Why Moms Feel an Extraordinary Connection with Their Child (and What Happens When They Don’t)

by Jennifer M. Ryan, M.Ed.

in Attachment, Parenting

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Alain Bachellier

“When you have a baby you have five years of hard labor ahead of you.  If you don’t get it over in the beginning, you’ve got it coming to you later on.”  - Unknown

This quote is my excuse for why, in September, I just cracked open the March issue of one of my favorite local parenting magazines (Dallas Child). And although I’ve never met the person who consistently drops off these gems, I always feel like a new present has arrived, and it’s my cue to indulge in fresh, inviting articles on topics most moms feel connected to (like easy summer vacations, how to organize, and where to meet other hip moms).

Just 5 minutes stood before me and my first client, so I wasn’t altogether prepared for the emotional welling-up I had while reading Hala Habal’s “first words” column. It was her “multiple personalities” (that is, her private discussions with herself) that drew me in, but it was ultimately her ponderings about parenting that compelled me to put fingers to keyboard.

“I wonder with my entire mind and heart what is fundamentally different in a mother’s chromosomes that just won’t allow her to let go and do the best she can,” Hala puzzled over. “We [moms] all just end up feeling generally bad.  We feel bad when we are at work and not with our children; we feel bad when we are with our children that we are not at work.”

Hala wondered how it is that many dads put in two hours or less a day with their children, and seem to feel fine with that system.

Most working moms grapple with the guilt of not spending enough quality time with their children. Even stay-at-home moms feel like they aren’t doing their best. Still, there is something extraordinarily profound about the mother-child bond.

Adding to the frustration of parenting is the contradictory research on what it takes to raise happy, healthy, successful children.

As one researcher says, “When parents know what to expect of children they usually do the right thing.” Yet with so much conflicting information, it’s hard to know what children need.

Strong evidence suggests that the early mother-infant bond creates a blueprint for all other relationships throughout the lifespan. Speaking as a mom, this is pretty scary!

On the topic of infants attaching to their mothers, there are two important points to know:

1. All children have a need to attach to SOMEONE. This is usually mom, but it could also be dad, a nanny, grandma, or a child care provider.  Also, attachment is hierachial, which means babies find one consistent figure to attach with, and all others follow. For instance, a nanny who spends more quality time with the infant/child than mom or dad may become the primary attachment figure for the child. The nanny is the child’s “go to” person.

2. Babies and children tend to attach to whoever spends the most quality time with them. The attachment figure (usually mom) is what’s called a “secure base.” This means that even though there may be many providers and people in the child’s life, the one person they ultimately feel most secure with is the person who they have come to trust and rely on above all else. Mostly, this is mom (but sometimes, as in the case above, it could be someone else).

In cases where children are put in low-quality daycare, for example, where employee turnover is high, AND there is no quality time at home, the child may not have anyone to attach to. The child doesn’t have a consistent “secure base.”

“They [Parents] may be dog-tired and consider themselves shorter-tempered than they could wish, but it is a great compensation to feel that they really matter, that no one else will do.”  - John Bowlby

Not only do moms have an incredible, unexplainable desire to nurture their child, but the child himself has an innate need to feel nurtured. Their emotional well-being depends on this connection. And, as one psychologist points out, “85% of the brain is developed in the first 5 years.”

The time when children are most likely to have the most damaging effects of parental neglect is a time when some parents don’t put in the most quality time. I recall a friend telling me that after she picks her young daughter up from daycare around 5:30 she falls asleep. Her daughter wakes up to eat dinner, then goes to bed for the night. Inside, my heart ached, and I reflected, “It doesn’t sound like you get to spend that much time with her each day.” And she said non-chalantly, “About an hour and a half.”

Very extreme cases show the detrimental effects of being withheld love and affection – something babies learn to trust they’ll receive as a first developmental milestone.

In the case of Danielle, left in a dark, dank room from birth until age 6, severe neglect created what’s called a “feral child.” Danielle received food from a bottle and had shelter, but she was had no human touch. At 6 years old she didn’t make eye contact, weighed 46 pounds and gummed food like a baby. But Danielle wasn’t born that way! She has what some call “environmental autism.” (Read her story here.)

