Securely attached

Sleeping baby creative commonsBabies and parents need each other.   That’s obvious, at least it is obvious that babies need their parents.  But parents, once they have become parents, need their babies, too.  This is particularly true of mothers, whose biological bond is overt, hormonal and behavioural.  Specifically, oxytocin pours through mother’s body causing uterine contractions to sheer the placenta from the uterine wall and mother gazes at this newborn creature.   The baby suckles and more oxytocin flows, causing the let-down reflex for milk to move into the mother’s breasts.  The hormone causes emotional softening, and supports nurturing, contactful behaviour.  It promotes bonding of the mother to the baby, actually, just as the same hormone, released with orgasm, promotes pair bonding in adult humans.

But how do we get to be securely attached?  How does one develop a feeling that all is okay in their world, that they themselves are probably okay, that even if things go wrong they can probably be fixed, and that even difficult, harsh, painful situations can be negotiated and managed?   Scientists who study these things might be getting close to finding out.

First, and maybe this is obvious, those kinds of fundamental ways of interacting with the world represent an intrinsic sense of the world as okay, as safe, as negotiable. That intrinsic knowing comes from the ways that important adults in your life related to you when you were a little one.

So that means that people in your life, adults in your life, behaved in a way that was fairly predictable, helped keep you safe and alive, and responded to you when you expressed your needs.  More than that, those adults also saw you in all your uniqueness…saw your emotions and helped you by labeling them, saw your new skills and pointed them out with delight, joined with you in your joy and sense of accomplishment, and soothed and calmed you in your fear, anger and disappointments.  Whenever possible, these adults…parents, caregivers, whomever, allowed you to take the lead in your experiences.  But whenever necessary, they took charge to keep you safe, help you self-regulate, and monitor your experiences.

With enough of these rich interpersonal interactions with trusted adults, we learn that our world is a good and wholesome place, a place where we belong and a place that welcomes us.   We connect to our adults in a specific and generally positive way, although that certainly doesn’t mean our relationships are without struggle and negativity.

The Circle Of Security is a model of parenting that helps adults to learn how to facilitate this kind of attachment security.  In the COS model, parents support attachment by attending to the child and to themselves in relation to the child.  Specifically, adults who can remember that they are Bigger, Stronger, and Wiser than the child, and most importantly, who can Be Kind, will help children grow secure relationships.  The “circle” part refers to the idea that children are always either going away from the parent to practice autonomy (“I do it myself”) or coming back to the parent to get support, encouragement, connection.  circle_of_security_handout_-_short

The benefits of secure attachment are far-reaching.  Infants and toddlers with secure attachment relationships are better able to cope with stress, and later in preschool they are more inclined to positive peer and teacher relationships.  In elementary school, they tend to have higher academic achievement and fewer behavioural and social problems.    This is not because they are inoculated against stressors by a secure infancy, but mostly because the good care that they got in infancy is probably likely to become good care in later years.

Babies with less-than-optimal circumstances are not destined to a terrible life:  a lot of change can happen if parenting improves early in life.   The Circle of Security research team has shown that teaching parents how to be effective in supporting the growth of attachment really makes a difference for children and their families.

Is there a Circle of Security program in your town?   Most of us can use some support in being parents to very young children;  maybe your own security could use the boost that this program can offer.

http://circleofsecurity.net/

Look at a video:  https://vimeo.com/145329119

Find a facilitator in your area:http://circleofsecurity.net/directory/

The Perfect Mommy: the myth that binds

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There is a terrible mythology operating among sensible, educated, intelligent women, and the result of this mythology is a whole host of trouble:  increasing stress levels, anxious thinking, moodiness, roller-coastering emotions and self-esteem.  This is the myth of the perfect mother, who, with no apparent effort, has perfect children.  She is totally self-sacrificing, perpetually loving, has boundless energy to give to her children, and her life, because she has sacrificed everything, is perfect.  Her children lead charmed lives, as well, because she is a perfect mother. 

Do you believe this?   I know that in your intellectual mind, you understand that it is an impossibility, unachievable.  We all “know” that nobody is perfect.    But deep in your heart of hearts, do you believe that if only you are perfect you can protect your baby and child from harm?  That you can support her development to the degree that she can become something wonderful and special?  That if you breastfeed longer, play the right music, keep her away from screens, anticipate her every need, that you can protect her from anything that might befall her?

