Recently, a mother I know was confiding in me that through the help of professional support she was learning that her children are not securely attached. She was shocked to learn this (though it made sense to her) as she has been a stay at home mom, exclusively breastfed, and co-slept with all of her children. She was surprised to be learning how much more there is to attachment than the things she has done so devotedly.
This mother is far from alone: many mothers I’ve worked with and known feel dismayed that despite their near unflinching physical presence and availability to their child’s need to be close to them day and night, their children struggle with anxiety, tantrums, rigidity, and insecurity. They are exhausted by the physical demands, and increasingly frustrated by the lack of ease in parenting, and wondering how much longer they can handle the exhaustion they feel.
For all the mothers interested in nurturing secure attachment with your children, I have some important news for you: secure attachment is not created through the behaviors you have learned about. Security in our primary relationships is created by relational interactions more nuanced and complex: such as parent-child attunement, and a parent’s self reflection capacities and psychological integration.
For the record, I’m a huge fan of attachment theory and the science and research behind it. I’ve been studying it for 19 years as a psychology student and psychotherapist, as well as parenting from an attachment informed lens for 10 years (and going). Supporting secure attachments is probably the most influential developmental frame I use when it comes to how I work with my clients, raise my kids, and even connect with my husband. I was fortunate to have intervention free births, breastfed, co-slept, swaddled, and wore our babies till they outgrew the carriers.
But when I arrived in the land of deep depletion (when my youngest was about 2 years old, less than four years into motherhood) that providing so much for so long can deliver one to, I began to practice more of what I had already learned about secure attachment. I expanded my attention towards myself, my experience, my relationships, and my resources. I had zoomed way in on my kids, and it was time to zoom out a bit, and let the frame that I was holding for my kids also include more of me.
Nowhere in the decades of research on attachment between children and caregivers does it indicate parents with securely attached kids should feel exhausted, anxious, overstimulated, or as if they are living in survival mode. In fact, all the research on developing secure attachments points to the importance of the parent being a resourced presence so as to have the capacity to regulate, calm, and connect with their child.
Basically, being spent as a parent isn’t going to lead anywhere good for anyone.
But wait, how does someone NOT get drained? I for sure got very depleted in those early years. I was eventually diagnosed with a thyroid autoimmune condition 4 years into motherhood—Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which was a huge wake up call (and is in remission now). So, I get it, AND I have some ideas for you—ideas based in the research and knowledge base of attachment theory. Ideas that support secure attachment with your child but also make room for your own well being—which is an essential part of creating security.
Before I do that, however, I want to validate that the pressure on mothers to provide a vast array of needs physically, emotionally, socially, psychologically, developmentally, mentally, and spiritually for their children is enormous. We live in a society where now most children are being raised by women alone in their homes. We did not evolve to raise children in such isolation, nor to have so much responsibility on one adult for the care and nurturing of their babies. Additionally, we now know the huge importance of emotional and social development, of comfort and boundaries, of sensitive and empathic parenting, and the survival needs for attachment (yes, attachment is as important as food).
Most of us do not have extended family or the resources to have the level of support to help us rest and recover in a consistent way from the demands of caring for an infant 24/7, while also providing the care and nurturing that goes way beyond a child’s needs for rest, warmth, food, and play. We don’t have the kind of community gathering places or social customs (like being honest and vulnerable with each other) that could keep parents feel more deeply connected to other parents.
Parenting is hard, its always been hard. But in this era I think it is made even harder given that so many women not only live in more relative isolation, but also have endeavors that are important to us that lie beyond parenting (like our careers, education, and creative pursuits) that we are also trying to attend to—all while still bearing the majority of the burden of taking care of the household.
Then if we add on the desire to create secure attachments through physical closeness and sensitive care toward all the layers of your child’s needs—emotionally, psychologically, physically—you soon have one deeply exhausted and disconnected woman.
I think its going to take a minute for the societal overhaul that needs to happen, one where we include women’s health and wellbeing as an important variable (not to mention the health and well being of animals, plants, natural resources, nature in general, children’s well being, soil regeneration, marginalized people’s wellbeing, spiritual well being, protecting innocent people from gun violence, but I digress), so I’m going to instead start with helping you zoom out a little on this whole attachment situation, and finding some room to breathe and reorient amidst the current situation we are in.
