Monday, July 8, 2013

The Ultimate Bonding Model

"Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." – Margaret Mead
Only a few years ago I discovered what I believe is the ultimate model of bonding. This way of life was researched first by Dr. Margaret Mead in her work in New Guinea during the 1950s and written about in her numerous books and papers. She was the first anthropologist to observe aboriginal grand-mothers re-lactating and nursing their grandchildren in order to give their own daughters the rest they needed after childbirth. Following her lead came along a little-known, obscure explorer named Jean Liedloff (1926 – 2011). She only wrote one book during her career. A former model for Vogue in Paris, Leidloff (above) was the most unlikely non-scholar to make the discoveries that she did. Her story is an incredible series of events that eventually brought her keen mind to the brilliant, seminal work on bonding or maternal-infant attachment that she did, though she looked at it rather as a way of life to preserve the species and not as a single commodity that could be incorporated into one’s lifestyle in order enhance the intelligence or well-being of children. To her it was a journey back to the Stone Age, literally.     
An obituary says that she died at the age of 84 in the pre-dawn hours on her houseboat where she lived with her Abyssinian cat named Tulip in Sausalito, California on March 15, 2011. Ms. Liedloff was born on November 26th, 1926 in New York City. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and graduated from Drew Seminary for Young Women. She went on to attend Cornell University for one year. In 1951 she traveled to Europe. Once there she began working as a model for Paris Vogue. She learned French, Italian and Spanish, without formal language studies and began taking occasional work as an interpreter.

With letters of introduction from her elite connections, Jean traveled to Florence, Germany and the French Riviera. In high-society at that time, the gossip of the day was the “Party of the Century.” Crowned heads of state, movie stars, dignitaries, artists, writers and everybody who was anybody had been invited to Palazzo Labia for a masquerade ball hosted by millionaire Carlos de Beistegui, a well-known flamboyant character. It was at the ball that Jean met the two Italians who invited her to join them on a hair-brained scheme to mine for diamonds in the South American jungle which would soon seal her destiny as an explorer.
Over the next several years Ms. Liedloff made five expeditions to Venezuela, first to hunt for diamonds (they did find a few, by the way) and then to spend more than two and a half years among aboriginal tribes deep in the rainforest. She returned to New York and Rome during the intervals of her explorations and gained considerable attention for her adventures. She began to meet with Margaret Mead and many other intellectual elite of that era, some of whom questioned what a young woman without a college degree could possibly have to say. Ms. Liedloff’s response was unapologetic. She believed her unlettered status allowed her mind to remain free of constructs that could have hindered her capacity to see the Indians and learn from that experience.
Her friend and editor of the Paris Review, George Plimpton encouraged her to write a book as her unique insights she’d gained from living amongst the Yequana and the Sanema tribal groups began to coalesce into an astounding work on human nature. Ms. Liedloff's astute observations and keen insight eventually gave birth to The Continuum Concept, which was first published in 1975 by Duckworth of London, with later editions done by Perseus Books, of Reading, Massachusetts. The book and Ms. Liedloff's original genius garnered considerable recognition from names such as Gloria Steinem, Jonas Salk, George Leonard (Esalen Institute), Frank Lake (Primal Integration Therapy), Adam Yarmolinsky (the Kennedy Brain Trust), artist Andrew Wyeth, and even legendary singer-songwriter John Lennon who found in her words deeply comforting "home truths." In the first segment of their documentary film, Bringing up Baby, Tamsin Greig, Anna Davies, Daisy Goodwin, Tanya Shaw and Sam Grace show some actual footage of Jean Liedlff during one of her expeditions to the Yequana people. The film* documents three parenting “experts” mentoring 6 families from the day they bring their babies home from the hospital. Three distinct styles are applied and the outcomes rated after several months; a very ‘telling’ message. 
Ms. Liedloff clarifies and champions what she termed the "in-arms phase." The vital importance of this period in a child's life has never been more clearly understood and articulated as it was by this woman whose own childhood had left her bereft of the much-needed living connection with mother that secures a growing infant's sense of being both worthy and welcome. Mothering Magazine named Ms. Liedloff a "Living Treasure" in 2007, and although she never had children of her own, she fully embraced motherhood and experienced it vicariously by encouraging millions of mothers to follow nature's clear and unambiguous imperatives. She supported thousands of parents directly through phone consultations and writings, and remained in touch with her many followers and devoted friends from around the world throughout her final days. I personally consider her the foremost authority on bonding and credit her with the most complete description of what bonding and mother-infant attachment should look like.         
So, what was she seeing in the jungles of Venezuela? In her own words, “Birth cannot be thought of as marking a baby’s completion like the end of an assembly line, for some complements have already been ‘born’ in the womb and others will not become operative until later. Fresh from the series of expectations and their fulfillments in the womb, the newborn is expectant, or more accurately, certain that his next requirements will also be met. What happens next? Through tens of millions of generations, what happens is the momentous transfer from the entirely alive surrounding inside the mother’s body to a partly live one outside it. Though her all-giving body is there and her supporting arms as well, there is a great deal of lifeless, alien air touching the infant’s body. But he is ready for that too; his place in arms is the expected place, known to his inmost sense as his place, and what he experiences while he is in arms is acceptable to his continuum, fulfills his current needs and contributes correctly to his development. He cannot qualify his impression of how things are. Either they are right or not right.         
"Requirements are strict at this early date. As we have seen, he cannot hope, if he is uncomfortable now, that he will be comfortable later. He cannot reason that ‘mother will be right back’ when she leaves him [especially if she doesn’t answer his cries which are his only means of communicating with the universe.] The world has suddenly gone wrong, conditions are intolerable. He hears and accepts his own weeping but although his mother knows the sound and its meaning since time immemorial, and so does any child or adult who hears it, he does not. He  senses only  that it is a positive action toward setting things right, but if he is left to cry too long, if the response it is meant to elicit does not come, that feeling departs as well, giving way to utter bleakness without time or hope. When his mother does come to him, he simply feels right, he is not aware that she had been away, nor does he remember having cried. He is reconnected to his lifeline and his environment now meets his expectations. When he is abandoned, put out of his continuum or correct experience, nothing is acceptable and nothing accepted. Want is all there is, there is nothing to use, to grow on, to fulfill the requirement for experience, for the experiences must be the expected ones and nothing in his evolving ancestors’ experience has prepared him to be left alone, asleep or awake, and even less to be left alone to cry. The feeling appropriate to an infant in arms is his feeling or rightness, or essential goodness."
Let us continue by saying what she was not seeing. Liedloff was amazed to watch infants and toddlers of the Yequana Native People and not see tantrums, crying babies, fussy flailing children arching their backs or whining for what they wanted. Rather the infants were ‘soft’, easy to carry, non-demanding. Unlike Western babies, they didn’t need to ‘cry it out’ when they were tired. They also didn’t need to be entertained 24-7. They were simply brought along wherever the mother or person caring for them needed to be throughout the day. They slept with their mothers, rode on her hip or was carried until they were old enough to crawl those first few tentative steps away from her, but that only happened through the child’s initiation, not the parent’s. The babies appeared to be so secure through this ‘in arms’ way of life that they ventured farther afield as they matured into very independent, autonomous little people. They knew their place ‘in arms’ was still there to check back to should they need it. Rather than being constantly indulged and catered to, they were simply part of the continuum of life that the former generations had experienced.

