Janet and the Still Face: attachment theory

Janet was my mother-in-law. I knew her for 26 years from my 16th year to my 42nd. She passed on the same year that my marriage to her son ended. By then, she was 73 and suffering from advanced dementia. The Durant family reconstituted itself for a brief graveside ceremony in a Scarborough cemetery, 41 years ago, on a cold autumn day.

The central mystery of Janet was not why she had to rein in her dislike of me. Blake was her only child. I was beneath him. The central mystery was how could she send that child, age 5, across the Atlantic Ocean through the German u-boat fleet, for what turned out to be 5 years with a foster family in Canada.

Yes, the Nazis had bombed Middlesbrough. Yes, little Blake had watched an airman crash to his doom. Yes, she expected Hitler to land any minute and turn Blake into a junior brown shirt and steal his soul. Yes, it could be seen as an act of self-sacrifice. But I was never convinced. Or to put it another way, I could not imagine doing that even when I was 16. I had a 5-year-old brother. Once I had my own children, I was even more baffled.

Yet I admired the Jewish parents who put their children on a Kinder Train to the British Isles. And I reminded myself that I had not felt the terror of the English people in those early, unprepared days.

Then I fell heir to Janet’s diaries.

They were tiny little books, often labelled “gentleman’s diary”. They stretched from the 1920s to the early 70s, I think. I’m not sure because I threw them all away. Why did I perform such an act of desecration. It wasn’t because they were mostly a record of the weather on any given day or brief notes of meeting so and so for a film. It was because I looked up what she wrote on the day my daughter, her first grandchild, was born. Sandwiched between the weather and a note that she met Mable for lunch was a line that Blake had phoned to say that Joyce had had a girl. After she finished the entry, she went back and penciled in “proud grandparents” between the lines. The birth of my son, a year later, the only person who still carries on the family name, was even more innocuous.

The next thing I knew the tiny books, along with most of Blake’s photos, had vanished down the garbage chute.

I am already custodian of 146 large, thick, extremely detailed journals of my life and the Durant family’s. They may look as if they are written in ink, but they feel as if they were written in blood and tears. So sorry, Janet, no shelf space.

“Avoidant attachment” said my daughter, Janet’s first grandchild.

We had both, along with other family members been studying NICABM’s (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) Treating Trauma Series. Watching the video sessions and reading the transcripts, I began to see that today’s psychiatric theory sees personality development as inter-personal rather than individualistic and based on needs and drives as Freud and his heirs did. The key to mental health, this theory postulates, depends on secure attachment. An infant finds that her needs are answered by a responsive caretaker, who picks her up, attends to her needs and soothes her upset. In this way, the child learns how to self regulate and withstand stress.

Alternately, the caretaker, like my own mother, could respond with ‘What do you want now?’ I had colic. My tummy hurt. I cried. All the time. My father, who gets no other accolades for parenting, was the one who soothed me down, sleeping with his foot out of bed to rock my cradle whenever I started stirring awake. He also beamed at me like a lunatic, talked baby talk and generally didn’t take my hysteria seriously. That is how I came to experience ambivalent attachment.

There were other mothers in our small northern Appalachian community. Some, like my Aunt Mae were champions at secure attachment. My mother’s cousin Maude was another. Either one could take me off my mother’s hands and calm me down.

Experiments show that a mother with avoidant attachment may actually pick her baby up as often as a mother with secure attachment, but not in the same way. Instead of smiling and speaking in a reassuring way, the mother may have a still face. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0  This short video shows how the baby deregulates quickly in the face of that stony response. And quickly compensates when mom comes back to life.

No doubt my mother eventually moved on to ambivalent attachment once my colic improved as colic usually does as the baby matures. Sometimes she would engage and show warmth, but then again, she would be absent and distant. She had her own issues, even excluding the fact she was married to a psychopath, a baby-loving psychopath, but a scary dude nonetheless. (I can clearly remember being in her arms and hearing him threaten to murder her pa and her ma if she carried out her threat to go back to live with them.)

An upset baby for whatever reason – wet, hungry, in pain, scared, lonely – who is picked up and comforted, learns to regulate herself, to soothe herself and move back to equilibrium.

A young child with secure attachment can tolerate her mother’s absence, even though she will still react on her mom’s return in a way that indicates she was upset.

A baby with an attachment avoidant mother will eventually give up seeking consolation and will become a child who avoids attachment. No point crying. No point acting cute. Don’t need anyone anyway.

How surprised I was to discover I had married such a person! Here I thought we had a firmly bonded marriage and family. We shared a profession and even a workplace. We went on long car trips together, four people in a tiny car all over Europe. We sailed a 29-foot sailboat through hell and high water. Then suddenly, he was spending nights in someone else’s bed. He had cared enough to act as though he was attached to his two children, until he couldn’t. That fall, his mother – the founder of the feast – passed on.

I found a few pictures of her mother as I went through her son’s collection, a grim-faced English woman and no doubt there was another earlier grim-faced grandma. My own mother had a mother who hadn’t had great mothering even before her mother died young.

I had motherhood thrust upon me at an early age, by which I mean seven or eight. My first sibling needed a friendly face when I was that age. By the time, the second and third siblings arrived, I was getting the hang of it. Smile, sing, talk silly, get them the heck out of the kitchen when hell broke loose and it wasn’t clear which parent would survive. I had had that hill community and attached mothering from other mothers to draw on, but we had moved to town by the time the other three arrived. All they had was me. Oddly, they turned out well and one of them stayed married.

Blake was an only child in an industrial city with one grim grandma and another poverty-stricken grandmother with seven sons. Then he saw an airman crash to his death and got sent through Nazi u-boats to live with strangers.

Just before he died, he told me he was lucky to have had the love of good women. I did not say that there were certainly a lot of them. His choices went downhill as he aged and his last lady struck me as problematic for many reasons, not least of which was that she  slept on the couch for five years. Avoidant attachment.

We keep repeating those old patterns.

 

 

 

1 thought on “Janet and the Still Face: attachment theory

  1. Pingback: 115 journals

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