“It’s important for children to be scared of strangers. It means they have a good bond with their parents.” So said my daughter’s physical therapist, when we came to see her for my middle child’s motor skills delays.
My husband is German, and the Germans have a special word for that stage of development: fremdeln, “to stranger.” My three children never “strangered” as babies or toddlers. On the contrary, they happily and readily smiled at all sorts of people, eliciting smiles in reply. But the physical therapist’s comments moved me deeply because, by extrapolation, it would mean that the bond between me and my children was less than ideal. If this were true, the future looked grim for them. Experts predict that a lack in bonding leads to attachment problems down the line, as well as mental illness and poverty. It could even affect a child’s marriage prospects.
Research has also shown that a child’s resilience to adversity depends on the same thing: whether that child maintained a deep bond with at least one caregiver in their lives, most often a warm, caring and attuned mother.
But I wasn’t attuned. I had no idea what my babies wanted or needed. I blamed myself for my children’s problematic behavior in the early years. I thought my eldest daughter’s explosive temper tantrums, for example, were my fault because we hadn’t bonded properly. No wonder she smiled at strangers, I thought. She’s looking at them for something I can’t give her. During that time, however, I had an MA thesis to write and being at home with a baby all day long had strong, negative effects on my well-being. The bond, that line that connected my daughter and myself, was slowly morphing into a leash. I…