Book Review: Why Love Matters (by Sue Gerhardt)

The basic premise for Sue Gerhardt’s book Why Love Matters is simple: the way that mothers respond to their babies during infancy influences how their brains develop. On the face of it, it’s a no-brainer. So why did I find it such a deeply uncomfortable and annoying read as both a parent and a professional?

Despite the erudite academic stance, Gerhardt’s argument is utterly reductionist – parents are to blame for all the ills of their children all the way into adulthood (behaviour, mental health and even cancer) and that if we get it wrong in the brief window when our kids are babies then, basically, they are doomed. What’s more, mothers start getting it wrong before their children are even born by providing the wrong in utero environment. The complex interplay of factors that affect the growing child after their first birthday is pretty much dismissed as irrelevant: if we have got it wrong in infancy then their only hope is many years of psychotherapy as adults.

It’s scary stuff. Gerhardt pulls out clinical study after clinical study to prove her case (past the point where the reader is left begging for no more). I’m a big fan of evidence. If parents are to be advised on how to raise their children then it is essential that is based on fact not anecdote or ideology. But in this case the relentless parade of briefly-referenced studies serves just to heap on the guilt and to screen the true focus of those studies (which in many cases relate to babies who experienced severe neglect, or to screwed-up adults whose experiences of being parented are recollected rather than observed, or to laboratory rats).

But I’m as sensitive to parental guilt as any mum, so it got under my skin. When I started racking through memories of sleep-deprived months of breastfeeding and nappy-changing all I could see is how often I must have got it wrong. According to Gerhardt, parents who are stressed or slow to respond to their baby may end up with a child who is developing well on all fronts and who is even quite bright but s/he will still be damaged on the inside. (I am paraphrasing p 243).

Show me the mother of a small baby who isn’t sometimes stressed and reluctant to meet their baby’s relentless needs! That’s a very big stick to beat myself with… Even if the kids seem fine on the outside, that time I felt like throwing my 11-week-old son out the window at 4am when he wanted a fifth night feed will have permanently damaged him on the inside.

So what is the magic formula that parents need to make sure their babies remain unscrewed up? On that, the book is utterly vague. What’s required is ‘sensitive’ parenting that recognises the baby’s needs and responds to them (but doesn’t jump to attention at every murmur), a loving nurturing environment in which the baby’s emotions are allowed and acknowledged. Every time the book comes close to defining what that ‘good’ parenting behaviour looks like, it veers straight back to how we get it wrong (and the dire consequences thereof) with no indication as to how often you have to get it right to make a difference. The difference between getting it right or wrong, we are told, can be as small as whether we respond to our baby straight away or pause for a moment to finish our last gulp of coffee.

There are occasional glimpses of real-life perspective where Gerhardt acknowledges that any adult with reasonable sensitivity and willingness to respond is likely to be getting it right without thinking about it. But then we are straight back to attachment theory and the certainty that the 30% of children who have insecure attachments (due to inappropriate parenting as infants) are inevitably headed for emotional illiteracy, poor mental health and most likely criminality. The book ends with a final swipe at working mothers being most probably the source of the problem. To be fair, Gerhardt blames this on society’s failure to create work-life balance rather than on women’s desire to have a professional life, but this was the final blow for me. Having gone back to full time work when my first baby was five months’ old, I have clearly permanently failed in the only bit of parenting that matters.

I love the title of this book, but I was deeply frustrated with the rest of it. Perhaps I was just looking for something the book couldn’t offer: a practical way forward from the understanding that how we give care to babies makes a difference. Why Love Matters tries to walk an interesting path where parenting, developmental psychology and psychoanalytic psychotherapy meet. But as a parent it just made me feel really grim that I’d permanently fucked up my kids before their first birthday. And, as a professional, it offered me no practical methodology for helping parents understand how to respond ‘sensitively’ to their babies or for supporting parents to help their children achieve positive outcomes beyond the first year of life.

