Never miss an opportunity to hold a baby

Staff writer, Daily Progress
Charlottesville, VA
Sunday May 12, 1998

For the better part of a minute, Mary D. Salter Ainsworth pondered the question in silence. She rolled the blue stone on her necklace between her fingers and gazed at a painting of cattails on her sitting room wail. The retired psychologist isn't known for coming to quick conclusions or offering fast answers to questions that she feels are important.

"Well, I guess the thing that I'm the most proud of about my life's work is that my findings continue to be supported," Ainsworth said, nodding toward a nearby book, "Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love."

"Even though that's an old book and the product of my first real study, what I put down in it is still relevant. What I started off to do was study newborns and see how mothers and their babies got along during the first and 8ec-ond years of life.

"The details of what I found have essentially held water over the years. Yes, yes, I'm proud of that."

Ainsworth patted the arm of her chair in a self-congratulatory gesture befitting an 82-year-old professor emeritus of the University of Virginia. Many psychologists and pediatric doctors feel she richly deserves a pat on the back from parents and children worldwide.

Each Mother's Day, sons and daughters throughout the nation reflect on what their mothers mean to them.

Ainsworth never had a child of her own; her only pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage. But according to Robert Marvin, clinical psychologist in pediatric psychology at the Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center and co-director of the Child-Parent Attachment Project, many of her former students - including himself - have deep feelings for her.

"Not only was Mary a wonderful teacher and researcher, but she was like a mother to us," said Marvin, who first met Ainsworth in 1962 when he was a student at Johns Hopkins University

"She was very supportive, but she would also give us a kick in the pants when we needed it. She never had babies of her own, but in a very real sense, she has sons and daughters throughout the field of psychology who love her very much."

From remote villages in Uganda to controlled clinical situati~ns in London and the United States, Ainsworth studied the everyday interaction between mothers and their babies.

As her book on the mothers and babies of Uganda shows, her research was meticulous, thoughtful and precise. Seemingly, even the most subtle gesture did .not escape her watchful eyes.

"Doctor Ainsworth's work was very important and set off a great amount of other studies," said E. Mavis Hetherington, internationally known psychology professor at UVa, who studies the effects of divorce, remarriage and stepfamilies on children.

"Her work generated hundreds of studies having' to do with the importance of early childhood relationships. She also made tremendous contributions by distinguishing between the different kinds of attachments.

"Her studies resulted in some of the most generative works in the field of psychology."

Ainsworth generated a wealth of writings herself. In addition to "Infancy in Uganda", she. wrote "Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation." She also produced many individual monographs and papers during her career.

Her papers have dealt with subjects from infant crying and maternal responsiveness to the effects of mother-child separation. After studying mother-child interactions for decades, Ainsworth said she feels the most important ingredient in producing a secure1 well-adjusted child is "tender, loving care."

"My advice to mothers is not to miss an opportunity to show affection to their babies," Ainsworth said. "Don't hesitate to pick the baby up when he wants to be picked up.

"And don't feel you have to put him down because it's not good for him to be fussed over. It's all right to fuss over your babies, especially during their first year of life.

"It's almost as if you wait for the baby to give the signals, and then you respond to the signals. Responding to infant signals fosters a secure infant who in later months does not mind being put down and who will independently explore his environment."

Marvin feels that concept was one of the most important things he learned from Ainsworth.

"Mary showed us how children use their parents as a secure base from where they can move off; develop, explore and become self-reliant," Mavin said.

"She introduced this amazingly complex paradox in being a good parent. That is: The more sensitive and close you are to your baby, the more you facilitate the baby to grow and eventually move off and become self-reliant."

Ainsworth was born in Glendale, Ohio, in 1913. Her family moved to Toronto when she was 4, and that's where she grew up.

She received her bachelor's in psychology from the University of Toronto in 1935 and her doctorate in 1939.

"The plan my parents had for me and my two younger sisters was to go to college and get our degrees," Ainsworth said. Then it would be nice to have a little career in some office, followed by getting married, having babies and staying home.

"That plan worked perfectly for my younger sisters, but it didn't work for me. To begin with, it took me a long time to get married.

"After I got my doctorate degree, I was hired at the university as a staff member. When World War II broke out, most of the men left for the service, and I filled a position as a lecturer in the psychology department."

In 1942 Ainsworth decided she wanted to be "where the action was" and joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps. Although she didn't get to the action, she did perform important work in personnel selection.

After the war ended, Ainsworth worked for a year as superintendent of women's rehabilitation for the Canadian Department of Veterans' Affairs. In 1946 she returned to the University of Toronto as an assistant professor and taught courses ranging from experimental psychology to personality theory and assessment.

In addition to teaching, Ainsworth did research in human security. Her lifelong research into mother-child relationships started shortly after she married Leonard Ainsworth in 1950.

