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Attachment Theory Is Creating A Generation Of Anxious Parents

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When my first daughter was born, I had severe separation anxiety, and so did she. If I left her with anyone else, even family, hours of inconsolable crying would ensue. “That’s not healthy,” a friend warned, and my stomach lurched as she put one of my deepest fears into words: children who can’t stop crying after their mothers leave have problems developing healthy relationships in the future.

I watched other moms hand smiling babies off to sitters, relatives and friends, and felt crippled with guilt. I was doing something wrong. I was transferring the anxiety I felt when I was apart from my daughter to my daughter.

I opened my computer and started reading about attachment theory. The evidence was undeniable: I was raising an insecure child.

Around 15 months, my daughter began to understand that time with grandma equaled unlimited cookies and screen time, and seemed to care less about our time apart. When she started daycare at the age of 2, I was the one who found the transition rocky. Sometimes she would cling and cry, but most mornings, she would grab her best friend’s hand and run off to join the fray.

Then came the phase of not wanting to leave daycare. I would appear and my daughter would, essentially, ghost me. She’d turn her back when I approached, throw herself on the floor, and I would have to carry her out the door, thrashing and screaming “I don’t want to go home!”

The only way I knew how to read this behavior was through the lens of “attachment parenting” that permeated households from inner-city Brooklyn to suburban Kansas City, Missouri. Had my “anxious-ambivalent” baby evolved into an “avoidant” toddler, or, as in all other aspects of life, did we fall into the shameful category of “disorganized”? More importantly, was she destined to spend her adult life spiraling from one dysfunctional relationship into another? Or is attachment theory a load of nonsense?

Attachment theory was first developed in post-World War II Europe, by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who’d been inspired by the bonding patterns of geese. He worked with French psychologist Rene Spitz on small-scale research projects involving children in foundling homes and hospitals. This was the 1950s, when most moms stayed at home with their children, so there wasn’t much interest in this work.

But as women’s liberation movements exploded, so did fears about the collapse of patriarchal society. Anxieties about women joining the workforce and displacing powerful men were masked as anxieties about the loss of family values, and placing the welfare of children at risk. Interest in attachment theory boomed. What happened to babies who were deprived of the maternal bond because their mothers had selfishly gone back to work?

Bowlby turned to Eastern European orphans for answers. These children had spent their first years in poorly equipped, understaffed institutions, and were rescued by wealthy Westerners who were anxious to fill the children’s emotional deficits and remedy their developmental delays. Of course, the parallels between the experiences of sensory-deprived and often badly neglected orphans and those of American toddlers in daycare are poor at best, but there is no ethical way to test the effects of a disrupted caregiver-child bond, so these are the studies Bowlby relied on to conclude that mothers belong in the home. “This whole business of women going to work… it’s so bitterly controversial, but I do not think it’s a good idea. I mean women go out to work and make some fiddly bit of gadgetry, which has no particular social value, and children are looked after in indifferent nurseries,” is how Bowlby put it in a 1989 discussion with psychologist Robert Karen, as the New York Times’ Margaret Talbot reported in 1998.

Millennial parents spend around double the amount of time with their children as parents in the '50s. Photo credit: Stocksy

Sara Nolan, Brooklyn supermom of four, has an answer to that. “Attachment theory, oh, it’s just another thing used to scare the sh*t out of moms for making choices. I have seen kids raised in so many ways turn out well — good, loving people, secure in their relationships. Culturally, the thing we (American patriarchal faux-family values) are best at doing is making mothers feel that whatever we are doing is not enough, that we could be doing more, and we’re running the risk of screwing up our children forever. No.”

I think it is a too-far stretch to draw parallels between … an otherwise happy and loved child and leaving a child in an abusive orphanage situation for years with no human contact.

What are we even talking about when we talk about attachment? Babywearing? Breastfeeding? Breastfeeding while babywearing? I once heard a mom “swear” that attachment parenting reduces the risks of SIDS (despite the elevated risks associated with bed-sharing practices). What about working moms? Can they practice attachment parenting too, and if not, what kind of parents might they be? Unattached?

