Whatever happened to the mother in the mother-baby dyad?

Happy African American mother and her daughter.

Every time I read the term ‘mother-baby dyad’ I cringe.

Inevitably what follows is an admonition to the mother or her providers to sacrifice her needs, desires and comfort for the “good” of the baby. The mother-baby dyad is used to justify forcing women to room in with their infants in hospitals, the closing of well baby nurseries, the practice of baby-wearing and the rest of the ritualized behaviors that are so beloved of attachment parenting aficionados.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]AP advocates have edited out Bowlby’s concern with the wellbeing of mothers to subvert Attachment Theory into attachment parenting.[/pullquote]

But providers — I’m looking at you midwives and lactation consultants — have subverted the meaning of the mother-baby dyad for their own ends. In truth, the relationship is bi-directional and the needs and comfort of both parties must be taken into consideration.

That’s what John Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory, explained:

To grow up mentally healthy, “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother SUBSTITUTE) in which BOTH find satisfaction and enjoyment (my emphasis)

As psychologist Inge Bretherton has noted:

Later summaries often overlook the reference to the substitute mother and to the partners’ mutual enjoyment.

That’s an understatment!

AP advocates have edited out those two phrases to subvert Attachment Theory into attachment parenting. The result is to mandate specific behaviors on the part of the mother and to ignore any concern for her wellbeing. The defining features of attachment parenting are constant physical proximity and constant maternal sacrifice. According to Bowlby, in contrast, neither is necessary or even good.

From the inception of Attachment Theory, Bowlby acknowledged that the mother herself was not required; a substitute is perfectly acceptable. To grow up mentally healthy, children need a long term caregiver they can depend upon. That person can be a father, a grandparent or a hired nanny. The child needs someone to be physically present on an ongoing basis, but that someone doesn’t have to be a female parent. Hence the notion of the mother-baby dyad is fundamentally flawed.

Since the caregiver doesn’t have to be the mother, or even a woman, all the admonitions around childbirth and breastfeeding have nothing to do with Attachment Theory. A baby doesn’t need his mother to suffer through labor without pain relief in order to bond with the caregiver; he doesn’t need skin-to-skin contact; he doesn’t need breastfeeding. Those things were added in by Dr. Sears to promote his religious philosophy that women are subservient to men and should stay home and care for children.

The key characteristics of the caregiver are emotional warmth and ongoing presence. What happens at birth and in the early hours after birth are irrelevant. Any adoptive parent could tell you that. It’s also what any mother who gave birth with an epidural, didn’t practice skin-to-skin, and didn’t breastfeed can tell you. The baby forms it first bond with whomever cares for it on an ongoing basis and the bond happens spontaneously without ritualized behaviors.

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of this fact. Almost every admonition of attachment parenting rests on the belief that the mother is needed uniquely and the baby’s health psychological development must therefore depend on things — like vaginal birth and breastfeeding — that only a biological mother can do. Attachment Theory tells us otherwise.

Equally, it’s hard to overemphasize that fact that maternal sacrifice is not required to ensure a child’s healthy psychological development. Indeed, healthy development requires the satisfaction and enjoyment of the mother as well as the child.

So where did we get the idea that maternal sacrifice is integral to child development? We have been socialized to believe it because of the misogyny in historical and contemporary culture. As I noted recently, sociologist Pam Lowe explains in Reproductive Health and Maternal Sacrifice:

…At its heart, maternal sacrifice is the notion that ‘proper’ women put the welfare of children, whether born, in utero, or not yet conceived, over and above any choices and/or desires of their own. The idea of maternal sacrifice acts as a powerful signifier in judging women’s behaviour…

Babies don’t require maternal sacrifice; other adults do.

But sacrifice isn’t merely unnecessary, it can be actively harmful. Or as an unknown philosopher, almost certainly female, once said: “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

  • Babies don’t need and don’t benefit from mothers enduring agonizing childbirth pain.
  • Babies don’t need and don’t benefit from mothers being forced or forcing themselves to breastfeed.
  • Babies don’t need and don’t benefit from mothers being pressured to stay home full time.
  • Babies don’t need and don’t benefit from enforced physical proximity with their mothers if that’s not what their mothers enjoy.
  • Babies don’t need and don’t benefit from sharing the mother’s bed or room if that interferes with the mother’s sleep.

Attachment parenting advocates — lactivists in particular — have spent years attempting to normalize mothers’ pain, exhaustion and mental suffering by lying to them about what babies truly need. Attachment Theory teaches us the opposite. The mother is equally important as the baby in the mother-baby dyad and we must stop pretending maternal sacrifice is required.