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Mother-infant attachment and recognition

Mother is the infant’s symbiotic world of absolute dependence (Winnicott, 1971: 84); dependencies are central to infancy and to coming into being as a person, so much so that separateness during this early period threatens the infant’s survival. The infant is totally dependent but does not differentiate himself cognitively from his environment; he is merged and continuous with his caring habitat. Narcissism during this time is the baby loving himself in his mother’s love. Recognition at this level of development becomes mother’s ministrations, responses and mindfulness of her baby, her “knowing her baby’s” needs - when he wants to sleep, eat, have a diaper change, needs a bath, or wants to play alone or together. Recognition is present in everything that an ordinary mother does naturally just by being herself. As provider, caregiver, nurse, nourisher, container, significant other, and mirror, mother is the infant’s first object of attachment. His initial exposure to the world of humanity consists in what the mother does with her face, eyes, voice, body and hands. The baby is attaching to the touch and warmth of mother’s skin, the sight of her face, the smell of her body, the taste of her breast and milk. Infant researcher Daniel Stern (1985) makes the point that the infant develops very early a core sense of self and core sense of other during the period of time. Winnicott, Mahler and other theorists have posited a prolonged period of a lack of differentiation. With this concept of a distinct self and other, a subject and an object, recognizing and being with an other is an active act of integration rather than passive failures of differentiation. Combining these two points of view results in a “self/other” or of a “we self.”

No matter what words are used, however, the infant is clearly embedded in a social matrix. This mutual recognition is a vital factor in the dialogue between child and mother, there from the beginning in the simultaneity of mother-infant interaction, two subjects in synchronous union and mutual exchange that say “I recognize you as my baby who recognizes me . . . I recognize that you are real” (Benjamin, 1988: 15).

Vision is vital in setting up a relationship of recognition between self and other, baby and mother, the fundamental elements in the creation of a world. Attachment behavior is the effort to retain one’s connection to mother, especially through the maintenance of physical closeness. It is through smiling, eye-to-eye contact, and playful face-to-face interaction that attachment between mother and infant proceeds. The literature on infant research is full of the language of recognition. It details the elements of psychic life that demand a living, responsive other, a progression that has been best studied through vision in the earliest days of life. The direct study of development and attachment observes the infant as a remarkably interactive partner, born with an innate curiosity and responsiveness to elements that are incipiently social, including sight, sound, face and voice.

The baby is a self who requires others’ selves. Eye contact has survival value for the infant, being critical to the development of good, harmonious maternal feelings that bring mindfulness of her baby’s independent existence. From the moment of birth, the sight of an infant’s searching eyes will magnetically attract mother’s gaze. When her baby looks deeply into her eyes, the mother experiences the very certain reality that her infant is really looking at her, and even more, into her eyes. With the feeling that her baby can see her, a new level of dramatic connection can be experienced, and she seems to spend much more time with her baby. The need to feel that her baby knows and prefers her to all others facilitates her abilities to meet all the necessities of her child. The relationship she is forming to her baby sustains her from moment to moment through the gratification she feels when the baby responds to her. The mother who feels recognized in turn by her child is not simply projecting her own feelings into the child. She is also “linking the newborn’s past, the inside of her, with his future, the outside of her, as a separate person” (Benjamin, 1988: 13).

The visual motor system comes immediately into operation, and infants are born with innate preferences for certain visual features that add up to a human face (Stern, 1977). An infant reacts differently to human and non-human objects, indicating that they have “inborn pre-coordinates” for these two types of interactions (Lichtenburg, 1991). The infant has an inbuilt bias to respond to features that have human significance, and mother’s is the first face to be recognized. When presented with mother, the neonate will “open his mouth, circle and purse his lips, and sustain this for several seconds. This is often accompanied by tongue thrusts as well as body quivers and small thrusts of the head forwards . . . These responses, especially when accompanied by the widening of the eyes, are as compelling as the social smile at six weeks” (Bennett, 1971: 87). This well known “smile of recognition” is in all likelihood self affirming as well as world affirming. The infant’s responsiveness to his environment is considerably heightened and his communicative capacities expand (Stern, 1985: 92-93).

