Social Attachment, Motherhood, and Mental Illness
In early 2010, PBS will broadcast a 3-part series on emotions called “The Emotional Life,” exploring ways to improve relationships, cope with emotional issues, and become more positive, resilient individuals. Hosted by Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Gilbert, the documentary weaves together the compelling personal stories of ordinary people and the latest scientific research, along with revealing comments from celebrities like Chevy Chase, Larry David, Elizabeth Gilbert, Alanis Morissette, Katie Couric and Richard Gere.
Psychologist Jessica Zucker, Ph.D. is a key contributor in the PSB project and an expert on the website, where she writes a blog. Since forming healthy attachments in the first year of life is so fundamentally important to mental health, I have interviewed Dr. Zucker on this topic. To get to the “This Emotional Life” website, click here.
Question: You mention that children who form secure attachments are less likely to experience mental illness later in life. Could you go over your six basic practices for successful bonding and attachment for new mothers?
Dr. Zucker: New motherhood can be incredibly joyous, overwhelming, and transformative. A mix of expectable complex emotions may emerge upon baby’s arrival. Sometimes women are baffled by the various feelings that arise and wonder how they might make sense of this flood of emotionality. An integral, albeit basic, tenet to savor during the initial period of this life-changing time is that attachment and bonding are a process. Getting to know your baby, understanding her cues, and falling in love with your infant and your newfound identity as a mother, may not happen over night. Or it might! Either way, having a clear desire to pave a path of consciousness and closeness can ensure that your baby will thrive. Though each parent-child dynamic is unique and therefore requires a depthful personal approach, here are six basic practices that can assist in laying the groundwork for successful mother-infant attachment and bonding.
1. Be mindful of your own emotional health and wellbeing.
However tempting it might be or no matter how much pressure culture harnesses, you do not need to achieve Super Woman status. Having realistic expectations of yourself, your newborn, and your partner will help combat disappointment, anxiety, and head-spinning thoughts. Your baby will have a much easier time in the world if she can rely on her mommy to be well and attuned. Therefore, your mental health is tantamount. It is estimated that over 80% of women experience postpartum blues and one in five new mothers experience postpartum depression. If symptoms exceed approximately four weeks, it is wise to take action and get additional support. Building an authentic relationship with your child will happen more readily when you feel available, present, and engaged. Getting help promptly, if needed, can increase healthy connectivity.
2. Provide consistency in behavior, predictability in care, relating, and responding.
People flourish when they feel felt. Healthy development stems, in part, through raising a baby in an environment that is consistent and predictable. The infant learns that she matters and can affect the world when mommy responds to her ever-changing needs in a clear and caring way. Early mother-infant moments make a resounding impact on how your evolving baby will come to feel about relationships- with self, others, and the world.
3. Create an atmosphere of protection, safety, and trust.
Trust grows when a feeling of safety exists. If you struggle with issues from your childhood around trust, pregnancy and new motherhood may be opportune times to address unresolved pain. Research reports that having a clear sense of personal history can do wonders for early attachment and bonding.
4. Connect with your baby through gazing and smiling, skin to skin gentle touch, cuddling and comforting, and play.
Attachment and bonding happen through spending time getting to know one another and enjoying the process of developing a relationship. Infants learn about their senses and their bodies through these early interactions.
5. Model thoughtful, reflective actions.
Impulsive, harried, and thoughtless behaviors can impede closeness. A healthful mother-infant relationship can be cultivated through understanding what you are feeling, how you are behaving, and making conscious choices to parent mindfully.
6. Cultivate a mindset of patience.
Attachment is not a finite event. Feelings about new motherhood may shift by the minute, the day, the week. Practicing patience will invariably benefit you as well as your burgeoning relationship with your baby.
Question: For persons who didn’t form attachment and bonding earlier in life, what are some ways that they can compensate for that or perhaps meet that need later in life?
Dr. Zucker: Ideally, attachment and bonding begin during the earliest moments of life, laying the groundwork for healthy relationships. However, there are myriad potential roadblocks that might inhibit mother-infant connectivity. When early attachment is thwarted, proactive measures can be taken in adulthood that can heal formative wounds.
1. Explore childhood history.
Early moments gone awry may result in feelings of disconnection, distrust, and perpetual insecurity. Taking steps toward repair may yield increased understanding and expansion of healthy connections. Though we can never get those initial moments of life back, exploring what you may have experienced in your family environment can bring fruitful insights and reparative understanding. The psychotherapeutic setting is an optimal context for delving into a variety of concerns that may have been piqued by feelings of relational longing. What was the relationship like between my parents when I was conceived? How was my mother’s pregnancy? What was my birth experience like? Did they feel emotionally and financially stable during my childhood? Is there mental illness in my family? Was my mom depressed or anxious during pregnancy or postpartum? Did she have social support? Did she feel connected to me? Did my mom enjoy her newfound role in parenthood? Does my mother have a solid understanding of herself? What was she like as a role model? Were her actions consistent, predictable, trusting, and loving? Gathering information and deeply investigating the earliest moments of relating can help us make meaning of who we are and why we are the way we are.
2. Examine relationship patterns.
Taking time to mindfully reflect on the relationships in your life may provide additional insight into how attachment and bonding were (or were not) embraced during childhood. The mother-infant relationship sets the stage for subsequent connections. But is this initial relational framework static, unwavering, impenetrable? When the earliest relationship paradigm is muddled or outright painful, it can be quite challenging to trust. However, recalibrating how we relate to people in the world is possible. It takes dedicated time. Bypassing the painful work is not possible if healing is the goal. Though it may be a circuitous endeavor, research reveals that having a bolstered understanding of your personal history can create a sense of freedom and healthier future relationships.
3. Ponder your parenting path.
If you are pregnant, a mother, hoping to become a mother, or don’t want children at all, pondering one’s parenting path is paramount. In other words, whether you want to have children or not it might be useful to think of who you are as a parent- a parent to yourself or to your children. When early attachments are dizzying or traumatic, people often suffer- resulting in challenged self-image, hardship in relationships, self-destructive behaviors, difficulty in school performance, and a lack of security in loving connections. Having children might be a springboard for healing the past with the opportunity to offer a markedly different experience of childhood to your kids. Growing compassion through mindful self-examination may shift your approach to relationships, including the relationship you have with yourself.
The psychotherapeutic relationship can be curative. The process of therapy is designed to provide space to delve into difficult places of interiority. Loss is felt when healthy early attachment and bonding do not exist. Yet, adulthood brings the opportunity to cultivate relationships with self and others that feel more resonant and fruitful. Doing the work to understand early pains, relationship patterns, and places of distrust and fear can potentially impact future experiences in connection.
Dr. Jessica Zucker is a psychotherapist and writer residing in Los Angeles. Her research and writing about various aspects of female identity development and women’s health came to fruition in her award-winning dissertation while completing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. You may visit her website by clicking here.
Borchard, T. (2009). Social Attachment, Motherhood, and Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 31, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/11/15/social-attachment-motherhood-and-mental-illness-an-interview-with-jessica-zucker/