Beyond the Sling by Mayim Bialik, PhD

I began reading this book before the author’s recent announcement of her separation from her husband.  Mayim Bialik, best known for her work as Blossom in the 90’s TV show of that name and as Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, is known as a pretty hard-core attachment parent.  In Beyond the Sling, Bialik outlines her application of the principles of attachment parenting.  I believe she was attempting to bring attachment parenting to the masses in a positive way, but I don’t think she succeeded.

The book is broken into chapters based on what baby needs and does not need.  The first chapter is one of the best, where she outlines the principles of attachment parenting, as well as encouraging parents to trust their instincts when it comes to choices in parenting.  So far so good. 

Things go a bit awry in the next chapter about birth.  She is somewhat uncompromising on the idea of a totally natural childbirth, using her own birth experiences as examples.  For her second child, she labored completely on her own at home, pushed on her own, and basically had a midwife there just to catch the baby.  That’s all well and good for some people, but I think her attitude and portrayal of her birth experiences may make some women feel bad about their own experiences and choices.  Frankly, sometimes medical intervention and things like epidurals and C-Sections are necessary to ensure the health of both mom and baby.  For example, I had originally planned a natural birth in a birth center, but I ended up with a planned C-Section.  As it turned out, my son may not have survived a vaginal birth. 

The next couple of chapters I have no issues with, as they are about breastfeeding and babywearing.  I breastfeed on demand, and I wear my baby frequently.  My stroller is gathering dust in my front hall.  Babywearing keeps baby calm and allows mom to get things done around the house.  Bialik does a good job of discussing the various types of carriers, and I really think these two chapters are some of the best in the book. 

Now it’s time for some of the more extreme aspects of Bialik’s parenting philosophy.  She discusses sleeping arrangements, and it is what she reveals in this chapter that the media speculates is the reason for her impending divorce.  She explains that her husband sleeps with one son on one bed, and she sleeps on another bed with the other.  What the media skipped over was that both beds were right next to each other on the floor, more like one big bed.  The family bed works for some people, and for others it does not.  I think Bialik should have done more discussion on other options for co-sleeping, such as the Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper, bassinets, and cribs in the parents’ room. 

Now here’s the part that really turned me off and basically made me dismiss pretty much everything else in the book.  Bialik discusses elimination communication (EC), which is a technique for potty training in which the parent learns the baby’s signals that they are ready to go to the bathroom, and rushes the child to a potty.  She started this with her first child at 6 months, and for her second from birth.  I really have no idea how this works logistically, especially at night.  Bialik is clear that this is not an easy choice, but she brags that her children were wearing underwear and asking to go to the potty at 18 months, even though they were not at all verbal.  I simply cannot comprehend applying this within the context of the average family.

The third section of the book covers what baby doesn’t need.  This includes stuff; Bialik warns strongly against modern baby consumerism.  That’s all well and good, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with buying things for your child, as long as you don’t think that the stuff is a substitute for your presence as a parent.  Next, baby doesn’t need unnecessary medical intervention.  As with other aspects of this book, I think Bialik goes too far.  As a celebrity and public figure, I think she has a responsibility to temper her ideas with stronger warnings that this is an extreme application of attachment parenting philosophies.  From the chapter on medical interventions, I got the idea that Bialik pretty much never takes her children to the doctor.  Apparently, breastmilk is a cure-all that helps with many ills.  She also chooses not to vaccinate, which is an entirely different debate altogether. 

The final two chapters are about more psychological issues, including pressure on children and discipline.  I agree with her ideas about pressure, about letting kids be kids.  I think the level of pressure on children to excel has reached an extreme level that isn’t good for either the parents or the children.  I experienced the high pressure form of parenting, and although it pushed me to reach heights I might not have otherwise, I think there is a lot I missed out on when I was busy studying.  I also have a lot of perfectionistic tendencies and problems with feeling like I’m never good enough.  I think encouragement without pressure is definitely the way to go. As to discipline, Bialik uses what is called gentle discipline, which is about explaining to children why what they are doing is undesirable or wrong, rather than spankings and time-outs.  I’m not sure how I feel about that, but my son is only weeks old.  We’ll see how I feel in a few months.  I do know I’m not a fan of yelling at children and calling them names.  My dad did a lot of that, and I know it feels awful.  But I think the idea of reasoning with a child may not be practical at extremely young ages.  What confuses me about Bialik, is that she says that her children were not verbal until three years or later, so I’m not sure how she would know that her children were understanding this form of discipline.

The third section of the book is about what parents need, including keeping relationships strong, maintaining an identity beyond being a parent, and balancing work and family.  I have no issues with anything in this section, except the fact that she only gives three examples of other families applying attachment parenting principles besides her own.  While they are more traditional families, the descriptions are somewhat vague.  I would have liked to see more detail, as I have one of those more traditional families.  While I plan to stay home for most if not all of my son’s first year, I will ultimately be returning to work, and I am concerned about the fact that he will be spending somewhere between 8 and 10 hours at day care each weekday.

I don’t usually go into such detail when reviewing a book, but I think this one deserves a little more attention and analysis.  It is pretty relevant at this moment, with Bialik’s impending divorce, and the current attention on attachment parenting as a result of the Time magazine article.  Although Bialik was probably wanting to show a successful application of attachment parenting, her techniques are pretty extreme, and not at all applicable to the average family.  I think that if people read this book, they will be turned off by the style of parenting.  I know I would be.  If readers pick and choose what they take from this book, it could be valuable to the right reader.  But if it is viewed as a whole philosophy, it is not at all practical, and perhaps not even desirable.  My last thought is that maybe it is a bit soon for Bialik to say her children are totally loving and confident (as the extended title indicates).  I would have liked to see what she has to say about her choices in another ten years or so. 

I know I’m not usually this harsh, but when it comes to parenting, as a new parent I have some pretty strong feelings.

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