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So, as the diagram above simply shows, attention and intention create connection. Simples!
And yet it's sometimes not that simple at all. What if you're good at giving attention to people and then you never follow up (attention without intention)? Or what if you keep meaning to spend quality time with someone and never quite getting around to it (intention without attention)?
And like any other relationship, forming a positive connection with your baby isn’t just about giving them attention, it’s also about intention. Sometimes we can be scared that we’re not giving our kids the right kind of attention or enough attention. Sometimes we think that they don’t even want our attention. The problem is, it can be really hard to see what’s going on.
The psychological term for this combination of attention and intention is attunement - appropriate attention in a timely manner. Attunement is what helps your baby feel secure and loved, creating the secure attachment that helps them develop emotional, cognitive and physical (yes!) resilience.
The thing is - how do you know when you're giving your child enough of this intentional attention? There has been much written about 'good enough' mothering, most famously by the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott who coined the term. However, it is only recently that scientists have realised that you only have to be attuned to your child about 1/3 of the time. So what does that look like?
Well, that's tricky to define, but it can be the loving glance that your baby notices, the way you respond to some of their 'conversations', the tone of your voice when you're soothing their cries, the gentleness of your touch when you're changing their bottom, the way you tell them what you're going to do before you do it so they don't get a shock, the way you figure out the best way to respond when they hurt themselves... It's not a definite list of behaviours but more of an attitude towards being with your baby.
Because so many people come to see me who are worried about whether they're 'getting it right', I trained to be a Video Interaction Guidance practitioner. Video Interaction Guidance (or VIG) is a brilliant way of showing you how you are already giving positive attention to your child and what goes on between you both when you’re doing it. This can then help you become more intentional about doing it, since you have more idea of what it looks like. Sound clear as mud?! It’s basically a positive feedback loop, that is shown to promote wonderful change in relationships and build confidence.
VIG is very well regarded and used by the NHS around the country as it is so effective in building relationships. It is also used in Mother and Baby units to help reduce anxiety and depression in mothers who are struggling to connect with their baby. If you’d like to learn more about it, please check out this video here.
If you are interested in VIG and think it could be something that would help you and your child in your relationship together, you can find out more about it here. People often talk about how special it is to see these amazing moments of intimacy, and it’s definitely a tool that I’ve found to be incredibly positive in my relationships with my own kids. If you’d like to know more, I’m always happy to chat about it!
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People often say to me 'I don't feel like myself.' And it's true, one of the ways that motherhood can surprise us is that it can challenge our ideas about who we are.
We often get into ways of relating to the world that work pretty well for us and make us feel good, so if motherhood forces us to re-evaluate some of those, it can really shake us to our core. In psychological terms, transitions like becoming a mother can trigger a kind of breakdown as our usual ways of seeing ourselves don’t work, and we have to rebuild our sense of who we are.
It can be really distressing feeling like this, as it can leave you feeling very vulnerable or as if you’re ‘getting it wrong’. However it is so common I thought I would list a few of the ways in which motherhood can shake your sense of yourself, so if it happens to you you might feel less distressed by it.
1. You can cope by yourself
Maybe before having kids, this was true. However, one of the things that many people will say that surprises them about motherhood is how much you need other people.
There are so many reasons why this might be true. It might be that culturally we are fed the idea that independent is best, that you should be able to stand on your own two feet. It might be that we de-value the impact that informal groups of support have had on mothers in the past, so we don’t recognise how important that was. It might be that we have had to learn from previous life experiences that you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. There can be many, many reasons for this.
However the research is clear – new mothers need practical and emotional support or they are more at risk of struggling. So if you find it hard to see yourself as someone who benefits from support, this might feel a tough one to face.
2. If you just work at something you can solve the problem
You might have found that this is how you are used to solving problems at work, or in relationships, and maybe it has worked well. However if you have a baby who won’t sleep, or you have a baby who cries all the time (for no known medical reason), then this idea will not help you. Because they can’t be ‘fixed’, and your usual method of working harder might just see you run yourself into the ground.
Accepting that you might need to accept the situation, rather than seeing it as a problem, and then find ways of getting your needs met in that situation (getting someone to look after the baby to give you some respite from the crying, or allowing you to sleep).
3. That you and your partner will never end up in gender defined roles
There are few things that only one gender can do, and giving birth is one of them (as is breastfeeding). So from the start, it can be hard to resist the onslaught of attention being given to the mother, not the father. This is only increased if you are breastfeeding, or if you have decided that you are the one who takes a longer period of leave from paid work (for whatever reason).
It is a big shift for all of you, and in all of these changes it can often feel harder NOT to fall into gender roles (especially if that is what your role models did) than to make the effort to keep checking that you are not doing so.
If you find yourself upset or resentful that you find yourself feeling a divide between you and your partner, because he or she can’t understand what life is like for you (which they probably can’t), then that is normal. It is helpful to discuss this with your partner (if you can), and also make sure that you give both of you a bit of slack. It’s a new transition for both of you! Many couples talk about how they feel as though their roles are VERY gender defined at the beginning, and that as they become more confident in their roles as parents, however that is for them, then they feel more able to renegotiate within the family, however that works.
4. Perhaps related to the idea of being able to solve problems, is the notion of yourself as someone who can bring comfort
If you are someone who finds that you experience a great deal of your sense of worth from making people happy then if you have a baby who cries a lot, this might really impact on your sense of how good a mother you are. It might feel intolerable to be with someone who you can’t comfort.
If this is the case for you, it can be very hard not to take it personally, and I would recommend speaking to an organisation such as Crisis who have volunteers who know what it is like and can provide you with emotional support to know that you are not alone.
5. If you are someone who is ‘happy go lucky’
Anxiety is part and parcel of being a parent. Mothers’ brains change from the moment of conception in order to help them notice threats in the environment to their babies.
If you are someone who has never really experienced anxiety very much before, this can really be quite shocking, and it might feel ‘wrong’ that you are feeling more anxious. Awfully, that can become a vicious cycle as you become anxious about the anxiety itself.
It can be helpful to know that you WILL become more anxious, as then you can realise that this is part of your new relationship and it’s there to keep your baby safe. It might not feel comfortable, but maybe if you can accept the anxiety as normal, it might help you feel less as though you’re not yourself.
These are only a few scenarios, but there are many more. If you are able to help yourself understand why the challenges you face are because they don’t fit with how you see yourself, it can help you be kinder to how you experience yourself right now. And when you’re kinder to yourself, quite often you can start to access the support you need and start to feel better.
If you've found this helpful, you might find it useful to read this post on returning to work, another time when our identity can be challenged, or you might be interested in my free resources on how to manage your anxiety.
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