We caught up with mom of two, actor and Ph.D.-holding neuroscientist Mayim Bialik to talk about her new book on attachment parenting, Beyond the Sling, and find out just what gentle discipline is all about, whether or not it’s possible to keep your marriage alive when your kids sleep in your bed, and how she was able to get both her children out of diapers by 15 months. (Yep, you read that right—15 months!) Check out what she had to say.
P&N:Most people know you from your roles in Beaches, Blossom and most recently the CBS hit show The Big Bang Theory but what the general public may not know is that you also have a formidable background in academia as well, namely neuroscience. Tell us a little about that.
Bialik:Well, when Blossom ended Iwas two years out of high school, and Ihad really fallen in love with science while Iwas being tutored on the set. I had a really neat one-on-one woman tutor who was a dental student at UCLAat the time and it really helped me excel in science, whereas previously Ikind of thought it was for boys. After Blossom ended, I wanted to go to college and I wanted to study what was interesting to me. Iwas initially interested in genetics, but took a class in pyschobiology and just fell in love with neuroscience and the neuron and all the chemical and physical properties of the brain and nervous system. So, Istudied for five years undergraduate—Idid a minor in Hebrew and Jewish studies—and then I went straight to a PhD which took seven years. Iworked with kids with special needs, specializing in obsessive compulsive disorder—specifically the hormones that may be involved in OCD, which coincidentally are oxytocin and vasopressin which are the same hormones that govern labor and pregnancy and breastfeeding, so Ikind of got two educations at once.
P&N: You married in 2003, had your first child in 2005, and got your PhD in 2007. Was it the birth of your son that really sparked your interest in attachment parenting or did that come earlier during your studies?
Bialik:Actually, it came more from just having friends who were from Northern California, where you could say ideas flow freely. And we had friends who had kids before us. And honestly, I thought they were crazy. They seemed really fixated on their kids, and they slept with their kids and Iheard the term ‘elimination communication’ and Iwas like, “What the hell is that?” And honestly, like, these people seemed really obsessed with their kids. But what my husband and Istarted seeing was that we didn’t hate being around these people and their kids as their kids got older. I’m not a person who ever really particularly liked other people’s kids or babies— Ijust wasn’t that kind of female—but these were kids that were kind of like small people. I don’t mean that they were mature and that they were being forced to be adults, but our friends had conversations with their children as they got older instead of telling them what to do or putting them in a corner. This was before we even had kids, it was before we were married!And we really just started saying maybe there’s more to this whole extended breastfeeding, sleeping with your kids, homebirth thing. Maybe it actually matters, you know?
P&N:It clearly became a passion for you—the gentle parenting style based on being in tune with your child’s needs. But what sparked you to take the next step to actually write a book about it? Not just practice it in your life, but then go on to share your insights with other parents?
Bialik:Part of that, I think, is the weirdness of the celebrity machine. I write for this website called Kveller. It’s pretty cool—I jumped on board when the site started and I was really just looking for a place to write articles because I had fun things to say. Through working with them I honed this voice and my editor worked with me to help me understand how to present information, and I think that’s what I felt like was missing in the attachment parenting world—people who weren’t judgmental and who didn’t scare people away. And so I didn’t take it on like this is my mission in life, I just wrote about what life looks like for us and because, you know, I’m this celebrity person, I guess people are interested. It puts a face on it. It’s not just some random crunchy woman in the park, it’s Mayim Bialik, crunchy woman in the park. And I was interviewed by Ali Landry and Teresa Strasser, both kind of public Hollywood mom types, and they were both like, “You need to write a book because I don’t necessarily agree with what you say, but you make it sound so believable and you’re not judgmental.” And I thought, “I’m not going to write a book, this is ridiculous!” Teresa Strassers’ lit agent asked to speak to me and he said, “You have a voice, you have a book here—let’s do this.”And four months later I had written a couple of my essays up into larger chapters, and we made a proposal, and we had a bidding war and Simon and Schuster won. I mean, they’re putting it in hard cover!It’s amazing to me because, for me, I don’t want to say it’s not hard, but I just wrote what goes on in our house. It’s not a parenting book, like you need to do what Ido, it’s like what does it really look like when you sleep with your kids? This is what it looks like. What does it look like to breastfeed until they’re done? This is what it looks like. But I don’t have some sort of agenda of telling you how to parent. We all want to be the best parents we can be. We all want our kids to grow up to be good, you know, whatever that means. We share something very common. We go about it differently, but are there things I can learn from you? Yes. Are there things you can learn from me? I hope so.