Many moms seem to have this belief underlying their everyday behaviour.  There is a terrible fear of being less than perfect and thus putting your baby at risk.  And maybe the worst part is this “perfect” is a moving target!  Today it is about co-sleeping.  Tomorrow it is about enforcing a schedule.   Avoid peanut butter.  No, no, offer it early, prevent allergies!  When you are in the middle of this, it is impossible to see the whole context…. which is that the “right” way to raise baby is going to be different next week….and in five years, you’ll look back and say, oh, I can’t believe we thought that was right….

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A mom got really angry with me once for suggesting that she could maybe try to be a “good-enough” mom.  This concept is time-honoured, and I’ll get to the background in a minute.   The mom who got angry thought that she would be short-changing her children if she only was “good enough.”  She needed to be more than that, more than even what is possible, in order to justify her having these children in her life.  She couldn’t relax into the idea of being “good enough” because that would mean she didn’t actually deserve to have children.  What a painful, limiting way to think….and she wasn’t completely aware of it until it came out in therapy.  When those ideas get some light and air in therapy, then we have the ability to think about them, and decide if we want to believe them.   We develop the capacity for making choices in how we will mother.

So what about the “good-enough” idea?   Well, it got its start with Donald Winnicott, a very important psychiatrist from the U.K. in the last century.  He suggested that children have very particular needs in order to develop to their highest capacity. Most mothers supply these needs without a lot of outside intervention.  And once those needs are met, then adding more doesn’t do anything to support development.  It is actually energy spent that could be doing something else, like maybe taking care of yourself, or working at your career, or doing something you love.

How can you switch to being a good enough mommy when you have been programmed since forever to aim for perfection?  You have to reprogram your inner world and then restructure your outer world.

Inner world

  • Check your default thinking.   When you interact with your child and you hear self-critical thoughts come up in your mind, see if you can think “that was probably good enough.”   If that’s impossible, see if you can think “I wonder what good enough would be like?”
  • If you tend to catastrophic thinking (i.e. if I give my baby a bottle all these terrible outcomes could happen), do a reality check. Specifically, how likely are those outcomes?   If one happened, would you manage it?  Another approach to that worst-case thinking is to just notice that you are doing that kind of thinking again.  If it is a pattern for you, you might be able to notice that you are in your pattern.  Once you can see the pattern, you have some traction for fact-checking.  “Oh, this is my scary thought pattern.  I don’t have to believe these thoughts; this is just my pattern.”
  • Practice thinking about what is constitutes “good enough.” Do I have to read three books at bedtime or is one book enough?   Does the baby need to nurse five times a night at six months or is less going to be enough?  Don’t expect to know what enough is…. but at least when you are asking the question you can notice when you are giving too much.
  • Destress your life as much as possible, and focus on enjoying the time with your baby or children. More about that later.

Outer world.

  • Check your context. Are you inundated with other peoples’ views on perfect parenting?  Do you spend time on social media listening to women judge other peoples’ parenting?  Or do you spend time in social groups trying to improve your parenting?   See if the context supports your sense of being okay or if it contributes to a sense that you are not okay at this mothering thing.  It probably won’t be all or nothing:  there may be parts that feel good and supportive, and parts that feel judgy and uncomfortable.  See if you can extricate yourself from judgement.  That includes offering judgment as well as being the recipient.
  • Ask for what you want. In an effort to change the context to support you in being “good enough” instead of perfect, you can ask for support.  Ask for support for your parenting and tell them what that will look like.  For example, “Mom, I’d really like you to tell me that I am doing a great job, and that you know it is sometimes hard, and that you think I’m a good mom.”   You can’t control whether she will do it, but you will have made your preference very clear.
  • Destress your life as much as possible. Yes, you did just read that in the list above, but it is essential for both inner peace and an outer serenity.  More about this later.

 

Getting out from under the burden of perfectionism in motherhood is not easy, but it can be liberating.  You know what your child needs, and you know how you want your family life to be.  You and your spouse get to make those decisions for your family. It can just like the folks next door, or people on Pinterest, but it probably won’t be.  And just as perfect mothering cannot protect your child from real life, it cannot keep you from struggling with the complicated feelings that arise as our children grow, change, and face their lives.  Liberating yourself from the myth of the perfect mommy offers the possibility of deeply enjoying the process of raising children.

Photo credit: Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours for the lovely hands on mug picture.