The Attachment Imperative: Parental Experiences of Relation‐making in a Danish Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

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In this article, we explore how parents establish relations with extremely premature infants whose lives and futures are uncertain. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in a Danish Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), we engage recent discussions of the limits of conventional anthropological thinking on social relations and point to the productive aspects of practices of distance and detachment. We show that while the NICU upholds an imperative of attachment independently of the infant’s chances of survival, for parents, attachment is contingent on certain hesitations in relation to their infant. We argue that there are nuances in practices of relationmaking in need of more attention (i.e., the nexus of attachment and detachment). Refraining from touching, holding, and feeding their infants during critical periods, the parents enact detachment as integral to their practices of attachment. Such “cuts” in parent–infant relations become steps on the way to securing the infant’s survival and making kin(ship). We conclude that although infants may be articulated as “maybe‐lives” by staff, in the NICU as well as in Danish society, the ideal of attachment appears to leave little room for “maybe‐parents.”

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