Mothering: An interview with Peggy O’Mara

Editor’s note: This interview with Peggy O’Mara was originally published on March 7, 2014. The longtime owner and editor of Mothering magazine, this woman helped to inspire so many Attachment Parenting families. And now there’s an opportunity for you to meet her and she her speak at Attachment Parenting International’s 2014 “Cherishing Families, Flourishing Children” conference on September 26-27 at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, USA. It’s not too late to register for this one-of-a-kind event!

Peggy O'MaraAs it turns out with so many of the most amazing people I have been privileged to write about, Peggy O’Mara—a mother of four who was an absolutely integral force in starting and carrying the Attachment Parenting movement for 35 years through her magazine, Mothering—didn’t set out to change the world.

But, wow, she sure did.

I always pictured Peggy as a high-powered magazine executive, but it became quickly apparent that she is just like you and me—first and foremost a mother, now a grandmother, who adores her family but also has a giving heart with a passion for helping parents at all points in their parenting journey.

To begin with, when I began our phone interview and apologized ahead of time for the interruptions from my children that were sure to happen—and did, over a box of Valentine’s Day cards—Peggy recalled a memory of the magazine’s staff, including herself, bringing children into the office and attending them while pushing out stories and putting together the lifeline for so many mothers that Mothering was. Oh, and she said that sometimes she misses that part with the children underfoot.

While for many of us, Peggy O’Mara and Mothering are synonymous—one will always be linked to the other in our minds—I want this interview to celebrate Peggy as herself, because while Mothering magazine was a large part of her life, she is so much more.

RITA: You began with Mothering at a time very different from today, more than a decade before Attachment Parenting International was founded. What inspired you to begin your Attachment Parenting journey?

PEGGY: I was a La Leche League Leader before Mothering.

I gave birth to my first child in 1974. I was living in southern New Mexico (USA), which was a pretty rural area. My husband and I had moved there wanting to get back to the land. We just had that kind of mindset.

My parents were there, too. When, I became pregnant, La Leche League was the first thing I found for any kind of support.

There was a really strong culture of volunteering in those days. Women were just beginning to work more outside the home. I became a La Leche League Leader in 1975. Because there were so few leaders in the area, I quickly took on other volunteer jobs within La Leche League. I did the area newsletter for a time, and then I took on the job of coordinating leader applicants. This job is really what prepared me for Mothering, especially in talking to people about their parenting philosophies and learning how to ask questions. I learned so much from La Leche League.

mothering2011RITA: And then came Mothering?

PEGGY: Most people think I founded Mothering, but I didn’t. I actually found Mothering in 1976, in a health food store in Albuquerque (New Mexico, USA).

Addie Eavenson founded Mothering in southern Colorado (USA) in 1976 and then moved to Albuquerque. I moved to Albuquerque in 1978. Earlier that year, I had sent Mothering an article I wrote entitled “In Defense of Motherhood.” I was reading all these bad stories of motherhood, but no one was saying about how ecstatic it was to be a mother. Addie called and asked me to be an editor! I was pregnant with my third child at the time and literally threw up because I was so excited.

Soon I found myself trying to work at Mothering with three kids under age 5.

Then Addie decided to sell the magazine. She was just ready to move onto something else in her life. She wanted a $5,000 down payment that I didn’t have. I went everywhere, talked to every banker, trying to get the money but I couldn’t get any. So she was going to sell it to someone else, but then that fell through and I was able to buy the magazine without the down payment—though my husband and I had some pretty stiff monthly payments. It was a miracle! It really was a miracle, and that really influenced me to feel that could I do anything.

So I bought Mothering in 1980, and that was the beginning of that.

RITA: Why did you stay with the name Mothering? How do you feel about fathers?

PEGGY: Fathers are very essential. I think people didn’t think we appreciated fathers.

When I started with Mothering, I wanted to change the name Whole Family Living. But Addie reminded me that she had named it Mothering to celebrate the act of mothering. At the time the magazine was founded, mothering itself was really maligned. This was in the 1970s when some feminists called homemakers the family servant. I was among the first generation of mothers leaving the home to go to work.

It’s also important to recognize that fathers are more nurturing now than they were when Mothering was started. Fathers have come so far now that there is a stay-at-home dad’s conference in California (USA). That’s very different than it was in the 1970s.

A mother depends on the support of her partner at home. And here I mean same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples. Regardless of sexual orientation, our partner’s support is essential; it’s everything.

RITA: What was it like in the early days of Mothering?