It was enough stimulation for one day just being brought along while his mother worked, bathed in the river, walked through the jungle, prepared food, ate, and visited with other members of the tribe. He didn’t appear to need toys, specific games, educational ‘moments’, or even extra attention. He was simply there, absorbing all that was going on around him; learning what he needed to learn, observing what he needed to understand for his own development. His mother wasn’t bored to tears, alone with a baby at home day after day. She didn’t spend her days in baby-only activities. She interacted with her peers constantly. She didn’t shift her life from a career with purpose to a stay-at-home lonely mother. Her life went on. The only difference was that she was toting along a normally silent partner now. He would signal that he wanted to eat and she hardly had to wonder what his needs were. It did not occur to her to offer him different options for his choosing. He had enough to do just watching the busy lives of his tribe while he went along for the ride. This was rightness. This was his place in the continuum. He was welcomed into the inner circle of his people. He was not relegated to the periphery. He slept, ate and observed.        
There were more than enough interesting sights and sounds to stimulate his little brain. His need for touch continued from the moment he left the womb. There was never a question whether he was bonding with his mother and the wider family. And there was never a question of his mother not feeling fulfilled. Her life as an adult continued. No records of postpartum depression here. This is very important. We in the Western World simply take it for granted that the new mother will become isolated from her former life and career once her baby is born. It will become extremely hard to arrange meetings with her friends, much less daily interaction. She will be interacting with only one person for the majority her waking time – her baby. All of her activities will be aimed at pleasing or placating this little person. Of course, we hope that she will be in love with him, but very few of her needs will be met in this arrangement. Play dates will put her back in contact with other mothers but they will most likely compare the latest  educational toys or discuss vaccines or baby food – not particularly stimulating adult conversation.      
Studies have been done measuring mothers’ hormone levels after birth, and those who kept their babies very close or wore their babies actually experienced better levels of hormonal activity postpartum compared to mothers who followed a more Western or traditional mode of newborn care and had their babies spend time throughout the day in a crib or cradle. Nature, it appears, had not just our babies’ welfare in mind when She gave us such helpless infants but She also had a plan for a mother’s recovery in the weeks and months after birth. It would be interesting to study the occurrence of postpartum depression in mothers who practice an ‘in arms’ continuum style of mothering.
          This is so very similar to my own observations while living with Hmong immigrants in the 1970s and ‘80s. (See the Primitive Bonding story at this blog in the June story list.) My own babies also felt ‘soft’ rather than fussy and stiff, which was Ms. Liedloff’s experience comparing Western babies to those she observed during her expeditions.
More reading about continuum bonding:
See: for more photos from Jean Liedloff

Having a highly trained obstetrical surgeon attend a normal birth is analogous to having a pediatric surgeon babysit a healthy 2 year old. ~ M. Wagner

STAY TUNED... This and other stories will be appearing the book, Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World:§ Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century,© or "Call the Doula! a diary"© both pending by Stephanie Sorensen

§This phrase was first coined by Dr. James McKenna, used here with permission and gratitude for his work. A world-renowned expert on infant sleep – in particular the practice of bed sharing, he is studying SIDS and co-sleeping at his mother-infant sleep lab at Notre Dame University. He is the author of “Sleeping With Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping,” 2007, Platypus Media, Washington, D.C.

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