At the end of February I had the pleasure (and good fortune) of being able to attend a full-day lecture by Dr. Gabor Mate. You may have heard him on CBC discussing his work as a doctor in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. Or you may have read one of his books including Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers (which he co-authored with Gordon Neufeld), Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, or In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction. His work is incredibly fascinating and after 8 hours on a Saturday spent listening to him talk, my mind was reeling and whirring for several days as I tried to digest everything.
A couple of days later, I attended a school function where a fellow parent asked me to sum up the presentation or give the “one nugget” I had taken away. I was struck totally dumb. I couldn’t even begin to succinctly summarize the broad range of ideas that had been touched on. I’m sorry to say that my response was probably not a 30 second sound bite worthy of Dr. Mate. But, 10 days later, I’m ready to give it a try.
Essentially, Dr. Mate’s work deals with the mind-body connection. Babies are far more susceptible to stress in their environment than we might suppose. This includes prenatal maternal stress, but also from the circumstances of the birth itself, from separation from the mother, from the family/living environment. Dr. Mate explains that in response to stress, we may use adaptive states or protective behaviours as coping mechanisms and when these adaptive states which are meant to temporarily insulate us from the effects of the stress become long-term traits, we can see a variety of problems arise. These problems can include AD(H)D, autism, cancer, auto-immune diseases, addiction and more.
The subject of Dr. Mate’s talk on this occasion was The Biology of Loss: What Happens When Attachments Are Impaired and How to Foster Resilience so he was talking specifically about working with/parenting children. He brought up the dangers of the rising cesarean section rate, and the problems of using methods like cry-it-out to get babies to sleep. He discussed what happens when children become peer-oriented rather than seeking their cues from the adults in their lives. He also explained the optimum conditions for an attachment relationship, and how and why a relationship may be negatively affected.
So, what did I take away as the nugget of the day?
Firstly, I was struck by the fact that we are all carrying our own issues from childhood into our adult lives, and therefore, into our parenting. Dr. Mate says that in order to form strong attachments, babies need a non-stressed, non-depressed mother. I remember when I first read Hold On To Your Kids I was expecting to gain all this insight into my parenting, and for the first half of the book I found I was learning more about myself, about my own adolescence and early 20′s. All of this serves as further validation of my own parenting theory which is that if you want to be the best parent, you have to work on being the best person you can be, you have to understand yourself, your motivations, your own unhealthy stress responses, your own childhood traumas. The short version: You want to be a good parent? Deal with your own shit.
I’m reminded here of a quote from the day which unfortunately I can not remember the source for:
The greatest gift we give our children is our happiness.
Secondly, I felt rather relieved of the huge burden of mother-guilt I carry with me most days. Listening to Dr. Mate speak, I was acutely aware that as far as healthy attachments go, we are doing a lot of things well. We are privileged enough to be able to make a lot of choices in our lives in our children’s best interest. They are lucky not to be abused or neglected or living in extreme poverty, or with the effects of addiction. They are lucky to have two involved, loving parents. We have been able to make choices to consistently foster our attachment with them like having homebirths, breastfeeding into toddlerhood, being responsive to their cries (including not practicing CIO), deciding that I wouldn’t return to full-time work out of the home, making careful deliberate decisions about schooling.
Thirdly, we are not meant to parent in isolation. This is where my parenting-guilt flared up again. Dr. Mate talked about the reasons that children in tribal communities tend to thrive. In addition to things like abundance of positive touch and lack of negative touch, the big one was multiplicity of attachments. That is, we are meant to live in extended families and parent together, within an attachment village, to share the burden. My family does not have an attachment village. We live far away from all of our extended family, and while we have close friends who live here, we certainly do not share in the parenting of our children, nor do we rely heavily on each other for support.
Honestly, all of those things that we are doing right—the extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, stay-at-home-parenting, homeschooling? Those things mostly fall to me. I have a wonderfully supportive, involved, hardworking co-parent, but he also works outside of the home and unfortunately doesn’t have breasts…which means that the nightwaking, and the daytime parenting both fall almost exclusively to me. And the burden of doing it alone without an attachment village seems to result in a (sleep-deprived) stressed, depressed mother. So you see? We’re back at the beginning and even our best intentions can feel like they aren’t enough.
As Gordon Neufeld says in this article on education, play and attachment, there is far too much pressure on the nuclear family. “In North America, we have a dangerously small nuclear family,” and he goes on to say, “If we don’t have a functional family, we need to develop surrogate families.”
I’m not sure what to do about this. Clearly, the answer is to foster an attachment village somehow, but I really don’t know how, or where to start. But evidently, it’s our best hope for our children.
What are your thoughts? Have you read any of Dr. Mate’s books? Do you have a village of attachment? What do you do to preserve your attachments with your children and to share the work of parenting?