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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