P&N: And Ricki Lake, who has a very supportive blurb on the cover of your book, seems to have done the same thing with her documentaries on homebirth, using the same sort of “celebrity machine” to bring an awareness to mainstream America about something that may be perceived as “out there,” making it seem more “normal” for parents everywhere.
Bialik: First of all, I have such tremendous respect for her, given the many shifts her career has taken and she’s really rolled with it. But I think for those of us who are passionate about this kind of thing, we really—and this is not to say we have some sort of God complex—people like Ricki and people like me, we really believe that if people just have the education, it can change the way our healthcare system views birth and it can change the way women view themselves. I mean, this is also a feminist issue. Who has the power to tell you what to do with your body? You do! This is not a 1970s concept. We still don’t know who’s in charge of our body. That’s how passionately that she and I feel about it. It’s not like we’re saying I want to use my voice to make you stop clubbing harbor seals in the frozen tundra—which is also important, don’t get me wrong!—but Ithink that’s very foreign to people, and if you don’t like harbor seals you may not be interested. This affects every person in this country, even if you don’t have children, because you are paying for the health costs associated with an almost 30 percent C-section rate, which should astound everyone. It affects everyone. And honestly, the children that we raise—what if it does matter? Imean, neurobiologically we know it matters how a child is born, how a child is fed, how a child is nurtured and we’re speaking in statistics, but those statistics are showing that the children we raise today, those are going to be our leaders tomorrow. When you and I are in our sixties, this generation will be trying to become president.
P&N:Talk a little bit about the basic concepts you outline in the book.
Bialik: There’s a couple introductory chapters that do draw on my neuroscience background, not to overwhelm people or make people think you need to have a neuroscience degreee to be a “good parent,” but the notion being that everything that is intuitive to us is primed in our hormones and in our DNA. So there’s a brief introduction that hopefully will instill a general sense of faith for moms and dads that our bodies were made to nurture our children. That’s just a biological fact. But the bulk of the book is what babies need and then what babies don’t need that we’re told they do. And the things babies need, again, no matter how you do it, they need to be born—and a smooth birth, a smooth birth is the goal—they need to be fed, they need to be cared for at night, they need to be held, and they need to go to the bathroom. So those are kind of the five body situational functions. As for what babies don’t need, Ihighlighted things that we’re told to do, like early academic pressure, discipline, we’re told babies need a lot of discipline, we’re told that babies need a lot of stuff—we’re all told we need a lot of stuff. The fourth thing is medical intervention, which, you know is going to vary widely, but the notion that you don’t have to run to the medicine cabinet just because something hurts. There’s a chapter on that as well. And also I give sort of the way we’ve treated common ailments that many people have, anything from high fever and flu to smaller bumps and bruises. Igo through how we literally deal with that stuff.
P&N:Your parenting style has been described as “minimalist” and you’ve also been quoted as saying you raise your kids with as little stimulation as possible. Describe what that means for your daily life.
Bialik: It means that we don’t put them in front of the television. I mean, we just don’t. Idon’t pass judgement on those who do and believe me, there are times Iwish I could. But, you know, we try to foster an appreciation in being creative and finding creativity and stimulation in the natural environment as much as possible. We own a television, they’ve seen sports, they saw the Thanksgiving day parade, they’ve seen episodes of Sesame Street on my husband’s iPad. It’s not like they’ve never seen it, but it’s not someting we go to every day. We’re kind of Waldorf inspired, which is kind of a style of schooling and education that is very low stimulation. With our first son we didn’t even really play music. We did a lot of singing. but we’ve loosened that up and so sometimes we play records and CDs in the car. But Ithink when you describe it that way we don’t look like one of these Waldorf catalogs of children happily playing with wood blocks for hours. Our kids are very “normal.” We do own legos which are plastic, but we don’t have any electronic toys, we don’t have any toys that make noise or have a motor. We don’t have toys that need batteries. If they come with batteries as a gift, we either donate them or let the batteries run out and then it’s just a normal toy. It’s a quiet house in a lot of ways. The only noise, really, is our two boys screaming and running around the house.
P&N:You start the book out by saying that this is not a parenting book and that you’ve written it more as a personal reflection to hopefully offer up research that you’ve based your decision-making on to help people come to their own informed decisions. You say, “Iguarantee you that I don’t know how to raise your kids—Iknow how to raise mine.” What then do you see as the book’s purpose and what do you hope people will get from reading it?
