So the other day, Liam and I had just picked up his brother from child care and Oliver starts to get upset for some reason in his car seat and is asking for his mommy. The researcher in me identified an interesting research question and so I asked someone in the identified population, that population being one of my children, the question. Here is the brief interaction on the topic:
Me: “Liam, why do both of you boys call for your mommy when you’re upset but you don’t ask for me – even when I’m the only one here?”
Liam: “Because we just need mommy.”
Ah, the simplicity of being a child. “Sometimes, a boy just needs his mommy.” Such a simple concept but it kind of drove a stake in my heart but also made me wonder why that is. So I did some grounded research and found some possible answers.There seems to be little research on this other than the seminal Bowlby and Ainsworth research so I will share that in the context of my experience.
Bowlby (and Harlow) both were key figures in the development of attachment theory going back to the 50’s. The experiment with the rhesus monkeys (see video) turned Maslow’s theory of motivation and basic needs on its ear and set forth a sequence of experiments that eventually brought Mary Ainsworth into the forefront with her own research into whether those same basic behaviors Bowlby concluded occur in monkeys will also be seen in children.
Bowlby and Harlow found that the monkeys in their study seemed to connect to the wire mesh “mother” to nurse but would spend up to 18 hours a day on the cloth mother for nurturing and comfort or what Bowlby coined as, contact comfort. In the 80’s and 90’s that same conclusion, that children needed touch, affection and nurturing was confirmed in the horrific conclusions drawn from the Romanian orphanages after Romania’s civil war when hundreds (maybe thousands) of infants were orphaned and the institutions meant for a dozen children suddenly had a hundred, could not provide love and affection and the deaths of infants was concluded to be, failure to thrive due to a lack of physical comfort and affection.Mary Ainsworth followed the Bowlby research up with her own. The “Strange – Situation” experiment became the basis for the concept of attachment theory most of the psychological community supports today.
The “strange-situation” experiment involves a mother and child coming into a room together and interacting with materials in the room – one factor however, is that another woman is in the room. Then the mother leaves for a short time and then returns. The child’s reaction to the mother’s return will provide evidence for what type of attachment the child has to the mother. Ainsworth identified Secure, Insecure Avoidant/Resistant, Insecure Ambivalent and Anxious/Disorganized (https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/infant-attachment-what-we-know-now). The research does not focus on the relationship between infants and their fathers because that relationship is not as deeply ingrained (from the oxytocin connection to the physical bonding that occurs soon after birth) – some researchers believe upon having the newborn placed on the mother’s chest right after delivery invokes a hormonal connection between the two that fathers just don’t share. It doesn’t necessarily mean fathers can’t have a very close connection to their children – but it is different. Furthermore, while the loss of a parent may cause long term negative effects on children (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2888143/), it isn’t a stretch to suggest the loss of a mother is potentially completely devastating.
Liam telling me that sometimes a boy just needs his mommy is supported in the research I found on different aspects of the topic but let me share one more story.
When I was young, my older brother was pushing me around in a shopping cart in a parking lot. Things happened and I ended up tipping over and slamming my head on the concrete (I still have the faint scar on my forehead). My father came running to me after being told and was cradling me in the back seat of a car, racing to the hospital. Here was my loving father taking care of me and I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “MOMMY! I WANT MOMMY!”
I am moving forward from today knowing that my boys love me and they know I love them and would do anything to protect and help them. I am also moving forward not feeling insufficient or inferior to their mom because just like the day I cracked my head wide open…
“Sometimes a boy just needs his mommy.”