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Primal Parenting? Really?

Posted by camilla on July 6, 2011 in attachment parenting, motherhood, musings, nursing, parenting with 3 Comments

Dr. Momma recently posted this article by Patricia Törngren on something called primal parenting. I generally enjoy the articles on Dr. Momma’s site, but this one made me pretty angry. There are a lot of people all over the internet spreading crazy generalizations about parenting, but this one was pretty nut-tastic in my opinion.

I would urge you to read the article — it is really some interesting reading. The author’s overall point is that because her mother did not feed her on demand and let her cry (to be fair, the mother seemed to have gotten some gross misinformation from her pediatrician) that she was a damaged adult who hoarded food. She also makes noises about “being forced to sleep alone” from birth and not being picked up enough to suit her needs. This of course supports the attachment parenting practices of co-sleeping and babywearing. She refers to the style of parenting in which she believes as “primal parenting — the primal is related primal therapy. (I can’t see how her concepts differ from Sears’ attachment parenting, but I suppose that is beside the point.)

She talks a bit about a book her therapist gave her, which connects long-term breastfeeding with self-worth and autonomy in hunter-gatherer societies, and withholding colostrum and crying it out or sleep training practices with anger issues. In a meandering way, she links crying it out, sleeping in a crib and early weaning (before one year, I’m guessing) with — get ready for it — the development of clinical depression in adults. Just so you believe me, here’s some juicy quotes that show her line of thinking:

[Timothy Taylor] says that for early weaning to be forced onto the child, the child must be made to sleep alone, and its crying ignored…. The outcome of this is very serious. Taylor links it to classical conditioning and Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness… The child has learned from the beginning that trying to get its needs met, or asserting itself in any way, is futile. Tragically, learned helplessness is often the forerunner of clinical depression.

See what she does here? If you wean your child early, he or she must be sleeping in his or her own bed (the horror!). If your child is sleeping independently in his or her own bed, his or her crying is ignored. If the crying is ignored, your child learns that he or she is helpless and no aid will come. Tragic, indeed. BAM! You end up with a depressed adult.

Wow. So that is why there are so many depressed men and women out there. They slept in CRIBS! And cried! My gosh. Finally, an explanation.

Of course she links all of this to her own depression, as I mentioned before. She does let us know that she is now in therapy, recovering from her childhood and her mother not holding her enough or letting her eat as she was crying. (Her experience as an infant does seem to be a uniquely bleak one, which certainly could have something to do with depression. Is it the singular cause? Likely not.)

Of course she ends up telling us how terrible our futures will all be if we do not parent in the way she has laid out:

Hopefully, this nurturing and loving style of caring for children will become the parenting of the future, as it was in our distant past. If it doesn’t, our future as humanity is bleak indeed.

Bleak. Indeed.

Certainly as someone who formula feeds, “forces” her child to sleep in a crib, and occasionally prefers the stroller to the Ergo carrier, I take issue with many of Törngren’s claims. It seems like she isn’t just putting it out there that primal parenting is one way of doing things that could provide good results — it seems that she believes it is the ONLY way to do things. As I said, I do dig Dr. Momma, but I feel like this is a harmful article. It reinforces, and may even create in some new mothers, the belief that there is only one right way of parenting.

As I write, I am reminded of an article I read by Erica Jong (the noted author of Fear of Flying). The article is called “On the Madness of Motherhood,” and it got me pretty angry at the time I read it — just as Törngren’s article did. (And just like Törngren, Jong comes out with some over generalization and more than her share of acrimony against the “other” way of parenting.) Jong comes roaring out against attachment parenting and the insanity of this new wave of parenting practices:

Attachment parenting, especially when combined with environmental correctness, has encouraged female victimization. Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breastfeed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It’s a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women’s freedom as the right-to-life movement.

Whoa! Over generalization after over generalization after over generalization. Yikes! (She also talks about how her own daughter “hated” breastfeeding, without any back story. Totally bizarre.) But, after getting all riled up against Törngren, it did make me think back to reading Jong. There are so many people — especially women, and golly do I hate to stereotype — who really think, who really BELIEVE that parenting a certain way (the “attached” way) is the ONLY right way to raise a little person.

In the midst of her own ridiculosity, Jong makes some salient points. Says Jong, “So it seems we have devised a new torture for mothers—a set of expectations that makes them feel inadequate no matter how passionately they attend to their children.” Yes indeed. I see it over and over. I hear so many mothers ask, in different words and in different ways, “Am I doing it right?” I’m one of those mothers of course. And I ask myself this every day. Certainly, this isn’t an uncommon way of thinking — in fact, I would say it’s probably a way of thinking that dates back to when Homo Sapiens first stepped away from the primate world.

But in today’s world, worry is yet another addiction. The world expands rapidly before us, its threats and dangers brought to us over and over, on repeat, on our television and computer screens. “Toxins!” we hear. “Pesticides! Trans fats! Disease! Vaccines! Infected water!”

