Published on October 15th, 2013 | by Meg Lemke3
MAYIM BIALIK: Big Bang Actress, Neuroscientist, and MUTHA!
Mayim Bialik was Blossom in the early-1990s sitcom of the same name. You may remember it? She now appears regularly on “The Big Bang Theory” playing neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler (“girlfriend” to geek-erotic Sheldon). Bialik actually has, in real life, a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Plus two young sons and a recently published memoir slash guidebook about Attachment Parenting, Beyond the Sling. She also writes a blog for Kveller.com, on being an observant Jewish mother in Hollywood.
Beyond the Sling is about co-sleeping and breastfeeding and elimination communication (EC: diaper-free babies!) and natural birth and parenting and gentle discipline. (Man, I wish we’d done EC—we’re potty practicing the kid now and it’s going OK but it’s absolutely true that baby poo is much lovelier than toddler poo, why not revel in the finer stuff and show-off your 1-year-old in undies?)
Bialik believes AP is about trusting your instincts—keeping close and intuitive to your child past breaking-point exhaustion (then all the family drops asleep in one big cuddle heap). She knows not everyone will agree with her approach much less practice what she preaches. I’ll admit I came to this book with the bias of a somewhat lapsed attachment parent, guilty of feeling guilty about not living up. But Bialik offers her experiences as inspiration to consider our choices deeply, not that you must follow one set of rules to mother well. She tells MUTHAs: “You are the expert on your body and your child. You don’t really need books; the baby is the book. Read the baby.” But you might still read her book—and do tell MUTHA what you think. And keep a watch for the cookbook Mayim’s Vegan Table, coming this spring.
— Yours, Meg Lemke
MUTHA: How old are your boys now?
MAYIM BIALIK: My older son just turned 8 and my younger son is 5 and a few months.
MUTHA: What is your day like with the kids (or without them, when you are working)? How has that daily rhythm changed over time since the boys were born?
MAYIM BIALIK: The structure of our days revolves around what activities and classes my boys are involved in. During weeks that I work, their dad takes them to all of their classes and activities, including: LEGO Engineering, LEGO Animation, Photography, Nature/Survival, P.E., etc. Their lives are very full with all of these activities and the other social events in our homeschool community. When I’m not working I’m in charge of getting them to all of those activities. Although I see my boys in the week when I work, my main time with them is on the weekends. We “power down” for Shabbat, taking walks, playing in the house and around the house, and sometimes we stay with friends in Jewish neighborhoods where we are hosted for meals and go to synagogue. Sundays are the days when I give the boys piano lessons, do the laundry, catch up on cooking and cleaning, and try to take a nap.
Obviously, big kids have big needs and the years of simply being with them, nursing them whenever they got hungry and having them attached literally at the hip are over. A lot of the boys’ time is now spent learning to play with each other, mostly cooperatively, and they do relish their time together as brothers, which gives me more time to clean and cook without constantly needing to attend to someone’s needs or cries. In some ways, I miss the days when they were infants and toddlers but when I look at a refrigerator full of food and realize that I do have time to both vacuum and clean the toilets in one day, I don’t miss those days when everything was so frantic because of their young age.
MUTHA: What’s your most pressing concern right now as a parent—day-to-day and larger/longer term?
MAYIM BIALIK: As a divorced mom, my most pressing concern is wondering how my boys are when I’m not with them and trying to balance our new life of adjustment. As the mother of homeschooled children, I have a moderate amount of anxiety regarding, “Are they learning everything they need to?”
MUTHA: You left acting, got your PhD, and then came back to TV again. You write in the book that Hollywood is better suited to attachment parenting than being a research scientist. In what ways does your neuroscience background still inform your parenting? Do you think you’ll ever go back into research?
MAYIM BIALIK: Gosh, I am so grateful to approach my life and parenting as a neuroscientist. Whenever I say that, I run the risk that people will think I’m implying that you need to have an advanced science degree to enjoy parenting, but that’s not what I mean. For me, I see the world as a scientist and my world is dominated by the fact that I’m a parent. Like many moms who have read some of the basic classics about attachment and neurobiology (Mothering Without a Map, Attached at the Heart, Parenting from the Inside Out, etc.), it’s hard to separate every single decision I make from what we know about how the brain works and forms secure attachments. On a smaller scale, I love having an active set of knowledge about, for example, my older son’s color blindness and my younger son’s hypersensitivity to sound. In addition, I’ve found that the more knowledge I have about the brain and psychology only makes me more compassionate towards my boys, more patient, and more understanding of not only them, but of other children as well that we interact with.
