By Benig Mauger
It is tempting to think of parenting as beginning with the birth of a child. The belief that psychological life begins at or after birth has greatly contributed to this notion. Not so long ago it used to be thought that life in the womb did not count because unborn babies did not feel, think, dream or learn. Research findings, together with technological advances which permit the detailed observation of foetal life, pre and perinatal psychology tell us something quite different.
Far from being merely a developing biological organism, the foetus and unborn baby is a sophisticated and evolving human being of immense sensitivity and capability, intimately affected by his mother’s thoughts and feelings. Parenting begins at conception. How a woman experiences her pregnancy will affect how she accomplishes the transition to motherhood and will influence how she will parent her child. The actual birth experience will also lend its influence, shaping a new mother and baby relationship.
Pregnancy and the Inner Mother
Though armed with an understanding of our biological functions, nothing prepares us for the sense of awe we feel when we first discover that we have conceived and a new life is beginning inside us. For the woman, this journey into motherhood has already started. Whatever the outcome of this particular conception, the seed has been planted and the potential to become a mother has been activated.
As the tiny embryo takes root, it begins already to influence changes in the woman, pulling her into the depths of her psyche as it activates her ‘inner mother’. I refer to the inner mother as that part of her psychic space, like her womb space, with the potential to become a mother.
Before conception happened, the psychic idea of it existed deep inside her alongside the stories and mythic images of being a mother, handed down to her through the generations. For many women, pregnancy is an initiatory experience; no longer will she be daughter only, she is already beginning her transition from daughter to mother. She will not only be influenced by the physicality of her condition, she will be influenced by her inner mother. It is the inter-relationship of biological and psychological forces that will shape her transition to motherhood.
There are also social and cultural pressures which will operate differently in each woman. She will be influenced by her family history and her personal unconscious. From her ‘mother imago’ (internal mother image), she will have conscious and unconscious images of what it is to be a mother. Her inner mother will also reflect how she has internalised her experience of being mothered and parented. This will inform how she in turn will parent her child.
Pregnancy is a transitional phase presaging the re-emergence of old conflicts and traumas, particularly those associated with birth and childhood. The pregnant woman will have conscious and unconscious memories of her own birth. If her experiences have been negative, she may have a negative mother complex that will become activated and most probably projected onto her midwife or doctor or other person close to her.
Carrying a mother wound, she will often seek the positive mother to help her through her transition to motherhood, hoping to somehow heal the wounds of the past. For many, pregnancy and birth represent an opportunity for transformation.
Transitional phases are turbulent times. The pregnant woman is in a state of becoming, her body is changing and she is assailed by primitive and archaic fears about herself and the baby inside her. Furthermore, pregnancy violates the basic idiom of identity. Suddenly her body is no longer her sole possession. Something has entered her and taken over her insides and is growing, feeding off her. It is no wonder that pregnant women are prey to primitive fears and fantasies. She may fear she will lose herself with the opening up of her body to let the baby out.
Primary Maternal Preoccupation
D.W. Winnicott (1956) contends that there comes about a state in the mother that he terms ‘Primary Maternal Preoccupation’, which alters her state of consciousness to one of heightened sensitivity where she will be able to identify with her baby in order meet its basic needs. He compares this to a withdrawn or dissociated state and goes so far as to say it would be an illness were it not for the fact of the pregnancy. Primary maternal preoccupation is a state of ego-relatedness between mother and baby from which the mother will recover and out of which the infant may eventually build the idea of a person in the mother. It manifests as a heightened awareness and an ability to identify with her unborn child. Outwardly it expresses itself as intense vulnerability, minor regressive behaviour, introverted preoccupation and bouts of irrationality. The pregnant woman may become infantilised by the medical profession and hospitals. She is generally very vulnerable and sensitive to the environment and to the suggestions of others.
Social and cultural influences will play an important part in how an individual pregnant woman will approach the birth of her baby. In a society dominated by patriarchal values, which places child-birth in the hands of the medical profession rather than in the hands of women themselves, many will simply distance themselves from the experience and hope for the best. Taught that having a baby is a painful and hazardous ordeal to be managed in a hospital, she may set aside her own potential to give birth and surrender to the ministrations of the ‘professionals’, believing they know best.
However, I believe the medicalisation of child-birth, has led to many women experiencing psychological difficulties in child-birth, as the deeper emotional dimensions of their experience are seldom acknowledged. I have found that many women entering my consulting room are suffering from what I can only term as ‘loss of soul’ in the experience of child-birth. This has immediate repercussions on the mother/baby relationship and in particular the bonding process. A lack of harmony during birth will impede the bonding of mother and baby (Bowlby 1973). At a fundamental level I believe that most women want to experience the birth of their child as positive and fulfilling, and further, that a sense of empowerment in childbirth fosters a positive parenting ability.
No woman remains untouched by her experience of child-birth. It will most certainly change her life. The phrase ‘birth trauma’ has been generally used to describe the baby’s experience, but I have found that trauma can also describe the woman’s experience. If the birth is ‘mechanised’ it has been my awareness that women experience trauma in varying degrees, depending on the type of intervention.
