I tell my children that there is an invisible string that connects them to me at all times. It goes from their bellybuttons to mine, and is able to stretch so far that no matter where they are we are still connected by this string. It keeps us together and loving each other through the thickest walls and the furthest distances. They think I'm being silly, but I swear it is true.
I realize it's my job to keep the string strong to make sure it won't blow away in life's storms. I want to be attached to my children and I want them to be attached to me. I know instinctively that secure attachment must be a good thing for them, but I wasn't aware of precisely what is involved in creating and maintaining it. So, after being invited to write this post, I looked it up.
PBS' This Emotional Life website states that "If [a child] has an insecure attachment, she may be impulsive, lack self-confidence, and have difficulty relating to others. As she grows up, her early experiences continue to influence how she behaves and feels about herself and others. If she has a secure attachment, she is less likely to struggle as a teenager or experience mental illness later in life, such as depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder." Well that gets my attention! I'd like my children to be able to avoid impulsivity, low self-esteem, lack of self control, difficulty building intimate relationships, risky behaviors and future mental illness.
According to the same website, to create secure attachments with your child you should:
- Read and respond quickly and appropriately to your child's needs
- Express and share your feelings appropriately
- Accept your child's right to his feelings
- Establish a routine and respond with a balance of consistency and flexibility to your child's needs
- Have warm interactions with your child and develop a feeling of connectedness
- Regulate your emotions to avoid extremes in behavior or being reactive
- Seek to understand how your own childhood experiences influence your parenting
These things may seem obvious, but to many people they aren't. They may have had horrible childhood experiences and lack any role models who displayed this kind of behavior. They may be in difficult situations or relationships that drain all of their energy and patience and lead them to act in ways they shouldn't. They may not have continual access to great health care, good peer support, parenting classes or the internet. Or, like me, they may have an illness that interferes with their ability to connect to their babies in those crucial early months.
I am a survivor of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder. After the birth of my first child I was so unwell that it was very difficult for me to establish the connection I wanted to with my son. The bonding process was temporarily, and devastatingly, interrupted. I have worried for a long time whether, through no fault of my own, my chances for a secure bond with my son were ruined forever. I now know the answer to that is a resounding no. Once I got better I was able to do everything necessary to build a relationship with my son that is strong and flourishing. I'm happy to find out I'm doing the things (most of the time) that I've now learned are required to create secure attachments, and I'm thankful that we all have the opportunity to create those bonds and strengthen them at any time. There is no reason to give up or assume that they can never be created.
I'm enormously proud of the relationships my husband and I have built with our son and daughter. I don't happen to be an "attachment parenting" person. I didn't wear my babies or have a "family bed." I didn't breastfeed because of the medication I was taking for my postpartum OCD. I'm not at all against those ideas of course; they just weren't things I did. Co-sleeping would never have worked for me! I have been fully for the idea, though, of being close. Of touching. Of butterfly kisses and Eskimo kisses and back rubs and head scratches. I'm for entirely-too-long bedtime routines involving songs and reading and intimate, whispered talks in the dark.
You don't need any special gear or to be attached at the hip 24-7 to create a bond. I think instead you need to spend time with them, to get to know them intimately, and to meet them where they are and become interested in what they think and what they have to say. I want my children to feel they can always come to me. In our house we have a ritual created by my husband, for example, called "State Your Case." If we've come to a decision with which our children disagree, they are welcomed to share their side of the story by stating their case calmly and thoughtfully. (Screeching or whining your case won't work.) Sometimes, based on their arguments, we change our minds or realize we came to the wrong conclusion about something. Other times we stick with our original decision because we're the parents and no, you can't have chocolate before bedtime. I just love it now when my eight-year-old says "Can I state my case?" It makes me feel that he feels safe communicating with us and sharing his thoughts, even though he knows there's only a 50-50 chance we'll see things the way he does. To me, that is part of attachment. It has been built upon year over year by good communication, a safe and loving environment, and many special times spent together.
I hope I'm doing this right. I hope that the bonds my husband and I have tried to create will outweigh all the times we've screwed up as parents. I am humbled by what I don't know about being a parent. Thank God the opportunity to create secure attachments is one that never ends. Thank God for invisible strings.
Are you a new or expecting parent, or do you know one? Get a copy of the Early Moments Matter toolkit at www.earlymomentsmatter.org and learn about an exciting public service effort to promote early childhood attachment. Help give our next generation the best chance at a life of emotional wellness.
Katherine Stone is the founder and author of Postpartum Progress, the most widely-read blog in the United States on postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety and other mental illnesses related to childbirth. She also serves as guest editor on postpartum depression at BlogHer, and is a member of the board of directors of Postpartum Support International.