Suppose a Martian on a visit to earth, stumbled across the Celebrity Mum of the Year short list, what would they learn about human mothers?
Apart from the fact that smoking whilst pregnant gets you removed from the list (thank you Stacey Solomon for illustrating that point), he might conclude that to be a good mother you need to be beautiful, (Holly Willoughby), talented (Charlotte Church), Powerful (Sam Cam), able to fit into skinny jeans days after birth (Abby Clancy) or to just have a very good publicist (Denise Welch – really?) Any way, it seems to me to be a pretty random set of qualities that have nothing to do with the reality of being a mum.
It is not a coincidence that the caricature of a therapist is usually a man with a beard who says “tell me about your mother”. Invariably client’s mothers are very figural in their stories, even when the clients are grandparents themselves, and their mothers long ago deceased. Our mothers are so instrumental in our lives because from our very first breath they are part of the process of learning who we are.
If you think about it, a baby develops in the womb, literally cushioned from the world by their mother, effortlessly fed and comforted; there is no reason why at the end of nine months they should suddenly understand where they end and their mother begins just because they’ve been born. All they know is that after a pretty stressful event, their world suddenly got a lot brighter and nosier and they have a whole set of new sensations to deal with including hunger.
Donald Winnicott (twentieth century paediatrician and psychoanalyst) believed that a mother’s maternal preoccupation, that feeling of total infatuation with their new baby, is so important at this stage. It is a mother’s attentiveness and responsive love which provide a safe environment, allowing the baby to carry on feeling cushioned and protected. This is why he observed “there is no such thing as a baby”, instead just an intense and consuming relationship between mother and baby.
From this protected start, mother and baby, gradually begin to separate, allowing the baby to learn the extent of their own being. How he is physically responded to when hungry, cold, tired or upset, teaches him the connection between his physical sensations and his emotions. Non responsive parenting at this stage can lead to a baby feeling cut off from physical needs, often leading in adulthood to a lack of self care, over or under eating, reckless behaviour, pushing oneself too hard etc.
Along with a sense of self, the maternal relationship is also how a baby begins to grasp a sense of their own autonomy. The mother, who holds the object just out of reach and allows the baby to stretch for it, is unknowingly providing a sense of accomplishment; the baby has altered his own world, by his own actions, they have some autonomy, an understanding that the world is there to be shaped.
The baby who never has to reach, comes to expect the world to give them everything they need, an expectation that is usually not reflected as they grow older. The baby who never gets what they are reaching for learns that life is unresponsive and the can expect nothing from it, they are undeserving.
Mothers everywhere do so much for their children instinctively and lovingly and without realising the massive impact that they are having. So, Mr Martian, money, beauty, skinny jeans fitting abilities are all irrelevant, it’s responsive loving that is the key.
Happy Mothers Day