Bialik: Ihope that one thing it will do is instill faith and confidence in people that they themselves get to make the decisions. There are a lot of people that think they have to do certain things because the doctor told them to. And that could be the doctor when they’re pregnant, it could be the pediatrician, it could be an occupational therapist or speech therapist. Our intuition does matter. No matter what style of parenting you choose, Ido believe that intuition matters. So [take] the example I give for cry it out: If it feels like you want to throw up and die when you hear your child screaming, that’s an indication that it’s not working for your body. You may still choose to do it, but that’s not “normal” to feel that conflict and not go to a child who’s screaming. So that’s one example. And, you know, obviously sometimes children have to get medical treatments and they have to cry. It’s not like Idon’t believe in children crying, but Ithink that would be the first point—that your intuition matters. And I think the second would be to show that this “out of the box” style of parenting is actually very ancient. This is the way most mammals parent. And even if you don’t choose that, there are aspects of this kind of understanding of parenting that I would hope can inform other styles of parenting. so if you don’t want to sleep with your children, I’m not going to tell you to sleep with your children. But that’s why I include in that chapter a secition about what are the principles we’re talking about. Children’s opinions matter. Their fears about being alone at night matter. So you don’t have to address that by taking them into your bed, but you do as their parent get the responsibility to help them through that. And not to say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, go back to your room, cry alone.” Maybe you can have a special doll, you can have a book, you can transition their bed from your room into theirs. There’s a lot of compassion people think they shouldn’t have because it “spoils children.” And you don’t have to be an attachment parent or crunchy parent to be a good parent. But maybe there are aspects of this approach to help you understand that this is a relationship you have with this person. They may be small, but they have feelings, and it means something when they are lonely.
P&N:One of the concepts you talk about in the book and practice in your life that many parents may not have heard of is elimination communication, or EC. Explain a little bit about the practice and how you came to decide to go that route.
Bialik: The concept of elimination communication is that newborns give signals. They’re subtle, but they do give signals when they need to pee or poop. And the simple notion is that if you learn these signals and reinforce them, the signals will get stronger and you will become more adept at knowing when your child needs to pee and poop. I thought it was literally the craziest thing Ihad ever heard. (laughs) I had a girlfriend in my life—we met when we were pregnant–who was planning on doing this and I literally thought she had lost it. Like, I thought there was something hormonally wrong with her that this was her plan. But she gave me the book to read, which Ifinally just read it really to pacify her because she was so obsessed with it. And Iwas astounded at how touched I was by the concept of this book. Not necessarily the practial aspects, which were terrifying, but the notion that you can know your child, even at this level, and that it matters. And Idecided to start recreationally (my husband wanted nothing to do with it, so Ireally started it on my own) and sure enough, that child, at six months, was doing something different when he had to pee. And also when he had to poop. And because we were breastfeeding, it was kind of like the milk goes in and the poop comes out, but for peeing Istarted reinforcing. When he had to pee, I did the sign language sign and took him to a potty (we had several little potties throughout the house so I could put him right on it.)By 12 months, that child would not pee in a diaper. Every time Iwent to change his diaper (we used cloth diapers as a back up) it was dry. And I would sign “pee pee” and he would go pee pee. By 15 months, he was wearing underwear! There were no stars, there was no chocolate, there was no bribing, there was no “Yay!”—it is completely natural to both of my kids to not go to the bathroom in their pants. Neither one of them have a conscious memory of diapers. It’s going to be a lot of work early, or a lot of work later. I can’t imagine potty training a child who’s old enough to say, “I don’t want to sit on that potty!”It sounds terrifying. But again, the point is not that you need to do these things. Because, that’s not for everyone—I mean, that’s not even for many attachment parenting parents—it’s a really kind of esoteric thing. But again, what you can take from it is that the child knows about their body. The child’s body deserves respect. That doesn’t mean you have to do this. It just means that any time you potty train with coercion, with screaming and fighting and physical punishment, that matters to that body. Because that’s a little person in there. If a child at a year knows that they don’t want to pee in their diaper, at two years they know, “I’m having to be untaught something that feels very comfortable—I’m used to peeing in my diaper.” So that relationship that you have with your child, it gets built no matter what you’re dealing with. Whether it’s food, pooping, sleeping, picking them up if they’re tired—it all matters. It’s not a sense of “I’m the adult, you’re the child, you will do as Isay.” And that’s really the concept of gentle discipline; that, I would argue, is the overarching principle of attachment parenting.
