For Comfort, Some Adults Still Turn To Baby Blanket
Ashlie Mercer is 24 years old, and owns a coffee shop in Seattle. By all appearances, she has made a successful transition into adulthood, except for one small vestige of her youth: her blanket.
When Mercer was a baby, her parents bought her a Vellux blanket — the plush kind often found in hotel rooms. For as long as she can remember, she’s been hooked on her blanket. “Everyone who knows me knows how much I love my blanket,” she said in an e-mail interview.
Mercer’s gone through four or five — replacing them with an identical match when they become too tattered and begin shedding around the house. She keeps an old one in a Ziploc bag in her closet, unwilling to part with it. She would have kept all of them, except her mother threw them in the garbage when she was away from home. Mercer didn’t blame her mom for doing this — they were making a mess — but she made sure to stash her latest castoff so it would not meet a similar fate.
Mercer has had her current blanket for four years, and she admits that it gives her an unmatchable sense of comfort. “I don’t wash it very often because it has my distinct smell on it,” she said. “It reminds me of home, so I don’t like to wash it and lose that smell.”
No one knows how many adults cling to their blankets or teddy bears from childhood, but those who do say they’re not alone, and psychologists are familiar with the phenomenon and have their own theories about why it happens.
“It’s not like flipping a toggle switch from connected to separate,” said Jay S. Kwawer, director of the William Alanson White psychoanalytic institute in New York City. “When this developmental progression is navigated well,” Kwawer said, “the transitional object is discarded because it’s outlived its usefulness.”
He said that when an attachment to a transitional object survives the typical age range, it can be a warning sign about problems with relationships. “In the absence of an emotional ability to relate to another person in a consistent way that provides security or freedom to separate, an inanimate object is like a stand-in.”
Mercer acknowledges that some people might assume that her attachment to her blanket indicates psychological problems, but she’s still not ashamed. “I’m sure people think I’m weird but don’t voice it,” she said. “I take it everywhere with me. I sleep with it and take it to work.” The only place it doesn’t go, she said, is into stores and other public places.
Steve and Marcy have a 27-year-old daughter — a graduate student at an Ivy League university. Their daughter asked them to conceal their last name because she would be embarrassed if anyone knew about her attachment to her childhood blanket.
“Initially it was just her blanket, like a baby blanket,” said her father, a dentist in New Jersey. “But as time went by, we realized her attachment was a lot stronger than we thought.”
Steve and his wife bought their daughter the blanket when she first got a bed — at around 2 years old — and she still clings to it. They didn’t think much of her attachment to it when she was young, but with time, they realized just how strong the connection was. “When she went to away to camp, she made us mail it to her,” said her mother, an anesthesiologist. Steve remembers her sitting with the blanket when she was in high school while doing her homework. “She would have the most disgusting corner and she’d be sniffing it,” he said.
Like Mercer, Steve and Marcy’s daughter spoke about the blanket’s smell, describing it as one of the reasons for her attachment. “She complained that it didn’t have the right smell if I washed it,” Marcy said.
Satisfied that it’s a fairly harmless quirk, Steve and Marcy have resigned themselves to laughing about their daughter’s unusual love for her blanket. “Maybe we should have made her go to blanket therapy,” Marcy joked. “It’s going to be her wedding dress.”
The attachment isn’t limited to blankets; anything fuzzy will do. Rosie Howcroft, a student at Auckland University in New Zealand, says she feels deeply attached to a sweater that she’s had since childhood — specifically, to its texture, which is similar to that of her long-lost baby blanket. Howcroft has searched for even more items with a comparable touch that might provide her the same comfort she gets from the sweater. She found a scarf with a similar feel that she can use now, as well. Howcroft also likes to sniff the sweater — she said some parts smell like home, others like the perfume of someone she knows. “It’s somehow magically comforting,” she said.
Richard Lasky, a professor at New York University’s ’s postbaccalaureate program for psychoanalysis, agree that an adult’s attachment to an old transitional object shouldn’t necessarily ring alarm bells. Transitional objects remind some people of the best times of their childhoods, he said. “They keep them around because it brings them tremendous pleasure.”
As a part of a repertoire of coping mechanisms, Lasky, a professor at New York University doesn’t believe transitional objects are necessarily problematic for adults. But he agrees that relying exclusively on any one item is not a good thing.
Mercer is slightly skeptical about the nature of her bond to her blanket and whether it truly is harmless. She’s already thought about her future children and has decided that she doesn’t want them to get hooked on a transitional object the way she did. “I don’t think it’s entirely healthy to be so attached to a piece of fabric,” she says.
Kwawer believes getting comfort from a childhood blanket is no different from turning to other material objects for support. “I think it’s fairly common, but I think it’s not recognized as such,” he said. “They might not be blankets or teddy bears, and then it’s socially acceptable. I’ve seen people feel that way about their jewelry or their sports cars.” When people have intense attachments to an object, he said, they in effect “make love to it.”
As a psychoanalyst, Lasky is hesitant to “pathologize” the use of transitional objects in adulthood — primarily because of the overwhelmingly positive feelings people have toward those special items from childhood. “People don’t remember it with shame and embarrassment,” he said. “When it comes to transitional objects, most people don’t have conflict or ambivalence.”
Howcroft isn’t worried. She figures she still has time to grow out of her relationship with her blanket. “I reckon when I have children, I’ll probably cut back, or when I get married,” she said, “because that’s when you’re supposed to be an adult.”March 2, 2010