PEGGY: The early days were very much “learn as you go.” All I wanted to do was be able to give information. I was very intimidated by the magazine industry. I didn’t want to read anything about it, because I didn’t want to know how much I didn’t know, so I just did it one step at a time. I tried to publish what I wanted to see in a magazine, stories I wanted to read, stories from interesting people, beautiful photos, ideas that moved me.

We were hesitant about new technologies at first. Our first office machine was a copy machine in 1982. I remember being pregnant at the time and standing with my belly off to the side, because I didn’t know if it was safe to be around the copy machine while it was running.

Getting our first fax machine was a big deal. And of course computers—Mothering grew up as technology did, but we were cautious because as a health-oriented magazine, we had published articles on the risks of computer screens to pregnant women. New screens reduced those risks.

RITA: When did Mothering seem to intersect the wider natural living and Attachment Parenting movements?

PEGGY: Mothering really caught on in 1998. President Bill Clinton was in office, and the environmental movement was really getting going. Cloth diapers were big. There was a growing interest in social justice.

It used to be that anyone looking at Mothering was very much into the natural lifestyle. Anyone reading Mothering was either all in or all out. Then in the mid-1990s, I hired a couple of editors who were different than our traditional readership—they were athletes, really into fitness, and they found that natural parenting worked well with their lifestyle. This was a big change for Mothering: People were choosing natural parenting, but it didn’t define their entire life. The culture was changing quickly from a time when natural food and natural living was considered “out there” to a time now when they are now integrated fully into mainstream life.

In 1998, Mothering went from a quarterly to a bimonthly magazine. We also started going to the Natural Products Expo. By the early 2000s, we started seeing babywearing everywhere. It grew to incredible popularity because of the fashion aspect and, along with it, came many of the ideas of Attachment Parenting we had been heralding since the 1970s.

We also started seeing growth in Mothering’s influence. Ideas like the family bedroom and nursing past 2—I never thought they’d be so accepted by society. It used to be that no one but those of us at La Leche League meetings was talking about these kinds of things. Now they’re part of the national conversation. They’re something that everyone is talking about and most new parents are considering, and many people are doing some parts of it or all of it.

RITA: And Mothering helped to inspire Attachment Parenting International as well.

PEGGY: I first met Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker [API’s cofounders] through La Leche League. They were leaders, too, and we would attend the same conferences. I think we were all influenced by a talk at one of the conferences by Dr. Elliott Barker of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who explained how every violent criminal he had encountered had a history of extreme separation and insecure attachment as a child.

RITA: Certainly you had more influence through Mothering than you might have realized. And yet somehow, even the best of causes seem to find opposition. How did you handle Mothering’s critics?

PEGGY: In many ways, having critics means that you are affecting people, making them think and respond. I tried to offer explanations and evidence, but often critics respond emotionally and Mothering is not for everyone. I took on controversial topics in print, because I wanted parents to have important information to make decisions about their children now. I trusted that parents would sort out their own truth from what I offered, and I never pretended to be objective.

Online, our discussion forums grew rapidly and were ranked by Big Boards as the largest for parents online. This was in the early 2000s before Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest got so popular, and we had seen other online communities go out of control and implode. We drew some criticism for our moderation policies at that time, but they were intended to keep the discussions civil and focused on natural family living. At one time, we had 80 volunteer moderators.

RITA: When did you decide to transition Mothering from print to online?

PEGGY: Well, it wasn’t so much a decision as something about which there was no choice. Mothering in print was a small magazine, a niche magazine, with a 100,000 circulation. In the mid-1990s, we founded Mothering.com and the boards. In the 2000s, the growth of Mothering.com far eclipsed the magazine. By 2010, we were seeing 750,000 unique visitors per month. Parents everywhere, within and beyond Mothering, were going to the Internet.

That growth of Mothering.com paralleled with what happened to the economy. We had grown the business to a $2 million-per-year business. 2009 was our best year.

In 2010, we were seeing the beginnings of the recession. Our advertising dropped and so did our subscriptions. Nearly half of our subscriptions were traditionally gift subscriptions. During the recession, people weren’t giving gifts. They weren’t buying subscriptions. Advertising in print was down.

We were cutting expenses, but it got the best of us and Mothering developed a lot of debt to the printer and to our ad reps. The last three issues of 2010 were printing later and later, because our cash flow was reduced. We were selling ads, but our January 2011 issue experienced the lowest ad sales in 10 years. We were just too far gone by then. It was all I could do to keep from going bankrupt, so I had to sell the business.

I stopped publishing the magazine in February 2011 and sold the website to pay off the print debt in July of 2011.

