Western family culture is in breakdown.
The whole of Western industrialized culture is impacted by the nuclear family disaster and the disappearance of community structures. We are suffering from an epic state of disconnection, violence, addiction, depression, emotional pain, crises, and chaos. A lot of hurting is going on in our culture—people who are hurting, hurt other people.
To understand this phenomenon more fully, check out the book, Why Dads Leave, which describes many of the types of disconnection that can be activated within a couple-ship, especially when roots are newly forming for an addition to the family—the sweet and innocent infant. That little being can stir things up!
When a family adds a new member, the dynamics shift dramatically and can trigger old wounds—old traumas (including hidden or misunderstood generational trauma), and unhealthy dynamics like co-dependency and other dysfunctions.
In our “advanced,” industrialized culture, the mother/baby unit has become far removed from the center of the community. In fact, mother/baby units are often expected to be quiet and relatively unseen, with nursing corners hidden away and play areas, if available, off to a side or in a corner. While birth can be a celebration, caring for mother/baby and caring for growing families is neither celebrated nor prioritized. With unawareness of the mother/baby unit as the center of a society, the needs of the mother and baby can’t be met, and the needs of the father fall even farther behind.
The societal impact on mothers without adequate resources is huge. As a result, far too many new parents slide down the pain side of the Pain-to-Joy Connection Continuum.
A dad leaves a family, emotionally or physically, for a vast range of reasons—but at the core it is because his needs are not being met. Let’s look further into how this happens.
To understand the whole picture, we’ll start with an historical perspective.
Our Mammalian History
Mammals arose 60 million years ago, after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Mammals were unique in that they nursed and nurtured their young, slept together, and mostly lived in bands.
Humanoids arose in the last million years. They cared for their young in the same ways.
Humanoids had a new, developing mammalian brain, formed atop the old reptilian brain, and began to experience emotions and intuition, as well as a drive to connect with others.
It’s the unique ability of this feeling-brain (the limbic brain) that creates resonance between individuals and ultimately fosters bonding. The limbic brain is what draws us to one another and regulates much of our behavior, especially our social behaviors.
As a result, the most successful emerging humans lived in tribes and villages, and maintained extended families.
Collective social structures are actually requirements for optimal human development and secure connection.
Because humans lived closely together, the benefits of community were available for most of our time on earth—the past 200 millennia—and we were able to thrive.
The Nuclear Family
Unfortunately the industrial revolution eroded much of the village way of life, forcing families and villages to break down into smaller living units, housed in squalid urban tenements, working long hours away from family members.
More recently, the mobility of jobs further tore apart what may have remained of extended families, with close relatives often living hundreds of miles apart. This aberration—the nuclear family experiment—is only a little over 100 years old, yet is now seen as normal. At this point it is the nuclear family disaster.
It is not healthy. Far from it.
From decades of wellness research, and especially infant wellness, John Travis, MD, asserts it takes a minimum of 3.87 adults per infant to adequately meet a family’s needs. Doing this math for a nuclear family is very simple—and sad.
Even the most basic care, like holding an infant, requires actual human arms. And the nearly constant motion/rocking of being held, like that experienced in the womb, is needed for an infant to feel worthy and welcome. It’s also required for optimal nervous system development.1
This devastating lack of holding babies in the nuclear family disaster has seriously eroded the “in arms” period of development—also referred to as the fourth trimester or the primal period. Our feeble efforts to make up for this arms shortage has led to a variety of damaging substitutes such as cradles, cribs, prams, strollers, highchairs, and walkers. These lifeless containers are a far cry from human arms, and ultimately anchor us in a permanent sense of separation.
Additionally, the cultural discouragement of breastfeeding has led to further disconnection, with the substitution of blankets, stuffed animals, and bottles to replace the comfort of a warm breast and healthy mother’s milk.
Breastfeeding comforts as much as it nourishes. Historically, the normal weaning age for humans was between 4 and 7 years. Today most babies, if they are breastfed at all, are weaned at 6 weeks to 6 months despite the World Health Organization recommendation of 2+ years. Many mothers must return to jobs outside the home, and are unable to see or hold their infants for long periods of time, with nursing becoming impossible.
Another destructive factor is sleeping alone, which greatly disconnects an infant. A baby will eventually give up crying for connection (“crying ‘it’ out”) and slip into despair and resignation. This is mistakenly mislabeled as “self-soothing.” An infant cannot self-sooth. Infants are dependent and become dis-regulated when left alone. A part of their nervous system will shut down. Sleeping alone is neither normal nor healthy for an infant.2
Making Matters Worse
Another misstep in our history is routine medicalized birth. Within just the past 80 years, we have created a birthing system that intervenes unnecessarily about 90% of the time. Home births are well documented to be safer and far better for the baby’s first experiences, but so much fear of birth has been created that few women realize this. While crucial for 5–10% of births that are considered to be high-risk, these same interventions disrupt the normal bonding process of birth for mom and baby, and lead to birth trauma.
Today’s family life with a newborn is more than strained when we consider the lack of community support‑along with the mostly-hidden trauma that modern birth brings to the whole family. The re-stimulation of parents’ hidden memories, even if they are not recognized as memories—means trauma can quietly, but insistently, recur in a new way.
The lack of constant movement, touch, and the familiar scent of mother disrupts an infant’s experience of safety, trust, and love. This disruption leads to a disconnected child with a fundamental breakdown of normal, healthy brain development.
The demands of an infant exhaust the mother and father physically and emotionally—further eroding the couple’s connection.
We ignore our mammalian heritage at our own peril.
While we don’t consciously remember our earlier devastating losses, or intellectually “notice” our deep longing for connection, our bodies never forget them.
This great, deep “missing” (a painful longing for our unmet needs to be met) directly results in the depression, violence, addiction, chronic illness, fundamentalism, materialism/greed, MPAS, and ecocide we see all around us today.3,4
We cannot live only for ourselves.
A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.
— Herman Melville
Having many people involved in the life of a new baby is absolutely essential. It is how we are built to live. We must remember to honor our mammalian roots and return to a state of individual and collective health.
1 Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children, Blueprint, atlc.org.
2 Schore, Daniel, Affect Regulation and the Origins of Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development, Routledge, 2015.
3 Travis, John W, MD, MPH
4 Prescott, JW, “How Culture Shapes The Developing Brain And The Future Of Humanity”, Kindred Media