I have long been dismayed by the seemingly arbitrary idea that mothers should be first in charge of nurturing their children, with fathers there to step in and “help” as an equal partner.
I have recently received some “further light and knowledge” on this topic. For the past three years or so I have become very interested in attachment theory. Basically, it says that we have an evolutionary necessity to seek out closeness or security to significant others. It ensures survival as the infant seeks proximity to its caregiver. Without emotional connection and touch, infants will die despite having their other needs met.
As adults, it is more emotional than physical. Think of Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away. Isolated from society and separated from the one he loves, he creates his friend Wilson to keep him company, even risking his life once to save Wilson. This basic attachment need is with us from the “cradle to the grave.” 1 Whether we deny it, ignore it, ramp it up and become overly anxious, or embrace it, it is there to stay–in all of us.
Infants have a hierarchy of attachment figures–usually but not always a relative. The primary attachment figure is the one whom the child usually prefers when distressed, or whom the child seeks out, monitors, or attempts to maintain proximity to. Basically, the one whom the infant prefers to be nurtured by. It seems normal to assume that the parent who is around the child more, or is the most caring would naturally be the primary attachment figure. If the father is the stay-at-home parent, wouldn’t he be the primary attachment figure, i.e the primary nurturer?
Not in most cases. This role is usually given by mother nature to mothers, regardless of how involved she is with her child.
“The fact that infants preferentially seek proximity to their mother derives from the reality that attachment is mainly a function of availability. Interestingly…even when the mother works outside the home and the father is de facto the primary parent, the mother is still strongly preferred.” 2
One of the foremost attachment researchers, Mary Main, suggests that this may be due to the infant’s prenatal experience. I wonder if there are any studies with primary attachment figures and adopted children.
This finding softened my feelings a bit. While I am certainly capable of nurturing my son, it is okay with me that he generally prefers my wife first… especially now that I understand it a little more. It also tells me that this part of the Proclamation is spot on. Mothers are the primary nurtures, AND there are cases where individual adaptation is better, or necessary.
1. John Bowlby
2. David Wallin, Attachment in Psychotherapy