06.22.12 Love

Fortifying Parenthood

Fortifying Parenthood

BY Jessica Zucker, Ph. D.

Parents are often burdened by internalized expectations surrounding attachment. Cultural pressures seep into our pores, clogging our hearts/minds with a million different ideas of how we “should” raise our children. Egging women on to embody unattainable perfection from head to toe, cultural pressures leave us feeling compass-less and palpably insecure during times when we need to trust ourselves most. Ubiquitous Super Mommy messages drain the life force out of genuine connection and intuitive responsiveness. Laying the groundwork for healthy attachment relationships with our children may be easier than we think.

Stripping away the external frills, media hype, and ever-present “shoulds” of babydom allows us to wholeheartedly plunge into the basic elements that make up healthy connection and fruitful development. When we focus our energies on the burgeoning relationship with our children rather than culturally-bound trends handed down from generation to generation, we find that presence of mind is one of the most powerful conduits for connecting.

Here are some enriching tidbits about attachment and simple steps you can take with the aim of laying a foundation of health in the relationship with your child.

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Q: What is attachment?

A: Attachment is the process as well as the quality of the relationship that an infant forms with caregivers. Initial experiences in relationship with primary caregivers creates the infrastructure for subsequent relationships– how the developing child views connection, how she experiences her self, and the world around her. Attachment can occur with biological and adoptive mothers, fathers, stepparents, grandparents, and any other consistent person in the child’s life. Embedded in repeated experiences of predictable care, the infant learns about trust and security. Growing up in an environment infused with safety and intentionality ensures healthy social and emotional development. “Children with a history of secure attachment show substantially greater self-esteem, emotional health and ego resilience, positive affect, initiative, social competence, and concentration in play than do their insecure peers” (Wallin, 2007).

Q: What are some concrete ways to set the stage for my child(ren) to experience a secure attachment?

A: Research has found that it is the quality of the infant-caregiver interaction rather than the quantity of care that establishes the health in the attachment bond. In other words, the caregiver’s sensitivity to the infant’s gestures and expressions during interactions is of paramount importance. Number of hours spent together is not necessarily equated with security of attachment. For example, if a mother is home with her child full-time feeling depressed, notably overwhelmed, and appreciably disconnected from her infant, the distressing quality of their interactions may deleteriously impact the child’s sense of poise and/or interpersonal security. Having a nuanced sense of what makes you feel the most present with your child will benefit the emotional health of the family.

The caregiver-infant patterns of communication hold great potential in establishing a secure attachment. Consistent maternal attunement facilitates the infant’s ability to freely explore the world around her, engage in spontaneous play, and rely on the caregiver to provide loving responses. Repeated instances of feeling cared for results in a child’s establishment of behavioral expectations for future interactions, inside and outside of the home. Optimally, she learns to expect that people can provide safety, spontaneity, and continuity.

Security is further felt when the caregiver illustrates thoughtful actions and mindful behaviors. These include: narrating for your child the events of the day as you move from one activity to the next, prolonged gazing and smiling, cuddling and comforting, skin to skin gentle touch, as well as calmly and consistently tolerating the variety of affective states your baby exhibits as she begins to take in the world around her.

Babies often feel distressed and unequipped to modulate their changing feelings. Infants depend on the attachment figure to help them manage and tolerate their affective experiences. This requires caregivers to “bear within herself, to process, and to re-present to the baby in a tolerable form what was previously the baby’s intolerable emotional experience” (Wallin, 2007). Ideally, during the initial months of your baby’s life, she learns that caregivers are able to gracefully navigate challenging moments with love and understanding. Caregiver consistency, responsiveness, and sensitivity yields infant flexibility, resilience, and a sense of attachment security.

Q: How do the earliest moments between infant and caregiver impact future relationships?

