtuous people. A Trinitarian relationship is born in which parents, acting as intermediaries of God's grace, give the unconditional love and acceptance the child needs to grow in virtue so that he can eventually return that love. In turn, parents unconditionally accept the child's attempts to love, providing him with encouragement, hope, and a sense of power, autonomy and self-worth. A mutually sanctifying cycle of giving and receiving unconditional love is initiated and the Blessed Trinity is enthroned in our hearts and in our relationships.  The feeling of being felt that is the hallmark of the secure attachment is none other than the awareness of the Presence of the Blessed Trinity "incarnated" in our mutual, self-sacrificing love for one another, "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst."

When children's needs are filled, they can remain at peace--at rest, as opposed to in flight from their vulnerability (a.k.a. "flight from suffering," "fear of the Cross"). It is only in this peaceful rest (in Christ--in a Trinitarian relationship) that human beings can grow physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Moments of unrest and strife which are unavoidable in this life are easily weathered, and calm is quickly restored.

Parents become more virtuous by learning to depend more and more on the love and mercy of God for their happiness and peace, until they eventually embrace The Cross, surrendering themselves and all whom they love to the merciful providence of God ("Draw me, we shall run in the odor of Your ointments."). Here is where they find balance--the balance of their horizontal humanity upon the vertical beam of Christ's Divinity--The Cross. All virtue springs from charity; all vice springs from fear of the Cross. As they grow in virtue they impart, almost effortlessly, these virtues to their children and to all with whom they are in relationship.

What began as a natural, human endeavor, is seamlessly transported and elevated to the supernatural level, becoming a divine work in the souls of all the members of a family. Though sacntifying grace filled each of our souls at baptism, the cultivation of charity in our souls requires our cooperation--"The Higher does not stand without the Lower" C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Wise parents will learn how, by their patient example and guidance, to solicit their children's cooperation through love, which must be an act of their free will and cannot be caused by force--fear of suffering or the promise of a reward which is extrinsic to the act itself.

When children (human beings) are given the opportunity and the freedom to experience the joy and suffering that is intrinsic to their actions (not imposed from without), the development of a true moral conscience occurs. It is only within their own true conscience that they can perceive the impulses of the Holy Ghost and live confidently and joyfully at peace in a state of total abandonment to God's will.

Parents model trustful surrender by accepting unconditionally with meekness and humility their children's needs and feelings, gently redirecting their actions when inappropriate or physically/spiritually dangerous--avoiding the use of force except in cases of imminent danger. When we give loving, validating presence to a child who is suffering through hard feelings--frustration, disappointment, anger, sorrow, fear--we "watch one hour" with Our Lord in His agony, when all His other disciples fell asleep. We refuse to deny Him as poor Peter did. We help to shoulder the burden in imitation of Simon of Cyrene. We wipe the sweat and blood from His brow like St. Veronica, and we weep with the women of Jerusalem over His Passion. We don't deny His suffering; we don't urge Him to flee from it or try to shield Him from it, again as poor Peter did, after which The Master rebuked him, "Get behind me, Satan;" we remain with Him at the foot of the Cross in the company of Our Lady, St. John and the Magdalen until "it is finished;" the meaning of Our Lord's prayer, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit" is felt deeply, down to his very bones ("The have pierced My hands and My feet; they have numbered all My bones"); and God's work in this moment is accomplished in the soul of this child.

Of course, sometimes it is we who need someone to watch an hour with us and it seems everyone has fallen asleep. Futility crushes us as we are confronted with our own neediness, inadequecy and dependence and we must pray with Christ, "Not my will, Father, but Thine be done." It is in just such a moment as this that we are given the opportunity to discover the meaning and purpose of suffering, and the entire Gospel message is made clear. Our souls are illumined by the light of truth, and the Holy Ghost can now begin to instruct us, now blind to all other lights, in The School of Charity.

Again, what began as a natural love has been augmented and transformed into supernatural charity.

All parents have this natural love for their children, but it is fear of the Cross which keeps us from cooperating in the transformation. Attachment psychology is God's own gift to a cynical, skeptical, non-believing people who have lost faith and hope in the transformative power of unconditional love. For us who have so much trouble believing in anything we cannot perceive with our senses or measure in a lab, there are now countless studies that demonstrate time and again that it is love, not extrinsic force or fear, which has the power to make us fully human; and horizontal, human love that is elevated and balanced upon the vertical beam of Divine love has the power to transform each one of us into an "Alter Christus," fully human, yet divinized in the Body and Blood of Christ.

This, in a nutshell, is Catholic Attachment Parenting.


Faith said...

Wow, Robynn, that was beautiful and just what I needed to read at this very moment. Thank you!

Aranas Clan said...

Thank you .. I've got HOTYK on loan from the library and am looking forward to digesting it along with your post.

Rebecca said...

