As soon as your baby arrives in the world, the process of letting them go begins. At birth, your previously merged selves become a duo and you immediately have to make choices (or they are made for you) about how separate you are going to be. Are you going to remain as connected as possible, keeping your baby physically close, taking on the predominant caring role and trying to tune in to your baby’s rhythms? Or are you going to begin creating a bit of distance, perhaps encouraging your baby to sleep and feed away from you, implementing a routine and re-establishing your separate self while someone else is on baby duty.
We talk about separation anxiety appearing around 8 or 9 months of age, when babies begin to recognise and show a preference towards what is familiar (including you!) and become distressed at situations that appear unusual. As they learn about object permanence – realising that things and people can continue to exist even when they’re out of sight – babies also realise that they can be left.But worrying about separation starts much earlier than that, whether it’s your anxiety that your baby won’t cope without you, your baby’s fear of being left, or your guilt at wanting some time apart.
Separation between mother and child is a hot topic as ideas around separation have influenced the whole field of parent-infant psychology. Attachment theory describes ‘the bond that ties’ an infant to its mother, and the necessity of this proximity for the infant’s survival. Since its inception in the 1950s, attachment theory has become a key concept both in understanding child development and in describing and understanding the nature of our relationships throughout the lifespan. In fact John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, began his exploration into the importance of the maternal relationship after discovering that emotional disturbances in later childhood could be traced back to being separated or deprived of a mother (or mother substitute), leading to his ‘maternal deprivation hypothesis’. You can read more about the roots of attachment theory here and attachment theory is well described on Wikipedia.
Subsequent research has considered the nature and length of significant separations. The pattern of attachment an infant has (the way in which the infant relates to his or her mother or other caregiver) continues to be assessed by examining their response to separation and subsequent reunion. (This is known as the Strange Situation, developed by Mary Ainsworth).
So what does this have to do with you? Attachment theory reflects the fundamental importance of developing one special relationship with a ‘primary caregiver’. In other words, it underlines how important you really are. “You” might be dad, granny, auntie, family friend but these days the primary caregiver role still usually falls to mum*. This is an importance you may already feel but which isn’t always apparent in a world which sometimes encourages mothers to act as though parenting is just another job to them, rather than a transformative, highly emotional experience.
This developing attachment relationship is seen as going through stages, from lacking in any personal preference as a newborn (at this point your baby doesn’t even know it exists as an individual let alone that you are an individual too!), through development of a strong attachment to one figure and finally allowing multiple attachments to form. The relationship with a primary caregiver is seen as acting as a blueprint for other relationships throughout the individual’s life, and it is when this is interrupted that difficulties can arise. This primary caregiver acts as a ‘secure base’ for the child, from which he or she can begin to explore the world around, initially alongside the caregiver and, later, further afield – having internalised an idea of a trusted caregiver.
Well, let’s put it this way. All those times you say ‘Sssh, it’s ok’ to your screaming newborn, your tantruming toddler, your frustrated child and your heartbroken teenager – mean that they can say ‘ssssh, it’s ok’ to themselves when they’ve flown the nest and you’re miles away.
Of course, the idea of a primary caregiver fit neatly into the society in which Bowlby, and later Ainsworth, were living. In the 50s and 60s children were more likely to be raised by one consistent caregiver, usually the mother, or a grandmother. Even where nannies and nursemaids were used, they were more likely to stay within a family to raise a whole generation of children. Nowadays, when both parents often work, families often live miles apart and a single consistent carer is unaffordable, the idea of a ‘primary caregiver’ may seem unmanageable. Our expectations of what it means to be a mother have also changed, alongside a shift which has led to independence being valued over community.
So, separation will almost inevitably happen with your child. It is important that it happens in a way and at a time that suits both you and your baby. This will depend on your own needs, as well as external circumstances such as returning to work, and your baby’s age and temperament. How your baby copes will also be influenced by who looks after him or her. Where possible, it is helpful to choose someone (or someones) as close as possible to a ‘secure base’ – who will be sensitive to the needs of your baby, respond to his or her wishes and can build a stable relationship with them. Remember that every time you leave your baby, even just to go out of the room, they also learn that you will return. Letting them know that you’re leaving, even if they don’t yet have the language to understand, will help them to realise that separations also lead to reunions.
But what if you don’t want to leave? Or, what if actually you really, really want to leave but just don’t feel your baby would cope without you? What if you do leave, but feel like your leg is missing? Essentially, what if it feels like that umbilical cord is still attached?
Whether or not you are able to stay with (or leave) your baby as much as you’d like, the importance of the primary caregiver – the secure base – is one to remember. When your baby relaxes into your arms, that’s a sign that you’re important. When they reserve their best smiles for you, that’s another sign. When they give everyone else their best smiles and you get the meltdown later on – well, that’s a sign too because they know you’re the one to make it all better. I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty. Or scared. Rather, to feel proud. For a few months at least, and to someone very special, you really are the centre of the universe.
*There are pages and pages to write on this fact. On whether parenthood should be a shared responsibility so women are not held back in their careers. Or whether this just creates more pressure on women who may want to focus on their family. Not to mention whether either parent staying at home is even affordable. And then there’s that teeny little detai that we are, actually, all different and may, actually, want different things.