It is true that no analyst or analytically oriented psychotherapist worth seeing is interested in anything else as attentively as our moms*. But really, who can deny it: moms are centrally key in all our lives.
*Moms are sometimes Dads, or Aunts, or Guardians. Sometimes an infant has more than one person as a primary care giver. None of this derails these theories.
Psychoanalytic interest is predicated on a belief that that psychic, emotional, mental development evolves in the petri dish that is the mother/infant relationship. Below I am offering 3 analytic theories to help explain why clinicians are rightly interested in your relationships with your mom.
DW Winnicott postulated that before the infant was born, the good enough mother (yep, that is an official analytic concept, like all italicized words in this blog), in reasonable conditions, would be overtaken by a maternal preoccupation with her arriving child. That assuming she was not in active trauma, such as war, an abusive relationship, extreme poverty, burdened with significant depression or anxiety, or suffering a key loss, the good enough mother would become consumed with thoughts of her child-to-be in the months of her pregnancy.
Certainly if we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we have seen pregnant or adopting parents become totally preoccupied with the child they are waiting to join them. From the search for the right baby name, to baby registries, and late night discussions of what kind of parents they will make, even parents preparing for the second and third children spend a lot of time planning and day dreaming about there coming child.
Winnicott believed that this parental preoccupation was essential to create a space, a holding environment where an infant would feel safe, held, emotionally contained and capable of being cared for and known. The absence of this environment, due to internal or external circumstances in the life of the parent, would result in a child feeling psychically dropped. In the absence of an adequate holding environment, the child would not experience the kind of psychic holding that would allow them to safely explore the world. It is also this experience of safety, or lack thereof, that predicates our beliefs about how safe the world is moving forward.
Okay, this is complicated, dense clinical theory, but I am going to give it a go as per a lay person’s explanation (I practiced on my partner who is now expecting receipt of a PhD as validation for successful comprehension of this and other theories over the years). Melanie Klein postulated that in those early weeks of life, the infant communicates with its primary care giver by essential projecting their internal psychic experience into a receiving mother. That Winnicott’s good enough mother, free of an unnecessarily burdensome psychic life of her own, would be receptive to absorbing the mental contents of the infant into her own psyche as a means of understanding their internal world.
Before you call this theory crazy, think about what happens when you hold an inconsolably screaming infant. The holder starts to eventually feel out of control, confused, and filled with anxiety and rage. Well Klein would argue that isn’t a response to the infant, but the infant’s successful communication of their internal distress. That essentially the infant’s caretaker is experiencing what the infant is experiencing.
The infant is projecting their experience into the mother so that they might be understood, but really, so that a receptive mother can help them metabolize what otherwise are unmanageable feelings of inner turmoil. The receptive mother, who is not too flooded or compromised by the infant’s projection, will explore these feelings inside her until she understands them, and them offer them back to the infant, piece meal, in a metabolized form. In the case of the inconsolable infant, it externally looks like the eventual consoling of the screaming, and the distress. It looks like “there there, it’s okay, I know, I know”, but these external behaviors of soothing are backed by a much more complex internal process that offer the infant organization of their nameless dread.
Wilfred Bion furthered Klein’s theory of projective identification to consider the process by which the mother metabolized the infant’s projections. He described feelings and thoughts, that were absent of context, like those of an infant, as beta elements. Beta elements aren’t a whole story. They are fragments of a picture which make them indecipherable. They can’t be dreamt about or even thought about; only experienced.
An infant projects his beta elements because s/he does not yet have the capacity, a working mind, to understand them. Bion described the capacity to metabolize beta elements as alpha function. What he theorizes is that not only does the mother use her alpha function to understand the infant’s distress, but when she feeds back a metabolized experience, having turned the beta elements into a contextualized feeling state, she also feeds him some of her alpha functioning itself. This will eventually help the infant build a working mind.
So, what have we learned here?
Mothering is the means by which we feel safe in the world, have our early experiences of nameless dread managed, and from whom we build a working mind. Yes; moms are that important. When we ask you about them in session, don’t roll your eyes!
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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