Overall Rating? 2/5 Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt was first published by Routledge in 2004. The second edition (reviewed here) came out in 2015. The opinions expressed in this review are my own – I welcome comments and discussion! This is not a sponsored post.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Why Love Matters (by Sue Gerhardt)

  1. tracey bowden

    Great review! I feel like a failure from reading your review god knows what effect the book will have on me! I also work full time too, bad mum. I like how you emphasized that there are no actual answers or the right way to provide this sensitive parenting! As we say in work if you can’t give a solution to the problem then don’t tell me about it, sounds like the same applies here (sorry for rambling I hope it makes sense?) #readwithme

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  2. Peter Orlov

    Have you read “The Psychology of Babies” by Lynne Murray? Having bought both books (with similar messages), I found TPoB much more helpful with concrete examples of things that one can do (or not do) from 0 to 2 years old (and the tone was generally supportive), with no fewer studies in the back of it, just more helpfully presented…

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  3. Maddy

    I think you are missing (possibly deliberately) the point the author is trying to make. Responsive parenting is critical to children’s well-being as they grow and develop into adults and into the next generation of parents.
    Yes, it is a scary and, at times, an overwhelming undertaking; you need to get it right most of the time, and you also need to recognise when you get it wrong and say sorry and learn from this. These are both simple and uncomfortable messages backed up with lots of supporting evidence; an evidence base that continues to grow.
    Being a parent is a privilege not a right and we must try harder and look to ourselves to develop as parents. Who else will do it if we don’t?
    I too, felt uncomfortable with the reading at times and I frequently had to stop and reflect on my own parenting and experiences of being parented. My feeling is that it is good to be challenged and important to self development. If we seek out self-confirming information, we will never have to reflect and we will continue doing what we have always done -this will not provoke change of the transformative nature required to make safer and more nurturing environments for our youngest children. There is a crisis in parenting and the impact of this is clear to see. The first step to making change is to accept that change is needed.

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    1. AnitaCleare Post author

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment Maddy. As you say, the fact that it is an uncomfortable read is not in itself a bad thing at all – we should all be willing to reflect upon ourselves and our actions and learn from our mistakes. And I don’t necessarily take issue with the book’s evidence and conclusions. It was just that, for me, I felt the balance of the book tilted towards ‘blame the parents’ rather than ‘enable the parents’ and I think moving forward, as you suggest, requires more of the latter than the former.

      Reply
  4. Becky

    I’m very late to this discussion I know, but as a foster and adoptive parent, I took something quite different from the book. This is not a general how-to guide for parents. It’s a research backed exploration of the potentially damaging effects of neglectful parenting – effects which have been overlooked for too long. I am thankful that such a book has been written as it helps to bring to light the long-term effects of persistent neglect. In the first few months of a child’s life, they are learning how the world works, laying down neural pathways in their brains at a staggering rate. These pathways are laid down according to the experience an infant has, and there’s a window of opportunity. Having cared for too many children whose basic needs were not met, whose gaze was rarely returned with a loving reciprocation, and whose brains developed in a world of chaos and unpredictability, I am grateful for any work that raises the issue of the long-term impact of chronic neglect in infants. They may not consciously remember, but their bodies always remember. ‘Good enough’ parenting, fairly consistently done, will be enough to create the loving attachments a child needs to develop a sense of self, and to feel secure enough to go on and explore the world around them. That time you felt like throwing your crying baby out of the window will not have ruined anything because it will be over-ridden by all the times you didn’t feel like that. Maybe it’s easier for me to read it because with the children I have cared for, it has rarely been me that cared for them in their first months. But I have seen the effects and they are real. Creating secure, loving attachments with a child is so important – no parent is expected to be 100% on it all the time, but a little bit of purpose in the task won’t do any harm.

    Reply
    1. AnitaCleare Post author

      Thanks so much for taking the time to make such thoughtful comments. In essence, I agree with you. But you’ll find this book in the Parenting section in bookshops, not the social work or psychology sections. And although uncovering the effects of neglectful parenting on children is a really important topic, I didn’t feel that the book was clear that it was talking about an extreme end of parental behaviour. That simple message that you capture so well – that good enough is absolutely brilliant – I felt got lost in the book. And, for me, with so many ‘blame the parents’ messages in the media, I find that many of the parents I work with are overly anxious to be perfect (which is no good for them or their children!).

      Reply

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