Returning to work after having a child is a necessity for some women, a choice for others, a heartache for many. Economists argue it helps alleviate child poverty and raise GDP while feminists assert it is about equality in accessing employment and financial opportunities. Sociologists claim women’s mass entry into the paid labour market is one of the most significant sociological shifts in the last 100 years. Jean Liedloff’s book “The Contiuum Concept,” provides an anthropological lens describing the seamless blending of child-care with other work. From competing perspectives and disparate corners it is hard to find our way through on this issue. It continues to be a topic filled with landmines activating parental guilt, defenses, and debate. What gets eclipsed in these conversations and ought to be at the heart of it are the irreducible needs of young children. They are some of the most vulnerable, most dependent beings on the face of the planet and within them exists the greatest unmet capacity for the realization of human potential. This view has been reflected for centuries, from Aristotle to Pearl Buck’s line – “the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members”(My Several Worlds, 1954). The question we need to ask is how do we ensure the irreducible needs of young children are being when women straddle both home and work spheres.
Based on developmental science the evidence is clear in terms of the needs of young children. For their best bet in life they need at least one strong caring emotionally attuned adult with whom they are deeply attached. It is in the context of this relationship that developmental biases will unfold naturally and propel them towards maturation, e.g., to explore, to play, to create, to question, to adapt, to come to know oneself. The more immature one is the more one is rendered a creature of attachment actively pursuing contact and closeness in order to feel safe and get one’s bearings.
Children can attach to many people and even things but what is missed for the kids 6 and under is how they are not built for separation. They typically need 6 years to develop deep attachments with key people (e.g., parents) that will allow them to transcend physical separation through a sense of psychological connection and intimacy (1). We cannot hurry or force this development along – this is mother nature’s plan for helping them grow into separate beings capable of standing apart while being able to function with others. Does this mean we must never separate from our young children? No. One of the biggest futilities a young child faces is that they cannot hold onto a parent 24/7 and we really should stop holding it against them for trying. Our aim with young children is to ensure they have primary relationships in place and to help them to feel at home with other people in their attachment village that participate in raising them.
While we readily agree it takes a village to raise a child we also need to consider how we will deliver the child to this village and/or how to build it. We put our young children under great stress when they are not attached to the adults who are in charge of them. Research with young children in child-care centers has found cortisol levels via mouth swabs high enough to impair brain development (2). The cortisol levels are only decreased when the children have working attachments in the centers that help mitigate the stress of separation from their primary attachments.
Separation anxiety is one of the biggest issues young children face and reflects their irreducible need for attachment. They need enough consistency, contact and closeness to satiate attachment needs through the senses (e.g., touch, taste, smell, hearing, seeing) from ages 0 to 1. They continue to deepen their attachment with a strong invitation to exist in their parent’s presence from ages 1 to 6. By age 2 you hope to see signs of attaching by being the same as their parent (talking, preferences etc). By age 3 they enter belonging and loyalty as evident by their fierce possessiveness for people and things they are attached to. By age 4, a child will hopefully start to attach through significance, wanting to be special or matter to their parental figures and by age 5 to fall deeply in love with them. By age 6 it should hopefully occur to them that being close to someone means they share their secrets with them. When these forms of attachment unfold over the first 6 years of life they indicate a deepening of the relationship and increasing capacity to hang on when apart. We can continue to deepen our relationships over a lifetime, with some of us coming to the more vulnerable levels of attaching later on in life. Our job is to release our young children from clinging to us by taking care of their relational needs and giving them someone to cling to in our absence.
It begs the question as to what a parent can do to ensure the irreducible needs of children are met when they are working outside the home? What will help satiate a young child’s profound need for attachment and soothe subsequent alarm over separation? There are three attachment rituals that are helpful: collecting, matchmaking, and bridging.
The collecting dance is an attachment ritual that has existed for centuries where relationships are built through the genuine expression of warmth, delight and enjoyment. If you think of the courting ritual between lovers this collecting dance becomes self-evident. There is a need for a strong invitation to be with the other person and perhaps a twinkle in one’s eye. Our role as parents is to deepen our relationship and satiate their attachment needs through collecting them often. In other words, we need to woo our children but this does preclude our need to also say no sometimes or set limits. Getting in their space in a friendly way, feeling that warmth between us seems so simple yet activates powerful chemicals in our body such as oxytocin. In fact, there is scientific evidence that having your boos boos kissed by someone you are attached to actually does make it feel better because of the release of oxytocin (3). When we continue to cultivate our relationship it promotes the development of a deeper attachment that will help them hang onto us when apart. They don’t need to practice at separation, they just need to get more deeply attached.
The collecting dance also pertains to other figures in the child’s village of care. Does the child care provider, teacher, grandparent, auntie, uncle, see themselves as also having to woo the child in order to cultivate a caretaking relationship? Do they get in their face in a friendly way and collect their eyes, work to get a smile, and some warmth back from the child? One of the challenges we face is in viewing child-care as a service. From a child’s perspective they care very little about services and more about whether their attachments will nurture and comfort them. The people who are part of a child’s attachment network need to win their heart as this will empower them to take care in our absence. When I went back to paid work and left my young child in the care of another person I squarely judged her on her capacity to fill my shoes and build a strong relationship with my child.
