Attachment to significant others is considered to be a universal phenomenon amongst people of all races, cultures and ethnicities, from birth and throughout life. The quality of attachment behaviours of the mother affects the psychological and social functioning of the infant and child. An understanding of maternal and infant attachment behaviours and their quality is key to the social work profession and to mental health practitioners working with children and families. Discovering more about this effect in the South African socio-cultural context therefore formed the rationale for this study.
In this study, the mixed methods research approach was applied as it comprises both a qualitative and a quantitative component. The mixed methods approach led to a wider, more in-depth analysis of the research problem.
A qualitative approach was applied in order to understand the experience of mothers attaching to their infants in the different cultures represented in South Africa. A quantitative approach was applied when the self-developed measuring instrument was used to observe and measure maternal attachment behaviours in different cultures. Scientific accuracy was claimed, with the application of the measuring instrument within a quantitative approach in order to produce accurate and generalisable findings.
The empirical study was started with a qualitative approach: rich data were collected through an extensive literature review, which assisted in compiling suitable questions to construct the questionnaires for the participants. The qualitative data were first collected for phase 1, followed by the quantitative data in phase 2. The process was therefore one of sequential timing within the exploratory mixed methods design. Combining the two datasets provided a deeper understanding of the problem.
From the findings and conclusions in this research, it was apparent that the attachment behaviours of the mother-infant dyad are affected by the reciprocal influences of people in their environmental systems. Alongside this finding, the instinctual need for mothers to attach to their infants was highly valued and recognised by many participants from the represented South African cultures. The importance of maternal sensitivity towards their infants was appreciated by the participants, although within certain limitations as expressed by the values of not spoiling the infant and encouraging independence in the infant. The importance of physical care more than emotional care of the infants was prioritised by many participants. Social adversities and modern lifestyles were found to play a significant role in participants valuing the physical care of their infants over emotional bonding and attachment experiences with them. Extended family networks, and their cultures, were found to contribute strongly to the raising of infants in South Africa and to the transference of parenting norms, values and practices from one generation to the next. The participants from the represented cultures benefitted from and enjoyed the multi-cultural group discussions in the parenting programme, realising that they are not alone but more similar in many more respects than was initially thought.
Attachment-based programmes in South Africa need to focus on transferring the importance of sensitive, responsive maternal care within a culturally sensitive framework. Attachment in a South African context should be observed and measured with careful attention to variance in certain indicators, due to the effect of socio-cultural factors. The contemporary mother of today is influenced by diverse socio-cultural factors within the environment that affect her maternal behaviours and, in turn, the secure base of the infant she raises.