Mothers & Infants

Image by Bob Whitehead

This beautiful family photograph, posted on Flickr by photographer Bob Whitehead, offers an idealized look at the mother/infant relationship. Composed such that the mother and infant comprise the entire field, the image emphasizes the importance, in our culture, of motherly love. The emotional bond between this mother/daughter pair is emblematized in the “eskimo kiss,” noses touching and in the open mouth smiles of both members of the dyad.

Indeed, the image has been re-displayed on the Wikipedia entry for William Sears’ attachment parenting. Sears’ urges mothers to bond with their infants both physically and emotionally for long periods of time, and urges not only breast feeding, the use of a sling for carrying baby, and the development of communication that avoids scolding, but also, more controversially, co-sleeping or the use of the family bed. Critics of Sears note that his theory lacks a theoretical foundation and is based, instead, solely on his intuition.

The conflict between Sears and his more conventional critics speaks to one of the fundamental tensions that I am highlighting here between our human need for connection and our need to develop a separate identity. How we strike the balance between connection and separation is most probably determined by cultural and family values and assumptions. Sears comes up against a strong, western cultural bias toward independence.

Despite that cultural bias, it seems that we need attachment and connection before we can become a separate identity.

In his suggestion that the mother/infant bond be ongoing and all-inclusive and in his relative silence about the importance of autonomy, Sears departs from Winnicott, whose theory of human attachment needs and behavior involves a movement from merger to autonomy. While Winnicott notes that children will naturally begin to separate from their mothers after an initial period (6 weeks or so) of symbiotic merger, Sears stresses the importance of maintaining an ongoing bond throughout childhood.

Diana Mendoza: Madonna with Child Embracing

Whitehead’s photograph does, indeed, seem to evoke an almost mythic appeal of the mother/infant bond, bringing to mind similar depictions of the Madonna and child. This mother and infant are elated and clearly in love with one another.  They reflect Winnicott’s famous statement that “There is no such thing as a baby.” He explains

…if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship. (The Child, the Family, and the Outside World, 1957)

In “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” Winnicott (1960) elaborates this idea that “the infant and the maternal care together form a unit.” Because human life begins in a merged state with mother and because the infant starts in a state of total dependency, he cannot come into being without the support of the maternal ego. Over time,

…the infant and the maternal care, disentangle and dissociate themselves in health; and health, which means so many things, to some extent means a disentanglement of maternal care from something which we then call the infant or the beginnings of a growing child.

For Winnicott, the emergence of a separate being or self is facilitated, in part, by a growing awareness of the skin barrier:

So the infant comes to have an inside and an outside, and a body-scheme. In this way meaning comes to function of intake and output; moreover, it gradually becomes meaningful to postulate a personal or inner psychic reality for the infant.

Whitehead’s photograph evokes the first phase in Winnicott’s theory, the phase of “primary maternal preoccupation” and total infantile dependency,  in which the mother/infant couple function as a unit. What is missing in the photograph, however, is any hint of the difficulty of the process of moving from a merger-like attachment to a position of two separate identities: the pangs of separation. The photograph depicts the mother’s apparently all encompassing love but omits the inevitable hate that also comes with motherhood, hate that Winnicott, himself, allows, indeed insists upon:

I suggest that the mother hates the baby before the baby hates the mother, and before the baby can know this mother hates him…As the infant becomes able to feel a whole person, so does the word “hate” develop meaning as a description of a certain group of his feelings…Sentimentality is useless for parents, as it contains a denial of hate, and sentimentality in a mother is no good at all from the infant’s point of view.

Here, Winnicott stresses that ambivalence is present in all relationships and that denying it is unhealthy. Moreover, in order to become an integrated and separate being, one must reject the merger with mother, and some measure of hate is needed to accomplish that task.

Culturally, we embrace the notion of motherly love and have little tolerance for motherly hate. As a result, Whitehead’s photograph evokes positive feelings, warmth, love. We would likely be repelled by images of angry, hateful mothers. Indeed, while some readers may admit to the universality of at least some maternal anger, they would probably balk or squirm at the idea of maternal hate. But what Winnicott is saying is that hate is necessary in the process of separation, in making allowance for a separate identity, for an individual’s true self to emerge.

Winnicott’s theory, then, makes room for a greater range of a mother’s and an infant’s emotion than are suggested in Whitehead’s photograph.

But how does all of this relate to play?

A Different Light Photography

It is my contention that play facilitates both the development of attachment, thereby meeting an infant’s attachment needs, and the development of autonomy. Peek-a- Boo illustrates mother/infant play that does just that. In the warm and nurturing exchange that occurs during a game of Peek-a-Boo, attachment and relationship are strengthened. At the same time, the very fact that a face can be hidden and then return attests to the separateness of mother and infant. I am here while you are gone, but you return. I am me, and you are you.

Whitehead’s photograph is an image that plays to the cultural desire for and expectation of motherly love. It serves to illustrate and strengthen the cultural conviction of the importance of mother/infant attachment. The full smiles–they are nearly laughing–are also suggestive of playful interactions between mother and child.

What is, perhaps, missing is the hate that is a necessary condition for the development of separate identity.

“I know what you are” is a game that my daughter and I co-created when she was about 3. She would ask, “Do you know what you are, Mommy?” I would respond, “No, what am I?” She would then say, “You are a flower,” or “You are a lightbulb,” or “You are a garbage can.” Then it would be my turn. While I never thought of it while we played, I look back now and see that the game was a playful way for my daughter to explore identity, to express both love and hate (You are a flower and a garbage can), and to distinguish self and other. The very creation of the game was a playful act between mother and child that both solidified our attachment to one another and solidified our separate identities.

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