Apart from hear­ing from my broth­er that my father had sud­den­ly died, the most painful words I’ve ever heard are “Will you be my Mummy?”

I’ve men­tioned before that the lit­tle girl who asked me that ques­tion was just over 4 1/2 years old. I had cared for her part-time in her home from the time she was 15 months old.

When she asked me that ques­tion it was the first time I’d seen her in a cou­ple of months — since she had moved away with her fam­i­ly. We were only togeth­er for a cou­ple of days.

My imme­di­ate response was “No, you have a Mum­my”. Which of course brought dis­ap­point­ment and so many tears. For her a good thing, because she had sel­dom shed tears from true emotion. 

After my dis­ser­ta­tion on how won­der­ful her real moth­er was and how much she loved her – you know, the tale all care­givers have to give the child who just yearns for its busy work­ing mother’s time and love!! — she calmed down and accept­ed the fact that I would always be her friend and that we could write to each oth­er and send pho­tos and draw­ings back and forth by mail.

Dur­ing that same vis­it she need­ed a lot of ‘baby’ time. As a non-hug­ging (unat­tached) baby I real­ized that she des­per­ate­ly need­ed the calm of being a baby – real­ly just lay­ing her head on my lap – some­thing she had nev­er ever received from her fam­i­ly and some­thing she had nev­er been able to ‘receive’ before. I saw it as major ther­a­py for her, one she designed of her own accord.

Her per­cep­tive sis­ter, who was almost 3, was the one who said “I am nev­er going to see you again”. Once again I reas­sured her that we would always be friends and that I would see her when she vis­it­ed her grand­moth­er. That has only hap­pened twice but they were both per­fect­ly nat­ur­al towards me.

But it goes to the nat­ur­al attach­ment we had formed for each other.

Every care­giv­er knows they can’t become too attached to their charges. And yet it is that very attach­ment which makes us human beings and ensures that babies thrive, old peo­ple age calm­ly and the sick become well, or at least be the best they can be. It involves nur­tur­ing, touch and a lit­tle bit of nudg­ing thrown in for good measure. 

Attach­ment ensures the sur­vival of the care­giv­er too. Their lives are rich­er for the attach­ments they form.

I under­stand attach­ment more than ever before. We are a very attached fam­i­ly that could not have sur­vived trau­ma with­out our pow­er­ful attach­ment for each other.

Attach­ment is freely giv­en on both sides but as we get old­er we need to main­tain it in the light of the stress­es and dra­mas of mod­ern living.

I now believe that lack of attach­ment is at the root of most devel­op­men­tal and lan­guage delays that can­not oth­er­wise be fathomed.

Detach­ment comes very eas­i­ly to society. 

It comes from: 

* Fathers who push their chil­dren on a swing and don’t say a word to them.

* ‘Activity cen­ter­s’ where a child can be ‘anchored’ even before its legs are strong enough to hold it up. 

* TV, edu­ca­tion­al videos/DVDs where­in the sales pitch is such that par­ents are con­vinced they must be good for their child.

* Strollers that face the child away from the per­son pushing.

* Rid­ing in cars with the chil­dren in the back seat in their car seats (I agree with the safe­ty fac­tors, I just don’t agree with say­ing ‘I went out to spend one-on-one time with my child and we had a love­ly drive’!!!!).

* Going for a ‘walk’ with your child and pulling them in a wag­on – the child nev­er sees your face. Like­wise being on your cell phone on that walk.

* Bounc­ing seats that sit in doorways.

* Large stuffed ani­mals that sub­sti­tute for human hug­ging in times of distress.

* Gates used in a house to cage chil­dren in their room rather than pro­tect­ing a child from danger.

* A child bot­tle-feed­ing itself at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble age.

* Activ­i­ty mats where a baby is laid on its back for long peri­ods of time to watch objects jig­gle above its head.

* Baby seats or swings that mechan­i­cal­ly jig­gle or swing and that can con­tain an infant for most of the day.

* Any­thing that enables a par­ent or a care­giv­er not to have phys­i­cal con­tact with their child dur­ing the day.

With the appro­pri­ate attach­ment chil­dren learn to speak, sing and behave in a time­ly and social­ly appro­pri­ate fash­ion. Attach­ment reduces tantrums and trauma.

But most of all attach­ment reas­sures infants, chil­dren, teenagers and the rest of us, that we belong and gives us life-long strength in times of trou­ble and trauma.

When a child asks ‘Will you be my Mummy?” she is ask­ing for reas­sur­ance of your pres­ence in her life. A reas­sur­ing pres­ence that she knows she doesn’t have with­out you. 

A friend may be fine but it isn’t a sub­sti­tute for real mothering.