By two months, both mother and infant have the same visual facility over the same behavior. This gives each equal measure of control over perceptual input. In other words, through eye contact each is alive in the presence of an equal other. The infant’s world is now one of mutual gazing, an important milestone in the journey towards recognition. Eye contact is the cradle of human perception. According to Robson (1967), if the bond through eye contact is not established, or if it is characterized by disruption or distress, the infant’s ability to form human relationships will be damaged. He quotes Ahrens who says: “the absolute stimulus which must stand at the root of social behavior is the eye part (of the observer’s face)” (pp. 17-18). Robson goes on to quote Schaffer and Emerson, who have observed with increasing frequency during the first year of life that situations in which “visually maintained contact” is interrupted are the most provocative of separation protest (p. 18). A mother who cannot provide her baby with significant amounts of eye contact is not providing him with a good attachment, and vice versa: for example, if the infant demonstrates gaze aversion, a failure to achieve the optimal level of social stimulation is indicated.

Already at three to four months, the infant has the capacity to interact in sophisticated facial play which appears to be motivated by social interests. Stern (1977) points out that the baby’s social world is limited to a face-to-face one, and “as a way of interacting with others and reading their behavior, it will last all his life” (p. 47). The baby can initiate play and periods of eye-to-eye contact that become conversational games. Also, by controlling his own gaze direction, he self- regulates the level and amount of social stimulation to define his self. Infants can avert their gaze, shut their eyes, stare unseeing, and become glassy eyed. Through the decisive use of his gaze behavior, he is able to reject, distance, defend and separate from mother (Stern, 1977, 1985). Through gaze control, the infant basically regulates the mother in order to maintain his own internal physiological states, particularly arousal and affect, and it is for this reason that it is considered to be an early ego mechanism to accomplish coping and defensive strategies in an interpersonal situation. The infant can reduce his state of arousal by turning away from a stimulus that is too intense, complicated or conflicting. He can close his eyes to escape a boring stimulus and open them to seek a more exciting one. The infant’s gaze initiations and terminations which accomplish this regulation appear to be a functional adaptation of an intrinsic biological process of gaze alteration.

Face and eyes are of primary importance in mother-infant attachment and the development of recognition. Eyes are organs of perception and the anatomical base for recognition; the need for recognition is the instinctual aim that drives the infant’s searching for eye contact with mother. Moreover, the infants’ innate perceptual systems are pre-designed to perform cross-modal transfers of information that allow them to recognize a correspondence across the senses (Stern, 1985: 49). This means that data received through vision, for example, transfers innately to tactile or auditory modes; or information gathered through touch transfers to a visual perception of shape. Infants are also pre-designed to forge certain global integrations, the most important of these for my purposes being the integration of self and other (p. 52). Memory itself is an act of recognition, and the infant has an extraordinary capacity for registering perceptual and affective events in memory. There is what is called a “recognition memory,” a synthesizing element that melds mother’s milk, face and voice, all the elements of a nourished self, which seems to operate across the birth gap (p. 92).

In these basic elements of the early experience of eye contact, we can see a link to Freud’s concept of the body ego, the idea in his structural view of the mind that a part of the ego is unconscious, and that the body is a place from which both external and internal perceptions arise that facilitate the formation of ego. The body is metaphorically a mental container. The current focus on mother-infant interaction can be seen as working back from speech to the body (Benjamin, 1988: 26). Affect is expressed through an infant’s entire body; for example, newborns are described as expressing anger by moving face, arms, and whole body in concern when he experiences a lack of air from nasal occlusion at the breast (Stern, 1985: 66). This global subjective world of emerging organization is and remains the fundamental domain of human subjectivity, from which perceived forms and identifiable acts will come. It is also a mythopoeic place of coming into being, the source for Jung’s “streams of lava,” the “ultimate reservoir that can be dipped into for all creative experience” (p. 67). Past this point everything is culturally invented.