And don’t worry, I’m not going to lecture you about self care, getting more childcare, or taking a weekend away from it all—that actually will help only in the short term, anyway, if at all. I’m also not going to tell you to change anything you do in your parenting style, because that is up to you.
I first want to help you understand what actually cultivates security for children in their primary caregiving relationships (it’s not what you might think), which will give you insight into other ways of attending to this extremely important relational quality.
The whole point of the attachment promoting behaviors like breastfeeding, baby-wearing, and co-sleeping, is to ensure physical closeness between the child and the caregiver. Physical closeness is important not only because it simply feels good to us mammals, but being close helps a parent be well attuned, sensitive, and responsive to their child’s signals. These behaviors are a very important means towards being close and attentive and connected to one’s child. However, these behaviors that provide physical closeness do not in and of themselves create secure attachments.
According to Dan Siegel MD, (read Parenting From Within if you haven’t already) and a ton of research, the core of secure attachment depends on primarily two parental capacities: the parent’s ability to perceive the child’s inner world (which includes the child’s nervous system, physical body, emotional and mental perceptions and experiences) and in the parent’s own integration of their significant life events and relationship history.
These psychological capacities are interconnected: a parent’s ability to be interested in, open to, and perceptive of who their child is in an ongoing way is very linked to the parent’s capacity to reflect on their own self and life, and having done the work to integrate their sense of self. These parental capacities are not often discussed in the mainstream when we talk about attachment parenting, probably because they are more nuanced and psychologically complex than teaching a behavior like baby wearing—but they happen to be the foundation of the attachment relationship.
Secure attachment is built through a parent perceiving and responding in an attuned way to a child’s inner world, which relies on the parent’s psychological development in having integrated the events and experiences relationally throughout their life. In other words, as parents, we cannot see our child and our relationship with them clearly and maturely if we have not done our own work around our own past and significant relationship experiences. We just can’t have one without the other.
Close proximity, skin to skin contact, and other attachment behaviors support our nervous system’s ability to read the subtle, emerging, nonverbal cues of our infants and respond with precision and sensitivity. But, our responses to our child’s cues are very much based in our own early attachment experiences. So, if we have not made sense of those early attachment experiences and truly integrated the feelings, sensations, and narratives that come from them, we are vulnerable to responding with anxiety, insecurity, and a lack of clarity that doesn’t facilitate the security we are investing ourselves in day in and day out.
What I’m saying is, or what I’m hoping to inspire you around is to put your attention on your own development—and not just your baby’s. I believe this will help orient you towards where you are in all of this—how you are really doing and feeling as a human and a mother. While I do believe therapy or deep coaching is an excellent way to get the support often needed to do this kind of integration (given that our social structure doesn’t provide most of us with elders and mentors who can hold space for this kind of processing) it doesn’t have to require more time or resources (unless you want to invest them) to do this, either. It could start with a shift in attention, a broadening of your awareness, back into yourself.
Shifting our attention back to ourselves can feel disorienting when you are coming out of that first year, or two, of motherhood. The focus has often been so external, our resources looking outward, and now to draw that kind of care and attentiveness back to the vastness of our own being can be almost paralyzing, or we may want to avoid ourselves out of fear of what we will find.
But I can assure you, within a few moments, or a few walks alone, or a few sessions with a skilled therapist, or a few good conversations with your husband about YOU, you will start to hear yourself. And you will be amazed at all the richness, complexity, emotions, and new emerging values you will find.
Attachment parenting behaviors ideally help a parent provide attuned and sensitive care for their child, yet they are not the end all be all in creating secure attachments. If you feel stuck or trapped in providing attachment promoting behaviors, or if you haven’t been able to provide attachment behaviors like breastfeeding and co-sleeping for the various reasons that they might not have been an options for you, if you are feeling resentful, angry, sad, or just completely exhausted by parenting at this point, if you are concerned about your child’s ongoing struggles, remember what really creates security—a psychologically resourced parent. A parent who continues to attend to their own inner life, integrates their past, attend to their ongoing development, and looks forward unencumbered by unfinished business within.
Remember that security comes from something deeper within us—a presence and capacity from inside ourselves that stems from a deep understanding of who we are, which then extends into how we relate to our kids and partners. Putting your precious energy and attention on your own psychological well being is an investment that will pay off throughout life in your most important relationships.
As always, sending my deep respect and support to all of you on this mothering journey with me.