In the first months of life, most birth moms’ brains and bodies are biologically set to “secure mode.” The capacity to empathize switches into high activation as mom and babe spend so many hours each day in direct contact. When mom’s (or dad’s) empathic responses are adequate, babes will seek out a more elastic attachment with both caregivers—though often one parent becomes the designated driver of “play time.” This crossover from bonding to playing is critical to their growth as individuals, setting the stage for them to be explorers of their world, independently confident, and free howlers after their own destiny.
As more men embrace their capacities as primary caregivers, so too are more women embracing the opportunity to be their child’s primary play partner. This article is designed as an invitation to explore your non-dominant role. If your tendency is to be the nurturer in the family, take a close read of the skills of the Designated Autonomy Driver. If your tendency is to teach through discipline and play, take a closer read of the tasks of the CARE-Giver.
The CARE-Giver (Connection, Attunement, Reciprocity, and Engagement)
Our feelings of attachment may or may not occur immediately at birth but will grow and endure over time and space. Falling in love with our children occurs uniquely for all of us. As loving caregivers, our instincts will follow many of the forgotten memories of our own upbringing. If we grew up with a very close-knit parent at our side and predictable home environment, our bonding style will likely be an intensely interpersonal one. If we were raised in a larger family filled with opportunities for stimulation, our best bonding as a parent may feel like it happens when we are part of a community. The important thing as a caregiver is to find and expand on the kind of love that comes naturally to us.
Expect your partner to have a different experience than you. Stay curious about their process of falling in love while attending mindfully to your own. A sense of belonging and stability are the keystones of infant development, occurring gradually as primary relationships and family situations stay consistent. I’ve categorized the foundations of infant mental health under the following four experiences of a loving caregiver: connection, attunement, reciprocity, and engagement.
- Connection: There is a merged state of being where the line between self and other is smudged. Infants inhabit this state effortlessly and invite you to join them. Take time to grow comfortable with this strange and exciting expansion. Building attachment sets the stage for other relationships. Take pleasure in your connection.
- Attunement: As helpless and demanding as infants appear, they also come into this world equipped to receive the subtle cues of their providers and to accommodate accordingly. It’s okay to have overriding emotions while parenting. Staying mindful of one’s moods and self-soothing while attending to one’s babe is an excellent way to establish a lasting rapport. Watching the stress on a parent’s face begin to relax teaches a child it’s safe to have emotions. It helps sometimes to name the experience while you are having it:
“I’ve gotten so nervous about how uncomfortable you are with that diaper rash. I need to remind myself to take deep breaths today and trust that it will pass.”
“Daddy’s restless this morning, so we’re going to have lunch at the park.”
- Reciprocity: With age comes an increasing capacity to handle the stimulation of interpersonal conflict. Everyday parenting creates numerous opportunities for expectations/disappointments, craving/loss, and joy/fear. You are your child’s first teacher as you help them navigate the many layers of emotional connection and disconnection with you. Giving well-matched solutions to their distress teaches your child that you are paying close attention. But don’t just offer the solutions; narrate the interaction. This reinforces the value of reciprocity and sets the stage for their success when interacting with others:
“Mommy noticed you got sad when your little sister interrupted us. Seeing you sad made me sad, too. So now I am going to give you special time. Let’s play your favorite game right now.”
- Engagement: The most valuable toy in your infant’s possession is your face. The second most valuable toy is your body—especially your touch. These are the child’s instinctive first choices and cannot be replaced by instructional games, flashing screens, or educational objects. We live in a busy, object-oriented society that has a hard time adjusting to the simple constancy of your child’s affection for you and your body. It is necessary, then, to make rituals that offer opportunities for engaging your connection. Borrow skills learned in your career and apply them to your parenting life. Set goals for the amount of one-on-one time you wish to have with your child. Set action plans for yourself. Do a qualitative review of your caregiving bond, and get needed support to improve the quality of your shared connections.
The DAD (Designated Autonomy Driver)
Security-oriented and elasticity-oriented parenting skills are designed to interface in complex ways at every stage of development. Working with the natural tensions of infancy and childhood requires a willingness to acknowledge that not every life stressor meets with an attachment-based solution, nor is it sufficient to simply laugh away hurts and ignore cues for deeper consoling.
We all take turns providing our children more autonomy as they are ready for it. Women and men are equally predisposed to initiate the kind of play that builds a child’s sense of power and autonomy. The term DAD is used here not as a gender specifier but as an acronym establishing the purpose behind the activity.
- Fun and games: DADs attach primarily through play. As a distraction from loss, as a call for cognitive growth, and as an arena for physical stimulation, play helps our kids develop more independent ways to get their basic needs met. Unlike secure bonding, successful play requires a certain amount of elastic tension between skill and goal. Too slack or too tight and the play becomes boring or threatening. Success requires knowing our children well enough to help them find joy and curiosity in life’s natural tensions.
- Eyes that scan the horizon: Distance regulation is the act of managing the level of emotions in the house. It falls to the less emotionally attached parent to regulate how much intimacy and autonomy is needed to create family balance. (“That was a good talk. Now let’s take a hike.”) Success requires establishing clear cues on how each member of the family can disengage from each other and then reengage after separating.
- Governance by law: Rule-setting involves the visualization of one’s intentions and effective management of consequences. A DAD’s brain takes a lot of the same data that caregivers make verbal/emotive and makes it spatial/abstract. Thus DADs excel at constructing abstract systems in the mind and then adhering to the principles, rules, and traditions of those systems. (“Wait ’til your DAD gets home” is less about DAD’s power to punish than it is an appeal to their capacity for bringing fairness, rationality, and accountability to the situation.)
- The breaking point and recovery: Who steps into the fray when enough is enough? With higher oxytocin levels activated, security-oriented caregivers have a greater tendency to hunker down and talk about an unhealthy dynamic and then—later—feel trapped by it. Elasticity-based DAD’s tendency to fight and then withdraw internally mirrors the primitive urge to lead a stalking panther away from camp. By feeling less attached to an emotional resolution, DAD can sometimes see the larger problem at hand. Both tendencies teach valuable lessons about coping with high-stress conflict. Both are modeling ways for your child to regulate their own emotions.
- The loneliness of hunting and leading: Authentic friendship may be more difficult to acquire in a DAD’s world partly due to their primal tolerance of solitude. Instead of being wired to tend and befriend as a survival strategy, stealth and keen observation are quieter skills taught nonverbally by DADs over time. The courage to stand alone with the consequences of one’s convictions is a trait that is modeled and practiced with few words.
Security-oriented and elasticity-oriented parenting skills are designed to interface in complex ways at every stage of development. Working with the natural tensions of infancy and childhood requires a willingness to acknowledge that not every life stressor meets with an attachment-based solution, nor is it sufficient to simply laugh away hurts and ignore cues for deeper consoling. Parents of both sexes can work together to develop alternatives and support for managing the minutes/hours when nurturance and/or self-reliance is necessary.
As children get older, they intuitively become masters of playing one parent against the other. This reaches a head in the preteen years when suddenly each parent can be presented completely detached versions of a child’s life. Intrinsically, even as the child tries to exploit these stories to their own advantage, they are also seeking to have both sides align in agreement. Having learned to share roles early on, the smart parents appreciate the deep value of both sides and are far less likely to get played.
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