Mean mothers are often the daughters of mean or highly ambivalent mothers, as my own mother was – a negative bond passed on from generation to generation, without acknowledgement or analysis. Over the past forty years, attachment theory –which started with the observation of monkey mothers and their offspring, and then expanded to human mothers and infants – has offered a reliable explanation for why some families will engender a mother line of pain. "Ghosts in the nursery" was the phrase Dr. Selma Fraiberg coined in the 1970s to describe how generation after generation of women were bound to repeat the same patterns of maternal behavior, no matter how sincerely they wanted to mother their children differently from their own mothers. As Fraiberg wrote, "While none has been issued an invitation, the ghosts take up residence and conduct the rehearsal of a family tragedy from a tattered script." Patterns of relationship in families are tenacious precisely because they are establish both on a behavioral and physical level; research on the development of the brain during infancy and childhood, and the formation of the self, has both confirmed the basic tenets of attachment theory and expanded its implications. By studying infant interactions with their mothers in a tightly controlled laboratory setting, Mary Ainsworth was able to categorize the type of relationship a child enjoyed with her mother or primary caregiver as either "securely attached" or "insecurely attached." The model used, the so-called "strange situation," was relatively simple, and her results have been duplicated in hundreds of studies since. The mother and infant arrive in the lab together. Within a short period of time, the mother departs, leaving the baby with an adult who, while caring, is nonetheless a stranger to the child. What happened when the mother returned was the focus of Ainsworth's study.
As she expected, the majority of children acted like the baby monkeys she'd studied; they were distressed by their mothers' absence and were immediately comforted when they returned. These children rushed to their mothers, literally flung themselves into their mothers' arms and looked into their eyes, reestablishing both physical and psychological contact. But to Ainsworth's surprise, some children didn't behave in this way. Some seemed uncomfortable when their mothers were with them, showed little distress when their mothers left, and derived no comfort when they returned. Others showed no emotion when their mothers left and, upon their return, avoided all contact with them. The first group of children were those Ainsworth labeled "securely attached." Their mothers were women who were attuned to their children's needs and were capable of responding to those emotional and physical needs on a consistent basis. Seen through the lens of brain development, Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed. explain that attachment is a system of the inner brain that evolved to keep human children safe because of the length of time it takes to reach maturity. Attachment has three effects: first, it enables the child to seek proximity to the parent; second, to go to the parent for comfort in times of distress; and third, to internalize the relationship with the mother as an internal model of a secure base. It is this "secure base" which will serve as a template for friendships and relationships in adult life.