Dr. Elaine Heffner: Mixed attachment feelings
A foster mother expressed concern that her foster child was rejecting her biological mother. The child’s mother had been unreliable in visits but sent a message to the child through the foster mother saying she loves her and misses her. When the foster mother delivered this message the child emphatically said “no,” and made a face indicating anger and disgust.
John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment, described an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis. He viewed attachment as a psychological or emotional connection not based solely on feeding by a caregiver. He wrote, “… it is suggested the inherited determinants of behavior have evolved in such a way that the standard response to loss of a loved object are always urges first to recover it, then to scold it.”
Mothers often express dismay when reporting a familiar story of a child tearful and upset when being dropped off at daycare or nursery school but then ignoring mother and refusing to go with her when picked up later. This makes no sense to the mom who is happy to see her child and finds no reciprocity of feeling - or at least no expression of reciprocity.
This fits Bowlby’s description of the response upon recovery to the loss of a love object being to scold it. This suggests that the response reflects first protest and grief, but then anger at the loved one. One can almost hear the child saying, “You left me, now I’m leaving you.” It is also a child’s recovery of a feeling of strength following a feeling of helplessness.
Parents have different reactions to this experience of children’s reactions to feelings of loss. Some mothers feel a sense of loss themselves - almost a feeling of being punished for having left their child. Also, a feeling of guilt about having done a bad thing by leaving the child. On the other hand, a mother may be angry in turn about her child’s reaction - especially if she had to leave the child to go to work to meet the financial needs of the family.
The report by the foster mother raises many questions about the issue of attachment. Although expressing concern about the child’s reaction, her own feelings were mixed and reflected a real dilemma of foster parenting. Her assigned responsibility was to support the child’s attachment to her biological mother to whom she might return at some point. At the same time, the child was clearly becoming attached to the foster mother who took care of her.
Like the child, the foster mother also felt anger toward the biological mother for being an “irresponsible” parent who neglected her child. The foster mother was providing the physical care and emotional support that created attachment, yet the child might be separated from her at some point.
This points up a dilemma in thinking about attachment as a significant bond between mother and child, one that while not based solely on caretaking certainly develops in response to a caregiving relationship, especially one that includes emotional as well as physical nurturance. In this era when working mothers delegate care to another, parents often express concern about the developing bond between child and caregiver.
Fortunately, children are capable of more than one attachment. In many ways the challenge for mothers not only is to recognize that a significant attachment to a caregiver does not diminish her own importance to her child, but also to accept mixed feelings at times on her own part and that of her child.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.