We often hear the cornerstone of healthy parenting quoted as consistently “responding with sensitivity” to our infants’ and children’s emotional and physical needs in relation to their biological-developmental stage. And while I agree this overarching idea is at the core of healthy parenting, I do not feel that it is necessarily as instinctual as many authors and parenting experts claim.
Before parents can even fathom relying on their gut feelings in how to approach their parent-child relationships in a healthy, sensitive way, it is my firm belief that they must first address and heal from any childhood emotional wounds they may be carrying around, often without their realization until they bring a new child into the world, and even sometimes not even then.
Depending on life circumstances, our individual attachment quality, the patterns of our relationships from childhood on, communication style, coping skills picked up along the way and other factors, even the most balanced people among us can still have areas in their emotional life needing attention. And every one of us always has room to improve, just because we humans are like that—if we’re not intentionally moving forward, we’ll slide backwards.
I’ve been helping my mom research our genealogy off and on over the last few years. Lately, she’s been hunting for tombstones. As I walk the oldest part of the cemeteries, reading the grave markers, I am continually taken aback by how many mark the burials of infants and young children.
We know on an intellectual level why it was difficult for our ancestors to make it through childhood, with disease and famine and lack of medical technology and effective medications. But can you imagine the absolute heartbreak of these early generations? A mother in 1852 can’t have felt any less emotional pain from the death of her son or daughter than I would. And then, try to imagine what emotional wounds these parents faced with this sadness, anger and possibly guilt passed down to their genetic line?
Epigenetics explains how certain genes responsible for diseases and mental illnesses can be turned off or on depending on the environment. In this documentary, “The Ghost in Your Genes,” researchers explain how looking at the genealogy of people affected with certain medical conditions often links them with certain environmental conditions. For example, people today suffering from type 2 diabetes likely had famine in the family tree and people with a tendency toward depression are linked with ancestors who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of the type of research, we can’t say that PTSD causes depression susceptibility, but we can say that there seems to be a link.
I attended a mother-and-tots group the other night. There were two babies in the corner, sitting in their car seats, one about two months old and the other closer to four months. The older baby was contently looking around, and the younger was sleeping, later waking to gaze out and only fussing when it was time to eat, afterwards being happy to lie on a blanket on the floor. I asked the mom of the younger baby how it was going at home, and she said that her baby is so quiet and calm that it’s sometimes easy to forget that there is a baby at home.
I can’t imagine. Each of my three children was impossible to forget as soon as they were delivered. Each craved touch and presence. Each protested loudly and violently at separation. Just riding around in the car was a trial, let alone sitting in a car seat at a community function. These were babies that refused to be put down.
I was tempted with my oldest child to “teach” independence by way of crying it out, but she sank into depression that took years to break through. With my younger two, I focused on creating and strengthening a secure attachment, and didn’t try to change them. I just loved them, and continue to love all three of them, as they are. And over time, they have conquered many of their fears and anxieties on their own and have blossomed into secure, confident, happy, competent children.
The core of healthy parenting is responding to our children with sensitivity. On this last day of World Breastfeeding Week, which runs annually from August 1-7, I wanted to spotlight this choice in infant feeding that is often taken for granted in how critical the act can be in getting motherhood–and babyhood–off to the best start. And I’m not talking about the nutritional aspects, but rather the basis of the mother-child relationship and the relationship skills that child will carry into adulthood.
Breastfeeding can be difficult in our society. It is hard to do something different than our family and friends, our social network prior to becoming parents, and to find a new support system for our choices. It is hard to navigate new motherhood relatively alone, compared to other cultures where family rallies together to give the mother a baby moon, a time when mom and baby can bond uninterrupted while housework and caring for other children are taken up by others in her life. It is hard to make the choice to return to work and then try to integrate a child care provider into our alternative way of parenting. It is hard to pump while away from baby. And it is hard to continue to push through difficulties, whether it be a poor latch or milk supply issues or teething or night-waking, when so many others in our lives are trying to convince us to just give a bottle of formula.