Matchmaking requires parents to become agents of attachment and actively build the village that will help them raise their child. We often do this intuitively when introducing our newborn to their family members. We point out their similarities, the way they are connected, and their roles to one another (e.g., great grandpa to big brother). As matchmakers, parents are the ones to introduce the child to other adults responsible for them, letting them see the warmth of their own connection. A young child should take their lead from their primary attachments, e.g., if Mommy thinks someone is okay then I ought to follow suit. Before I ever left my child with her child-care provider she came to my house, we ate together, played together, and talked. My daughter could see there was delight and warmth between us conveying to her a sense of trust, connection, and security. When the relationship takes between a child and another adult then we are ready to deliver the child to their care. It has little to do with providing a service and more about providing a home away from home. Many times adults are quick to match children to other children but this only courts competing attachments with adults and sets the scene for peer orientation (4).
It some child-care agencies one provider will take the lead in building a relationship with a child when they are new to the center. Once the child has settled into a relationship with them they act as a matchmaker to other providers and help them feel at home in these relationships as well. When children are transitioning from child-care into school there can also be matching making done to the new teacher. In some communities I have worked with the kindergarten teacher has even visited the children in their child-care center and oriented them to what their new school will be like. There are no rules to matchmaking other than adults take the lead in helping introduce the village members to the child. When we take responsibility for the relationship building then children can better rest in our care.
When apart from their primary attachments a gulf or void opens up for children. We can help them hold onto a surrogate in our place but we can also help them hang onto us by bridging the distance. With young child a picture of their parents, a stuffy from home with the associated smells or the sound of your voice reading a story or singing to them all serve to bridge the gap. Other ways to bridge the distance include lockets with pictures of you or carrying an item on them that they associate with a parent. One of my friends gave her son a picture of her in a little bag to carry in his pocket. He said that whenever he missed her he would pull her picture out and give her kisses. From notes in lunch boxes to kisses on hands there are no shortage of ways to help children hang onto us when apart. Reminding them of all the ways we will be together (e.g., I will pick you up and we will go to the park together), instead of the gap between us can go far in reducing the separation experienced.
Sometimes people argue it may make the child upset to be reminded of their parent but why would we ever hold it against a child for missing their parent or not want them to express this? The best sign that a child actually feels at home with someone is their capacity to express vulnerable feelings in their presence. Many children stop crying when left at daycare only to continue their tears as soon as the parent returns to pick them up. Children often stop crying because they don’t feel secure enough with someone to continue their tears with and end up holding onto this upset for the duration of the absence. One of the best recommendations my child-care provider ever received was the trust of a little 3-year old who wept in her arms as she missed her mother. I knew then and there that she had the capacity to build the type of vulnerable relationships with children that I longed for.
The bottom line is young children don’t do separation and we should really stop expecting them to. We need to focus our energies on attachment by building our village and delivering the child to its care in our absence. We need to deepen our attachment with our children so they can better hold onto us while apart. We need to matchmake to those responsible for them and take the lead in bridging the distance they face when separated. Above all we need to respect their developmental needs and not push them beyond separation that is too much to bear. There are times when it is simply too much separation and no attachment rituals are going to fill a distance that is too wide to traverse developmentally. What is undeniable is each family faces their own challenges, has different support, resources, and corresponding choices when it comes to child-care and paid employment. It is also true that young children are some of the most vulnerable, most dependent human beings whose irreducible needs are only met in the context of nurturing relationships. This is not an issue of political correctness but one of developmental correctness. My wish for every parent is an attachment village to deliver their child to. When they can count on their village, the child can count on them – whether in the home, out of the home, and in all the spaces in-between.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids from the inside out. See www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.com for more information.
- For more information on the development of attachment in the first 6 years of life see Chapter 2, “A Matter of Attachment” in Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate, Hold on to your kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers. (Canada, Knopf, 2004).
You can also view the Making Sense of Preschoolers DVD by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, www.neufeldinstitute.com, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
- For consistent research findings on this topic see the following –
Sarah E. Watamura, Bonny Donzella, Jan Alwin, Megan R. Gunnar, “Morning-to-afternoon increases in cortisol Concentrations for infants and toddlers at child care: Age differences and behavioral correlates,” Child Development 74, (2003), pp. 1006-1021.
Susan Gilbert, “Turning a mass of data on child care into advice for parents,” New York Times, July 22, 2003.
Marie-Claude Geoffroy, Sylvana M. Cote, Sophie Parent, Jean Richard Seguin, “Daycare attendance, stress, and mental health,” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, August 2006.
Sims, A. Guilfoyle, T.S. Parry, “Children’s cortisol levels and quality of child care provision”, Child: Care, Health and Development, 32 (4), July 2006, pp. 453-466.
Harriet J. Vermeer, Marinus H. van IJzendoom, “Children’s elevated cortisol levels at daycare: A review and meta-analysis,” Child & Family Studies and Data Theory, Leiden University, The Netherlands, 2006.
Ellen Galinsky, “The study of children in family child care and relative care. Highlights of findings.” Families and Work Institute, New York, 1994.
Robert H. Bradley, Deborah Lowe Vandell, “ Child care and the well-being of children” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 161 (7), July 2007, pp. 669-676.
- For a discussion of the findings related to oxytocin and human touch, Kerstin Uvnas Mober, The Oxytocin factor: Tapping the hormone of calm, love, and healing. (Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press).
- See Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate, Hold on to your kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers. (Canada, Knopf, 2004).