When I was a two-month-old baby, my parents left me with a neighbour, while going on a holiday. A stranger took care of me 24/7, while I had no idea where my parents were, whether they are dead or alive (babies anticipate that their parents are “dead” when separated for a long time; we are still born with the same brain as a stone age baby was…and you know, there are hyenas out there!).
I don’t want to judge the decisions they made, just show you what impact this experience, along with other similar ones, had on my life since then. For years (and I still work on it) I had traumatic fears in my relationships that my partner would leave me. So, in order not to be the one who gets dumped, I often ended relationships first. Or I would anxiously seek signs and confirmation of still being loved. It’s not a nice feeling. My ability to trust was completely destroyed and only slowly am I overcoming those fears and anxieties.
When I became a parent myself I read all about John Bowlby’s attachment theory, it made complete sense to me and informed the way we treated our children and still parent.
Children need to have positive attachment figures. Someone they can rely on to meet their needs, as they have no means to survive without it. They flourish through affection, learn and grow in a secure and safe environment, where, whatever happens they will be loved and accepted as who they are. However, if their basic needs don’t get met, they’ll look for an attachment figure, even as an adult. Laura Markham explains that “our brain development, our emotional development, and even our later ability to control our tempers, delay gratification and have healthy romances, all depend on having our innate relationship needs met as infants.”
Only recently did I understand about how attachment theory works for adults. In many ways, we are still like children. We crave to be closely connected to the people we love. The way we are connected decides upon our emotional and physical well-being. When we meet our partner and in the years of being a happy couple, most of us manage to shower the other with appreciation, acceptance and love, those of us with insecure attachments have their needs met.
It only changes when we become parents. The sometimes years of waiting, the “tip of the iceberg” of our love, only too often turns into a time of stress on our, we thought, well-established love. Studies have found that most couples grow closer apart, at least in the beginning, once they have a baby and 42% of marriages (not all have children) end in divorce. What happens? First of all, most of us are not prepared for how our relationship is going to change, we prepare for the birth, organise baby’s clothes and equipment, but not really for how we, as a couple and individuals are changing.
Then, we are not prepared for seeing our loved one occupied and totally in love with somebody else. Yes, it’s our baby, but suddenly, and men struggle more with this, our partner has only eyes for the baby and we are struggling to get close – emotionally and physically. This can be a very difficult time, especially for those who feel their “buttons pressed”. Those men who have had an insecure attachment to their parents can feel this apparent rejection and abandonment as pain that feels very much like physical pain. The more Mum is giving to the baby, what we haven’t received, the harder it is.
Mum on the other side might also have attachment needs, but the closeness to the baby can make regulating those, easier.
Disappointments and weakening of the couple connection can then lead to addictive behaviours (workaholics, alcohol and food, sex etc.) and eventually many men leave their families emotionally and also physically, looking for somewhere else where they find their needs recognised and met.
Nobody is to blame for this. Many women just don’t see their partner’s suffering and don’t know or understand about his, very realistic, needs. For her it seems like ridiculous neediness when all she wants is to be with the baby or have some precious moments for herself.
The problem is that this can lead to a downward spiral: Many men need time to feel themselves into the fathering role, they need time and reassurance (not all women find it easy to let go of control and let their partners share in the caregiving). If they don’t get a chance to grow their confidence, feel rejected by their partners, they retreat and therefore feel even less able to look after their baby (“she is the expert, anyway”) and then the divide widens (she is responsible for the childcare and home, he for bringing in the money). Feeling resentment by losing connection to his partner and not being able to build a bond with his baby leaves the father craving for connection. Many men get ill. Some get depressed, others start affairs, a few endure the situation and numb their feelings with addictive behaviours and others leave the situation all together and separate.
So, what can be done to stop this happening?
First of all, awareness of this situation helps both partners. Being able to know and voice your needs clearly helps and finding out whether there are others who can meet these needs if your partner isn’t able to at the moment.
Strengthening the connection is important, taking time for one another again – grow and nurture the relationship, just as we did when freshly in love. It is after all, the foundation of your family life together and your well-being benefits your child too.
My baby-self is still sometimes coming up, wanting to heal and be reassured. I take my time to make sure to give myself nurturing – doing things that make me happy – then, in those dark moments when I feel unable to calm him, I reach out to my wife and she holds me and I know I am safe.
To read on about the topic, I can recommend:
Why Dads Leave by Meryn Callander
Hold me tight by Dr Sue Johnson