Becoming a Grandmother: Attachment Revisited

IMG_1525Becoming a grandmother for the first time has been the most wonderful life cycle rite of passage. It marks so many transitions – offspring to parent, siblings to aunts and uncles, parents to grandparents and if they are still alive, grandparents to great grandparents.

Speaking as a new grandmother, I have enjoyed being able to love without the day-to-day responsibility. What is most wonderful about this is it’s easier to avoid that terrible muddling of love and control. I am defining love as the ability to accept one another as valid beings. This includes parenting decisions made by your offspring that you might not like, or agree with. Unfortunately, what is often misread as love is  compliance to the will of another, this is actually control. Someone oppressing their own beliefs or actions to get approval,confusingly defined as love. In the extreme this becomes emotionally abusive.

We all muddle love and control at times, it’s when it becomes the dominant pattern that it becomes problematic.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying the wish to impose our will on another is wrong – we all do this all the time. It’s when it’s mislabelled as an act of love that it becomes troublesome.

And then there's knitting a very grandmotherly thing to do!
And then there’s knitting a very grandmotherly thing to do!

Often in my work I hear that a grandparent has been able to provide a loving relationship with a grandchild that they could never have provided for their own biological children. The removal of day-to-day responsibility, and being no longer dominated by the anxiety and fear of, am I doing the right thing, enables a connection that is often not possible when everyday worries are present.

I feel immensely sorry for the increasing number of grandparents who end up full time carers of their grandchildren – both miss an important developmental opportunity.

Through my grandmother eyes the attachment process has become a clear, and in essence, simple process. To scale it down to the barest bones: a baby makes a demand and an adult responds with kindness. Preferably the same group of adults and ideally a mother. This is true of all mammals – we are no exception. If this process is, mainly, repetitive and predictable a loving, oxytocin producing, relationship is developed enabling age appropriate neural development. Relational trust, in and between, both the significant adults and baby develops. Just the simple act of playing a game on a mobile phone whilst feeding, if this is what mostly happens, can interfere with this process – hence training the baby in relational disconnection.

And then there's cooking with Grandma
And then there’s cooking with Grandma

Attachment is a relational process. The adults wait for the demand from the baby, when young via crying, and then it’s the adults job to work out what action to take in response to this cry. Adults deciding when a baby should be fed so waking it to meet the needs of the adult, is interfering with the attachment process. Of course, I hope it goes without saying, that I’m talking about healthy infants, and what is commonly practised. We all have our days when we may need to interrupt this attachment process and impose on the baby.

Over time the baby gains trust that the adults in his or her world will respond to their needs appropriately, simultaneously the adults also gain trust and confidence in their relationship with their child. This will, when the time comes, help a parent so ‘no’ with confidence. Not fearing that the loving relationship with their child will be jeopardised – in fact being able to hold the what is reasonable line is an act of love and a significant aspect of attachment. I believe it also helps parents stay emotionally present with their child, often a hard call I know, especially when they are inconsolable for whatever reason. Confidence in our attachment also helps soothe the distress in the adults – especially is something goes wrong and the distress of the infant is not able to be soothed.

What I haven’t looked at in this blog but will next month is the impact of cultural beliefs and political policy on our new mums and the attachment process. These external factors play a significant, often not helpful, role.