There’s a lot at stake with how we raise our children, with how our communities view and treat children. We, as a society, are slow to put into practice what research solidly shows as the most effective, and healthiest, way to parent. We, as a society, still struggle to see how the parent-child relationship and the home environment it creates translates not only to that child’s happiness as a child but also as an adult, as well as the lives that person will touch, especially his or her own children.
Many of the mothers and mothers-to-be that I talk to are young—teens and early 20s—a challenging group to promote healthy parenting practices to, as they are still growing and developing themselves. We know this anecdotally. We also know this scientifically. This 2010 UK study is among many that show that the brain doesn’t reach maturity as once theorized until people are at least age 30. Executive functioning, such as planning and decision-making, social awareness and behavior, empathy and other personality traits, are the last bits of cognitive functions to fully develop.
This is also why it’s most important to educate these young mothers’ personal support networks. Unlike older mothers and mothers-to-be who look more to professionals and evidence-based resources for guidance in their choices, overwhelmingly young mothers seek and follow advice from their peers, significant others, and family members regardless of whether they are “with the times.” These young mothers’ own mothers are especially influential. This is also a challenge in that the older generation raised children differently than what is now recommended.
We really have to be careful with what terms we use, when we refer to our children. Even if not spoken aloud, the labels that we put on our children in our own minds can influence the way we interact with them and consequently how they grow up thinking of themselves.
Recently, a woman told me that she’s glad that she held her babies when they were younger and coslept with them and breastfed them on demand, even though they were clingy, because it was only for short time that they are that small and want to be that close to Mom around the clock. Another woman in my position might have smiled and nodded, knowingly, or if she disagreed, might have rolled her eyes. Instead, I smiled and told her that her babies weren’t clingy: They were normal!
Biologically normal babies—babies who are developmentally right on track—want to be held all the time, they want to be breastfed on demand, they want to sleep in Mom’s room at night, they want to learn from the world from Mom’s physical and emotional safety. Clingy is a term that is only used for babies when their normal child development isn’t taken into consideration.
Parenting with attachment, whichever label you choose to use (I use Attachment Parenting), comes in all shades. Just because some parents use techniques that you wouldn’t necessarily use doesn’t mean that they aren’t creating a secure parent-child attachment.
The truth is, the majority of parents do at least a little attachment parenting already. They just don’t call it that. Parenting advice, for the most part, is slowly evolving to include more attachment-minded principles.
For example, years ago, the mantra for caring for babies was scheduled feedings, cry-it-out sleep training, and warnings that holding a baby too much would spoil him. It’s well accepted now that babies should be fed when they’re hungry, it’s OK if you want to hold your baby, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends rooming in with baby so that parents can attend to them quickly.
These are all ways parents use attachment parenting without even thinking about it!
This may not seem to be that big of a deal to you, but it’s monumental for us and our relationship.
See, I wasn’t always attachment-minded in my parenting. I started off that way, but when my oldest child was about 10 months old, I bent to cultural pressure. For the next year, secure attachment wasn’t my goal as much as early independence.
It was a vulnerable time for me – I had no support as my husband struggled to stabilize his newly diagnosed bipolar disorder, and I lived in a very rural area with no parenting resources. When my oldest daughter was 22 months old, at about the time that I found Attachment Parenting International, I was finally able to break out of that cultural hold and I’ve never looked back.
But the damage to our relationship was profound.
Unless you’re a parent, you may be wondering what this has to do with you and your adult relationships. Quite a lot, if you understand the impact of healthy and unhealthy parent-child attachments on the child.
By “attachment,” I’m referring to the emotional bond between two people. “Attachment style” refers to a person’s individual patterns in emotional bonding to another person.
The attachment bond you had with your primary caregiver – most likely your mother – is your model for how a relationship should work for the rest of your life.