The reciprocal love of child to parent is termed ‘attachment’. In the first six months of life, babies are primed to seek help from anybody. Pass a newborn around the relatives and that baby will be perfectly happy. As long as they have a warm body cuddling them it doesn’t matter to them if it’s mum, dad or the postman. Between six months and a year, babies become more discerning and will seek to attach themselves to someone special. They will usually choose the person or people who have been there for them; the face that appears when they are hungry, cold or in need; the face that smiles at them, feeds them and plays with them. As a parent, you should really hope that this is you, and not the nanny.
By eight or nine months it will be pretty evident WHO this person is, as the infant will cling to, and only want to be calmed by this person. They will make a fuss if this person leaves them. In Bowlby’s era, the attachment figure was always the mother, but in my mind there is no reason why this should not be the father, or indeed both parents. In these modern times of dual career families, I found it useful to make sure my children formed attachment to BOTH parents, so that Andrew and I could be equally as useful and used interchangeably. I know some people who say, ‘Yes, we want them to form a strong attachment with their nanny because we are both working,’ but this to me defeats the purpose. Attachment figures are for life, not just for Christmas. And if your child forms too close an attachment to the nanny, what do you do when the nanny, as they inevitably will, leaves?
This is one of the trickiest dilemmas for working parents and there is no right or wrong solution, only the one that is made to suit the whole family. By the whole family, I mean both parents and the child. In some families, the parents give their careers priority, with the child’s needs coming second. Others decide that the child is paramount, often with one parent sacrificing their career. This can lead to resentment and for me, neither of these outcomes are ideal. We, as a society, need to think more carefully about how much we really value family life, and keep pushing for changes in the law to suit modern families.
My own family–career balancing act was a hectic put-together, patchwork job. I was in the middle of my specialist training on one of the best psychiatric training programmes in Europe at the time that Molly was born, with two years left before I could become a consultant. I was keen to complete my training as soon as possible and therefore took the decision to return to work full-time when Molly was seven months. Andrew, meanwhile, had a well-timed job change and was granted three months gardening leave, which allowed us a lovely month-long holiday together as a family before the mantle of childcare was passed from me to him. This all happened between Molly’s seventh and ninth months and by the time she started full-time nursery, secure attachment to us, her parents, was already well established.
‘Secure’ attachment is the most desirable form of attachment. It has associations with all sorts of positive outcomes throughout childhood and even into adulthood. Securely attached children are more resilient. They do better academically and socially and have better physical and mental health. The good news is that typically 75 per cent of children will establish secure attachment. But what of the insecurely attached? These children have poorer outcomes across the board and are more likely to attain less and be more susceptible to mental health problems. If you want to build resilience in your child, secure attachment is vitally import ant. If you want to promote secure attachment, this will develop in the first nine months of your baby’s life. Blink and you’ll miss it.