For example, a forceps delivery is very often associated with being violated or raped. Psychological defenses are similar to those of any traumatic occurrence and involve ‘numbness’, a kind of psychic anaesthetic. Cutting out is a defense mechanism employed by the ego when a trauma is too great to be borne. It is a survival mechanism to protect a person from an experience of pain that is considered unbearable. Another common type of psychological defense against traumatic experience involves ‘splitting’ which can be described as separating experiences into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
Furthermore, if survival is unsure, as in the case of a premature or sick baby, then the mother may protect herself from falling in love with her baby; thus producing in the child insecure attachment patterns. The point is that psychological defenses used by the mother to protect herself from what she considers are traumatic or negative aspects of the birth of her baby will ultimately influence how she will bond, interact with and nurture her newborn. If, however, the mother has experienced the birth of her child in a self-enhancing way, and has not been separated from her baby for any significant length of time after birth, then her parenting ability will also be enhanced. After birth, traditionally, the baby has always remained in close contact with the mother’s body. It is when the newborn has begun to breathe for him/herself and is resting serenely against mother’s body that the mother and baby meet for the first time as separate individuals. The momentous event of imprinting takes place.
Separation of mother and baby at a time when it is most crucial for them to be together, interferes with the bonding process and influences the subsequent interaction and attachment pattern established between mother and baby. The importance of the early maternal environment to the development of the child has been highlighted by Bowlby and those who have studied the effects of maternal deprivation on babies and young children, it appears that babies and very young children suffer devastating loss when separated from their mothers for even short periods of time.
If all has gone well and the mother and her baby are not too drugged or traumatised by the birth experience, bonding takes place as does the mother’s ability to mirror her baby. Object relations theorists highlight the importance of early bonding between mother and child together with a positive holding environment. This means that it is in effect the mother who enables her baby to ‘come into being’ through interaction with her. Winnicott believed in the need to avoid interference in the natural process of mother and baby bonding, and it is clear from his writings that fostering the natural process was to be encouraged, and, moreover, that every woman was innately equipped with the ability to be a ‘good enough mother’.
In other words, the mother, by virtue of her ability to be there and perform certain tasks, enables her baby to come into being. The mother’s ego support fosters the ego organisation of her baby. However, it is the mother and not the baby who makes the relationship possible. This, Winnicott held, happens through the workings of what he termed ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ already referred to. By this mechanism a mother learns to do what is best for her baby, and to give meaning to her baby’s actions. By her constant and consistent responses, she enables a relationship to take place out of which the baby gradually forms a sense of me/not me.
Thus, “the mental health of the individual is being laid down from the very beginning by the mother who provides what I call a facilitating environment, that is to say, one in which the infant’s natural growth processes and interactions with the environment can evolve according to the inherited pattern of the individual.” (Winnicott 1988).
If there is a lack of attunement (or mirroring) by the mother to the infant’s experiences, such as in the case of a depressed or over-identified mother, then the infant will react by developing a compliant self as opposed to a true sense of self. The mother’s own needs, thoughts and preoccupations will impinge on her infant’s experience. She remains unavailable to enter those of her baby and to share them. This results in a loss of creative development for the baby.
Fathers are also part of the process and have their place in child-birth as guardians or custodians of the pregnant or birthing woman. Indeed the importance of the father’s or partner’s support is highlighted by the fact that women who are not emotionally supported during their pregnancies tend to develop birth and post-natal complications and to experience more difficulty bonding and interacting with their babies after birth.
On the role of the father in the birth process, Winnicott says, “Fathers had a definite function before doctors and the welfare state took over: they not only felt, themselves, the feelings of their women, and went through some of the agony, but also they took part, warding off external and unpredictable impingements, and enabling the mother to become preoccupied, to have but one concern; the care of the baby that is there in her body or in her arms.” (Mothers and Babies 1988).
To conclude, parenting begins well before the actual birth of a child. When the mother and her newborn, lie together after the momentous event of birth, let us remember that their relationship already has a history, and further, that the womb from which the baby has emerged after his/her nine months’ tenure, also has a history.
Bowlby. J. (1973) Attachment & Loss
Heifer. R.E. (1975) “Relationship between lack of bonding and child abuse and neglect” in Klaus, et al. Maternal Attachment & Mother Disorders.
Mauger. B. (1995) “Birth as Metaphor: Childbirth as Initiation & Transformation” in International Journal of Pre and Peri-natal Psychology & Medicine. Vol. 7 Nr.4 1995.
Rafael-Leff. J. (1991) Psychological Processes ofChildbcaring. Winnicott. D. W. (1985) Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. Winnicott. D.W. (1988) Human Nature.
Benig Mauger is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist specialising in pre and peri-natal psychology. She is in private practice in Dublin. Her address for correspondence is 69 Cowper Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6. (Ph. 4970501)