The Importance of Attachment

Sit down. Take a breath. For just a moment close your eyes and think about the most important relationships you had growing up. What do you remember? Pay close attention to the feelings, sensations, images and memories that bubble up from your unconscious as you ask yourself that question. Then take note. This is important. Very important. Our early childhood relationship with our primary caregivers, which for many of us were our parents, have the power to influence our lives far into our future.

The foundations of Attachment date back John Bowlby’s theory on attachment and later, Mary Ainsworth who introduced us to the Strange Situation to see how attachment styles may vary between children. It was from her research that she developed the different attachment styles.

Secure Attachment: This happens when a child is surrounded by caregivers who are attuned to their needs and responsive and warm in their interactions. Dr. Dan Siegel states that for a secure attachment to occur a child must feel safe, seen and soothed. When a child is securely attached, they learn to trust that the world is a safe place, their needs will be met, and they have a secure home base.

Avoidant Attachment: When children grow up with caregivers who are unavailable or unresponsive to their needs, children learn as an adaptive strategy to find a way to take care of their own needs and stop reaching out for support in their environment. These children develop into “little adults” who learn to care for their own needs.

Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment: This style occurs when caregivers are inconsistent in their attunement to their children. At times they respond appropriately, other times insensitive to their needs. Children never know what to expect and causes them to feel distrustful but also appear clingy and needy.

Disorganized Attachment: When a caregiver is abusive toward the child, they learn that the world is frightening and unsafe. They want to flee from their caregiver but are unable because that they depend upon them for survival. This results in a need to detach from themselves and their experience.

It is clear from the research, that having a Secure Attachments in childhood have positive effects long-term, but why? From the moment we are born, we are immediately overwhelmed by our experiences in the world. Where we had spent the last 9 months floating in the womb, warm and dark with the reassurance of our mother’s heartbeat as our constant companion, we are now thrust into a world with bright lights, loud voices, temperature fluctuations, medical interventions to process and adapt to.

 As newborns, there is no capacity to consciously modulate and regulate the shifts in the nervous system. But that is where evolution comes into play and our absolute reliance on our caregivers to help us bring the nervous system back into homeostasis. We have evolved, through a complex interplay of biology and cultural norms to attend to a child’s needs. Oxytocin, commonly referred to the love hormone, surges after delivery. Oxytocin plays a vital role in our social interactions, and positive social connections like touch and support stimulate the release of this important hormone.

Newborns do not have the developmental capacity to self-regulate. We see the importance of the role of caregivers so clearly when we look at the research on Kangaroo care. Kangaroo care is a method of holding a baby that involves skin to skin contact. Kangaroo care stabilizes heart and respiratory rates, improves oxygen saturation rates, and better regulates body temperature. As caregivers, we allow our stable and regulated system to serve as a secure base for the baby. Through the process of co-regulation, the baby is better able to regulate its own immature nervous system.

In homes where secure attachments are formed, this safe home base continues throughout childhood and beyond. Adaptations are made as development matures and grows, but consistent, loving and responsive care is the foundation of the parent child relationship.
Growing up, even under ideal circumstances can be scary at times. Children are constantly faced with new challenges, needing to learn new skills and coping strategies. Risks must be taken to successfully prepare for the transition into adulthood. Secure attachments allow our children to explore their environment, push themselves beyond their comfort zone with the trust that if they falter there will be someone there to catch them if they fall.

With the other attachment styles there seems to be a disruption in the ability to co-regulate successfully. Instead of a child feeling reassured and soothed by mom’s return, they feel confused, unsure or avoid seeking comfort at all. They are left to contend with their distressed and activated body on their own. When this pattern of chronic activation of the stress response system is prolonged, in the absence of the buffering presence of a loving, responsive adult, it can develop into toxic stress for a child.

What is unhealthy or “toxic” stress? Under stressful conditions, we all release emergency stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol which increase our heart rate and prepare us to take action. This is a normal, healthy, adaptive response to situational stress. Where it becomes problematic is when this system goes from being activated occasionally to always being “on”. This happens when children are faced with repeated, intense trauma and stressors with no way to deactivate this fight or flight system. This system that evolved to protect and save us from danger can also impede healthy brain development, and negatively affects all systems of the body when it stays constantly activated.

