Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self

The Dark Side of Healthy Attachment

Being a good parent often involves brutal sacrifice and a loss of perspective.

One of the things we hear very little about before becoming a parent is the dark side of a healthy attachment. We don’t usually discuss how, in the process of giving your child a secure foundation from which to gradually develop of an independent sense of self, we often have to violate our own needs.

When my daughter was born, this hit me hard. It blew my mind that this tiny person could take up so much of my space. There was the physical space issue; she wanted to nurse constantly, and whether she was awake or asleep, she much prefered to be on me than anywhere else. There was also the mental space issue; her cries were a perfectly calibrated torture device, and she had the escalating kind of scream when left in her crib.

When she became mobile, she had trouble being near me without climbing me, poking me in the eye, or knocking her head against mine.

And once she could talk, she filled every square inch of the car with her incessant questions—strings of “why” that I got tangled up in. (Her: What’s that man’s name?, Why’s he named Bob?, Why’d his parents choose that name?, Why’d they like it?)

Often I couldn’t hear myself think, frequently I couldn’t relax, and very rarely could I get any perspective on my daughter.

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To me, this is the big cost of being a mother: all the times when you have to gracefully tolerate the things which frustrate you most, all the times when you have to compromise the very boundaries you spent years of your own individuation struggling to establish.

But there’s also a cost in terms of appreciation. My daughter requires so much of me that it’s been hard, at times, to see her clearly. In the early years, I would forget, for days at time, that she was cute, or small, or funny.

This awareness of her as a person has come in flashes, with increasing regularity and a requisite amount of distance.

I remember, during the early years, lying in my bed while she talked with my husband in her room, next door. Through the wall, I could hear her sweet little voice (which never sounded sweet or little when I was speaking to her!), and her darling little questions (which often felt more like badgering when we were together). I was nearly overcome by how great she was in a way that I was never able to be in her physical presence.

The same thing happened to me last weekend at her first soccer game. She’s the youngest and smallest on the team (five years old on a team of six to eight-year-olds), and it’s always visually shocking to me to see her that way. But more than that, she looked like such a little individual: so proud to be in the game, so enthusiastic to run up and down the field, so focused on the coach’s directives. She was in another orbit, while I just watched her revolve.

This independence, this sense of security, this separateness is what’s so hard to appreciate when she’s near me, always referencing me, always vying for my attention at the expense of her brother or father (which she actually does less and less these days). But this happy, secure distance, I think, is for me the great payoff.

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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