Life is not possible without attachment. We all begin as cells that embed themselves in our biological mother’s womb, with her body providing a warm and safe place for them to multiply and divide. The cellular transformation is breathtaking and provides a beautiful window to watch life unfold through connection. As the umbilical cord emerges in early development, it tethers mother and child to each other. This cord will become the pathway for sharing nutrients and substances, including fetal cells which cross into the mother’s body and take up residence in her heart, lungs, and other major organs (1).
While the physical attachment between biological mother and child is fascinating, it often eclipses another form of attachment that is critical to a child’s development. The emotional bond we form with our children provides a psychological womb in which they grow in the outside world.
Children need to be tethered emotionally long after the physical cords between us are cut.
These relational bonds, while invisible to the eye, will become the means for delivering nourishment, guidance, and protection. It’s important to note that you don’t need to be biologically connected for emotional attachment to unfold. As the saying goes, “home is where the heart is.”
Why is psychological attachment important?
The relationship we build with our children, especially in the early years, is of critical importance as it provides not only for the child’s physical and cognitive development, but shapes their emotional system, sense of self, and allows us to care for them. Children follow and learn from the people they are attached to. The question is how does this attachment unfold? How would we know if we had a good relationship with our child? How does attachment help our child realize their full potential as social, separate, and adaptive beings? When do we start attaching to our child?
What we do know is attachment is one of the most powerful forces in the universe which glues things together. We are meant to be with each other, and attachment is a survival instinct. We engage in relationship as we think, plan, or consider names for our unborn child. When we decide to bear life or take responsibility for taking care of a child we are engaging in caretaking and attachment. When we will feel the instinctive and emotional pull to consider their needs, to look out for them, and to anticipate their arrival, we are already focused on connection. If we tell ourselves that we will love a child unconditionally and can’t wait to share our life together we are speaking the language of love.
What is attachment?
Attachment is the science of human relationships and seeks to understand our desire to keep others close. It is an instinct that is shared with other mammal species along with the emotions of deep caring so that we hold on to each other. When our children attach to us, they are moved to depend on us for direction, safety, a sense of home and place to rest, to share our values, to listen, copy, imitate and more. Attachment facilitates dependence and it is this dependence that makes caretaking possible.
Strong relationships are ideally developed in the first six years of life although it is never too late to strengthen your connection with a child. Attachment will unfold if the conditions are conducive, including a consistent, predictable, warm, and inviting caretaker(s). Many parents who experience separation from their child at birth worry that their relationship has been damaged or tarnished in some way. The truth is attachment takes time to cultivate and is robust and resilient. Relationships are not so fragile as this and it takes many years to build a strong relationship with a child.
There are six ways a child will develop their attachment to adults which helps ‘root’ them in place. The deeper the attachment roots the greater the potential to explore, learn, and eventually separate from us.
In utero and in the first year of life a child attaches through the senses; through touch, taste, smell, hearing, and seeing. At birth the child’s sense of smell allows them to be comforted by their biological mother during heel pricks and other procedures. Most biological Mom’s can also pick out the scent of her child within the first hour after they are born. While sensory attachment is fascinating, it is only just the beginning.
By the second year of life a child attaches through sameness where they copy and imitate the people they are attached to. This is how they learn language and mannerisms, becoming a collection of characteristics of their favourite people. By age three you hope to see a child attach through belonging and loyalty where they seek to possess and follow their caretaker’s desires and directions. By age four a well attached child will seek to matter and be significant to the people they love with proclamations like, “look at me!” Approval is like oxygen for a four-year-old, but we need to avoid making it conditional on measuring up to our expectations. By age five a child may be capable of a deeper way of holding on through caring and love. They may proclaim their love for us and declare they never want to leave home. The final means of attaching if all unfolds well is by age six where they are moved to share their secrets with us. From vulnerable feelings to the way they make sense of the world, their caretakers become their confidents.
What if your relationship with your own parents wasn’t that great?
Many parents worry that their relationships with their own parents will dictate the parent they will become. From hard feelings to bad memories, some parents fear they will revisit on their own children what did not work for them as a child. What is missed in these conversations is that nature has a way of preparing us for caretaking despite the examples we are provided. Wonderful role models help become a parent, but poor ones don’t set things in stone as far as our parenting potential.
When we played as a child and took care of people and things, we were being groomed for the days that lay ahead as a parent. The instinct to take responsibility for someone or something, along with the emotions of caring are not taught – they are inside of us waiting to be realized. The capacity to care for another lies dormant until we are moved by caring to assume responsibility and to take the lead in a child’s life. It is these instincts and emotions that emerge and shape us as parents. With deep caring we can grow to be the answer to our children’s needs even if our own were not taking care of. This beautiful dance of relationship allows us to continue to grow and mature as we help our children realize their potential.
What gets in the way of attachment?
Human relationships are not easy given our capacity to get frustrated, feel resistant, and lash out when upset. There is no greater test to the maturity of a parent than the immaturity in their own child. We must strive to ensure that our invitation for relationship isn’t conditional upon performance or requiring a child to always meeting our expectations. As Dr. Gordon Neufeld states, “We must not let our children work for love but to rest in it.
It is our deep caring that will help us be capable of sacrifice, consideration, and patience as we face the work that comes with taking care of another being. This means we will need to vulnerably feel the emotions associated with parenting and make room for them.
It is true that parents have growing pains too. They are the emotional kind that help us hold on for one more story, to be firm with a no but gracious in allowing our child’s upset to be expressed, and to take delight as they discover and reveal the world they see.
What gets in the way of relationships are hurt feelings with no repair, and adults who don’t take responsibility for their words or actions. Love does not require us to be perfect, but it does mean there needs to be room for sacrifice, mercy, forgiveness, and gratitude so that we can go the distance with our kids. If there were a secret to parenting it would be that when relationship is done well it is fulfilling and rewarding to both child and parent. The greatest gift we can receive as parents is the invitation from our own adult children to share and be part of their lives when it is no longer necessary for survival.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet counselling center, she is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), which has been translated into 11 languages, and a children’s picture book The Sorry Plane. For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com
- Doucleff, M. (2015). Fetal cells may protect Mom from disease long after the baby’s born. NPR, October 25. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/10/26/449966350/fetal-cells-may-protect-mom-from-disease-long-after-the-babys-born
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Birthday Magazine.