It’s hard to explain why some moms, like Danielle’s, don’t have the innate desire for connection other moms do (although perhaps we could look into their own childhood bonds for answers). But it is a guarantee that Danielle craved love, affection, and nurturing, and when she didn’t have it, she was starved an emotional death.

As moms, we feel such guilt when we aren’t with our children because we instinctively know that we (and we alone) are their “go to” person. We are their “secure base.”

We are who they turn to when they are frightened, shy, unsure, confused, and when they are in need of hugs, talks, eye-gazing, and warmth. Playing legos and tracing letters for hours on end can be pure BOREDOM (it is for me, I admit!). But it’s not just the rote behavior that’s taking place – it’s the attachment. It’s the connection BEHIND the tower-building, finger-painting, and doll-bathing sessions. We crave it as much as they do because we know it’s what they NEED.

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On my drive home from work today, like Hala and many others, I shifted quickly from “psychotherapist” to “mom” (from dress slacks and tailored hair to t-shirts and pony-tail). As expected, when I walked in the house one of my toddlers ran to me yelling, “MOMMY!!! with outstretched arms.

I braced myself for the CRASH I’d feel when she flung her arms around me that would inevitably throw me back. Fresh on my mind was both my last client who felt lonely and unloved since her mom died at a young age, as well as the ponderings of Hala Habal.

I had the thought while in my daughter’s embrace, “How long is she going to continue squeezing me?” It seemed to linger on for quite sometime, but I quickly answered myself, “As long as she needs to.” It was about 7 minutes. And probably the best 7 minutes of her day. And mine. We both needed that.




{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Karla zelaya

What a great post. I really enjoyed reading it. I thank you. I must admit that I had no idea what loving a child would be like. I have two dogs I adore and love so much I felt it couldn’t get deeper than that. I have a 7 month old baby girl. Prior to her I was a workaholic and really felt I could never be a stay at home or even slow my life down. My baby girl has come to change my life. I made crazy decisions to put my work on hold. I work very little because I believe she needs me more than anyone else. I am so in love with her and she is worth every sacrafice. My love is unexplainable and our connection is so deep. I am blessed with a wonderful man two doggies and my beautiful little girl. Being a mom is the best gift on earth.

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Laurie

I had a discussion just last week with a guy on unconditional love. He agreed with me in that I believe that mom’s are able to give unconditional love to their children but I’m not so sure that is the case with the dads. I wonder what biologically sets up in women and not in men. Men are the protectors so you would think their love would be unconditional as well. How can they protect something with their lives that they don’t love unconditionally? Just some pondering….

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Jennifer M. Ryan, M.Ed.

Laurie – I’d love to have a male response to this, but my first reaction is that I don’t think this is true. While I didn’t experience this in my own childhood, I see it in my marriage. My husband, with my girls, is the absolute BEST father, and in a million years I couldn’t dream up seeing a father behave this way with his child. I didn’t experience it, and it’s not what I was taught growing up. What I learned closely resembled what you said above. And, there are other messages I got about men, too. Like, “Men aren’t emotional” and “Men have a one-track mind” just to name a few. Admittedly, my husband has had difficulty in his expression of emotions in our marriage to ME, but with our girls (twin toddlers), he absolutely, 100%, expresses, feels, loves unconditionally, and continually leaves me feeling speechless just in his interaction with them. The relationship they have defies all learned messages, both conscious and subconscious, I learned growing up. I am TRULY in love, and in awe, of his unconditional love of our children.

Melissa – Thank you! Yes, it’s the realization that the little beings in our life depend so fully on us physically and emotionally, that even in the frustrated and exhausted times, being able to “get over it” and just be with them, is so important. I’ll take a look at your website!

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Melissa

What a great post; I loved the Bowlby quote. It really is true, no matter how tired or sick I may be, knowing that I mean so much to my kids makes me feel better.

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