It Takes a Village
Updated: Jun 8, 2022
This was a short paper presentation I gave at the Byron Bay Community Centre in 2018.
‘If a community values its children, it must cherish their parents’ - John Bowlby (1951)
In my consulting room as well as in my personal life, I have noticed a human tendency, when thinking about families, to identify with either the parent or with the child. In prior generations, identification with the parent may have led to a parent-centred view which gave rise to an authoritarian style of parenting where the child was seen but not heard. More recently, I have noticed a trend toward identification with the child with an emphasis on attachment parenting, a very child-focussed style, which can, in extreme cases, lead children to live in a world without parental boundaries and where parents get blamed for childhood problems. I believe that attachment parenting has been an attempt at reversal and correction of the negative impact of authoritarian, parent-centred parenting. However, pendulum parenting, whether at an individual or societal level, inadvertently leads to a repetition of certain unwanted experiences. In this short time, I would like to convey a more dynamic approach which encompasses both the parent and the child and akin to the title of this event, ‘It Takes a Village’, by focussing on the family as a whole with each member contributing toward a live, pulsating, system. This also includes, the larger family of community, implied in the quote by John Bowlby, who pioneered attachment theory; written 67 years ago, is just as true today as it was back then. Parents are children’s primary attachment figures and as such, do their best to promote children’s survival and well being as well as to prepare children to become attachment figures for their own children.
However, what is in the minds of parents as they prepare to have a family? Whether it is the first or second or third child, each pregnancy can stir intense conscious and unconscious feelings in the parents about their partner and their expectant child. Ghosts of the past may stir unexpected feelings in the little boy part of the father and the little girl part of the mother which begins to shape wishes for their unborn child, the kind of parents they wish to be, and ideals for their family. For example, I have encountered many parents who wish to have a large family because they were lonely as an only child or who wish to recreate the happiness they felt growing up in a large family.
Having a family, whether joyful or challenging, is a complex affair that requires a constant reconfiguring of the family picture where all members are affected. Each new arrival creates many new relationships. For example, a second child increases interrelations from 6 to 12 and a third child raises it to 20. The older child may feel deprived of his mother’s loving attention which is now diverted to the baby. Siblings may struggle to make difficult compromises, loosen territories and possessions and lose some attention to the new comer whilst giving up a previous special place in the family. During pregnancy, the mother’s psychic space becomes preoccupied with the baby growing within her and whilst her thoughts stay with the new baby, she may have her existing child on her lap who draws attention to her emotional lapses. In some cases, the mother and/or father may find it hard to let go of a special bond with an older child to make room for the new baby. Feelings of loss and displacement are common and can become intense and difficult to manage. I remember a case of a 3 year old who had great trouble finding his place following the arrival of his sister who he declared “as fat as a wombat” and told his mother to “take her back!”
The father can also feel very lost and displaced. He can feel that he has lost his wife to the baby and rather than compete, he will have to find his identity as the father by being a kind-of parent to the mother, to give support, especially in helping her to find her role as a mother, as she can also feel a loss of her own identity following the birth of a baby. As the child psychoanalyst, Joan Symington said, ‘the mother used to be someone, in her job, in her marriage, in her social life and suddenly, faced with a baby, she can feel very uncertain and in this sense is in a similar position to her baby, who has not yet found his sense of identity’. It can take a long time for a mother and a father to find their role as a mother and as a father as well as for existing children to find their new place in the family. The first few months can be filled with painful, anxious, and uncertain feelings in addition to feelings of joy and excitement.
I want to now look more closely at what happens at the beginning of the baby’s life. A natural depression has been found to universally occur in mothers following the birth of a baby due to the loss of identity. Mother and baby to become intensely immersed in each other, a state which Paediatrician and Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott described as ‘primary maternal preoccupation’. This serves a vital function for the mother and baby in developing from a state of fusion to one of separateness and finding one’s own identity. Mothers actually bring their infants into being by providing shape and meaning to their baby’s experiences and making them more tolerable so that the infant may take them back into himself. She has the task of containing her baby’s primal anxieties and in doing so, enables her baby to later tolerate frustrations and to manage his emotional life outside the home. In every day this can be seen when mothers talk to their babies and interpret their cries and sounds and soothe through eye gaze, touch, holding and tone of voice. When mothers are unable to contain her baby’s experiences, for many reasons, including the baby not responding to the good in her, for example, with a smile in response to her efforts, this may result in a more serious postnatal depression in the mother and in turn, the infant may then be set to establish a pattern of enlivening the mother at the expense of developing his own personality and this may sometimes result in infant depression - a hopelessness that leads the baby to refuse maternal input by over sleeping, refusing food, and turning the head and gaze away at mother’s approach - interestingly, all the hallmarks of adult depressive symptoms. This is why it is so important to let mothers know that she is the one who is making the baby have a good response, even if it is small.
In the absence of human containment, the baby may emotionally hold himself together through other means, for example, intensely looking at a light, or through excessive movement or excessive talking (which would later be described as ADHD), or by freezing and tensing the musculature (which may later be described as autistic defences).
The presence or absence of a father has a profound dynamic meaning to the many nuances of this primary maternal preoccupation and its impact upon the development of the infant’s mind. The role of the father is more than being the provider and protector for the mother and baby, although, the absence of this can be very significant. The father has an important role in being able to absorb the mother’s natural depression (and at times feelings of being persecuted by the baby) by instilling her with confidence into her maternal role and thereby shield the baby from any maternal distress. He also helps the mother and baby to extricate themselves from each other, for example, by helping the mother to withstand and sustain feeling withholding during weaning, a time of supporting the baby into the outside world. Hence, one of the father’s most important function is to facilitate the thrust toward development. In this way, the father provides a space between the mother and child to enable the child to develop a separate state of mind.
If there is no actual external father, or the function cannot be located elsewhere, for example, the internal father of the mother’s mind, then what was vital to development can become stuck and an obstacle to the exciting stage of development which involves the child looking to the external world of experience. The father plays an important role in introducing the child to the the outside world. It is important to mention that fathers can also be at risk for post natal mental illness. According to the London Psychiatric Society, the biggest risk factor for paternal post natal mental illness is the father’s relationship with their own father. This of course has a major impact upon the development of the mother and baby.
In this short time together, I have only been able to provide a snap shot into the common complexities and precariousness of mothers, fathers, babies and families’ capacity to hold themselves and each other in order to enable development for this generation and the next. This capacity can be easily upset, not just by shock and trauma, but by normal, and sometimes intense, feelings of loss and displacement that occurs with the changing family constellation and identities with the arrival of a new baby. Families are raised all the time but by nature, families are complex, which is why it takes a village - a whole community approach.