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On anxious attachment

I've spent my whole motherhood existence supporting beloved children through attachment challenges. It's what I'm used to and I feel like I've learned a lot along the way.

As an aloof introvert at heart I have never had a problem giving a young person who was struggling to attach to me their space, or taking their insults or verbal aggression to the chin without taking them to heart. I'm a person who, if I'm going to lash out at someone, hurt someone, it's always going to be the people closest to me, those lucky few who I love and trust the most. I don't like that tendency in myself and I'm trying hard as an adult to change it, but I'm not finding that very easy to do at all. So I have always had a pretty deep well of empathy for them, my prickly pears, my children. I'll never know what it's like to experience the losses they've experienced, but I can imagine why someone who has would kick and scream and fight against being asked to give their heart away again.

I've had one child who had an easy journey to a secure attachment and that mother/child relationship is one that I'm forever grateful for. My relationship with that child is more reciprocal than with the others (not that a parent/child relationship needs to be at all reciprocal but it just so happens this one is) and to be honest, the gift of that secure attachment and uncomplicated love benefits our whole family. That bond is like a powerpack of emotional energy; I can draw on it to replenish my stores, I can siphon out of it and wash my other children in the calming peace it brings, I can make mistakes and it remains unbroken and undamaged like some kind of magic. My secure attachment with that child makes me a better mom to all of my children, and while it's not his job to be peacemaker and touchstone and soul soother, he happened to come down to earth already embodying those roles.

Long story short, reactive attachment and secure attachment have been familiar to me for a long time now. Two opposite sides of what is ultimately the same coin. But we've been walking a new attachment path recently, and it's hard and heartbreaking in new ways.

My baby bird. The unique way you need me is new to me. You of the nightly wake-ups, screaming terror if I'm not right there, not the same as the "just a bad dream" that I'm familiar with, not at all. You whose body can find me in the dark, in your sleep, hands moving to clench around my wrist even as your eyes are still closed, some unconscious part of you still afraid, still vigilant.

You whose big dark eyes track me through every room, throughout the whole day. Affectionately yes, but also anxiously, vigilantly. Always on guard, a wail of dismay and fear if I'm ever too far out of reach, if a baby gate or a bathroom door temporarily separates us. I'm used to little ones who love me and and want to be with me but for you it's something else, and when we reunite after that brief bathroom break or trip to take out the trash and you cling to my front like a little sloth, I feel your heart beating wildly, not the rhythm of a child out of sorts but the panicked beat of an animal in a trap. You pull my shirt collar aside (they're all stretched out now) so that you can hide your face in the skin of my neck and shoulder, your entire body shaking with fear. I feel your heartbeat regulate with mine and my own heart breaks for all the fear you have to carry in your tiny body. The unfairness that you've lived in a world that's taught you that mommy might not always be there.

You are a little man of very few spoken words but there's one that you learned early and use often: "Mama." Almost always said in a high, anxious tone. You don't say much but in that one word I hear everything, everything you can't yet say: Will you be here for me, will you stay with me? Will you keep my small body close to your large one and not abandon me or forget about me or leave me in the nightmare of the unfamiliar? Will you acknowledge my fears as real to me or will you dismiss them? Can I depend on you?

Fight or flight happens quickly for you when you sense we will be separated, and I know you truly believe you are fighting for you life. Because to you, there is no survival without me there, and past experiences have taught you that in an instant, with no warning, someday I might not be. And when I tell you that watching you go through that day after day is the most painful attachment challenge I've ever experienced as a mom, it's really really true.

And although I know that progress and healing happens with time (and has been happening already) I would do anything for you to not have had to endure the losses that l KNOW helped cause this anxiety.

Anyway, back to you, small (very small ;p) group of readers. Here's what I've found to be helpful as we support baby bear in his journey towards a healthy, secure attachment:

1) Physical closeness has no age limit: Cuddle that baby, big or small! I'm working on upgrading from the Tula toddler carrier to a Kinderpack since our guys legs get longer every day (and no, six is not too old for a child carrier). We carry him, rock him, cuddle in bed with him, snuggle on the couch, and hold hands constantly. The more positive and healthy physical touch, the better for our anxious attachment guys.

2) Teach them that Mama/Papa WILL come back: This one is hard on a caregiver's heart sometimes but it is SO important. They will never learn that you always come back if you never leave! I'm a much better mom to ALL of my kids when I get breaks. When I'm touched out and short on patience, I'm especially bad at supporting my anxiously attached little one. Even though it's hard and baby bear sometimes gets distressed, we practice Mama leaving the house to run errands without him (this allows Daddy to be his comfort, step in as the safe person, and gives them some much needed time to work on their own bond.) We started with short 1-2 hour outdoor playdates with Mama on site but out of eyesight, and then moved on to all day day camp this summer. With plenty of social stories, preparation, and a kind and engaging staff, he did great! And on hard drop off days I reminded myself that he literally cannot learn to trust that I'll return if I never ever leave.

3) Use multiple tools to physically regulate a small body on constant high alert: In our house we like unlimited popsicles, water through a straw (both simulate the soothing sucking motion from infancy), indoor therapy swings, rocking chairs, weighted or heated blankets, and playlists of favorite music. Having many choices for regulation activities and encouraging/allowing your child to make use of those choices throughout the day, even before they're worked up, helps mitigate the effects of an anxious attachment on their nervous system.

If you are parenting a little one with an anxious attachment style, you may find that others struggle to understand why you're struggling so much. All they see is a super sweet baby who loves being around their parent, and who wouldn't want that?! At least they're attached, right? What a win!

What they might not see is you crying in the bathroom because it's 10 am and you're already SO. TOUCHED. OUT. but after a long night of co-sleeping and a morning of couch cuddles your anxiously attached little babe is pounding on the other side of the door completely losing their shit because you took 5 minutes to take a shit of your own.

What they might not see is you hesitating to leave for date night as the babysitter sits on the floor weathering the storm of aggression brought on by your child's full blown panic attack at Mama and Papa leaving the house at the same time. The same babysitter who will quit after only a couple of weeks.

What they might not see is your bone deep exhaustion from staying up night after night, sitting by the bed for hours, forehead to forehead with your little one who simply cannot close their eyes. Their heartbeat a frantic pounding, sweaty little hand clenched around yours in a death grip, so afraid of falling asleep and waking up to find you gone.

Anxious attachment challenges are still challenges, and they're hard as hell. On everyone.

I do see you. I'm right there with you and your own baby bird, big or small. During the drop-off tears, the fighting the babysitter moments, those long nights beside the bed and longer days of constant physical closeness and hyper-vigilance, we are with you in this.

Here is my middle of the night prayer for all of the anxious attachment Mamas and Papas and their babies: May each day bring our babies closer to the secure attachment that should have been theirs all along but was stolen from them by the most heartbreaking of circumstances. May we be strong enough to be their safe place. May we be wise enough to know when to encourage them to spread their wings and when to close the circle of the nest.

And to my own baby bird: No force on this earth could ever make me leave you. I know that the love I have for you is stronger than anything, anything. I pray someday your little soul will know how connected it is to mine, and that the knowledge will ease your fears.


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