Dear Patti,

I’m thrilled to say that I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl two months ago. Violet is my first child and my doctor suggested I enroll in an educational class for new mothers. Before having Violet my husband and I focused all our energies on our careers. I’ve been to the class on motherhood four times so far and it’s already clear that all of the moms attending know more about mothering than I do.

The class is based on “attachment theory.” The other mothers seem to understand and I’m embarrassed to ask questions that everyone will think are dumb. I’m mostly joking but not completely. There are discussions about babies and children getting emotionally damaged because their mothers aren’t nurturing enough. Before having Violet I never knew how deep a mother’s love could be but sometimes I still struggle with being affectionate. If you could explain the bare bones of attachment theory it might help me participate in the class and sort out my own concerns about becoming the best mother I can be.

— Sara

Dear Sara,

The fact that you are going to the class to become a better mother, that you are writing me to better understand and face your struggles with being affectionate, and that you are sincerely seeking to find the healthiest way to raise your baby girl means to me that you are taking your position as Violet’s mother seriously and thoughtfully, which will definitely benefit Violet in the long run. 

If more questions come up in class and you still don’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of the other mothers, write your questions down and ask your instructor after class. It’s fine that you are reticent in front of others at first; this is all new to you. Just make sure that you don’t let that interfere with your ultimate goal: how to be the best mother you can be for Violet. If your concerns continue I recommend professional counseling to explore where these continued fears are coming from. Possibly your own childhood?

In the 1930s, John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist, worked with emotionally disturbed children and wanted to better understand how the emotional temperaments of young children developed. By 1958 he developed attachment theory, a structure for understanding the interpersonal relationships between children and their parents (or primary caretakers). Prior to Bowlby’s work, the prevailing belief was that an infant’s responses and development were related to biologically determined drives rather than to real-life events with their parents. Bowlby believed healthy attachments toward self and others shaped relationships in the future depending on the interaction between the child and the parents. He theorized that a child’s affection needs were primary and fulfilling the needs of hunger and physical comfort were not sufficient to foster a child’s healthy attachment toward others. Attachment theory has since become one of the predominant approaches for understanding early childhood social development.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that children who form a secure attachment with their parents early in life have better outcomes in all aspects of functioning throughout their various development stages. These children have deep beliefs instilled inside them that the world is safe; that their caregivers are dependable and trustworthy; and that they are wanted, competent, and lovable. Children who are abandoned, ignored, or otherwise traumatized end up with compromised attachments and may believe the opposite — that the world is unsafe; their parents are not dependable and trustworthy; and that they are unwanted, incompetent, and unlovable.

According to this theory, the early social interactions Violet has with you and your husband will majorly influence the formation of her ability to be positive and secure about her future relationships, her emotional affect, and her behaviors and expectations. This personality system will continue to develop as she grows and matures. According to Bowlby, if you stay sensitive, responsive, and nurturing and willingly and competently provide her with consistent and loving care, she will attach positively to you, herself, and the world. Her social skills and beliefs about others will greatly benefit.

No mother or father is perfect. If Violet is nurtured most of the time, she will be more resilient when negative experiences do occur, for your positive care will instill in her the ability to self-soothe. At first this theory might make you concerned by the responsibility that it puts on you as parents, but attachment theory shows that your love toward Violet can have a strong, positive, and lasting effect. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.