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The founder of Attachment Parenting UK has spoken out about her concerns that the message of the movement may have been misunderstood resulting in some mothers becoming isolated and overwhelmed.
Speaking ahead of her first annual conference which will hold 350 delegates and 20 exhibitors, Michelle McHale says she feels the message of AP has been mistranslated in certain quarters and has put too much pressure on mothers. “Children can benefit from multiple attachments,” she says. “But a lot of children whose mothers follow AP have only one primary attachment – to the mother – and that places an overwhelming responsibility on women and is not in the child’s best interest. I want to discourage that view. Multiple attachments benefit everyone.”
Michelle says she has come across this attitude while organising the conference, which takes place in Bristol on 30th September. There will be a whole array of events, including performances, poets and a bring your own baby choir . There will also be lectures on different issues such as babywearing expert Dr Rosie Knowles, consent-based education with Sophie Christophy, infant massage with Kate Pigeon-Owen and positive birth with expert Milli Hill. Other speakers include Ian Blackwell of the Dangerous Dads Network. Michelle says the talks require deep listening and for that reason she says toddlers should not be in the auditorium. Babies in arms are allowed in and there is a space outside the auditorium where toddlers can play. The decision not to allow toddlers in the auditorium has stirred up some criticism from participants. “Parents do need time when they can be on their own,” says Michelle, “but the undercurrent from some is one of resentment and of a feeling that I am doing something wrong.”
Michelle says she knows only too well the dangers of isolation as a parent and she compares herself with a friend of hers who has created a support network around her so she can work and do what she loves. Her child is happy with other adults, says Michelle. Indeed one of the reasons Michelle set up APUK was because she was isolated and needed stimulation. Her ex-husband was away a lot.
Prior to having her daughter, Michelle had been a tour director, taking US teens around Europe on education trips and British adults to China and South America. She stopped after she got pregnant and took seven years out. Her daughter had special needs, but was undiagnosed until she was five when a rare heart defect was picked up and she had to have open heart surgery.
Her daughter was very attached to her so it made sense for Michelle to carry her around with her in a sling. She researched attachment theory and really got into it. “I had not appreciated all the ways we are encouraged to separate from our infants. Having an infant whose level of distress was so high when she was separated from me because of her heart condition made me question social norms,” says Michelle.
Attachment parenting tends to be associated with things like lengthy breastfeeding, sling wearing and co-sleeping. Michelle felt she stuck out where she was living at the time because of wearing a sling. In the end the family ended up moving to Totnes to be nearer “like-minded people” after Michelle spotted a mum wearing a sling there.
Michelle trained with Attachment Parenting International and set up the only AP group in the UK. No-one attended the first meeting, but within three years the following had mushroomed and there were new people coming to every meeting. Michelle had to suspend the group when her daughter was diagnosed.
However, she continued to receive lots of emails from around the country asking her where there were groups. Michelle researched this and made a list. It was to prove the start of Attachment Parenting UK, a wholly British group with no links to the US group. Michelle describes the differences, saying the US group can be seen as being fairly dogmatically attached to its principles. “Ours is a non-dogmatic approach,” she says.
For her AP is about parents being self aware and taking care of their own feelings and thoughts. The questions she gets asked most commonly are about babywearing, sleep, weaning and toddler behaviour. In response to the questions she was receiving, Michelle has written a positive discipline course for NHS workers.
Michelle says: “Our approach is that everyone does attachment parenting as everyone cares about their attachment to their child. We are just giving them information about ways of doing that.”
*Michelle is one of several entrepreneurs currently featuring in a promotional campaign set up by The Watch Hut.