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The Kind of Mother I’d Be

Beginning a journey into the science of attachment.

Photo: Phathn Sakdi Skul Phanthu / EyeE/Getty Images/EyeEm
Photo: Phathn Sakdi Skul Phanthu / EyeE/Getty Images/EyeEm
Photo: Phathn Sakdi Skul Phanthu / EyeE/Getty Images/EyeEm

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In 2005, I lay in bed beneath the Christmas lights in the loft of our little house in the Catskills, The Baby Book propped against my giant round belly. This encyclopedic volume by Dr. William Sears and his wife, Martha, a nurse, is the seminal guide to what they call “attachment parenting,” the controversial approach to raising kids that encourages mothers to breastfeed, co-sleep, wear their babies in a sling, and engage in what they call the “Seven Baby B’s of Attachment Parenting,” all designed in response to an infant’s innate need to be close. That made good sense to me, though I knew that many people felt some resistance to this method, especially the fact that it seemed to ask an awful lot of parents and particularly women.

I, however, welcomed the Searses’ invitation to wholehearted— though some said over-the-top—parenting and their insistence that “when a hungry or an upset baby cries, he cries to be fed or comforted, not to control.” And they made it sound so simple: “All parents, especially mothers, have a built-in intuitive system with which they listen and respond to the cues of their baby.” What would it be like to listen to my baby’s cries? I wondered. Would I sink into this magic realm of knowing what to do? I had heard so many stories about colicky babies and tantruming toddlers and parents losing their shit. And I had seen that mom in the grocery store, the one who ignored her crying child. I thought, Just pick the kid up! How hard can it be?

While Dr. Sears says that attachment is an “intuitive system,” the technical term is a “set goal” behavioral system, and, as I have come to understand, we all have it, not “especially mothers.” Caregiving, attachment, sexuality, affiliation, fear— these are called set-goal behavioral systems. We are all equipped with these whole body/mind organizations that kick in when needed to work tirelessly until they reach their goal. When we lose track of our child in Target, there will never come a moment when we say, Oh well, now that my kid’s disappeared I get to sleep in on the weekends, and give up the search. Likewise, there will never come a time when our lost child settles in among the school supplies or wanders off with a stranger, never looking back. Attachment works like fear, which, once ignited, never stops until the threat is gone, or like a state of sexual arousal, which won’t rest just because we want it to.

When my daughter Azalea was seven years old, she and my husband Thayer were riding the chairlift up a mountain at our local ski area. Lost in a daydream, Azalea missed the spot where she and Thayer had planned to get off, leaving her on the lift without her dad, who had skied off the chair, only to discover with a start that Azalea was not right behind him. Realizing that she was alone and her beloved father was gone, rather than wait until she got back to the bottom of the mountain, the next safe place to get off, Azalea jumped! Falling ten feet through the air, luckily she landed safely on her skis. That’s the kind of commitment attachment inspires. That’s the kind of danger love incites.

Once we get riled up, like Azalea alone on the chairlift, the only thing that slows the caregiving and attachment systems’ primordial effort is reaching its set goal—of togetherness, of safety, of intimate connection, of what researchers so tenderly call “felt security.” And when that goal isn’t reached, we keep searching for it. Forever.

Felt security. It’s not up to anyone but us to say when we get there.

Lying pregnant in the winter sun with our cats, the snowy mountain outside our bedroom window, I didn’t know any of that. It just felt good to imagine devoting myself to the needs of my future baby. It felt healing. After all, I knew the pain of feeling unloved. And something really resonated with me when I read from The Baby Book, “Studies have shown that infants who develop a secure attachment with their mothers during the first year are better able to tolerate separation from them when they are older.” A “secure attachment” sounded like something worth having, and I wondered if I had one. Thinking back to my own childhood, and with a quick scan of all the trouble I’d been in and caused, I figured probably not.

One of my earliest memories is of being in the kitchen with my mother and asking her a question. She was busy. I was not. It’s a posture that defines my childhood—her back to me, her motion; my stillness. Her just going about my business stance; my something’s missing longing to be rescued from the pain of feeling alone in the house, unseen by my parents and shut out by my older brothers.

“Hey, Beth, you’re ugly,” Sam, my oldest brother, reminded me one typical Saturday morning from his seat on the couch, wrapped in Grandma Beryl’s afghan, our cat Tasha curled in his lap. I was eight years old, though even today, at forty-eight, I can hear his voice when I look in the mirror. I had just walked in from my room down the hall, looking for a place to sit, to settle, to be. No such luck. Matt, my middle brother, sat on the floor as they watched Abbott and Costello, the comedy duo. He hissed a laugh, like a balloon letting out air. We were all in our pajamas, our parents still asleep. Two empty cereal bowls sat on the coffee table, bathed in snow-light.

