We are too obsessed with the mother-child bond

By Olga Mecking

“It’s important for children to be scared of strangers. It means they have a good bond with their parents.” So said my daughter’s physical therapist, when we came to see her for my middle child’s motor skills delays.

My husband is German, and the Germans have a special word for that stage of development: fremdeln, “to stranger.” My three children never “strangered” as babies or toddlers. On the contrary, they happily and readily smiled at all sorts of people, eliciting smiles in reply. But the physical therapist’s comments moved me deeply because, by extrapolation, it would mean that the bond between me and my children was less than ideal. If this were true, the future looked grim for them. Experts predict that a lack bonding leads to attachment problems down the line, as well as mental illness and poverty. It could even affect a child’s marriage prospects.

Research has also shown that a child’s resilience to adversity depends on the same thing: whether that child maintained a deep bond with at least one caregiver in their lives, most often a warm, caring and attuned mother.

But I wasn’t attuned. I had no idea what my babies wanted or needed. I blamed myself for my children’s problematic behavior in the early years. I thought my eldest daughter’s explosive temper tantrums, for example, were my fault because we hadn’t bonded properly. No wonder she smiled at strangers, I thought. She’s looking at them for something I can’t give her. During that time, however, I had an MA thesis to write and being at home with a baby all day long had strong, negative effects on my well-being. The bond, that line that connected my daughter and myself, was slowly morphing into a leash. I had to be careful so that it wouldn’t turn into a ball and chain. That’s why we sent her to daycare when she was only six months old.

And yet, despite my initial fear, I have a good relationship with all of my kids, who are now seven, five and three. People actually comment on how attached they are to me and if you asked me, I’d say our bond is just fine.

These days, it seems every parenting site, book or article has advice on bonding. As if it is something we need active advice on. Give birth naturally. Co-sleep. Breastfeed. Never let your baby ride in the stroller. Instead, wear her constantly. I hear this message of attachment as a continual hum in the background of my motherhood.

In the Netherlands, where we live now, new mothers get amazing postpartum support, called kraamzorg. Basically, a nurse comes to your house for eight hours a day and helps with the baby, does light house chores and can also cook some meals. I was so impressed with this service that I wrote about it. One of the first comments was: “But wouldn’t it hinder bonding?”—the implication being that the mother has to do everything or the baby won’t attach.

Is the mother-child bond really so weak and fragile that it threatens to fall apart at any moment without the parents’ constant vigilance? And should we modern parents in particular be as concerned about not bonding with our children as various experts tell us we ought to be?

According to Jennifer Senior, modern parenting has its roots in the aftermath of World War II, the same moment when psychologist John Bowlby suggested that to thrive children needed to form attachment to a responsive caregiver. Back then, parents were increasingly blamed for any negative outcomes their children showed, especially the mothers.

Now, we’re in a similar atmosphere of parenthood. We believe that parents should be intensely involved in their children’s lives, that this is the way to forge the strongest bonds. But studies also show that mothers who buy into the modern intensive parenting practices are generally more likely to be depressed, and that stay-at-home mothers are more depressed than mothers who work outside of the home.

Mothers these days are held to an impossible standard, expected to be intensely dedicated to their children but also to work, without any kind of support. They also face terrible judgment and isolation if they decide to become stay-at-home parents. And yet, social isolation is one of the risk factors for postpartum depression, so staying home, which should in theory provide a good base for bonding, paradoxically may cause problems with it.

We expect mothers and babies to remain together at all times. We close down nurseries in hospitals, with no respect for maternal well-being, because we think it will encourage contact and breastfeeding and therefore foster a good relationship between mother and child. In fact, the opposite is often true: a depressed mother, a physically exhausted mother, will have problems bonding with her child.

Ultimately, when my kids were no longer babies, I would find out that Bowlby worked with children who were severely deprived after WWII. Many were orphans or were moved to the countryside while their parents stayed in the city. These kids with attachment problems, and the theories that spun out from their experiences, have nothing to do with modern well-fed and doted-upon children.

In retrospect I wasn’t “out of tune” with my children. It’s more that society these days has made the requirements for a “good” mother-child bond extremely hard to meet. The irony is that though the readily available postpartum care and daycare in the Netherlands created more space between me and my young children—and presented less obvious opportunities for bonding—in the end I’m convinced it has actually improved our connection, despite what any of the “experts” say.

Olga Mecking is a writer and translator living in the Netherlands with her husband and three children. Her blog, The European Mama is all about parenting, travelling, writing and food. 

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