The Man Who Remade Motherhood

Dr. Bill Sears drives some parents to extremes. Even they might be surprised by the roots of attachment parenting

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Martin Schoeller for TIME

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A rusty, netless basketball hoop hangs over the garage of the two-story Orange County, California, house Bill and Martha bought in 1989. Inside the house, a deep L-shaped sofa dominates the living room, and most afternoons classical music plays on a plastic boom-box CD player near Sears' writing "office," a corner of the living space taken up by a messy wooden desk. The rest of the home is not much neater. The most striking feature of the house, which is perched on a bluff above the beach, is an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean.

It can be hard to square Sears' relatively modest environs with his empire, which includes not just his books but also his for-profit website and a wide variety of other baby-related commercial ventures. Sears is an endorsement machine, lending his seal of approval to a huge array of products, including nutritional supplements, baby food and even an online retailer of wild Alaskan salmon. He and his family — he has outsourced some of the Sears empire to his adult children — also earn fees from the sale of various attachment-parenting paraphernalia, including breast-feeding-privacy shawls, baby-carrying slings and a popular bassinet that attaches directly to the side of an adult bed. (You would never catch Sears endorsing many of the objects people traditionally associate with babies, like strollers, bottles or cribs, the last of which Sears says puts infants "behind bars.")

In 1997 Sears was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. He is in remission after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but ever since, he's been obsessed with his health. He has "the blood pressure of a youngster," he says. Sears says he takes no prescription drugs and subsists on a daily diet that revolves around a smoothie packed with fruit, vegetables and supplements. He exercises at least two hours a day.

Sears is mostly retired, but he spends two afternoons per week at his practice. The reception area of the office has a giant skylight, making the space airy and sunny. There are Winnie the Pooh blinds on the windows and various Sears products and books on display at the front desk.

When he's on duty, Sears wears running sneakers and blue scrubs with DR. BILL stitched on the front. He has to go by his first name to differentiate himself from Dr. (Bob) Sears, his son who practices there full time, and Dr. (Jim) Sears, who drops by the office when he's not in Los Angeles taping his television show. The elder Sears moves fast when he's working, grabbing charts and rushing from one patient room to the next. Many of the parents who bring their children to Sears live in Capistrano Beach, Calif., where the practice is located, but others travel an hour by car from Los Angeles or San Diego. Dr. Bill also does consultations by Skype for patients as far away as Europe.

On a recent afternoon, a 6-month-old baby named Layla Beck was stripped down to a cloth diaper and squirming on her mother's lap as she waited for her checkup. When Sears appeared, he pressed on Layla's tiny belly and listened to her heartbeat without the baby's ever leaving the arms of her mother Sarah. Meanwhile, Sarah talked to Sears about eating (Layla was exclusively breast-fed), sleeping (the baby slept in the bed with her parents) and immunization (she was considering whether to vaccinate Layla).

With his school-age patients, Sears begins each exam with a hug. This can seem awkward, but it almost always ends with the child smiling. The day he examined Layla, he also saw the children of an evangelical homeschooling family, an 18-month-old baby with a mysterious autoimmune disorder and a school-age boy suffering from depression. Leaving the exam room of the boy, Sears muttered, "That's the kind of case where you really wish you had more time."

When the day was over, Sears headed home. There, he was met by his granddaughter Ashton, who had been complaining of a rash on her face. Sears cupped Ashton's face in his palm, whipped out a pen light and shone it on her cheek. "Grandpa's going to give you some cream for that, O.K.?"

Soon Martha arrived home from Mass. She led the family back to the Catholic Church four years ago and attends services every day. Sears greeted his wife, who headed toward the kitchen. Before long, three generations of the Sears family settled at the table for dinner.



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