I went to the kitchen and poured myself a bowl of cereal and sat at the snack bar alone, my throat tingling, tears starting to well up, yet again stirred by the familiar frustration, the pain of not finding my place. When my mom finally came into the kitchen in her robe and poured water into the coffee pot, tears started sliding down my cheeks.

“Mom,” I said, trying to be quiet.

“Mmm … hmm?” she asked, studying the faucet. “They’re so mean to me,” I said. “I hate them.”

“Just ignore them, honey,” she said, spooning coffee grounds into the filter.

Just then my dad walked in, wearing his bathrobe, his knees crackling. He sat down next to me and opened the paper, then lit a cigarette.

“It’ll make you tough,” he said, then exhaled a stream of smoke across the breakfast bar.

Growing up in a house with two older brothers who had their own demons to fight, and who weren’t the least bit interested in me, did make me tough. And guarded. And angry.

And it wasn’t just my brothers who made me feel painfully awkward within my own family—self-conscious, like a ghost floating around the periphery.

My dad also made me uncomfortable, and I felt ashamed of my discomfort. Once, he took me for a ride in the vintage Jaguar he couldn’t afford and went speeding down the country roads where we lived, ignoring my cries of “Dad, please slow down!” His nonresponse made me feel as if it was my fault I felt unsafe, and that I was ruining his good time.

Another time, we were visiting Ann Arbor and he yelled something at the skinhead neo-Nazis distributing anti-Semitic materials on a corner. Then he flipped them the bird. His rage made me nervous, but it was nice to feel protected by him for once—a strange brew.

When I was pregnant, I dreamt about Azalea a lot. I wrote in my journal every day, wondering what she was going to be like, cataloging my growing belly, how difficult it was to walk, learning more about myself and my body as I wrote and reflected. I wrote about where our little girl, whom we had already named Azalea, might sleep, and how we might try “sleep training,” though I wondered whether she would become “attached” if we did.
I needn’t have worried that Azalea wouldn’t become attached. Even my 1970s mom and dad were attachment parents. There’s no other kind. We’re all attachment children, too.

But how could I have known?

When I was pregnant, I just wanted to be a good mother. Better than my own—more attentive, a better listener, a true—a fierce—protector. I couldn’t bear the thought of my future baby feeling as alone as I had, so I determined to give her a different kind of life, a different, better kind of love.

I had no idea how the past and present, comfort and disappointment, security and sadness would entwine into such an elegant knot.

From the book: STRANGE SITUATION by Bethany Saltman. Copyright © 2020 by Bethany Saltman. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Writer Bethany Saltman embarked on a ten-year journey visiting labs and sifting through archives to explore the science of attachment. Out April 21, Strange Situation reports her findings and chronicles her personal experiences. Jen Gann, senior editor, spoke with Saltman about her new book; an edited and condensed version of their conversation is below.

What would you suggest to someone who’s attachment-theory-curious? 

Read my book! Or, start by reading the article in the Cut that I wrote before the book, which is a nice little intro.

I know that to some, attachment theory feels kind of old and a little frumpy. It’s not very sexy because Doctor Sears has imbued it with this sense of shame, for one thing. And so people might have reactions to it based on preconceptions. But I believe that actually, we don’t know enough about attachment in the sense of how magical it is, how truly powerful this program that we have inside of our bodies is.

I think some new parents are intimidated by attachment theory — this idea that you can “screw up” your kid for life so early on. With all you know now, what would you say to someone who feels that way?

I totally understand, because there’s a reason people are intimidated: Attachment theory has been sorely misrepresented over the years, particularly by Doctor Sears, who really did make it seem like if you didn’t follow this set of rules or suggestions that your child could not become attached. That’s just 100 percent not true. Each and every one of us is attached, except in cases of extreme neglect or institutional situations.

Our attachment systems are working. It’s actually an incredibly forgiving system that’s sensitive to any internal work we do. If we’re not happy with the way that we’re behaving toward people, whether it’s our children, other adults in our lives, or ourselves, there are things we can do to make ourselves more comfortable and more secure.

What are some examples of things that people can do? 

Psychotherapy is a really popular one, and meditation is another. Essentially what the attachment system is working with is the ability to mentalize or use what’s called reflective functioning, which means that being aware of ourselves helps us become aware of others. It starts really early with an infant and their caregiver, who, by the way, can be anybody — it does not have to be a mother, it does not have to be a biological parent. An infant can’t manage their own stress, and so they need the help of a caregiver to kind of absorb the effects of being upset because their diaper is wet or because they are hungry or because they are afraid.

That kind of co-regulation continues throughout life, and what having someone there for you does is helps you realize that you’re not alone and that you ultimately can regulate yourself.

We’re perfectly interdependent creatures.

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The Kind of Mother I’d Be