After moving to England, where her husband attended the University of London, Ainsworth landed a job at the Tavistock Clinic. She joined a team of researchers directed by John Bowlby.

The team was investigating the effects on personality development in young children when they were separated from their mothers for extended periods of time.

Ainsworth said her research at the Tavistock Clinic profoundly influenced her later work.

"The emphasis on the research I did at the clinic was on the effect hospitalization had on very young children," Ainsworth said. "What we found was that it truly made a big difference when the child saw very little of his mother for long periods of time.

"At first the separation was something that was very hurtful, and the children were very unhappy and cried a lot. But after a few weeks in the hospital, as though they couldn't stand it anymore, they just closed the door psychologically.

"At first the child wanted to be with the mother and hug them. But if they Wwon’t see their mother for as few weeks, they would be completely indifferent to her when she did arrive."

The discoveries that Ainsworth and Bowlby made during their research had a major effect worldwide.

"Before Mary and Bowlby did their work on hospitalized children, mothers were not allowed to stay with their babies in the hospital," Marvin said. "They found that this sort of separation was psychologically dangerous for the babies. This led to hospitals around the world changing their policies so parents could remain with their children.

"The same work led to a shift from orphan-ages to foster homes. Mary has done more in the field of mother-child relationships than anyone else I can think of in the last 40 or 50 years."

Marvin said Ainsworth's work at Tavistock showed the importance of the bond between mother and child, particularly during the first year. He said her later work in Uganda went far in explaining how this bond is formed.

Ainsworth's accompanied her husband to Uganda in 1954 after he got a job as a psychologist with the East African Institute for Social Research in Kampala.

Not one to remain idle for long, Ainsworth drummed up support for a project to study the interaction of Ugandan mothers with their babies.

"My study in Africa derived from my work in London," Ainsworth said. "Everyone expected the villagers to be unfriendly toward me, but when the women found out what the situation was, they were really interested in taking part in the program.

"The project consisted of studying 28 babies as they developed over a period of months. I drove an elderly Peugeot from village to village.

"I would visit the families in the study and watch the babies and mothers interact. Generally, what I found with Ugandan mothers applies to mothers around the world. Actually, there were far more similarities than I had expected."

In 1955 Ainsworth and her husband moved to Baltimore, and she was hired as a clinical psychologist in the psychology department at Johns Hopkins. She continued her research on mother-child interactions and pioneered a study of mothers and children in their homes.

Marvin worked as a research assistant to Ainsworth during the mid-'60s. When he first met Ainsworth, Marvin said, he was so impressed that he changed his major from physics to psychology.

"For three years I bugged Mary to let me be one of her research assistants," Marvin said. "She finally agreed1 and what she taught me has been just invaluable in my work.

"She was just amazing, and her special magic was going into people's homes and making the family feel comfortable. She was so unobtrusive that everyone went about their business in a normal way.

"She was working in an area of child development that was breaking new ground constantly. And while she was doing this, she taught me the first lesson of any science -watch, watch, watch."

This pioneering work didn't come without a personal cost.

"Mary is a very brave woman," Marvin said. "She was a woman in a male-dominated univer sity who was creating a whole new approach to studying the relationship between mother and child.

"Because of this, she got clobbered by the scientific community at large. I know that she was hurt by this, but she didn't become bitter, and just went about her work.

"She had a tough row to hoe, but with the support of Bowlby and her students, she kept up the struggle. And the proof that she was right is in the pudding."

As Ainsworth's research withstood close scrutiny and passed the test of time, Marvin said, she began to be showered by awards from the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Ainsworth continued her work when she moved to UVa in 1974 first as a visiting professor, then as fellow of the Center for Advanced Study.

"At the time I came to Uva, Johns Hopkins retired people early," Ainsworth said. "1was getting pretty close to 60 and was nowhere near wanting to stop, so I thought I might look around.

"A person who had been the chairman of the psychology department at Johns Hopkins had come here to UVa a few years before. I phoned him and asked if it would be OK to spend a sabbatical at UVa.

"He said that would be great. I figured if I liked the university and it liked me, it would be a good place to come. Obviously, we liked each other very much."

While at UVa, Ainsworth served as the president of the Society for Research in Child Development from 1977 to 1979. Although she retired in 1984, she continues giving advice and passing on knowledge to this day.

"I continued my mother-child relationship work here, but I never finished it," Ainsworth said. You can't finish something like that, it has to go on and on.

Ainsworth settled back in her chair and, for a moment, became reflective once again. Her fingers went back to the stones on her necklace.

"Quite a lot of my wanting my own child played into my life work," Ainsworth said. "I wouldn't have suspected that at the time, but I can see it now.

"If I was encouraged at all, I'd pick up a baby, hold it, bounce it on my lap and display affection. I have great confidence in the truth of what I've found in my work.

"That’s why I tell people never to miss an opportunity to hold a baby."

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