Learning to Love

By Jo Lynn Orr

HappinessIf we’re born lucky, true love begins with our parents. The bond between infant and parent is one of the most significant of all human relationships. After all, when we’re small, our very survival depends on it—and so too may our future happiness.

Maternal and child health expert Beverly Mulvihill, Ph.D., says that over the last several decades, research has shed light on why that initial bonding experience is so important, and what happens when it fails to form.

“There was a time, especially during the first two decades after World War II, when mothers in the United States went through labor in sterile birthing rooms,” she says. “Newborns were whisked away to nurseries, and moms, who usually were drugged, were sent to hospital rooms.” Eventually researchers began to wonder if this separation right after birth might affect the bond between mothers and babies, and subsequent studies found that it did. “As a result of that research, babies are now allowed to room with their mothers,” Mulvihill says. Studies have also found that infants are not just passive participants in the bonding experience. When babies first smile, for example, parents typically respond in very positive ways by smiling back and perhaps hugging and cooing.

As the months pass, the bonds between parent and child begin to stretch. But in most cases, that stretching only makes them stronger. “When babies become mobile, they’re likely to rush to their parents if a stranger enters the room,” says Mulvihill. “That action is called ‘secure attachment,’ and it can continue into adulthood. Many people who are really scared or upset and want someone to talk to turn to their mothers—sometimes even if they haven’t lived with their moms for many years or their mothers are no longer living. So in a sense that secure base is still there. It’s a lifelong relationship.”

In 2002 my husband and I traveled to the Cape Verde Islands, the African country of my ancestors. My grandparents, who died before I was born, had left the island of Brava bound for New England in 1901, never to return. I was the only sibling or cousin to travel there, and this was one year after my mother had passed away. I stood at the front of the boat as the island came into view through the sea air. I was euphoric, with tears streaming down my face. I was about to reach back through more than 100 years to be in the presence of my grandparents. An amazing experience!
Cheryl Locke
UAB chief human resources officer

UAB child psychologist Vivian K. Friedman, Ph.D., says nurturance forms the foundation of happiness. “The psychologist Erik Eriksson called the first year of life the stage of ‘trust versus mistrust,’” she says. “When parents respond to an infant’s needs, that response encourages a basic trust in the world as a benign and loving place. Without that response, the infant learns that he must fend for himself, and since he can’t do this, the seeds of rage are established.”

In other words, our future happiness and outlook on life often hinge on the support and love we receive as children. “I have recently seen two adolescent patients who want to kill random people—not just those who have hurt them,” Friedman says. “One never knew his biological mother and had an abusive stepmother; the other patient had a drug-addicted mother preoccupied with her own needs.”

While Friedman thinks that innate temperament plays a part in how individuals view the world, she also believes that much of our worldview is learned. “I knew a family in which the mother was diagnosed with paranoid psychosis,” Friedman says. “Her three sons were not psychotic, yet they were mistrustful and suspicious of others. They habitually interpreted malicious intent from other people even when none was intended.”

The same effect also works in reverse, Friedman says—in her practice, she also encounters extraordinarily resilient adolescents and parents. “On the surface, resilience seems to derive from innate qualities,” she says, “yet if you delve into the backgrounds of resilient children, you find that many of them have had nurturance, if not from parents, then from grandparents, other family members, or adult friends.”

Even children with disabilities and chronic diseases follow this model, Friedman notes. “Children with illnesses may be sad if they are admitted to the hospital frequently, but generally happy when doing well medically—even though they know that the next episode is just around the corner,” she says. “A chronically ill child with nurturance and support can be happier than a healthy child without nurturance.”