I became an employee of the new owners. I had a two-year contract and then was laid off in November of 2012. I was unemployed for the first time in decades but was able to get a reverse mortgage and reduce my monthly payments quite a bit.

Even though I am no longer associated with Mothering, others continue to think of Mothering and me as one and the same. I have no control over the editorial or advertising direction that Mothering is taking now, and yet I will always be associated with the business in many people’s minds.

RITA: That is so hard. I praise you for making it through.

PEGGY: Thank you. It has been hard.

RITA: And now?

PEGGY: I didn’t think I could do a digital magazine without staff, so I challenged myself to make a WordPress site. It gave me confidence after I lost so much.

I started www.peggyomara.com in August of 2013. I’m doing what I did in the beginning with Mothering—really connecting with writers and people who have interesting things to say. I’ve always been motivated by social justice and can focus more on that now.

I’m really having fun. There’s a lot less pressure, so I can be more creative now. I plan to grow the site just the way I grew Mothering.

RITA: The Internet has changed so much of how everyone communicates and how information is disseminated to the public. What are your thoughts?

PEGGY: I love blogging. I love the Internet. I like what the Internet has given us in access to information and freedom from isolation.

There are a lot of voices on the Internet. You’re able to choose your own reality, your own world. You choose what you really want to know, whom you want to listen to. The evolution of the online user is such that people eventually look for the authoritative voice so that the information they’re getting is something they can trust.

RITA: Do you feel that parents can get adequate support through online sources?

PEGGY: Parents can get a lot of information online, but it’s not a substitute for in-person support. What the Internet has increased so much is advocacy and social entrepreneurship.

RITA: With your history of advocating for natural parenting and Attachment Parenting, what advice can you give others?

PEGGY: Start by acknowledging the other person’s position. For example, through La Leche League meetings, I learned that even if I had a great experience breastfeeding, another might have had a lot of difficulty or felt tied down by the frequent nursings. In order to talk to and possibly help a mom with different experiences than my own, I have to understand my own biases and practice compassion.

Start with a certain gentleness. Share your experiences, and keep it personal. Talk from your heart rather than your head. Use I-messages, just as you would to talk to your child. Talking about your own experiences is better than anything, rather than lecturing.

At the same time, in the media, too much information is presented as opinion when facts do matter. There is a difference between opinion and facts. I always try to combine my instincts with the science if I can.

Interview Series: Dave Taylor

We are continuing our interview series with API Contributing Bloggers with Dave Taylor of APparenting.com.  Read on to hear more about his life as a single dad of 3, and his thoughts on parenting preteens and teenagers!

Tell us about your family.

I’m based in Boulder, Colorado and am a single Dad to three terrific kids: a 14yo daughter, 10yo son and 7yo daughter. They’re all very artistic and talented athletes too: the older girl is a star of her school volleyball team and my son is one of the leading players on his YMCA basketball team. In fact, his team made it to the championship just a few weeks ago, but, alas, ended up in second place.

What led you to Attachment Parenting?

I was definitely not raised in an attachment parenting household. In fact, my childhood is better characterized as an English “stiff-upper-lip” philosophy where I was left to my own devices from an early age and my parents were involved, but less and less as time went on.

When we had our first child, I was prepared to continue that same parenting philosophy when their Mom suggested that a more affectionate, more hands-on approach to child rearing would garner benefits for both them and us. Honestly, co-sleeping, slings instead of strollers and the like just felt natural and it’s a heck of a lot of fun to have that close a connection, that much proximity, to a wide-eyed new life. It’s all felt very natural and empowering.

How do you deal with friends/family/strangers who don’t understand or who disagree with AP practices?

I am blessed to be surrounded by family and friends who accept my parenting choices and are supportive of the children. We get an occasional confused comment about our sleeping arrangements (it’s not unheard of for my 10yo or even 14yo to grab a sleeping bag and bunk on the floor of my room on a stormy night). Even better, the school they’re in has many parents of a similar philosophical bent, so the child pushed into being independent at a very early age is the oddity, not the one who is still held, loved and nurtured by their parent.

I don’t really feel like I’m an evangelist for AP, but I will admit that there are times when I watch someone pushing a shrieking infant in a stroller and bite my tongue rather than say “y’know, if you just held them, they’d stop crying…”.  Why?  Because I don’t want people to judge my parenting choices so I extend the same respect to them. I can’t know why they choose to parent the way they do, so it’s better – in my opinion – not to get involved.

What does 2011 hold for your family? What goals do you have for your kids/ family in the coming year?

