Attachment Theory in the Age of Trump
Recently, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Yes, It’s Your Parents’ Fault.” The piece presents the main principles of attachment theory. What’s interesting about it is that the writer, Kate Murphy, is summarizing attachment theory for the Times’ readership, and that’s it. The article is a good introduction to the basic facts about attachment theory, and nothing more.
This is interesting to me because attachment theory is not new. That the Times thinks it’s valuable to be introducing its readership to these ideas as though they were newsworthy, gives me pause for thought. Briefly – you can follow the link to Murphy’s very competent article if you want more detail – attachment theory posits that our earliest relationships with our first caregivers result in one of four different attachment styles. These styles set the tone for and predict many aspects of our future interactions with the world and in all our close relationships.
Attachment theory was first proposed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1930s, and developed into an evidence-based practice by Mary Ainsworth , starting in the 1950s. Mary Main and her colleagues here in Berkeley have added substantially to the earlier work on children and parents, finding ways to identify adult attachment patterns.
Most recently, in the last couple of decades, advances in neuroscientific research have provided another kind of evidence for many of the claims made by attachment theory about how relationships develop personality. Daniel Siegel has developed the idea of interpersonal neurobiology, which argues that each human mind needs other minds in order to develop and grow in healthy ways.
Really, what all this means is that being human is a fundamentally interdependent enterprise. Many cultures, if not mainstream Western culture, have always known this as a basic truth. Infants are utterly dependent on their first relationships to become healthy human beings. Their parents, in turn, were dependent, and that dependence shaped how they are able to help their children – or, indeed, how they hurt them.
Attachment theory and the neuroscience that underpins it also proves why therapy works, because being in relationship is how we heal emotionally from early ruptures or abuses. We literally cannot do it alone.
So I love attachment theory. It makes both emotional and scientific sense, and it also speaks to a spiritual belief in the foundational power and importance of community. As the Southern African saying goes, a person is a person because of other people. In theory anyway, such a maxim leads to a loving, respectful, facilitatory society.
But one nagging question continues to bother me: all the evidence points to how important it is that infants are prioritized in their first months on earth, and that babies are toddlers are attended to in loving, attuned, patient ways.
All this takes time, energy, and resources, in the context of a society that focuses on economic productivity outside the home. Despite the New York Times’s progressive phrasing, the burden of the labor of early childrearing continues to fall all too often to mothers, and to the women who stand in for them when they cannot or choose not to be subsumed by the daily tasks of childcare.
We can speak of blaming “parents,” but in practice, we often mean “mothers” specifically, or “women who can bear children” more generally. Women continue to be the people mostly responsible for the wellbeing of humanity, in a social context that does not value or reward this labor.
In my practice, I see women who love their children, and who are overwhelmed, anxious, triggered, exhausted, and surprised by how much mothering costs them. Becoming a mother in this society is too often devastating to our senses of self, sometimes a radical limiting of personhood, as much as it is also a delight and a joy, at least hopefully enough of the time.
The problem is not with the hard-working women who either have the class privilege of juggling work and motherhood, or struggle to make ends meet while trying to manage childcare and the imperative to earn. The problem is with a social structure that generally considers the work of raising the next generation to be women’s work. Women’s work, by definition, has historically been unpaid, without status, taken-for-granted, and invisible. I worry about the ways that attachment theory will be read in such a context, especially given how research on anything related to gender is so often misrepresented in the media. Cordelia Fine calls the gender bias in representations of neuroscience “neurosexim,” and has written compellingly about how it shows up in popular culture.
Infants need consistent and attuned caregivers. Mothers need to be valued and supported. Poor mothers and single mothers need more than emotional help. This structural change is necessary not only to achieve gender justice. It is necessary to allow humanity to achieve its full potential. The social, emotional, and, yes, economic costs of doing otherwise have been summarized by Bessel van der Kolk . Van der Kolk has demonstrated the intersections of attachment theory, neurobiology, and the effects of childhood trauma throughout his career.
A society that values human beings over profit is not likely to emerge anytime soon, and certainly not in the next four years. But if the New York Times, at the start of this presidency, thinks it is relevant to inform its readers of the importance of good enough parenting, perhaps it’s an opportunity to argue for making more prevalent in the public eye the lessons of attachment theory. These lessons return us to human connection as the only thing that really matters. At the same time, in this specific political climate, the lessons of attachment theory also challenge us to pay attention to structural inequality, to the lives of the mostly female-bodied people who are given the responsibility of taking care of the children.