While new parenthood is an exciting and beautiful time for many, the postpartum period can also bring with it psychological and physical challenges that, in turn, may cause doubt for the birthing parent as they begin to navigate their relationship with baby. We interviewed Bethany Saltman, author of Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey Into the Science of Attachment, to talk about her own experience becoming a mother, and what it informed her about building healthy relationships between parent and child and the importance of eliminating shame in order to better mother not only your child, but yourself.
For those unfamiliar with the phrase, can you explain what the “science of attachment” is, and how it can complicate the relationship between mother and child? How is it distinct from Dr. Sears’ “attachment-parenting?”
The science of attachment is one of the most investigated and rigorous lines of research in the history of psychology. It began in the 1950s with a British psychologist Dr. John Bowlby and was refined by Dr. Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian-born developmental psychologist who died in 1999. The basis of attachment is that every mammal is born with a body/mind system in place to stay close to his or her caregiver as means of staying safe and alive. And for humans, this attachment system has also evolved to help us “feel felt,” in other words, loved. Every single one of us is born with the capacity and tools to love and be loved—regardless of race, class, temperament, IQ, nationality, or parenting style. And because we are complex, sensitive creatures, and because our patterns of attachment have a tendency to be passed down through generations, our relationships are complicated! However, as Mary Ainsworth discovered, at the heart of attachment security is something incredibly simple. She called it “delight.” It comes, it goes. But it’s incredibly powerful to feel like we’re the apple of someone’s eye.
Dr. Sears is an American pediatrician and “family values” Christian who has borrowed the term “attachment” to support a very specific style of high-intensity parenting that is aligned with his worldview (i.e. with women in charge of children at home). This includes co-sleeping, nursing, wearing a child in a sling, never allowing a child to cry themselves to sleep, etc. These behaviors may contribute to a delighting, sensitively attuned, thus, securely attached relationship for some parents and their babies, but they have nothing to do with the science of attachment. In fact, many parents have tried so hard to fit themselves into some attachment parenting mold, they’ve missed out on delight completely!
What experiences in your own life inspired you to write this book, as an examination and resource for other parents to learn from?
When my daughter was born 14 years ago, I expected some maternal magic to descend upon me, transforming me from the edgy, complicated person that I was and am. Instead, I was even more myself because as much as I adored every single thing about her, I was also exhausted, and a little…shall we say…understimulated. Sometimes I was even angry and I wasn’t very good at hiding it, which of course made me feel like there was something very wrong with me, maybe broken. I was overwhelmed by the shame of feeling like the thing my daughter needed the most protection from was me.
That’s when I stumbled upon the science of attachment and Mary Ainsworth, and her laboratory procedure called the Strange Situation, which I learned could reveal attachment at work between babies and caregivers. I went on a ten year journey into attachment labs, archives and trainings to discover what kind of mother I am.
What is the most surprising thing you learned about yourself while writing Strange Situation?
The most surprising thing I learned is that I, like every single other parent on earth (bio or otherwise) have everything I need to love my child well-enough. I have the ability to see my own mind, which helps her see herself. That’s what we all need. This ability to reflect, called mindsight or reflective functioning, or awareness, of being present leads to delight—in ourselves, in the world, and in our children, even in the midst of such a terribly suffering, traumatic world. It’s pretty incredible.
AND after doing a lot of learning about what attachment actually is, I learned that as lonely and sad and delinquent as I was as a kid and a teen, I was actually very fortunate to have a pretty secure upbringing. That blew my mind.
What role does breastfeeding have to play in the bonding and relationship-building of parent and child?
When Mary Ainsworth did her groundbreaking research on attachment in Uganda in 1955, she found that one of the most important indicators of a secure attachment was not whether or not a mother nursed (most in her sample did), but a mother’s attitude toward breastfeeding. This is important for a couple of reasons: One, I love that Ainsworth thought to ask these women how they felt about nursing instead of making assumptions about them. That in and of itself is radical! But I also love how this is such a wonderful example of how a woman’s internal experience—her pleasure, her comfort, her own feelings—factor in so significantly to her child’s experience of the world. Revealing this non-dual intimacy is the true gift of the science of attachment.
For mother’s who are struggling to breastfeed their child, what do you recommend in order to avoid frustration and improve success?
I think from an attachment point of view, it’s important to reframe “success” to include a mother’s feelings of ease and pleasure. Yes, of course, breastfeeding is good for babies! But so is having a happy, relaxed mother who delights in her baby and her life as a mother. From an attachment point of view, I would say that’s more important, and—just so happens—will probably make breastfeeding more “successful.”
How did Strange Situation impact your relationship with your daughter – how are you raising her, now that you have a deeper understanding of the kind of parent you are?
Writing the book helped me re-lax! As Mary Ainsworth writes as the last line of her groundbreaking, but sadly out of print book, Infancy in Uganda (some of the world’s experts in attachment haven’t even read it! But I hope to change that :), “Despite the alarming incidence if neurosis in the world, full as it is of uncertain or conflicting information, parents—both Ganda and non-Ganda alike—by and large do well.”