Goals? Our goal is always to attain as much peace and harmony in our lives as possible. It’s tough for them with two households, we try our best to minimize it, but it’s not as smooth as being in one house with two parents who get along well and enjoy each other’s company. But somehow we make it work, with a pinch of humor and a dash of silliness. At least, most of the time. 🙂

How has attachment parenting evolved as your kids get older? I don’t hear enough about parenting teenagers and preteens and would love your insight into the new challenges and opportunities that come with older kids.

I have to say that like many parenting approaches, I think AP is more suited for younger children, toddlers and babies, for children in the developmental phases where they seek to stay attached, not detach and explore their world. On the other hand, we all appreciate someone who can listen to us, respect us as individuals and give us a hug when things aren’t going well, so the core concepts underlying AP are still quite relevant for parenting adolescents. For me, it’s about listening, respect, and being straightforward with them. When we get into a tussle, I explain my perspective and do my best to then be quite and listen to theirs. We discuss solutions, come up with compromises that meet both our needs (as best we can) and go on our way together. It’s not always easy, but parenting isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. I will add this too: I think it’s critically important for parents to be their *parent*, not a child’s friend. That always influences my interaction with my children, but that also helps them know that they still have that great safety net as they learn to explore…

Thanks for your insights Dave! Please check out Dave’s Attachment Parenting Blog for more on his great kids and his journey as a single Dad.

Interview Series: Martha Wood

We are continuing our interview series with API Contributing Bloggers with Martha Wood.  Read on to hear more about her thoughts regarding weaning, co-parenting, and how she peacefully deals with breastfeeding criticism.

Tell us about your family.

I am a single mom, co-parenting with my daughter’s father. She is 2.5. She is my only child. We live in Austin, Tx. We are a biracial family. I am white and my daughter’s father is black. I grew up in Abilene, Tx. Annika’s dad is Nigerian born and immigrated to the United States when he was 8 years old. He grew up in Ann Arbor, MI. Annika’s dad and I were never married. We met in Detroit, MI, while attending Wayne State University. We worked together at the school newspaper, The South End. I was the news editor and he was the graphic designer.

Martha and Annika

What led you to Attachment Parenting?

I was drawn to attachment parenting through a series of random events and a background of being raised by a mother who was involved with La Leche League. I was nursed until I was 3, and slept with my parents until I was 4. I would not characterize my parents as “AP” but there were some similarities in their early parenting style, such as extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping.

I began being interested in the AP world when a friend gave me a copy of The Baby Book by William Sears. I liked what he had to say about co-sleeping, breastfeeding, babywearing and positive discipline. During my pregnancy I met a neighbor of my mom’s who had given birth to her first child just six months before me. She told me about the local API meetings at the library and I began attending mostly because I wanted to get out of the house and I thought I would meet some other moms to hang out with. After the first meeting I was hooked! I loved the speaker, although, I don’t even remember who it was. I was blown away by all the wonderful and alternative parenting methods I had discovered.

When I was pregnant I knew that I wanted to breastfeed and use a sling. I knew that I wanted to avoid spanking as a method of discipline. I knew that I wanted to have a better and closer relationship with my daughter than I had with my own parents. After this meeting, I knew that I had found the answers to my questions. Luckily for me, the first meeting I attended was when my daughter was about four weeks old.

I had begun co-sleeping about two weeks after she was born, after realizing how frustrating and tiring it was getting up to nurse twice a night. (I was lucky, in that my daughter slept really well as a newborn, believe me, that changed after a few months. 🙂 )

How do you deal with friends/family/strangers who don’t understand or who disagree with AP practices?

My parents are very supportive about the way I parent. My daughter’s father and I have disagreed on some of it, but overall he is a really good dad and often more patient than I am! He wishes that I had weaned her at a year, and doesn’t like the co-sleeping, but he hasn’t fought me on it.

It depends on the situation whether I just smile and nod, or try to educate. If I think someone is open to hearing about my views, I definitely try to educate and give supporting information about my parenting practices.

My daughter’s paternal grandmother has been very vocal about disagreeing with my parenting style, and for the sake of familial harmony, I usually don’t say anything. They live in another state though, so it has not been a real issue. When she was 18 months, and I nursed my daughter in front of her grandmother, she commented, “Are you STILL nursing????” I just said yes and looked away. Then her sister, who was visiting from Nigeria, leaned over and whispered that she had nursed her babies until they were 2.

After that, I just avoided nursing Annika in front of her grandmother. My mother told me that when I was that age, if she needed to nurse me, she would just take me in the other room. So that’s what I did on our next visit. I am normally not the type of person to avoid confrontation, but in this case, I felt like it was the easiest and most harmonious route.

