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New Parent and Attachment Anxiety

mother holding sleeping newborn

Fancy Photography/Veer

Looking back, I can see I felt attachment angst as soon as sperm met egg. With my baby still in utero, I spun a fantasy of our future relationship in which I was the perfect nurturer, instinctively clairvoyant and totally present. I would breastfeed on demand, wear my infant close to me in a sling, sleep share, and respond instantly to every cry. In The Baby Book, pediatrician William Sears, M.D., and his wife, Martha, a registered nurse, call this approach attachment parenting, though I didn't think of myself as following any rules. It just made sense to me.

But once my son was born, I could see only disconnection, not the exquisite, evolving tapestry of our mutual love. When he didn't like being worn close to my body or he fussed after nursing until put in his bouncy chair -- not my lap -- I thought something was surely wrong. When my son seemed equally delighted to be with his work-at-home father (no unavailable bumbler to make me the indispensable mother goddess in our house) and then adjusted to the part-time babysitter and even to breast milk by bottle, I felt increasingly concerned. When my son stopped wanting to co-sleep and nurse through the night around the one-year mark, the fear that I'd failed at being an "attached" parent solidified. That I was a psychotherapist and knew better intellectually didn't matter. With every step, guilt and anxiety about our bond grew stronger and blinded me to the deep connection that really was there.

Did it ever occur to me that my son had an independent temperament? That by putting him in the bouncy seat I was responding to his needs? That having several strong attachments was even better than one? That more sleep made me a better mother? Vaguely -- but somehow the idea of being a good mother had become synonymous with being an eternally available source of perfection and nothing less. Each moment was make or break: Do the right thing and you'll be close; get it wrong and everything good will be lost. Slowly, a little voice in my head started saying, "How did I get here?"

Parenting Style: Attachment Parenting
Parenting Style: Attachment Parenting

While it's well known that many parents these days suffer from enrichment angst -- causing them to pipe Mozart into the womb and commit their toddlers to a rigorous schedule of stimulating activities -- the newest parenting plague is attachment anxiety: the fear that unless parents do just the right things, their child won't grow up happy, secure, and connected to them. For an increasing number of moms and dads, attachment parenting (AP for short) is becoming the new orthodoxy of childrearing for the 21st century. There are 1.6 million copies of Dr. Sears's The Baby Book in print and seven other books he co-wrote with his wife that detail the AP approach from pregnancy through adolescence. His followers have spawned multiple spinoff books and founded Attachment Parenting International (API), which represents 68 parenting groups around the country and 11 international ones. Yahoo alone lists 475 AP chat groups.

The philosophy advocates breastfeeding, wearing your baby in a sling, bed sharing, and responding to your baby's cries as a way to "immunize children against many of the social and emotional diseases that plague our society," according to Dr. Sears. The idea, he explains, is that by replacing our more rigid, independence-focused parenting approach with the "instinctive" childrearing practices of ancient tribal cultures, we'll end up producing happier, more secure children.

But here's the semantic rub: If doing everything the books said made you an attached parent, then not doing it could mean you were... detached? Unattached?

Working moms and dads often have the hardest time, since AP adherents advocate "nighttime parenting," meaning co-sleeping and reverse-cycle nursing (breastfeeding frequently at night to compensate for the closeness missed during the day). While some parents make this arrangement work, others are stung by the implication that working and having a secure attachment are incompatible unless you give up all sleep. Heather Henson, a children's book author in Danville, KY, began co-sleeping because it was easier than getting out of bed to nurse several times a night. But after a year, she says, "the lack of sleep nearly destroyed me." She was chronically sick and increasingly impatient and resentful but didn't know how to stop nursing at night or help her son learn to sleep in his own bed without feeling like she was an awful mother. "I believed in attachment parenting, and there was just no way I could let him cry," she says. "It felt like I was abandoning him."

The AP philosophy borrows its name from attachment research begun in the 1950s by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, M.D. But decades of attachment studies don't back up all of attachment parenting's claims. "You could violate all the specific practices in attachment parenting and the child could be securely attached as long as you are emotionally responsive on a consistent basis," according to L. Alan Sroufe, Ph.D., professor of child development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and one of the world's leading attachment scholars. "Our research shows that there's no prescription for good parenting."

Kyle Pruett, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry and nursing at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, CT, agrees. He points out that while baby-wearing may work for some, more than 15% of babies don't like to be touched or held frequently. "They're saying, 'Stop confining me in this sling,' so what's more useful is if parents get their information from their child," he says.

One of the most stunning developments in recent attachment research is the growing number of studies showing that the key to raising a secure child lies not in what a parent does but in how thoroughly the parent has come to terms with his own childhood attachment issues. "The way a parent makes sense of his early life is the best predictor of his child's attachment status," according to Daniel Siegel, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Parenting From the Inside Out. By analyzing the answers parents give to a set of probing questions about their childhood, researchers can predict with 85% accuracy what kind of attachment they'll have with their child. The more emotionally honest parents are in explaining their initial relationships, the more securely attached their children are.

Overdoing AP is easy," says API's Parker, "because people are led to it as a result of their own unmet needs. It can be a healing thing, but parents can take it too far." The pitfalls come when a parent finds it hard to tolerate a child's striving for independence or feels that small separations -- such as going to sleep alone or spending time with a babysitter -- are dangerous.

Audra Tsanos, a Brooklyn music teacher, told me about her journey of trying to live up to a perfect AP standard. "I was being asked to sacrifice my whole self to be this flawless mother figure, but it didn't leave much room for being a woman or a wife," she said. "Then I met all these great moms whose kids were happy, and they had had cesareans by appointment or nursed for just a month, and I realized what really matters is that you love your kids."

For me, being a good parent is becoming less about trying to get it all right and more about assuming I'll get some of it wrong as I strive to do my best. I try to remember that mistakes can be repaired and tactics changed as we go along. I pay more attention to the feeling between me and my son and not as much to the voice in my head that says I need to do something specific to make us close. I guess, finally, that I really am following my instincts.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the February 2004 issue of Child Magazine.