Tuesday 24 October 2017

Mind & Meaning: The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world... and for generations to come

Patricia Casey

It would be hard to have missed Mother's Day, given the shop displays, cards, hearts and treats which surrounded us as it drew close.

And cynical as we may be about its commercial side, it's worth remembering that the roots of this holiday lie in a worthy celebration of maternal efforts.

The maternal bond is one whose tendrils reach well into adulthood, and how we turn out in life is underpinned by the quality of our early relationship with our mothers, also known as attachment theory.

The Kibbutz movement, so popular in the 1960s, was based on the ideology that children should be reared communally. In some instances they slept in shared dormitories rather than in their parents' apartment. In others they were reared largely by carers (also called 'metapelets' in Hebrew), spending about three hours each day with the parents.

Gradually the movement faded and studies showed that many of the children raised in this environment had significant attachment problems later in life in comparison to those brought up in a Kibbutz using more traditional parenting.

With hindsight, this social experiment seems at best cruel now that research has opened a window on the early attachment between mothers and children, due to the work of John Bowlby in the 1950s. He identified the universal human need for close emotional ties with a primary carer.

The term 'bonding' is used to describe the development of the parent-baby relationship and begins in utero usually, although for adoptive parents, or others such as grandparents, this is somewhat later.

He found that the attachment-seeking behaviours of the infant, such as clinging, smiling and seeking proximity, were in turn reciprocated by the carer in the form of cuddling, soothing, touching and that this reciprocity reinforced the relationship between each.

A related area of research was being conducted at the same time by Harry Harlow using monkeys. His work explored the question of whether attachment was driven primarily by the infant's need for food or whether there was some more profound emotional impulse.

He carried out an experiment in which baby monkeys were separated from their biological mothers shortly after birth and placed in a cage with two surrogates, one a wire-mesh model monkey with a milk bottle attached, the other a toy monkey made of foam and soft cloth.

He found that the babies sought proximity to the soft one rather than to the model with food. The long-term effects of these six days of intensive research resurfaced in later life when these monkeys became parents and were observed to be neglectful or abusive to their offspring.

This work thus confirmed the work of Bowlby, that young babies need a secure attachment to a primary figure if they are to mature into caring adults and responsive, competent parents. He identified the first six months of life as the crucial period for human infants.

Other researchers such as Mary Ainsworth examined carer/child relationships using two-way mirrors. Initially both sat in a room with a selection of toys. The mother then left and a stranger entered leading to distress in the child and an unwillingness to play with the toys. The stranger then left and the mother returned to the child's obvious relief and return to play.

This pattern was described as a secure attachment while at the other end of the spectrum was a child showing no distress at the mother's leaving, no fear of being handled by the stranger and no difficulty with play in either situation. This was called detachment, while in between was a pattern of insecure attachment.

Based on myriad similar studies on child development, a diagnosis known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is now recognised by mental health professionals. It follows grossly abnormal parenting or care and is manifest before the age of five as markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate behaviour.

It is often seen in children raised in institutional settings and the consequences may be permanent, extending to the next generation, as Harlow demonstrated in his monkeys more than half a century ago.

So, knowing what we do about mothers and their role in the formation of the next generation, it is appropriate that we mark Mother's Day. The hand that rocks the cradle does indeed rule the world, and for generations to come.

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