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How parents are made

16 1 0

In 2008, Georgia (a pseudonym) gave birth to her first child. After struggling with fertility issues, she and her husband were elated to finally become parents. But in the weeks that followed, Georgia’s maternal joy was hijacked by severe anxiety. Throughout the day, her stomach churned and her chest felt tight. At night, she tossed and turned, even though she was bone-tired. Even worse, Georgia’s mind was infiltrated with worrisome and scary thoughts about her baby’s safety.

‘I was convinced I wasn’t feeding my baby enough or soothing him correctly,’ Georgia told me. In her darkest moments, she felt certain an awful tragedy would kill her infant. ‘What if he stopped breathing?’ or ‘What if he choked?’ Her list of worries dredged up deep feelings of maternal insecurity, which caused her to feel unsteady in her new role.

Supportive friends offered Georgia reassurance. ‘I was a nervous wreck until my baby was six months old,’ remarked one friend. ‘You’re a first-time mom, things get easier as the baby gets older,’ said another.

But once the baby dozed through the night, and the sleep deprivation lifted, Georgia’s anxiety lingered. Whenever the baby cried, she swooped in and picked him up, clinging to his squishy body. If she couldn’t stop his tears, she felt irritable and frantic. Always on the lookout for danger, Georgia hovered over her son at the playground, tracking his every move. In her worry-filled mind, if the baby took a tumble, he’d break a bone; if a bee stung him, he’d have an allergic reaction.

‘I was depleted, anxious and overwhelmed. Then, before my son turned one, I got pregnant again,’ she said. Having a second baby made Georgia’s anxiety swell. Terrified to be alone, she set up playdates with other families. To quiet the train of worries, she turned to food for comfort, relying on bread and pasta to temper her emotions. Paralysed by fear, Georgia couldn’t make big decisions. ‘I made choices about my personal and professional life based on what I thought my kids needed.’ At one point, she turned down a stellar job offer, because leaving the kids in someone else’s care seemed impossible.

Finally, Georgia saw her doctor who thought she might be suffering from postpartum depression (PPD), the most common complication of pregnancy that affects up to 15 per cent of new mothers. Characterised by feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and tearful, PPD can be brought on by hormonal shifts, stress and sleep deprivation. In addition, women with a personal or family history of mental illness are at greater risk of becoming depressed during pregnancy and after giving birth. Following her doctor’s advice, Georgia made an appointment with a psychotherapist.

During her first session, Georgia sat back on her therapist’s couch, and spoke about her rocky childhood. Her parents divorced when she was an infant. Substance use, depression and anxiety had plagued each of them. As a result, peaceful family moments were often ruined by angry outbursts and yelling. More often than not, Georgia’s needs weren’t met, and while she knew her parents loved her, she rarely felt safe.

Those parent-child ruptures were not often sutured with an apology, a hug or words of reassurance. If anything, speaking about the divorce was off-limits. ‘My parents couldn’t stand each other, and became upset if I mentioned missing the other parent.’

At the end of her first therapy session, Georgia’s therapist said her anxiety stemmed from what psychotherapists call an ‘attachment wound’ – an emotional scar inflicted by childhood trauma and inconsistent caregiving.

Like many parents, Georgia knew that attachment was vital for a robust mother-baby bond. ‘Pick up the baby when he cries, it fosters healthy attachment,’ childcare experts recommend. However, aside from Georgia’s therapist, no one had mentioned that a parent’s own childhood attachment style could shape their childrearing practices.

Early work on attachment theory can be traced to the physician and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. In 1928, he worked with troubled children at a school in England where he treated a motherless teen and a clingy, anxious child. Those interactions piqued Bowlby’s interest in maternal separation, and its long-term impact on psychological wellbeing. Throughout his career, he worked with orphaned children, and in 1958 he published his first paper on attachment theory. From Bowlby’s perspective, a parent’s role is to provide a ‘secure base’ for the child, and the absence of such nurturing can shortcircuit a child’s ability to trust others, form intimate bonds and, in dire circumstances, can lead to mental illness.

Inspired by Bowlby, the research psychologist Mary Ainsworth continued studying relationship patterns between mothers and their infants. In the 1960s, she developed a study called ‘The........

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