P&N:Clearly, becoming a parent is a life-changing event, but it what ways would you say that learning about and implementing this particular style of parenting has changed you as a person?
Bialik: Honestly, for me, it has helped me undo so many character traits about myself that I was not happy with. I can’t say that’s true for everyone—a lot of people may think they’re fine just the way they were born—but there are a lot of things about myself that I did not know until I had to parent this way.When I couldn’t say “Go away.” And I couldn’t say “I can’t deal with you. Go sit in your room and cry.” I had to confront what it felt like to be vulnerable and to have a child who was vulnerable in that way. I come from a pretty authoritarian family. My grandparents were immigrants to this country. A lot of the structure of my family was “Do as I say, and don’t ask. I don’t care if you think you’re not cold—you’re cold.”And with all due respect to my parents, that’s how I was going through life, and I figured I’d be that way with my kids, [i.e.] “I’ll tell you when you’re cold!” But for me, this kind of parenting really helped unravel a lot of that and it let me see where a lot of that vulnerability was for me. You know, all of us get birthed as an adult when we have a kid. It’s not just the birth of a baby, we are born as a parent. But again, this style has made me really look right in the mirror. When I feel like I’m so at my limit, amazingly, it’s because I’m at my limit. It’s not that that child is bad. So what about me needs to work on patience and compassion?More often than not, it’s that I’m not taking care of myself—I’m not eating right, I’m not getting enough sleep, and I’m not doing things that bring me joy, even if it’s taking a bath when they’re sleeping, or reading a book. I need to take care of myself, and I feel like if Iweren’t parenting this way, I could feel really self-righteous, you know? (laughs)I could say “They’re annoying me. They’re too much. They’re too demanding. They need to go away.” And I would never get to say, “But why am I screaming?”
P&N: And how has it affected your relationship with your husband?
Bialik: That’s what Italk about in the last part of the book—balancing marriage and work [with this style of parenting].To be quite honest, I understand why this kind of marriage gets less time alone. It gets fewer date nights, fewer trips alone—we’ve never been away on a romantic getaway, we’ve never been away together for the night in six years. It’s a different kind of marriage. That’s true. But I also think it can work. It’s not like if you decide to parent this way, your husband has to enjoy giving you foot massages instead of going dancing. It doesn’t turn men into soft mushy people. But it’s a total shift in a relationship to say, “Our happiness is important, but our family’s happiness is the most important.” People still have sex, people still like each other [when they parent this way].
P&N: One of the arguments or criticisms of attachment parenting, or at least many of the tenets of attachment parenting is that by wearing your children, sleeping with your children, being in tune with your children—that all those things make you in some ways absorbed by your children and that you can lose your identity in parenthood. Do you find there to be any truth to that?
Bialik: There have been many articles recently about this kind of parenting that ask the question “Is this the anti-feminism?” And Ithink there is this new wave of us who believe that we don’t have to call it anything in particular. This is an outpouring of a certain type of person who wants to parent this way. For me, I did absolutely surrender. It’s a very loving surrender, especially to that first year and those first months.. It is a surrender of your needs, your body, your time. And for a lot of women and a lot of the second wave of feminism, they didn’t believe in having children. It was not seen at all as conducive. And honestly, I’ve seen women say, “I didn”t want to breastfeed my child because Ipreferred someone else caring for them.”And Ithink that’s a very interesting statement on what our culture can look like—that children are a product of us, but that we don’t always feel an investment in raising them. Ihear from people, “I would rather have three nannies take care of them all day, and I’ll tuck them in on the weekend.” In terms of biology, that doesn’t make sense to me. It just doesn’t make sense biologically.
P&N:What is the message you hope people will take away from this book?
Bialik: You know what’s best for your child. Everything matters. There’s no part of parenting that you can say, “I’ll just …” fill in the blank. I’ll just have C-section instead, it’s more convenient. I’ll just throw them in front of the TV. I’ll just feed them whatever’s being sold to them on the streets of America. Everything matters. And again, that doesn’t mean that TVis bad or that McDonalds is bad but everything does matter in some way. And Ithink also, what if everything you were told was wrong?What if everything you were told needs examination? Everything we’ve been told about birth, breastfeeding, discipline … what if? What if.