Chasing Eden: The Search for Secure Attachment
Our earliest attachment experiences—marked by attunement and containment, or the lack thereof—have profound effects on who we are today and how we relate to others. Here, Paul Quinlivan, a therapist in private practice and an Apprentice with The Allender Center, shares about an experience of misattunement with his son, and about his hope that the story does not have to end there.
I will never forget that night.
My son, our first, was 10 days old. Our growing family had yet to fall into a rhythm and were surviving any way we could. Because my wife was the source of sustenance the plan had been that my she would try and sleep as much as possible, which meant that when he woke in the night it was my task to stumble to his crib and bring him to mama. When the little man was full and satisfied I would then return him to the crib and pray he went back to sleep, all with minimal disruption to mama’s sleep cycle. That of course was the plan and, as every parent knows, it rarely goes to plan.
After this particular feeding he began to cry—of course, not uncommon. I did the post-feeding dance with the bounce in my step while shushing and patting his back as his fussiness began to increase. I then checked his diaper, nothing, still he cried on. My bounce became heavier and quicker as I remembered something the nurse in the hospital had said about shaking a baby, “Who would ever shake a baby?” I thought at the time. My heart rate now elevated to a near panic. I checked for a hair that might be wrapped around his fingers or toes, I tried everything. Finally I put him down on the changing table as his cry had turned to a wail, my anxiety causing me to lose all patience and rational thought. I then began to sense profound shame, “Why can’t I calm and soothe my child? I am an awful parent. I don’t know if I can do this! How can I let myself be this anxious?” Somewhere in the process I looked my son in the eyes, took a deep breath, and focused on prayerfully settling myself. His young eyes looking up at me caught a glimpse of empathy, sorrow, and despair in mine and his wail settled into a whimper. As I picked him up again we began to breathe together and he snuggled into the nook of my neck. Noting a softening and a calming in my face, he settled in and fell asleep. I distinctly remember standing there, with my sleeping child in my arms, in awe.
We are not born with all the skills necessary to survive and properly make sense of, and navigate, this world on our own. Instead we have been born into a particular family, in a specific place and time in history, all of which shape us. Specifically, our parents are tasked, from the very beginning, with consistently attuning to our emotional needs and aiding us in developing a resilience to the world outside of Eden.
How we come to be is often the basis of hundreds and thousands of stories not entirely dissimilar to the one I share above. Often the essence of our joy, or harm, comes from our parents’ ability, or inability, to see through our tears and wailing to the root of our needs in the moment. Whether we have a wet diaper or a scraped knee, or we have had a difficult day, all humans need others in their lives to attune to our needs. Let me be clear: this is not to place blame, nor is it to vilify our primary caregivers, though some of our stories may warrant it, but to speak to the impact their attunement or misattunement has caused in our lives. It is traumatic and often leaves us fragmented.
That night I missed my son. His despair was matched by my own. In my panic I failed to read his subtle cues that could have told me from the beginning that he merely needed a calm, attentive physical touch. My missing him, however, is not the end—it is how I return to him that becomes the crux of the story. Can I not be overcome with shame, but see my failure as an important part of both my parenting and my son’s development? Can I admit my missing him, or repent, and then work to reconnect and repair the relationship? If my wife and I can give him a secure base and foundation to venture from and return to, then he will be more likely to journey out into the world with confidence and offer the same to others.