Sarah, a 36-year-old solicitor, was shocked when her three-year-old daughter called out her nanny’s name during the night. “You think: ‘My child loves the nanny more than me.’”
On the other hand, the overwhelming anxiety Sarah felt when her daughter was ill left her relieved to hand over responsibility. She soon realised that she was never going to love caring for her children round the clock. She explains: “I wouldn’t say that I looked forward to going back to work, but I looked forward to having an activity that involved being away from them.”
Sarah hoped that by providing her with affection and a routine, her daughter would not suffer the sense of “I don’t matter” that she says her own mother had instilled in her.
According to psychotherapists, Sarah was right to be concerned about unintentionally repeating a pattern of neglectful parenting. Infants and young children need sensitive care from adults — a process called “attachment”.
This accepted theory in psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry explains how early interaction between a parent and infant has lasting consequences for a child’s emotional wellbeing.
The first few years of a life are crucial in shaping and developing a child’s “social brain”, where emotional resources are established. Having adults around who can attune to an infant’s feelings and experiences provides the basis for regulating feelings, relating to others and coping with stress.
Children can become aggressive, shy or clingy if their early attachment needs are not met. In extreme cases, inadequate early care can lead to antisocial behaviour, addictions and personality disorders.
Employers could do more to support working parents. Sarah, the solicitor, believes many managers pay only lip service to flexible working policies. “They’ll let you go to the school play, but secretly they’ll always remember that you missed that meeting,” she says.
Leena Kothari-Seward, a psychotherapist and founder of Mosaic Executive Coaching, believes technology and the need to retain good staff have led to employers offering greater flexibility than in the past. But she suggests employers go further by measuring employees’ performance against goals, rather than time spent in the office.
Listen to Work & Careers
Ms Kothari-Seward recommends employers offer coaching to parents during pregnancy and on returning to work. Managers and parents need to have the difficult conversations about what the company can realistically offer.
Good attachment depends on the quality of attention rather than the quantity, he says. Although parents and extended family members are likely to be more motivated, other carers can provide the attachment experiences babies require and this need not disrupt bonds with parents.
Research shows that the best bonding occurs at night, between the baby and the person who is present when the child awakes.
Prof Fonagy says that “even if there is an exchange of persons, as long as they know the infant well enough to respond sensitively . . . it is the quality that counts”.
He believes one person cannot be expected to provide everything a baby’s brain needs. An understanding social network is also required. “It’s not the quality of the bond, it’s the quality of the environment that actually promotes the infant’s development.”
Attachment requires much more than physical care and protection, he says. “It becomes about supporting the development of the human mind — to be able to describe one’s inner experience, to be able to anticipate what others feel and think, and to have social collaboration — these things are dependent on attachment relationships.”
Whereas in the past there may have been four adults to care for one infant, these days the opposite is expected. He says: “Biologically we’re not designed to take time off to look after children. [Historically] you are expecting a whole village to look after children.”
When a baby is born, it can often trigger feelings from the parents’ own infancy. If parents suffered attachment disorders, they are more at risk of misinterpreting their baby’s cries to mean the infant is upset with them. If the response from the parent is negative, the infant can be left feeling distressed and insecure — and so the cycle is repeated down a generation.
A man who came to me for psychotherapy described feelings of inadequacy and fear of rejection as a result of his mother returning to work when he was six weeks old, leaving him with inadequate care from a succession of nannies.
As a consequence, throughout his life he fought hard for the affection of others, frequently choosing personal and professional relationships that were easy, but ultimately unsatisfying, because he feared being rejected.
He says: “I worked very hard — not to do with career success — but through fears that I might be rejected by the organisation in the same way I unconsciously felt rejected by my mother.”
When his daughter was born, his buried feelings towards his mother resurfaced. He then understood how work could be a way for parents to flee from difficult feelings that a child’s arrival might provoke.
“When I go to work in the morning and ask for a hug [and] she goes to my wife and not to me I can still feel hurt, and I need to be careful not to feel rejected. Otherwise you’re making an 18-month-old baby responsible for adult emotions.”
Prof Fonagy believes work and family life should be much less binary, and that remote working and technology can play a part. “Generating wealth is not the only thing that will take care of the next generation,” he says.
Naomi Shragai is a practising psychotherapist