Becoming Attached

(first published Feb 2010)

I just finished Becoming Attached: Unfolding the Mystery of the Infant-Mother Bond and It’s Impact on Later Life by Robert Karen.  I got it through Paperbackswap, and it wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be more practical, a how-to if you will, and instead it was mostly a run-down of the history of attachment research and developmental psychology.  So while I was strangely fascinated with it all (I’m a former biology/psychology major), I kept wishing they would tell me  how to FIX these things they talk of.

I’m going to quote a few sections of the book here, mostly for my own memory:

The ability to vicariously exprience the feelings of another, [Helen Block Lewis] said, “is the foundation of attachment on both sides, and the price we pay for it.” Shame is the vicarious experience of the rejection. To the infant, separations (and losses) are experienced as rejections and therefore as blows to the self. We would not be human if this weren’t so… Lewis believed that shame was always accompanied by what she called “humiliated fury” and that this helped account for the angry resistance of the ambivalent child in the Strange Situation.

Maybe this is where all my hidden anger comes from? I seem to get very irrationally furious at certain occurrences. (Of course I don’t always *express* that fury… don’t want you to think I’m always screaming or something around here …but at any given moment I may have to calmly walk away to lock myself in my room and quietly rant and/or cry!)


…to a growing number of developmentalists, the quality of early attachment stood out, like the key in which an otherwise complicated piece of music is played, imbuing the personality with a characteristic inflection that is present from movement to movement.


The ambivalent, or preoccupied, mother is haunted by different demons. The inconsistency and incompetence that often characterize her caregiving suggest a lack of involvement with her baby, but something more complex is probably occuring. A mother who has never worked through her own ambivalent attachment has probably been struggling all her life to find stable love…she may want to love deeply and steadily, but it is hard for her because she’s never been filled up enough with patient, reliable love to be in a position to give it. When she becomes a mother, such unresolved, tormenting issues may play havoc with her emotional life.

The ambivalent/preoccupied mother may care for her baby as much as any other mother, but she finds her caregiving impaired by her own rankling needs, which make it hard for her to be consistently available. If she envies the baby’s position as the one who is to be coddled and cared for, that may further impede her ability to give of herself freely.

I often wonder how I can give love I don’t have. And I don’t want anyone to think my parents didn’t TRY to love me! They did, and they do. But there was a disconnect somewhere (possibly fully on my part – and I’m hoping more adoption books will help me understand that. Cheaper than therapy, lol). I also know I’ve stated out loud that I am jealous of my children. Not really of their being coddled (I hate coddling…shiver) but being cared ABOUT and cared FOR, yes.


“Evidence is accumulating,”[Bowlby] said, “that human beings are happiest and able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise.”

Don’t think I really have this.


The importance of being able to rely on someone – and of having someone to rely on – is illustrated by the behavior of women who cope successfully with the immense demands of pregnancy and early motherhood. One study found that the women who fared best were able to ask for help from appropriate people and to do so directly, without hints or manipulations. They had relationships with their husbands whose support they happily sought, and they themselves had the capacity to give spontaneously to others, including their babies.

Those women whose pregnancies were marred by emotional difficulties had a much harder time with dependency. They either did not ask for support or did it in demanding and aggressive ways, suggestive, Bowlby argued, of their lack of confidence that true support would ever be forthcoming. Typically they were dissatisfied with what they received, and in the end, not adept at giving themselves.

Perhaps many of these women truly had a history of asking for assistance and not getting any. This makes them sound like whiny brats, when it could simply be logical in their mind. “We’ll, I’ve asked these people for help before and gotten snubbed, I’m not going to bother again.”


The lack of a secure base [a good attachment] would seem to leave one struggling with a profound and painful loneliness. The person with a largely ambivalent style knows it’s there and is driven nuts by it, as if on fire and convinced he can never put it out.



He dedicates part of a chapter to modern first world society, whose general lack of extended families, absence of a “role” for ones life, fast pace, and frequent mobility and loss of community wreak havoc on attachment. The new mothers have little support, making any issues more likely to be expressed. I can definitely see this play out in my own life. Coming from a small, private family, moving away from people we knew, then making friends and having almost all of THEM move away has left us very alone and highly increases my sense of anxiety, loneliness, and “unattachment.”


A series of studies have now found that when mothers have solid social supports – whether from extended family or an outside helper – the likelihood of secure attachment is enhanced, particularly, one study found, when the infant has a trying temperament.

Would have been nice, especially with my first. Having these mental issues to work through while having a firstborn be a high need baby (and child and pre-teen, lol) was like adding gasoline to fire, and I’ve been trying to climb out of the pyre ever since! I was *trying* to love and attach to this child, who was prickly and in so much pain from undiagnosed allergies and other things. I remember the first time she really relaxed and cuddled into me – she was six months old. By that time plenty of damage had been done both ways (attachment wise), and I did not believe myself to be a fit mother.


I think this book brings up many issues that I’ll hopefully cover when I start reading (or rereading) some adoption literature. He talks VERY little of adoption in Becoming Attached, and not at all about how that might affect attachment. I believe my “issues” result from a poor combination of simply being adopted with my personality and the issues of my family, so I thought this book might give some insight into the non-adoption parts of it.


It's lovely to have you here. Please keep comments respectful of the adoptees who read here. "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

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