I want my kid to be securely attached. And not because I’m one of those moralising reprobates, pouncing on parents who don’t wear their kids in slings- the glittering vistas of moral high grounds do not appeal to me- but because I have suffered the knots in my stomach and numb, cocooned, duty-driven relating that characterises insecure attachment. I know what it feels like to second guess every social interaction and not want to try anything new for fear of disturbing the universe. I much prefer the place of ‘earned security’ I move from now.
I think my kid is securely attached, and it gives me enormous pleasure to see him enjoying the fruits of this security. This fruit is myriad but the one I have been admiring recently is his capacity for curiosity and exploration- even in the face of fear. There is a particular incident this summer that I think about often, that illustrates his capacity to metabolise new, potentially ‘too much’ experiences.
There were these fountains on a new playground we hadn’t explored before. They were huge, unpredictable, shoot-up-and-spray style jets of water in some sort of pre-school bio dome landscaped micro climate. It was incredible. I thought I’d bought myself a solid forty minutes of deep, connected chat on the bench with my friend while R splashed in the water.
He pottered over to the spray but as water shot up, he emitted a squeak. Then the squeaking turned to excited squealing and looking back at me (he normally checks in at some point but not usually so often) His voice got more and excited as the water shot up and sprayed him in the face. His expression teetered on the edge of thrilled and terrified. His terror and his eagerness were cheek by jowl, his joy stretching out its neck and winning only by a nose. He ran to me and gave me a huge, trembling hug. And then ran back to the fountain. His excitement and fear would build as the fountain sprayed and then he’d run, scramming, returning again for a dripping wet cling. And then back again. He would explain what just happened, ‘mummy the fountain just went up and up bigger and bigger,’ and after I’d said, yup, that regulated him enough to go and explore some more.
And I love this because it illustrates one of my favourite sentences from Stanley Greenspan, a child psychologist and autism specialist. ‘Resilience is a state of relationship, not a state of mind.’ R could enjoy playing on the edge of thrill/terror- he could flexibly tolerate some pretty big doses of feeling- because he had someone sitting on the bench waiting to receive his words and his wet hugs. When we have parents who are willing to witness our adventuring, who we can return to and then go out again from, courage is possible. We can again approach the chasm or pinnacle that frightened us while we were out on our adventures if there is someone who can contain – make sense of-the risk we just took. We are then free to venture to the edge of what we are capable of, we can push ourselves to the limits of what we can tolerate, we can seek out new, challenging horizons. Connection and risk -taking are intimately intertwined. They’re the stuff of flourishing.
Esther Perel, a psychotherapist, points out that in myth there is often the dynamic of Penelope-at-the-loom to sea-faring, adventuring Odysseus. That in human flourishing, we have a profound need for both roots and wings, and that there is an interplay between these two needs. I am able to go out and explore to the extent that I’m secure in the knowledge there will be a place for me to land when I get home. And so when my wet, squealing three year old runs into my arms, I hold him and kiss his head and listen to his words about the big fountain before I let him wriggle away to explore it’s terrifying allure again. I want him to be secure in the knowledge that his roots run deep. They’re there to ground him when he needs some comfort and the familiar. All so he can stretch his broad wings and fly away to explore.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
I love Esther Perel but this is the interview she talks about attachment in http://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/esther-perel-mating-captivity
Stanley Greenspan, a child psychologist, is author of ‘The Secure Child.’