“Can Attachment Theory Explain All Our Relationships?” asked Bethany Saltman in a 2016 New York Magazine’ feature, writing that, “At the heart of the attachment system is a primitive kind of call and response that keeps the species alive.” But isn’t that what we all do, keep our kids alive, even those of us who work outside the home and supplement with formula?

In 1978, Mary Ainsworth developed the “strange situation” experiments, which are perhaps the most well-known studies supporting attachment theory. Ainsworth studied the reactions of 1-year-olds during temporary departures and reunions with their mothers — for example, distress or indifference when mom leaves the room — concluding that these reactions gave a read on the child’s level of attachment. Because most 1-year-olds (and 2- and 3- and 4-year-olds) have consistent, rational reactions to life events. Right? You thought I liked peas? I liked peas 10 minutes ago. Now they send me into paroxysms of rage. Ainsworth fails to consider the details that often define toddler behavior. Did the child sleep well the night before? Were they hungry? Were they wearing the wrong socks? And what about their general temperament?

As the size of U.S. families has shrunk, children have experienced more attention from their parents than in the past. Photo credit: Stocksy

So takeaway number one is that most of the research from which attachment theory, and later William Sears’ “attachment parenting” (never put your child down, never let them cry, never ever!) is faulty.

Inadequate research is hardly a rarity in the lucrative world of parenting expertise, and economist Emily Oster addresses this problem in her groundbreaking new book Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool. Oster crunches hard data to evaluate the often conflicting theories and advice trending in our social media feeds. Her precise research concludes that there are a range of healthy parenting behaviors, and part of determining what is best for your child entails determining what is best for your family.

When asked about attachment theory specifically, Oster tells Romper, “I think it is a too-far stretch to draw parallels between … an otherwise happy and loved child and leaving a child in an abusive orphanage situation for years with no human contact.” You might have made this leap yourself.

Allison describes going back to work six weeks after her son was born as “one of the biggest regrets of my life,” but also admits that attachment therapy did not do much good.

“The evidence suggests there are many good ways to parent, and many ways to have a healthy, happy, attached child. It can sometimes seem like parenting is a competition where the more you suffer, the more you win. But the data just doesn't support that. Suffering doesn't make you a better parent, but trusting yourself might,” Oster says.

Suffering, yes suffering, one of motherhood’s defining emotions. Which leads to my next major point: even if attachment theory itself is totally bogus, we moms worry about attachment, and go to great lengths to bond with our babies in healthy ways.

Today's parents are defined by a willingness to bed-share, nurse on demand, and baby-wear into preschool, as well as a paradoxical fear their children will form an insecure attachment. Photo credit: Stocksy

Melinda Allison, who is raising two children in Brooklyn, worried enough about this to spend eight months doing “attachment therapy” with her son. Allison describes going back to work six weeks after her son was born as “one of the biggest regrets of my life,” but also admits that attachment therapy did not do much good. The therapy itself consisted of talking while she and her son played with realistic-looking figurines and various domestic items, such as kitchenware and garden toys. In other words, toys that promoted rather traditional, and dare I say outdated, views of women and their place in the world. Allison says it was nice to have the special time with her son, but admits, “I don't think I was 100% present because I was feeling bad about my bad career choices… and pressure to be a ‘normal mom.’”

Like so many mothers, Allison started reading up on child development and “best” parenting practices even before she was pregnant. She spent months preparing for the arrival of her first child, turning her home into a welcoming, nurturing space. Yet the pressure to do more, be more, be better, remains.

Though a secure attachment is important, the idea of attaining a secure attachment may be counter-productive if it is too anxiety-provoking for a caregiver.

Brooklyn mom Ambika Samarthya-Howard has also grappled with strong emotions surrounding attachment. Her own insecure attachments with her parents affected all facets of her life. “I prioritize establishing a more secure attachment with my son. I am really aware of establishing routines, especially around leaving and coming back, so my kid knows where I am at all times. I remember feeling unsafe as a kid, and I never want my child to feel that way. I want him to always feel secure about where I am, both physically and emotionally.”