And so, this is what happens, we find ourselves as adults with a burdened body carrying a lifetime of living with an activated nervous system, always waiting for something bad to happen. Without those secure attachments in childhood we can struggle to form healthy adult relationships and allow ourselves the comfort and connection we crave. In a sense, that is what good therapy does. It creates an opportunity to bring what feels broken in us to another human being, who then joins with us in finding a gentle path through our pain without having to face it alone.

Human beings have evolved to need connection. Someone who has our back. A friend to talk to, a reassuring hug, someone who reminds us things will be okay. The comfort of another human being who lets us borrow the calmness of their own energy field until we can bring our own back into equilibrium. This is how we activate the social engagement nervous system and utilize the protective capacity of our relationships to bring calm back to the body
Not everyone was fortunate enough to have those secure attachments growing up. But here is what I know…it is never too late. There is always an opportunity for us to learn to be loving and kind with ourselves and seek the same from others. To find a way to be gentle when we are suffering, holding ourselves close and reminding ourselves that we are not alone. To seek out the relationships that remind us we are safe and supported, encourage us to take a deep breath and give us a hand to hold when we need it.

Sit down. Take a breath. For just a moment close your eyes and think about the most important relationships you have today. What do you know? Pay close attention to the feelings, sensations, images and that bubble up from your unconscious as you ask yourself that question. Then take note. This is important. Very important. The relationships we have today, in the here and now, have the capacity to affect our lives going forward. Invite the ones in that offer you that secure attachment. The people who promise to be there for you when you need them, those you can call in the middle of the night when you are overcome with grief or paralyzed by fear. The relationships that allow you to lean in on their strength and solidness when yours is wavering. Allow that love into your body, feel the protective capacity of the social engagement nervous system working its magic to help you breathe deeper, filling your lungs with oxygen, regulating your heart rate and bringing you back to yourself.

Real Love

The first time I held my son, my heart was forced to stretch and grow, almost painfully, to accommodate the deluge of raw pure emotion that was birthed in me that day. I remember wondering how was it possible that my once normal life could be turned so completely upside down by such a tiny creature? Blinded by the kind of insanity reserved exclusively for the newly in love, I was naively confident leaving the hospital that I was destined for a smooth transition into motherhood. Bathed in the mind-altering glow of the “love hormone” oxytocin I thought to myself, what could possibly go wrong?

Evidently quite a lot. Hung over from too much percocet, cracked nipples and too little sleep, my fantasy of having the perfect little family was fading as quickly as my resolve to start a post-baby diet. I am quite sure my son came into the world bearing the motto that sleep was for the weak. And when he finally did allow himself to close his little eyes, succumbing to absolute exhaustion, the second I put him down in his bassinet he would pop back up as if to say ” exactly where do you think you’re going?” 

Bleary eyed and exhausted I would pick him up, lie him on my chest where he would at last sleep, lulled into a peaceful slumber by the rise and fall of my breath and the reassuring rhythm of my beating heart. Me on the other hand, I woke with his slightest movement, every sound roused me back into the world of the semi-living. Evolution had conspired against me, calling out my momma bear need to protect him and keep him safe. Even on the rare evenings when the stars and planets miraculously aligned and he slept for more than an hour or two, my brain churned on unrelentingly, impervious to the bone deep fatigue that threatened my already questionable sanity.

 I worried about everything, real and imagined, although truth be told it was mostly imagined. The hormonal upheaval I was experiencing turned my usual non-descript brand of neurotic into a full blown, pass the Xanax, this girl needs help quick kinda crazy. I imagined people on the street could see it in my eyes, how frighteningly close I felt to a breakdown. Our days passed slowly, fueled by too much coffee and my inadequate attempt to care for a baby born into the world with an overwrought nervous system. We struggled mightily to get in sync with one another. He soothed himself by breast feeding non-stop and me, well I tried to do the same with chocolate donuts.

Let me tell you, when you have a baby wanting to nurse every 45 minutes, the next feeding rolls around with some measure of dread. I should have plastered a sign to my chest “CAUTION, STAY AWAY!” The girls became totally off limits to all but my son. Aching boobs, smelling vaguely like vomit, and wearing clothes I had put on yesterday, believe me when I tell you I in no way resembled the ethereal picture of motherhood.