A: Healthy development and attachment security flourish when resonant, competent, attuned, loving, and consistent parental behaviors mark the initial months of a baby’s life. Babies bask in a comforting balance between connection and exploration as a direct result of environmental safety and trustworthy role modeling. Sensing that the world is a safe place reinforces self-confidence, trust in others, and a feeling that love and growth are generative. Conversely, when infants experience their caregiver as threatening or regrettably unstable, fear of closeness can prevail. Our internal compass for establishing and navigating relationships is initially arranged through seminal infant-caregiver interactions. Simply put, when early life feels melodic and predictable, the world and others in it feel approachable. The template for how we come to understand what it means to be in relationship with others is set up during infancy and into toddlerhood. These formative relational patterns persist as we journey into adolescents and adulthood.

Q: How can I prepare to become a parent who offers my child(ren) a different experience than I had growing up?

A: Awareness is essential. Having a reflective stance and carving out time to consider your attachment relationship history can have far-reaching effects on your future parenting patterns. Research has found that forthcoming attachment security is more likely when parents have been honest with themselves about the realities of their own childhood experiences. Therefore, we need not have experienced perfect, flawless childhoods ourselves in order to ensure our future offspring with secure relationships. What is vital, however, is having a curiosity about the realities of how you were raised, your formative relationships, and how you were impacted by your experiences- the good, the bad, and everything in between. Reviewing our lives through a raw and honest lens will allow us to more deeply understand why we are who we are. This type of reflection is a natural springboard for cultivating additional insight, mourning difficulties in childhood relationships, and honing aspects of your personhood that may create a more harmonious babyhood for your children.

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Cultivating a sense of reciprocal intimacy in the ever-changing relationship relies, in part, on how you navigate the many feelings that arise each day. It is not a danger to the budding relationship with your child to experience complex feelings. It is what you do with these poignant moments, how you understand the feelings, and the way you react to them that matters most. There is no more powerful a way to invoke the memory of your childhood than to become a parent yourself. And the opposite of this is true as well. Getting a taste of what you didn’t get from your parents while parenting your newborn can stir enigmatic feelings that viscerally catch us off guard, leaving us potentially panic-stricken.
Our childhood histories don’t simply fade into the background upon becoming a parent. In fact, entering the maze of motherhood often stimulates memories seemingly long forgotten. Though they might not be consciously remembered, early experiences get stored deep in the crevices of our psyches and in the muscle memory of our bodies. A potentially daunting task, swimming in the complicated pools of our past may ensure a smoother childhood for our offspring. Research states that “experiences that are not fully processed may create unresolved and leftover issues that influence how we react to our children” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).

Attempting to make connections between the ways in which the past impacts the present awards us a freedom and flexibility of being with ourselves and with our children. Invariably, when we model for our children an embodiment of authentic reflexivity we provide them with opportunities for deepening connection. Developing a clearer sense of how we have been shaped by the parenting we received fosters a more conscientious parenting path.

Consistency builds healthy attachment. Predictability yields trust. Bonding strengthens connection. Engendering these experiences in your child might require you to dig deep–to excavate your own childhood experiences with the aim of being the best parent you can be.

Dr. Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s health with a focus on perinatal and postpartum mood disorders, transitions in motherhood, and early parent-child attachment.  Earning a Master’s degree at New York University in Public Health with a focus on international reproductive issues led to working for the Harvard School of Public Health.  After several years of international public health work focused on maternal issues, Dr. Zucker pursued a Master’s degree in Psychology and Human Development at Harvard University with the aim of shifting her work from a global perspective to a more interpersonal focus.  In her clinical practice, she merges her expertise in reproductive health and postpartum psychology.  Dr. Zucker’s research on female identity development came to fruition in her award-winning dissertation while completing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.  Jessica is a published writer and a contributor to The Huffington Post and PBS’ This Emotional Life.  Dr. Zucker is currently writing her first book about mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body (Routledge).  Jessica consults on numerous projects pertaining to maternal health and the motherhood continuum. Web: www.drjessicazucker.com Twitter: www.twitter.com/drzucker

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