Mom Alert: How Contemporary Views of Attachment Can Cause Guilt (and why they might be wrong)

Monday, March 31, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Psychology of Motherhood

There's something about Bowlby, and it isn't his hot ass.

Much research has been done on the nature of mother-infant relationships. While I won't go hardcore into infant psychology, the model has a great many implications for women. Our societal model encourages women to stay at home, caring solely for their children, while at the same time pushing them back into the work force earlier by making single-income living unfeasible.

Unfortunately, we often feel guilty or anxious regardless of our choices or why we make them.  What we fail to realize is that there are a great number of ways to "attachment parent", all of which provide healthy environments for children. The myth that attachment parents do it one specific way creates far more anxiety than it needs to.

First things first. Let's look at why we feel so bad.

Bowlby: What Is Attachment?

John Bowlby was the pioneer of attachment theory, completing research which changed the way psychiatrists look at infant-mother relationships. In Attachment and Loss, Volume 1, he hypothesized that attachment has an evolutionary basis, as physical and emotional attachment to the mother would enhance the child's chance of  survival1. The theory goes that while food could be procured from other members of the group, no one protected a child as ferociously as their own mother. Lactational aggression (or the Mama bear response) had it's place in the protective realm, not merely the feeding one. 

Bowlby also noted that children will form some type of attachment within their first year regardless of the quality of care provided. Even children with poor quality care will continue to attempt connection based on instinctual drives towards survival. At any point in our evolutionary history, an infant without an invested caregiver would have died.

No wonder they follow us into the bathroom.

Maternal Deprivation: AKA: Stuff That Causes More Anxiety

The studies on maternal deprivation center on removing a female mammal from her child. According to research published in the "American Association for the Advancement of Science", removing a monkey from her young is a surefire way to get the infant to begin secreting stress hormones as well as impair their ability at later stress recovery 2. Researchers also found that in addition to stress hormone secretion, amygdala changes, and damage to memory and learning centers, higher levels of stress hormones are secreted in the adults who suffered maternal deprivation early on.
Humans show similar patterns. High levels of stress in children is seen in abuse cases, abandonment or orphanage cases as well as cases of maternal inattentiveness, lack of maternal touch or signs of love. According to biologist and neurologist Robert Sapolsky, in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, adults with these backgrounds, like other mammals, maintain these tendencies toward heightened sensitivity throughout their lives3

Okay, so that's what we're up against. Fucking fantastic.

Another Attachment Parenting Model

With such research being thrown at us all day, it's no wonder we feel like shit. But here's the thing: Bowlby's research was conducted within a particular context, where a certain model of childrearing was, in fact, the most advantageous. The tribal mothers on which his studies focused were in a position where more solitary, maternal high-investment produced the best results and less dead offspring. 

What about situations where there are more people around on a regular basis? Like

Today, anthropologists are rethinking Bowlby's model of solitary maternal attachment, though this doesn't stop ingrained cultural norms from digging at us. According to anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, maternal investment is flexible, based on who is around to assist4. In Mothers and Others , Hrdy explains that mothers in cooperatively breeding environments may be able to leave their children with other females in the group with no ill effects to mom or baby, because their children were attached to many members of the group and not just the mother herself. This "allomaternal" type of care-taking allowed ancestral women to leave for the day to gather berries or work, unhindered by a small child. In many situations, this provided the best chance of survival for both the child, and the group. 


Sometimes we provided individually, sometimes with a group, sometimes somewhere is between. With all those different models in their heads already, early moms had the unique ability to survey the environment and determine how much she had to invest, then adjust both hormonally and outwardly, to fit this level of demand. No room for helicopter parents in cooperative breeding. But if you're alone or with a smaller group, you better helicopter your ass off, or someone's about to die, and it's probably you or your kid. 

Those moms didn't have to feel guilty either; their inner environment and hormones reflected outer reality.There was also little deviation in models over time, like say starting out for two months in a solitary provider role than abruptly shifting to a cooperative care model with little time for hormonal adjustment. When your hormones expect 'solitary caretaking' and get 'office work sans child', all systems are go for anxiety and depression, appropriate physical responses to childlessness. After all, there are only so many evolutionarily relevant reasons for an abrupt shift of this kind, child death being at the top.  

"Dammit, corporate America! Stop fucking with our heads!"

So, what about the maternal deprivation model (I mean, aside from those monkey guys being douchebags)?

While it is true that taking a baby away from its mother can get it to stress out, this is more true if it isn't attached to anyone else. It's  not only a mother deprivation thing, it's a 'maternal deprivation in the absence of anyone else to attach to' thing.

Bonds are built over time, and even a monkey knows that a blanket is a poor substitute for a parent. But it doesn't matter if the kid is attached to the mother, to both parents or to a whole slew of people, as long as they are in the arms of someone they trust. If mothers understand this and can find a way to foster attachments before it's time to leave their kid somewhere, they may avoid at least some of the guilt. 


Mothers are in a unique position of fielding pressure from both sides of this coin, pressure which informs overall mental health. It's hard to say which trigger will be stronger in any one person. Will it make her more anxious to leave her child? Will she feel worse not being able to provide financially?

Flexibility. What makes one mom happy may cause another great anxiety. And these internal thought patterns are a result of how you were raised too, so it isn't like just deciding to stop feeling shitty is easy.  But it can be done if you can figure out what is causing you the most anxiety and adjust as you are able. 

Everyone can be a great mom if you look at it right.

If you're stay at home mom, who's happy without active participation from others, awesome. Get your solitary investment on. 

If you work, embrace the notion of allomaternal care that has been so critical to our history. Go get those berries, girl. 

If you hang with the kids during the day then leave as soon as your husband comes home to have a glass of wine with the neighbor, rock on. Daddies matter too.

If (in a purely hypothetical example) you happen to be a mom writer/shrink/blogger, hang with your kids during the day and ship them off to the neighbor's as soon as her kids get home from school for some free play fun.

(Seriously, girl, you can send them home anytime.)

Right and wrong are bullshit. Our historical environments have been too different to have just one internal model of right.

If only anxiety was as predictable as they fact that a child will need you the second you try to make coffee, enter the bathroom, or, god forbid, try to take a shower. At least the anticipation of such events makes them easier to accept. So may the ability to see past the screen of what society tells us we're supposed to think and into what we actually do without shame. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Attachment and Loss, Volume 1
John Bowlby's theories on early infant-maternal attachment

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.

Our Babies Ourselves
Anthropology and childrearing with a unique focus on the effects of culture on mothering

Mother Nature
Women, sex, competition, cooperative breeding and monkey heirarchies.