Life after having my son became almost unrecognizable. I am not sure if it was the chronic lack of sleep or the natural consequence of all the changes postpartum, but I am fairly certain I lost at least 20 IQ points during this trying time. Where I had once considered myself quick witted, bright, insightful with the ability to carry on an educated adult conversation, I was now reduced to walking around aimlessly muttering to myself- Where are my damn keys? 

On my list of things to do, showering became optional. Clothing choice was based solely on whether it had an elastic waist band, frequently covered in spit up and hair that had not seen a brush in weeks. The once frequent sex, that ironically, had been what led to the birth of this sweet baby boy, began to feel like having one more person laying claim to my time, energy and body when all I yearned for was a room to myself and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Now, when I look back, I see how time passed too quickly, even the moments that felt like they might never end. But they always do. And I love that little boy with every breath in my body. He has taught me that real love always involves sacrifice and that our idea of love never lives up to how we imagined it should be. He taught me that life happens in the every day moments and if you refuse to open the door to happiness until life meets your unrealistic demands, well, you will be waiting forever. 

He showed me what it honestly and truly means to love another human being. He didn’t care how I looked, when I had my last shower, if I knew the current secretary of state or was keeping up with the Kardashians. He unreservedly, and with complete abandon allowed his heart to become one with mine, trusting that our love would rise above the sleepless nights, the petty frustrations and the countless disappointments that come along with being a mother. He accepted me wholeheartedly, embracing my flaws and shortcomings. In his eyes he mirrored back to me the best parts of who I am, and I can only pray that I was able to live up to his unearned belief in me. 

Real love isn’t wrapped in pretty packages and bows, it comes in the cold dark of night, bone tired and suffering, wondering if we can will ourselves to get up one more time to soothe our crying child. Real love is hard earned, born in sweat, blood and spit up in the steady monotony of daily life and often passes unnoticed. 

Like many mothers, I look back now wistfully and wish for time to fold over on itself so I can go back and revisit those sweet days. Another chance to live those moments with greater grace and equanimity. Hindsight is always like that isn’t it? Our most precious moments often only fully realized after the fact. I have learned on our journey together that real love is a complicated mixture of joy, disappointment, grief and euphoria all woven together in one messy, crazy beautiful and gut-wrenching tapestry. A beautiful illustration of how real love is often not what we expect, but so much more.

The loss of my soul

The loss of my soul almost went unnoticed. Had it left in some dramatic fashion, exploding like fireworks, a life changing event on the order of an epic love coming to a tragic and premature end, I am quite sure I would have noticed. But no, mine was a slow leak, draining my soul slowly over the course of years, an endless stream of mundane, everyday soul sapping moments that lull you into believing you are living your life.

When I finally did realize my soul was gone, it required a bit of detective work to trace it’s escape route. Where had I gone wrong? What could I have done to justify my soul decision to jump ship? I imagined my soul deciding, in a desperate bid to save itself that it would go find another human who would give a damn sight more than me about showing up more fully in this thing we call life.
Well, I won’t bore you with all the details of what I learned of my soul’s departure and sadly, it won’t come as much of a surprise. The first time my soul left happened on a beautiful sunny Spring day, perfect weather and blue sky as far as the eye could see. The slight breeze felt like a soft caress, almost an apology for leaving me far too long in the cold dark winter. On that day, my son’s excitement was palpable, smile spreading joyfully across his face. I know…his energy should have been contagious, his chubby, sticky fingers reaching for mine. “Let’s go down the slide Mommy”, drawing out Mommy to such an extent that I suppose even he knew if he didn’t keep my attention I would somehow disappear. Once I found a place to sit, I looked up only long enough to give him the thumbs up and continued to scroll my newsfeed, mesmerized by a video depicting the unlikely friendship between a ferret and pot-bellied pig. It seemed important at the time. And later that weekend? Well more of my soul left in protest when I decided to snuggle up with Netflix and binge watch three seasons of The Magicians. Holed up in that dark room, blanketed under an extra-large hoodie I hunkered down for the long haul. I am embarrassed to share that my son’s overtures to connect with me went unrequited that weekend.

There were countless more moments, but I am sure now you can see the writing on the wall. Each moment seemed so trivial at the time and honestly, when I finally realized what was happening, it was already too late, my soul had gone in search of greener pastures. So, I am spending most of my time these days in search of my lost soul. I try to find it on long walks, games of Candyland, melting ice cream and warm hugs. Places I would go if I were a lost soul. I will let you know when I find it!