“The problem, unstated until now, is how to live in a damaged body in a world where pain is meant to be gagged, uncured, ungrieved over. The problem is to connect, without hysteria, the pain of anyone’s body with the pain of the world’s body.” Adrienne Rich, poet
As any woman who has ever given birth to a baby knows, building a healthy body begins early. It’s hard to believe that just 60 years ago smoking was considered an acceptable form of stress management for expectant mothers. Or that drinking champagne was thought to help prenatal nausea. The manual for “How to Care for the Human Body” is constantly being rewritten, and thankfully so.
One such development in recent decades is the recognition that early-in-life human bonding, otherwise known as attachment theory, has a profound impact on long term health. This term, originally coined by psychoanalyst John Bowlby and further studied by psychologist Mary Ainsworth, explains the emotional bond between an infant and primary caregiver and how it impacts development.
It’s a common misconception in the wellness industry that with enough willpower and determination anyone can realize their dreams of perfect health. The flaw in this way of thinking is that it completely disregards individual differences in subconscious thought patterns, many of which were put into place before we were able to speak. Cognitive and physical differences might go even deeper when considering the possibility of transgenerational trauma.
After the collapse of Soviet Communism in the late 80’s, children adopted from Eastern European orphanages who presumably spent 18-20 hours a day alone in a crib were studied. In a New York Times magazine article on the subject, Linda Mayes and Sally Provence (both professors of child development at Yale University) wrote ”Continuity of affectionate care by one or a small number of caregivers who can give of themselves emotionally, as well as in other ways, originates the development of the child’s love relationships. Having repeated experiences of being comforted when distressed is a part of developing one’s own capacity for self-comfort and self-regulation, and later, the capacity to provide the same for others.” It seems that the formation of healthy habits and good self care practice truly begins at home.
That same New York Times magazine article had me questioning my own maternal competency as I listened to it last weekend. Whilst doing dishes as T watched “Dinosaur Train”, I halted my efforts at multitasking after a particularly poignant account of strained connection between one mother and her adopted son. I ran over to T to give him an aggressive hug, and my repetition of “I love you so much, you know I love you, right?” had him looking at me like I’d lost my mind. I wondered if, in my fury of dishwashing and continuing education, was I missing the attachment mark?
Luckily, perfection is not necessary in our own upbringing or that of the children we raise. Some awareness around the subject, however, can be key. While realizing how deep the rabbit hole goes can initially be overwhelming, this new and deeper understanding of psychology and it’s relation to health can actually be quite freeing. As Pema Chodron says “It’s also helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now…with its aches and its pleasures…is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.”
Instead of denying the quirks of our particular brains and bodies, acknowledging and working with them can bring transformation and growth. It also makes sense that when addressing habits that negatively impact health and well-being, the onus might not be solely on the individual. Familial and societal factors are almost always at play.
As Bowlby states, “Through sequences of attunement, misattunement, and re-attunement, an infant becomes a person, achieving a ‘‘psychological birth’’. The good news is that, with the continuing study of neuroplasticity, it may be possible to be “born again” into a world of greater health and wholeness, both individually and collectively.