"Prolonged deprivation triggers a defensive flight from vulnerability (pride) which can lead to serious habits of vice: rebelliousness, violence, drugs and alcohol, gluttony (and other forms of eating disorders), materialism, backbiting, loss of the sense of modesty, sin and the sacred; sexual licentiousness and perversion; sloth, despair and suicide. The deprived become the depraved." Our Lord said in Mark 7:15-23 that these vices come from within and that which comes from outside does not defile. You are saying that these come from the deprivation of affection from others (outside). Can a parent do all that you described in attachment parenting and still have the child display these vices? Are we not all free agents? The effects of original sin are always present in each of us and we are free to choose to be "hurt" by others. I have been told that I am not responsible for how others "feel". And I do believe that to be true. Also, humility is a hard virtue to teach your children and others but is very important in battling "pride".

MedievalMama said...

Hi Rebecca,

Sorry I've taken so long to respond to your comment. My Father died last month and I've been trying to get my bearings. Thanks for your patience. I'm so glad you asked me about this. I realize now I probably should have used the word "provokes" instead of triggers. Prolonged deprivation provokes the flight from vulnerability, but the choice to take flight is solely that of the person fleeing--though he may not be conscious of it. And I certainly don't mean to imply that AP is a guarantee that a child will never take flight, just that it is a strong safeguard against such a temptation, just as is our certainty of God's love for us and His knowing exactly what's best for us, His ability to provide for all our needs, and other ways we come to rest securely in His grace. I believe what Our Lord says in Mark's gospel, that we are defiled by the free choices that come from within ourselves, not from temptations that others try to seduce us with. But I also believe that Our Lord meant for us to take care not to provoke each other, and I believe that when we communicate love to one another selflessly, as Christ loves us, we are instruments in mediating His grace, which is how we are sanctified and how others are sanctified by Him through us. Here’s the way Fr. Henri Nouwen explains it in his beautiful book, The Return of the Prodigal Son (my comments are bracketed):
“The sequence of events is quite predictable. The farther I run away from the place where God dwells, the less I am able to hear the voice that calls me the Beloved, and the less I hear that voice, the more entangled I become in the manipulations and power games of the world. [From the vertical orientation of the place where God dwells, from upon the Cross, to the horizontal orientation of worldliness. So long as we continue to hear the voice that calls us the Beloved, we have no motivation to succumb to the seductions of the world. This is the essence and power of secure attachment.]

"It goes somewhat like this: I am not so sure anymore that I have a safe home [secure attachment], and I observe other people who seem to be better off than I. I wonder how I can get to where they are. I try hard to please, to achieve success, to be recognized [the sin of human respect]. When I fail, I feel jealous or resentful of these others. When I succeed, I worry that others will be jealous or resentful of me. I become suspicious or defensive and increasingly afraid that I won't get what I so much desire or will lose what I already have [the fear of suffering, or flight from vulnerability and pursuit of worldly happiness]. Caught in this tangle of needs and wants, I no longer know my own motivations [fear of suffering or love of the Cross; development of conscience is stunted]. I feel victimized by my surroundings and distrustful of what others are doing or saying. Always on my guard, I lose my inner freedom and start dividing the world into those who are for me and those who are against me. I wonder if anyone really cares. I start looking for validations of my distrust. And wherever I go, I see them, and I say: 'No one can be trusted.' And then I wonder if anyone ever really loved me. The world around me becomes dark. My heart grows heavy. My body is filled with sorrows. My life loses meaning. I have become a lost soul."
(continued in next comment)

MedievalMama said...

(continued from previous comment)
I also agree with you that we are not entirely responsible for how others feel. However, I think that if we treat them in a way that we know is likely to provoke hard feelings and temptations to sin then we are culpable for our careless actions. Also, I don't mean to say that the sorts of vices I mentioned come from deprivation, but that deprivation makes us more susceptible to falling prey to the temptations of the world--that receiving unconditional love and affection and acceptance from another person, a parent, a spouse, or Christ Himself, helps to make us strong and more able to resist the seductions of the world, and more able to give unconditional love to others. I think it's just the same as St. Augustine saying, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." Since sin is a privation, the lack of a due good, that good being love, then where charity is there can be no sin. This is why St. Augustine was able to say, "Love God and do as you will." When we have charity--and humility comes with charity and being able to rest securely, trustingly in the love of God, even when it's communicated to us through a human instrument--we will to do good, to love as Christ loves--we are oriented toward Heaven rather than toward the world and things, which are far beneath man's dignity and can never satisfy him. Until he is satisfied, man will be restless, but when we show him Christ through the security of our relationship with him, he can eventually come to rest. And I think that children can stay at rest in the secure relationship with their parents when parents practice the AP principles with the love of Christ from the beginning of their child's life (and provided there are no extenuating circumstances).

Maybe I'm unable to explain all this in such a short space. I would be happy to dialogue with you on this as much as you'd like.

In Christ.

The Ethologic Mom said...

I just came upon your blog. It is beautiful! Looking forward to learning more about you and your amazing gifts.

Catholic Attachment Parenting

A philosophy of parenting modeled after the self-donative love exemplified in the relationship between Mary and Jesus.

1 Jn 4:18

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love."

Luke 1:17

"...to turn the hearts of the parents toward their children..."