As for research, once you leave the constantly changing and evolving world of academia, you’re kind of out for good. I taught neuroscience and biology in our homeschool community for five years after getting my degree and as the needs of our homeschool community change and kids my sons’ ages get older, I’ll likely teach again, but I’ll leave research for people who are immersed in that world 24/7 and that simply can’t be me anymore!
MUTHA: How does fame meet with your mama identity? Do the boys know you are “a celebrity?” What is it like to parent in the spotlight (especially having written this very personal book)?
MAYIM BIALIK: I don’t talk a lot with my boys about what I do, possibly because of my own uncomfortableness and insecurity about being paid to play make believe on television… That being said, as they’ve gotten older, they can see that people approach me in restaurants and ask to take pictures of me when we are out, so I’m trying to make a conscious effort to, in small doses, mention work or the fact that “I’m an actress.” I never use the word celebrity and I try not to use the word famous, preferring instead to say that people who come up to me know me from television or watch me on television. My boys primarily think of me as their mom and I prefer it that way. However, they also know that my “job” involves publicity, getting made up for fancy parties, and of course, their favorite thing, swag. Parenting in the spotlight is not comfortable and it took a lot of decision making to move forward with writing Beyond the Sling, especially since the parenting style that I stand by is one that’s open to criticism, whether you’re in the spotlight or not. Namely, I decided to publicly advocate for, and take the bullet for, parents who believe in natural birth, breastfeeding, and gentle discipline and natural family living. I write for Kveller.com twice a week and hope to share things that are educational, inspiring, or at least interesting. At the same time, I don’t feel that my opinions as a mom are any more profound, “right,” or legitimate. I’m grateful to have a place to put my writing but emphasize time and time again how I only share what works for me and I don’t know what will work for other parents.
MUTHA: What are the 2-3 pieces of advice you’d give a pregnant friend?
1. Watch the Ricki Lake documentary The Business of Being Born.
2. You are the expert on your body and your child. You don’t really need books; the baby is the book. Read the baby.
3. Read Ina May Gaskin’s Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth no matter what you think you will do in labor.
4. Attend a La Leche League meeting. They’re free and you won’t regret it!
MUTHA: I love the anecdote about sneaking breastmilk onto your older son’s bandages after he’d weaned (as a natural antibiotic). Hilarious. How long did you nurse each of your sons? What was their weaning experience like? In the book you say you can’t imagine nursing a four-year-old (or older)—but Fred was still nursing when you wrote that; where did you end up?
MAYIM BIALIK: My older son nursed until two years and two months or so and he was never night weaned. His weaning coincided with a nasty bout of thrush and he continued to wake up all night for quite some time even after he stopped nursing. He remained very attached to my breasts for a solid two years after he weaned. Fred nursed until four and a half and he was night weaned at three since he nursed 4-6 times a night. His day weaning was child-led and very gentle. It was also heartbreaking when he stopped but I have no regrets about letting him lead our weaning process.
MUTHA: You became a Certified Lactation Educator. Do you continue to work hands-on with nursing mothers?
MAYIM BIALIK: I have worked with about a dozen moms (and dads!) since becoming certified as a lactation educator counselor. I often consult by phone and by text, which seems to work great since many of the most common causes for pain and discomfort in the early weeks of breastfeeding are due to positioning and being able to supply basic information about the mechanics of breastfeeding. Some months I have no referrals and other months I’m juggling three moms at once, all with different newborn concerns. It’s incredibly rewarding and I find it to be the best way to give back to the La Leche League leaders, lactation consultants, and lactation educators who helped me with both of my sons, both of whom struggled with breastfeeding for several months each.
MUTHA: You write “newborn babies and anyone who has ever been in love knows that sleeping next to someone feels good. It feels right.” Are you still sleeping with your boys? How have you seen their sleep patterns evolve as they’ve grown older?