Words to live by.
After becoming parents, so many women suffer in silence because they believe speaking out about any negative experiences or feelings will make them a “bad mom.” Why is it important for mothers to be completely honest and open, both with themselves and with others?
Ok, this is THE thing. It’s patriarchy and white supremacy that tell women that we’re “bad” for being human. Being honest about our feelings as mothers, and creating a truly shame-free zone for ourselves and other women is a profound act of resistance.
The only way to protect our kids from our shadows is by shining a light directly upon them and getting to know what’s lurking there. I’m not suggesting we blow up or share our darkness with our children, but share ourselves we must! With ourselves, our friends, fellow seekers, teachers, etc. The Buddha calls it karma, the science of attachment calls it the intergenerational transmission of attachment, but we will pass on the parts of ourselves that we hold most tightly to unless we see them clearly and air them out.
Do you have any advice for mothers who are struggling to fulfill their responsibilities as a mom while still honoring their individuality and protecting their sense of self?
First of all, be honest with yourself and trusted friends about how pissed off and filled with resentment you are. This world does not honor women or mothers (or human beings, for that matter), so of course we all feel like we’re failing to meet impossible standards.
Our kids don’t need us to be “there” for them all the time. They need us to be connected to who we truly are so that we can help them be themselves. Attachment is a dance of connection—finding ourselves in another and another in ourselves.
With quarantine ongoing, this can be a very challenging time for parents because they are with their kids all day every day, with little time for themselves. How can they find ways to “let go” at a time of so much stress, or tune into and address times when they are having trouble connecting with their child?
Again, the first step is to notice the shame spiral we step into and see it for what it is: the tools of patriarchy and white supremacy. A global pandemic by any measure is going to be challenging. And for those of us in the U.S., with a president—for a host of reasons—just cannot deal with reality, we’re in very big trouble. So the first step is to accept the truth—this is terrifying and we need support. Please, please, get support in some way.
And then it’s helpful to remember that our kids didn’t sign up for any of this. And so any delight we can throw in their direction will go a long way. Even just a cuddle in the morning, a “I know this is so hard for you. I’m so proud of the way you’re hanging in there,” or buying their favorite chip at the store can all communicate that you see him or her. And from an attachment point of view, seeing is loving. At least it’s a step in the right direction.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the science of attachment?
The very biggest is that attachment security comes from a checklist of behaviors ala Dr. Sears. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Most people around the world are considered securely attached, and it doesn’t matter a bit what “kind” of parent we are—free-range, intensive, traditional, etc. What matters is that we’re sensitive to our children. How do we do that? By becoming sensitive to ourselves. The currency of attachment is feelings. We all benefit when we learn to connect with our own feelings, even the scary ones. The more intimate we are with ourselves, the more intimate we become with others.
What, for you, have been the “most important” do’s and don’ts for creating a home environment where you believe your daughter (and you!) will be able to thrive?
Hmmm…..the only real don’t is: cut the shame. And when I do inevitably shame myself or my daughter, I notice it, resist the urge to beat myself up for it, apologize when appropriate, and then move on. My main DO is to always own my stuff and to try not to interfere in my daughter’s internal life.
Is there anything else we didn’t cover that you’d like to add?
When Mary Ainsworth was in Uganda, she noticed that the mothers of the secure babies were what she called “excellent informants,” meaning they had a lot of information about their children’s lives—what they liked, how they slept, what soothed them. This revelation is at the heart of the science of attachment: paying attention is love. When we pay attention to our children, they tend to be more secure. The same goes for ourselves, and for our world—paying attention is liberating.
I believe that the science of attachment can be applied to all human relationships. One way to transform oppression and marginalization is to pay radical attention—to our own minds, and what lives there, and to other people. I believe that becoming an excellent informant is one of the best ways to combat the fragility—white and otherwise—that makes it so hard to change systems from the inside out. We need to be honest, brave, and unrelenting in our self-examination and of the world around us. Being both curious about our own thoughts, feelings, positions, and edges, and the lives of other people. Imagine a world where we were secure enough to be curious about what we don’t know. That’s how we become excellent informants.
Bethany Saltman is an author, award-winning editor, and researcher. Her work can be seen in magazines like the New Yorker, New York Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Parents, and many others. Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey Into the Science of Attachment, published in April, 2020 by Random House, is her first book.
Bethany also works as a bestselling book partner, communications director, and in-demand mindfulness mentor, helping writers and entrepreneurs at all stages of the creative process envision and execute their projects, including book proposals, content development, Big Ideas, messaging, and the like.
In 1992, Bethany graduated from Antioch College where she was one of the architects of the nation’s first Affirmative Consent Policy. She went on to receive her M.F.A in poetry from Brooklyn College in 1994, where she studied with Allen Ginsberg.
A longtime Zen student, Bethany is devoted to the fine art and game-changing effects of paying attention. She lives in a small town in the Catskills with her family.