Saturday, June 4, 2016

Attachment, Detachment, and Growing The Fuck Up

It's a few years now since my youngest son moved out - he just turned 26 - but in that time he has been back for a while, and another son and his wife have been and gone a couple of times. However, we really are on our own, just Mac and I, now, and I'm still finding it hard.

Attachment is a word that is widely used, and has many different meanings and contexts, which I have been contemplating for a while now. Well, 'contemplating' has very calm, considered, rational overtones, so is, perhaps the wrong word for what I do, but I'll leave it there for want of an alternative that isn't negative!

As an atheist, I have no trouble seeing humans as just another animal species. All mammals, and many other animals too, have a natural instinct to attach, to bond, strongly, to their babies. It is a matter of survival - the rare mother who does not bond wanders away and the baby dies. Attachment is a physical necessity. Eventually, after the mother has nurtured, protected and taught them, the young become independent and move on.  But animal mothers don't seem to have the same trouble as many human mothers when it comes time to separate from their young. 'Attachment parenting' wasn't a term used when my first child was born, but the concept was certainly around: I learned it from many sources including La Leche League, Dr William Sears, Jean Liedloff and others. I still believe in the 'baby-led weaning' concept that La Leche League promoted, not just with respect to breastfeeding, but also with respect to separation from parents.

All these ideas address the attachment of the child to the parent, but the only places I see talk about the mother's attachment / detachment, it seems to be in very negative terms. Why doesn't she move on, get a life,  how pathetic is she? These comments come from people in general, and, in many cases, from the adult children themselves, irritated by parents, mothers especially, who still fuss and worry and tell them what to do. My mother certainly did that to me, though I never felt that it stemmed from love: more a concern for what the friends and relations would say if I got anything 'wrong'. I do it to my children too. I try not to, but I still do it.

I didn't want, or even like, children until suddenly as I headed toward 28 years of age, I desperately wanted a baby. After several miscarriages, I had my first son and fell in love with him in a way that I knew could never be repeated - except it was - three more times. The 'attachment' was instantaneous at each birth, and never wavered. I had not come across the idea of 'attachment' parenting when Greg was born, that came later. But I was 'attached' to him - and still am.

I assume my mother loved me in her own way, but I didn't feel loved, mostly just judged - and found wanting. She was certainly 'attached' to me in that everything I did, even as an adult, was judged in terms of what people would think of her if I got things wrong, large or small: she was disappointed that I didn't marry a man with a degree; she was worried others see it as her failure to teach me when I didn't fold my nappies the right way. I guess that's a form of 'attachment'.

I am certainly still 'attached' to her. Even though I'm 64, and she's been dead for 27 years, her voice lives in my head, constantly telling me I'm not doing things right, not well enough, not anything enough. I've gradually pushed her further away, learned to overrule her, to say 'fuck you! I'll do it my way,' often, but I doubt I'll ever get that voice completely out of my head.

I'm 'attached' to my husband. I'm 'attached' to friends and other family. Humans are social animals, and live in groups to one degree or another. Even hermits rely on being part of a wider society, whether it be this interesting man in New Zealand living in the bush on the Kaikoura coast, or the men living in the wilds of Alaska, coming in for supplies just a couple of time a year. Few people could survive without all the other people living within society.

I started seriously examining religions and philosophies when I was in my last year at school. I went to my first yoga and meditation classes in my first year of university, 1969. I've been looking and learning ever since. I have issues with the christian idea of 'attachment' to god before everyone else, including self. I have issues with eastern ideas of getting rid of 'attachment' to things, ways of behaving, people. I keep going back to the idea of humans as animals. As social animals, As interdependent animals. I can't get past the idea that attachment to other people is necessary for society to function successfully.

Emotions, feelings, love, hate, anger, contentment - I'm content in the knowledge that they are physical things. Being sick lately, depression was starting to kick in my doors, but a couple of days of sunshine and a mega dose of Vitamin D has me feeling heaps better. It's not magic, it's not spiritual, nor god-given, it's science. Not completely explained yet, but enough that I don't feel the need to believe in a supernatural being, nor in myself as somehow other than natural, than an animal.

Because we humans have the ability to think, theorize, remember, consider alternatives, resist first instincts, doesn't make us better than other animals except in that we have opportunities to take the long view and resist the immediate temptations. Now having diabetes, I'm wishing I'd done more resisting of sedentary pleasures instead of physically active ones, resisting chocolate in favour of broccoli! At the same time, we are foolish when we ignore our animal instincts without consideration of the reason those instincts evolved. And we need to be careful what we do when rationalizing that a feeling, emotion, role is unnecessary or obsolete.

I accept that attachment is necessary for successful parenting. I accept that children grow up and become independent, and that although they will still have attachment to their parents, it will be at a greatly lower level than when they were small children.  And that attachment is not always positive. And that I have no power over my children's attachment to me.

What I am struggling with is my attachment to my sons. I feel that attachment as strongly as ever. I hate that I know so little of what happens in their lives, not so much the big stuff, but the little things. I feel lost when one eats something he used to hate. Those little intimate unimportant / important details that I used to know about my sons. I feel the need to spend time with them, but they, unlike me, have little spare time in their busy lives. Our attachment seems to be so much more in my consciousness than in theirs. I remember when my parents died 27 years ago, I felt bereft, orphaned, severed from my past, even though my mother had been mostly unsupportive. I know my sons would similarly miss me if I died. But I also know that they need me in their lives far, far less than I need them in mine. Their need is simply to be aware that I am there, in the background, available. My need is different, I hunger for their presence, for their company, for their vitality. I know that this is mother-love. I know too, that it is excessive, partly because my own mother brought me up to believe that I was, and never will be enough. Being a mother, a stay-at-home, homeschooling mother has been the most wonderful job I could have had, but one from which I was made redundant from. All my other interests - bookbinding, sewing, gardening, permaculture, beekeeping, writing - are still of secondary importance to being a mother.

So having come to terms with the reality and necessity of attachment, my search is now focused on how to 'get a life', a real, meaningful, enjoyable life, largely detached from my sons, while still retaining the love and attachment that make for happiness when I do get to see them.

Fuck, but growing up never gets any easier!

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