MAYIM BIALIK: My boys started sleeping in a sibling bed this past year but they are welcome to co-sleep at any time in the night or morning. What generally ends up happening is they sleep together until the wee hours of morning and then we have a good strong morning cuddle. I’ve found that by not making an issue of their desire and need to co-sleep, it’s a non-issue.
MUTHA: Let’s talk about judgment. Throughout the book you remind readers that you respect their choices and you hope they find parts of AP that “work for them.” But, you are also a strong advocate and defend yourself against naysayers. There’s so much pressure to parent “the right way.” Can you talk about this balancing act? When do guidelines become dogma? How do we all find our own “best” approach?
MAYIM BIALIK: I think I’ve been pretty consistent that I know what works for my family and it’s not my job to tell you what works for yours. I believe in a parent’s right to make decisions that work for their family and I strongly hope that these decisions are based on education and research and not simply what their doctor’s local newspaper or pushy mother-in-law tells them to do. We live in a tremendously “me-centered” culture and I do admit that it’s sometimes hard for me to hear people making decisions admittedly in their self-interest, rather than what’s best for their child. However, I’ve learned the hard way what it feels like to be judged and sincerely try to come from a place of compassion, even if that compassion is based on the fact that I hope people would gather more information and make choices more in line with mine!
MUTHA: I know most media interviewers want talk about EC etc., but what I found most thought-provoking and honestly useful for me in the book, as I’m raising a toddler now, are the chapters on gentle discipline and avoiding the push-down of academic pressures to the pre-preschool set. As you write, those arguments about “sharing” on the playground can be as intense as the typically debated “mommy wars.” You write that it’s never too late to change how you approach discipline. What’s one thing that any parent could do, now, if they wanted to take a more gentle approach?
MAYIM BIALIK: The main thing that I see as transformative in attempting a gentler approach to parenting is to definitively accept that children are always trying to do their best and never merit harsh discipline ever. The “Quality Parenting” approach that I discuss in my book is based on the book Bring Out the Best in Your Child and Your Self by Dr. Ilene Val-Essen and what this book challenges parents to do is work on themselves so that they can be gentler with their children.
MUTHA: You announced that you and your husband were divorcing, soon after your book published. I’m so sorry—truly. You write very lovingly about how you parented together; I’ve seen you say in interviews that you’ve done divorce “the attachment parenting way.” What does that look like?
MAYIM BIALIK: The choices that Michael and I made about how to birth, raise, discipline, and love our children have not changed because we are divorced. We have been able to sincerely acknowledge that the welfare of our children has to come first in our lives, no matter what. Our sons are securely attached to both of us and as Attachment Parenting acknowledges, children who are loved and safe continually expect to be safely loved. That’s what Michael and I set as our number one priority for our sons.
MUTHA: Can you talk about being a feminist and being a mother—especially an AP mama? Do you consider your parenting political? How?
MAYIM BIALIK: I can talk a lot about being a feminist and being a mother, but I’m not sure how much space we have here! I tend to identify more with second-wave feminism than third, but I come from a traditional religious Eastern European family that both valued the unique qualities of being female and the ability to exercise my independence as a woman and as a feminist. AP is an absolutely life changing style of parenting as it “ties you” to your child in ways that other styles of parenting simply don’t. For example, breastfeeding on demand without the use of pacifiers or bottles makes for much more time spent with your child than away from your child. I understand academic feminism’s difficulties with AP and I respect them intellectually. I am ultimately grateful to have been given the ability to be the parent that I believe I was meant to be and I don’t know if that makes my parenting political.
I know that AP is often associated with predominantly white middle and upper class families, but as the science behind AP is showing, this is not some trend made for an elite class of women and men; it’s a set of choices based around natural neurodevelopment of a mammal. Hormones matter, attachment matters, and being loved and cared for lovingly matter. When I look at the global profile of La Leche League members, for example, I feel hopeful that someday the AP world will reflect what we are: women (and men) of all shapes, sizes, colors, and socioeconomic backgrounds who choose to parent this way because it makes sense biologically and it makes sense in our hearts. I also hope that we can gain the support of our communities and someday the support of our healthcare providers and legislators for parenting choices that seek to raise the next generation of leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and yes: moms and dads who believe in parenting gently and lovingly because it’s healthy, beautiful, and enjoyable to do so.