It is through maternal eye contact that the infant becomes aware of his own eyes, and begins to develop an eye ego with its potential for the interiorization of mother’s reflections. It is also eventually through vision that image comes into being, and the first image that an infant forms is that of the body of his mother. From her body and the identification with his own reflection the infant gains an image of his own body as both self and other, and will eventually identify his body with the ego and his maleness. This is the beginning of ego development, the centerpoint of consciousness that is capable of communicating with a subject. The stronger the ego develops, the better able he will be to give his own personal meanings creative form.

Being seen, or the need to make one’s existence as a human being real through reflection, is an instinctually based, key and universal human concern (Ayers, 2003: 34-49). It is in part through seeing and being seen that the matching can occur between our own self-concept and the concept that others have of us. Eyes and faces are amongst the most important objects that can be seen and are indispensable for relations of any kind. A supportive social environment facilitates pleasure in one’s own assertions. Feelings, intentions, and the actions of the self become meaningful when seen through the eyes of others.

The infant is paradoxically both independent and dependent. The nascent self holds the independently existing inherited potentials and maturational processes which depend upon a good maternal environment for their evolution (Winnicott, 1971). At the same time, the infant is absolutely dependent and unable to know about dependence: environmental provision is taken for granted. In this state, “the environment is holding the individual, and at the same time the individual knows no environment and is at one with it (Winnicott, 1992: 283). Mother gives the gift of life through the sharing of her body, her womb and breasts, and her mind. Winnicott once said (during a discussion at a Scientific Meeting of the British Psycho-Analytical Society, circa 1940)

“There is no such thing as an infant,” meaning of course, that whenever one finds an infant one finds maternal care, and without maternal care there would be no infant.

(Winnicott, 1960)

From her own subjectivity she knows with a certainty that her baby is a unique individual, and that he depends upon her for an emotional reflection and affirmation of himself as a nascent person. Her child is both inside and outside, other and together. He is utterly unfamiliar, new and unknown and yet totally a part of herself at the same time. She says, in essence, “I recognize that you are real.” It is under these paradoxical conditions that the mother’s face serves as mirror, and her reflections give back to the infant his own self. In Winnicott’s words:

What does the baby see when he or she looks at the mother’s face? I am suggesting that, ordinarily, what the baby sees is himself or herself. In other words, mother is looking at the baby and what she looks like is related to what she sees there.

(1971: 112)

The good enough mother looks at, admires, and reflects her infant in her mind as shown in her eyes, and this in turn facilitates the creation of the infant’s mind to constellate a sense of self. The infant looks into mother’s face and gets back evidence that he is recognized as a being. Seeing oneself reflected in another’s eyes is to know one’s self and to exist. Here is the nucleus of human identity.

The primary mirror for the emerging self of the infant is the mother. In the state of narcissistic bliss and omnipotence before the child has consciousness of his distinctness from mother, the child craves recognition. The baby, who has a unique personality from the start, is an active participant with mother, driven by his need for a contingent response that fosters a sense of mastery and agency. When we recognize ourselves in the other our sense of effective agency is enhanced; the responsive world makes one feel effective. As Stern (1985) says, recognition is both self affirming as well as world affirming.

Through mother’s reflection and responsiveness the infant is able to come to know his own emotions. The synchrony of mother-infant eye contact builds the infrastructure for the deepest levels of empathic contact with another (Stern, 1977). At this point the child seeks to be the sole object of mother’s desire. Unlike Freud and Jung’s separate ego of the habituated world, the “I” of the child at this stage is desire for the mother; he consumes her through her breast and eye contact, absorbing her love, attention and admiration. It is from this desire that the self begins to emerge.

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