The XX Factor

Attachment Theory Is Far More Forgiving Than Dr. Sears Makes It Seem    

Don’t cry, attachment parenting isn’t as unforgiving as some gurus make it seem.


The notion that children benefit from a secure attachment with their parents is a perfectly lovely and intuitive idea that has been put in service of a number of not particularly lovely or intuitive practices over the years. The one most people are familiar with is Dr. William Sears’ take on “attachment parenting,” a highly prescriptive—and burdensome—parenting philosophy that recommends near constant contact with an infant. The other is the less known but potentially more damaging holding therapy, in which an insecurely attached child is forcefully held, or “rebirthed” by a caretaker or parent in an attempt to heal her. Some critics claim that this type of therapy is a form of child abuse, an argument well-supported by the fact that it has resulted in death on a number of occasions.

This makes Bethany Saltman’s recent essay on attachment theory an act of redemption. Writing in New York magazine, Saltman offers an overview of attachment free of co-sleeping and birth reenactments, focusing instead on what science says about parent-child relationships. Driven by her own maternal insecurity, Saltman grew interested in attachment theory, which was  developed by a British psychoanalyst named John Bowlby who studied homeless and orphaned children in post-World War II Europe. Before this, psychologists underestimated the importance of parent-child relationships in our emotional development.

Saltman presents our early relationships with our parents as a scattering of tea leaves from which we can predict all our future relationships, both with our children and others. “The most important parenting you’ll ever do happens before your child turns one—and may affect her for the rest of her life,” the headline reads. What follows is an explanation of how.

Likely driven by my own maternal insecurity, I wondered whether Saltman presented early childhood attachment and its long-term effects as being more precarious than it is. She argues about how important it is, but she doesn’t take a second to indicate: But hey, you readers probably don’t really need to worry about this in a practical sense. So many of us, like her, experience anxiety, depression, and frustration during that first year of parenting. Yes, she, and therefore we readers, learn that, according to psychologists, she and her daughter are just fine. (Turns out even the best parents are only “sensitively attuned” 50 percent of a the time.) But we never learn if, according to the science, there was good reason for Saltman to put herself through attachment analysis in the first place. It’s good to know we’re resilient, but what is the bar for questioning that resilience?

Saltman’s story focuses exclusively on one parent’s relationships with the young child. Between the occasional appearance of the word maternal and the fact that the essay was illustrated exclusively by photos of women with what appear to be their biological children, it was clear that this was all about mom. She never accounts for the fact that many children build close relationships with more than one caregiver, and as a result their sense of security in the world might be the product of a collaborative effort. How much can mothers expect to split the sometimes burden and sometimes gift of providing their kin with a sense of security and belonging?

Howard Steele, a professor at the New School for Social Research and an attachment expert, says the answer is: a good amount. While most children have a sense of who their primary parent is, they can and do build secure attachments with more than one caregiver. The fact that my son had a relationship with me, my husband, and his nanny through his first year in life was in no way a disadvantage to him. In fact, it was an advantage.

“We form relationships with all who are important to us and who we depend on. Strength in one relationship will beget strength in another,” Steele said. “Having more than one person is a form of insurance.”

Steele also said parents of infants should not buy into the idea that there is one single moment or experience during which these relationships can form. He resists the notion of “bonding” with one’s child and says parents should view this as a long, complicated process that can evolve over time. “Infants are hearty souls, and they can cope with some disconnect and separation,” he said.

According to Richard Barth, dean and professor and president of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, even if children encounter undesirable levels of disconnection and separation as infants, they aren’t necessarily doomed to a life of bad relationships. For one thing, he says, the infant stage isn’t as crucial as some followers of attachment theory make it out to be.

“This idea that we get stuck in stages doesn’t capture the fluidity of relationships over time and how we respond to them,” Barth said. Both Steele and Barth agreed that a rough year during one’s childhood, no matter when it happens, doesn’t determine one’s fate. A single secure relationship, even at a later age, can have a large impact on one’s ability to be reflective and respond to others in the future—both important ingredients for a healthy connection.

What’s more, studies in which early childhood attachment are used to predict future behaviors yield mixed results. While there is some evidence of a link between early attachment patterns and adult relationships, it’s not inevitable. And even when there is a connection, Steele says that research shows that only a small amount of our adult personality is attributable to that first year of life.

Talking about the importance of parenting is always a tricky endeavor, especially for women. We need to emphasize how much parenting matters in order to instigate change to our woefully inadequate parental leave and childcare policies. But emphasize it too much, and we abet the paternalistic, suffocating worldview that gave us Dr. Sears and natural birth. A close look at attachment theory reveals that yes, our presence is important. And no, the majority of us won’t screw it up. That works.