Despite the failure of attachment theory to provide support and guidance to contemporary moms, anxiety about establishing healthy bonds is alive and well. Psychologist and New York University professor Karthik Gunnia, Psy.D. offers some insight on how we might approach the issue of attachment in a healthier way. Gunnia acknowledges the limitations of attachment theory’s early research, particularly the “limited research on father-child attachment” and “relative under-emphasis of child temperament,” and states, “though a secure attachment is important, the idea of attaining a secure attachment may be counter-productive if it is too anxiety-provoking for a caregiver.”

But Gunnia also acknowledges that attachment research has established the importance of the earliest caregiver-child relationship in terms of nurturing the child’s ability to develop “healthy views of the self, others, and the world.” Gunnia says, “I think the issue may be overestimating what is necessary to develop a ‘secure’ attachment. There is a concept in psychology referred to as ‘good enough’ parenting… essentially being present and generally attuned, validating emotions, meeting most basic needs, but not perfection. I think the idea of building a secure attachment can put a lot of pressure on parents, which is why it is also important to remember how resilient children tend to be.”

These words of wisdom are gold to a mother like me, who frequently worries that my decisions are ruining my child’s life. And if they are, well, therapy has proven to be highly effective at rehabilitating children with even the most severe attachment wounds, such as the post-Soviet orphans, and Beth, the abused child from the 1990 documentary Child Of Rage who talked about wanting to kill her brother.

But we may not need therapy because data compiled in 2017 by The Economist shows that middle-class parents are spending twice as much time with their kids than parents did 50 years ago. How’s that for attachment? We also tend to have smaller families now, allowing parents to not only spend a lot more time with their kids, but also to spend a lot more time focusing on things like loading the playroom with toys that build vocabulary and nurture fine-motor skills, and making purees that will help children develop expansive palates — things our parents and grandparents would probably have dismissed as absurd, if they considered them at all. We’re doing such a good job as parents that, according to Pew Research Center, millennials are self-reporting success in the field of parenting.

Parents are doing a great job. Photo credit: Stocksy

If you’re still worried, there are some basic tenets to keep in mind that ensure we build healthy bonds with our kids. Gunnia’s advice is to create a safe and stable base by being attuned to our children’s basic needs (think hunger and sleep). “This requires being present, literally and figuratively (e.g., not being distracted on phone constantly),” Gunnia reminds us. Then he points to the importance of being kind, compassionate, and reflecting and validating our children’s emotions, essentially assuring them that their emotions are “OK, understandable, and important.”

It is also crucial, he says, to give children “space to explore, make mistakes, and learn on their own … I think of a child walking away from a caregiver to explore, but looking back every once in a while to make sure the caregiver is there if needed.”

Sounds pretty instinctual, doesn’t it? And relieving! We don’t need to obsess over how frequently our moody toddlers cry, we just need to be loving and present. And we certainly don’t need to torture ourselves for going back to work, regardless of the reason why. Attachment isn’t monotropic, meaning it’s important for our children to form attachments to several caregivers, not just mom. And if you don’t believe me, believe Emily Oster. She spends two chapters in Cribsheet analyzing the effects of going back to work versus staying at home, as well as choosing a nanny versus opting for daycare. In the end, Oster finds that beyond the first few weeks, the differences are negligible.

Relying on attachment theory, or any theory, to define your parenting style is more likely to lead you to self-doubt than to enlightenment. A theory is merely a framework, and necessarily fails to take into account all the quirks and nuances that make your child, and your relationship to them, so authentically yours. And I’m willing to wager that if you’re the type of parent who worries about things like bed-sharing and nursing on demand, and who has time to worry about those things, you probably don’t need to worry about whether or not you’re attaching to your baby. The fear is real — the inexplicable threat of SIDS looms over all our homes no matter what we do — but there is no contagion of insecure attachment. The data show it: babes in arms, this generation is doing its best.