This essay is about my understanding of the experience of becoming a mother and the needs that are created by this creative process. I will write about how some of these needs may be met by participation in a group which includes both new-mother-peers, and a trained and empathic facilitator to do the parallel work of containing the new mothers who must contain their infants’ experience. And I will talk about one specific new mothers group known as the Listening Mothers program.
I have facilitated Listening Mothers groups for a number of years and therefore can only speak from my personal and professional understanding of the group. I hope my perspectives will be interesting and helpful.
There are many emotions and thoughts that arise when we think about or try to imagine the experience of becoming a mother. We can be swept with a primal delight at the feeling of continuation, of survival of the species experienced in a very intimate and personal way through procreation. We can be moved to another kind of delight visualizing the tender inexperienced physical being of a newborn and its safety in a capable mother’s arms. We can feel terror by the visualization of this same tender person without the sense of safe holding. We can feel frustration and fatigue imagining the effort of the repetitive and nearly constant physical care that new humans require.
We can feel overwhelmed physically and emotionally, when we imagine or remember living with the emotional intensity of a new human who needs to develop an ability to make sense of the world and their own physical and emotional experiences, who needs an adult to share in that emotional intensity and to somehow, over and over, bear it and explain it in ways that the nascent mind can absorb and digest.
When we think of motherhood then, we are thinking of all these feelings: getting to know about the inextricably combined physical and emotional experiences of the new human, providing physical and emotional safety from the intensity of these raw new experiences, and at the same time holding enough of our own experiential understanding of these experiences through our memories to be able to make sense of them and transform them into experiences that can be understood.
To do this, a new mother undergoes a very important process, called by D. W. Winnicott, (the pediatrician who became a psychoanalyst and devoted much thought to early development) Primary Maternal Preoccupation. I think of this as the mother’s experience of focusing on her baby in a way that virtually allows her to get under its skin, all in service of understanding its experience in a visceral/emotional way.
Often the mother takes everything as seriously as the baby does – the urination, defecation, food ingestion, hunger-experiencing, stimulus-seeking, overload-discharging – as if she were a child with no other structure yet. As adults, we generally don’t experience our “mere” physical survival on this level of intensity. But we do all start out this way.
As the mother receives these disorganized, perhaps traumatic experiences, she is challenged to contain them. By contain, we mean first; the process of taking in the baby’s disorganized emotional material transmitted non-verbally as well as verbally; then the process of transforming it with other parts of her emotional experience and developed mind, into a message that can be tolerated by the baby.
For example, she takes a hungry baby’s cries seriously enough to listen with her mind for what is going on, then presents a hypothesis to make sense of the experience and says: “You’re upset because you are hungry.” As opposed to an ignoring of the state’s anxiety – “you’re just hungry, you’re not dying.” She offers a statement of the experience as baby knows it and a meta-analysis of that experience, which offers hope that it can be felt less overwhelmingly and be understood, tolerated. This processing of the baby’s experience takes place in blissful and despairing states. It is an often unremarked and yet exhausting process.
Of course, just as there is no such thing as a baby without a mother, there is almost never a mother without a society. And all societies have ways of supporting new mothers who are supporting their babies. Mothers are rarely prepared for this task – especially with a first baby.
The mother needs a container for herself to effectively provide the containment that is crucial for the infant. Just as the infantile state requires support to be a workable problem rather than a disaster, the maternal state is a problem but generally not an insoluble one. However, I feel that in the social culture of motherhood and parenting within which I work with new mothers today, there are actually serious problems created by the cultural efforts to contain maternal experience.
Emotional isolation has become the norm through our devotion to nuclear families, each containing all necessary tangible apparatus within its four walls of home. Yet there is something called social networking, which really is not. It is the opposite of the care that is needed, as it is a response to only part of an experience, that which can be put in words without even auditory information. I am concerned by the fact that communicating via computers is called social networking since it leaves out the actual non-verbal communication based on physical experience – which is what is going on with the baby and needs to be contained.
Another problem is the loss of generational wisdom, by discounting the grandmothers, since “things have changed so much.” There is a potential devaluing of one’s own efforts even as one is swamped by them – In the back of many new mothers’ minds as they are responding to their infants (based on the advice transmitted impersonally, without actual emotional contact, without 2-person contact), may be the thought, “yes and the pendulum will swing and what I am providing will be devalued by my child when they become parents just as I devalue what I was given since it is now “proven” to be wrong.”
Another challenge associated with living in the “information age” is that many “facts” send an underlying message that there is a way to do things that will make this experience of continuing to create a human “easy” “right” painless, unproblematic. It’s all about avoiding crying rather than tolerating and containing crying.
What mothers are then left with is the fantasy, reinforced through our culture’s difficulty with pain and limitations, of absolute omnipotence. Being a mother is a tightrope of experience, being both omnipotent and excruciatingly vulnerable, and our culture has taken the stance that the solution to the vulnerability is to devote oneself to becoming omnipotent. This effort rarely succeeds well.
Healthier forms of support address the following: New mothers need to not be alone, not be required to be omnipotently happy, not learn without actual contact, not be uncontained. Mothers do need to be with peers, and with containers who can think. There is of course a developmental aspect to all this: at first mothers do need to be in a fairly exclusive preoccupation with their babies but just as these babies will eventually need the stimulation and reinforcement of peers outside the close family circle, so too mothers will need more than the contact provided by the intense dyad of mother and baby.
So at some point, after the initial intensity of maternal preoccupation has begun to ease a bit, and one is more practiced at thinking one’s way into the experience of an infant, who can not really think – mothers become sturdy enough to come to a group where the intermittent preoccupation can be tolerated and understood. Mothers need to be in groups with other mothers and containing facilitators who can mother – contain, think, bear the ordinary psychosis and digest the projections of mothers and babies.
The part that is different in group treatment from the treatment experienced in one-on-one treatment is the peer quality: this is the element of seeing the task/problems as universal, not unfamiliar to every mother-baby pair. Of course there are unique elements in every couple. However, there is also a shared flavor to many infant-rearing experiences, and feeling oneself to be a part of a normal cohort is important with these normal problems.
So the group becomes a place for learning together. As implied earlier, it has a structure like many families – a leader and participants equals a mother and siblings, or sometimes parents and siblings.
It takes place in the fully dimensioned social world – where one can look at people, hear them, her oneself and one’s own words as one is articulating them, see where there are discontinuities between visual and aural information, ask people for clarification, notice in the moment how one may have misunderstood. Where all of one’s senses for communication can be utilized, where there can be simultaneous attention to each other and absorption in the baby – one can be in two relationships at once.
There is room for primary maternal preoccupation and the opportunity to see it from the outside and reduce the fear of the experience of ordinary psychosis. Mothers can say to themselves – “so that is how it looks, so that is what a crying baby sounds like to someone outside the dyad”. I believe this is a very useful containing experience – a group version of hearing one’s own thoughts aloud in an individual therapy setting.
Stay tuned for Part II of ‘Listening Mothers Program – what’s it all about?’
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