Have you ever had an affirming moment in your AP journey?

So far I haven’t seen a lot of payoff. But there have been some brief moments. My daughter is unusually compassionate with other children. I’ve been told by other parents that they are surprised by how sweet she is with other children. Once she was staying with a small group of children at a Buddhist meeting that we attend sometimes. When one of the other babies was crying for her mom, I was told that Annika went over to her and put her arm around her and told her that it would be okay. (She’s 2.)

She also loves to “wear” her babies, and she nurses them.

What does 2011 hold for your family? What goals do you have for your kids/ family in the coming year?

2011 holds for us, more time away from mama, and possibly weaning. I always wanted to let Annika wean on her own, but I am really ready for it. I am thinking that we will give up nursing around her third birthday in May. We have started talking about it and are down to three times a day. We are also forming a Montessori co-op with a group of AP mamas from our playgroups. I am looking forward to keeping her world small for a few more years while giving both of us a little more freedom.

When to stop breastfeeding is such a hard choice to make.  What factors are you considering in your decision?  How are you going about weaning?

The idea of making any final decision on when to stop breastfeeding stresses me out, so I haven’t made any hard and fast rules about when we will stop. I keep thinking that I’d like to be done by the time she’s 3 (this May). Sometimes I tell myself that I will definitely do that, (I may have even told you that in my last e-mail, now I don’t remember) and sometimes I start to think maybe I will just keep nursing her for a while longer if she really needs it.

Another AP mom here in Austin, gave me some advice. You may know her — or of her. Her name is Camille North (she edits one of the API newsletters). She said that when her youngest was around 2, she was so ready to be done. He was her third child and she had been nursing pretty much solidly for several years. She began *offering* the breast when he was busy with other things.

I started doing that recently and it really helps a lot! It gives me the feeling that I have some control over the situation, which I think breastfeeding moms often lack, therefore making it more frustrating.

Sometimes she even says no, which I think it huge for her, because it is giving her the feeling that it is available all the time, so she can afford to turn it down.

Basically I think it gives both of us a feeling of control. It releases her overwhelming desire from it, by worrying that it won’t be available if I do the opposite and limit her based on my needs.

It helps a lot. And she is recently down to nursing two or sometimes three times a day. And the best part, she doesn’t ask for it constantly like she was before, so I don’t feel like a jerk for saying no, or feeling resentful sitting there with my 2.5 year-old’s long legs dangling off my lap and wondering why she can’t just eat some cheese. LOL

Actually, I only had to do the offering thing for a couple of months and now she only asks to nurse once during the day, most of the time, so I almost always say yes. We also bargain. Sometimes, we’ll agree that she can nurse, but only for five minutes. Sometimes, she’ll even say it, “Mama, can I nurse for five minutes?” I think that’s her way of saying she just wants a little and it’s really important to her.

I guess, basically, these are the steps I’m taking toward weaning. Trying to give her control over it without feeling like I’m trapped. I have read How Weaning Happens, by Diane Bengson, a couple of times. I like the idea presented in the book that, weaning, is just like any other developmental stage. Just like we help our kids learn to walk and talk, we help our kids learn how to stop nursing. We don’t expect them to just wake up one day and be walking. So we can’t expect that they will just up and wean all by themselves. Some children do that. But I think that most of the time, moms prod them in that direction, even if they don’t realize they are doing it.

Can you talk some more about the Montessori co-op?  That sounds like a beautiful thing.  Is it an informal kind of thing?  Do you anticipate sending Annika to a Montessori school?  What about that kind of learning style appeals to you?

The Montessori co-op is very new and relatively informal. I foresee that we will stick with Montessori for pre-school. What I like about Montessori is that the style is very much child-led, but it’s not a free for all. I like that the stages of learning are developmentally appropriate. The theory behind it is that you teach observation skills, and engage the children in their personal interests. Then they learn because they know how, and they are intrigued by the topic. I think learning is, in itself, a skill.

Beyond that, I don’t know. The public school situation is very tenuous right now here in Austin. They’ve just announced the potential closing of several schools. Aside from that, the options here in Austin vary greatly. There are a wide array of private schools, with all sorts of methodology. The homeschooling network is pretty big from what I hear. I recently joined the Yahoo group, but I haven’t participated much at all. And the public school system has some dual language programs, with some new ones starting up in the next couple of years.

I think we will just keep examining our options and then see what fits best with her learning style.

Thank you Martha! Everyone please stop by her blog to learn more about her and her attachment parenting journey!

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