An Attachment Researcher Becomes a Mom

by Erin O'Connor

While pregnant, I thought I had parenting all figured out, I was an attachment researcher and a growing expert in the field of mother-child relationships. I knew what the research said about various styles of attachment - secure and insecure (with various subtypes of insecure including ambivalent, avoidant and disorganized). Secure being the ideal style in which the child feels safe and secure and confident to explore. I was ready to put my research into practice!

Then I became a mom! There were times I’d wake up to find Ashley’s bassinet wet from a leaky diaper. Or she’d cry while I would take the shower that I had looked forward to all day. Sometimes I’d put her in front of a Baby Einstein video - not because I thought it would make her smarter but because she loved the puppets - so I could make dinner. Was I sensitive and responsive as a mom? In the moment, I felt like a horrible mother. I worried that delay in getting a wet diaper off or having her cry while I showered would teach her subconscious that I did not care and in turn make her a variation of insecurely attached. Despite having read research showing that small amounts of screen time are not harmful, I stressed that by allowing her to see the screen I would hinder her long-term ability to self-regulate and form positive human relationships. By attempting to translate the research into quantifiable behaviors that, I thought, would produce a secure child I was becoming anxious and arguably less sensitive and responsive with Ashley.

What attachment research shows us is that approximately 66% of children are securely attached to a primary caregiver. This holds across demographic characteristics, family size, and family arrangement. In other words, children seem to come into this world ready to be securely attached. Of course, all children need love and care but we may be too prescriptive in what we call “sensitive and responsive” care. Research shows that parents are most sensitive and responsive to their children when engaging in activities they both enjoy. So, sometimes it just might be OK to skip that mommy and me music class to draw on a large piece of construction paper together and have a hot chocolate.

Another hard but liberating lesson I learned as a new mom was that my child did not always have to be happy to be securely attached. In fact, sometimes sensitive and responsive parenting involves a child’s (or yours) sadness and/or frustration. For example, young children often “push boundaries” to explore where parental limits lie. To feel safe and secure, a child needs to know those limits. However, when a limit is placed on a child’s behavior (i.e. we can’t stay longer at the playground since it is dark and you might trip on something), they may become temporarily upset and push back. This does not mean that to have a secure child you should give into the tantrum so they appear happy in the moment. Once the child calms down, explain to them why you are placing the limit and that it is for their own good.

Another challenging time for me was placing Ashley is another’s care. At three months, I had to go back to work and throw myself back into the world of “publish or perish”. I was torn between center based care or in-home Nanny care. Again falling back on my and other attachment researchers’ work, I tried to figure out what would most ensure that Ashley had a secure relationship with me and the opportunity to form secure relationships with other adults in her life. Research shows that children often form relationships with their teachers similar to those of their primary caregivers. Not surprisingly, approximately 66% of young children form secure-type relationships with their caregivers/teachers. Happily my daughter appeared to fit into this category developing a very close and loving relationship with her nanny. I was thrilled that she loved her so much. I was also, honestly, a little selfishly sad. The day she grabbed for Erica rather than me was heart wrenching even though I knew that their relationship was a very good thing for Ashley.

The takeaways:

1) The style of an infant/young child’s attachment is largely determined by how sensitive and responsive interactions are with the primary caregiver. This does not, however, mean that the child is never is upset, but rather that through appropriate boundaries, the child feels safe and secure.

2) Children form attachments to multiple caregivers.

3) Most children develop secure attachments.

Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment (Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ).

Howes, C., & Spieker, S. (2008). Attachment relationships in the context of multiple caregivers. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (pp. 317-332). New York, NY, US: The Guilford Press.

O'Connor, E. & McCartney, K. (2006). Testing associations between young children's relationships with mothers and teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 87-98.