Despite her undeniable nuttiness “On the Madness of Motherhood,” I now strongly resonate with Jong’s final point:

What is so troubling about these theories of parenting—both pre- and postnatal—is that they seem like attempts to exert control in a world that is increasingly out of control. We can’t get rid of the carcinogens in the environment, but we can make sure that our kids arrive at school each day with a reusable lunch bag full of produce from the farmers’ market. We can’t do anything about loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, but we can make sure that our progeny’s every waking hour is tightly scheduled with edifying activities.

Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child’s home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.

I think a lot about babies these days. The more I get to know my own little person, I realize that that is exactly what he is — a little person. He’s not some mythical creature that will be damaged without the exact right kind of care — he’s a tiny human. Just as all human beings vary infinitely, so do babies, and so do parents for that matter.

The kind of parenting I support is parenting that responds to the needs of the baby and the needs of the parent, weighing each in kind. This takes into account that a parent must be well and happy with his or her decisions in order to provide the best care for his or her baby. Of course, I don’t support the decisions of doing truly harmful things to children like beating or verbally abusing them. Beyond that, I try to believe that each parent is doing the best for his or her child — as he or she sees fit. Most parenting decisions shouldn’t fall under attack as much as they do from a certain group of parents (particularly mothers) on the internet.

The internet ends up being an extension of that “small world” that we create for our perfectly reared children. And with the anonymity that the internet provides, we can criticize whatever parenting practice we like (cribs are cages! formula is poison!) and over generalize until our faces turn blue. We can extend our control by “informing” and “supporting” and “educating” other mothers about what we KNOW is right. And that way, we can crusade against what we see as a bleak and unloving way of parenting — just as Törngren would have us do.

“Do the best you can,” says Jong at the very end of her article. “There are no rules.”

On that point, Ms. Jong, I agree with you. I won’t be coming out in support of any one way of parenting. Because there isn’t any one way.


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  1. CaseyJuly 7, 2011 - 9:09 pm #1

    There was a study recently that said that people are unhappy when they grow up because parents provide them with everything when they’re little and shelter them from disappointment.

    Apparently scientists need to get their shit together.

    (And this entry TOTALLY ROCKS.)


  2. Sarah PickingJuly 8, 2011 - 8:21 pm #2

    Another beautiful blog post. I always get excited when I see you have new thoughts to share. Once again I agree with you that my life doesn’t have room for extremes or too many hard and fast rules about what is right. A close friend of mine who is pregnant recently solicited advice from me about when is the right time to go back to work. She is a lawyer and is planning to take the first year off but was worried she would get bored and wanted to know if that was “bad”. I heard myself telling her, “why make a rule about it now if you can help it? Can you play it by ear? Like if you find yourself missing work, can you think about going back part time?” I said, “if you can avoid it, I see no reason to make a rule about it until you see what works for you.” And after I got that out, I realized that that is how we are trying to approach parenting at this point. How can we know what is going to work for us until we KNOW? I knew I was going to breastfeed. Until I found out it didn’t work for us. Then I knew we’d be formula feeding, but having made the rule first contributed to huge feelings of guilt and depression about NOT breastfeeding as long as the rule I had made up said.

    I also want to say I’m so glad that you feel like the mother and child are important. That is healthy for you I’m sure. I completely agree with you and sometimes the pressure on moms to make decisions just about the children isn’t correct because the mom IS part of the child’s equation. Last night, my daughter fussed herself to sleep in her rocker/sleeper. I could have tried to rock her to sleep in my arms for the next hour, but I need sleep to be the best mom I can be for her during the day. So for us, letting her fuss a bit while my husband rocked her sleeper was what was best for both of us.

    What an interesting point about the control over parenting and getting things “right” as being our way of trying to exert control over our children’s surroundings. I know I want everything to be perfect for my daughter. No way in hell it will be, no matter what I do. This is great food for thought…a new idea I’ve never really considered.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts…always nice to hear your perspective. Oh and I wanted to share something positive. I had the courage the other day to talk to a friend of mine who has been breastfeeding for 2 weeks and unlike me, it has been as easy as brushing her teeth. As she described what she loved about it, the two of them looking into each other’s eyes, the cuddling, the quiet time together, I realized that even with my daughter being bottle-fed formula, we too share all those things. Our feedings are quiet times of bonding (unless she is distracted by someone near me talking which happens more and more the older she gets ;) And suddenly, the depression over losing the breastfeeding that I have been dealing with for 4 months suddenly lifted!

    Thinking of you and your last article and wishing you some happy thoughts on your journey.

  3. camillaJuly 10, 2011 - 2:04 am #3

    Thank you Sarah! I always love your responses. :)

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I’m a liberal feminist that believes that liberal, feminist ideals should gel with embracing your gender and motherhood (if that’s what you feel like doing). I support all kinds of moms and dads and parents. Oh and, although I totally love that natural vibe and not harming the environment, I supplement my organic milk and fresh fruits and veggies with the occasional Twix, the frequent Oreo, and the daily Coke Zero. I’m opinionated, not easily offended, and a loudmouth in person and on the internet. I am what I am. Welcome.

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