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Separation between mother and infant

In the course of normal development, narcissism gives way to object relations. As the child differentiates between himself and his mother, he suffers the loss of narcissistic bliss rooted in omnipotent gratification. The self ’s wish to preserve a narcissistic identity clashes with the self ’s need for recognition and the creation of an inner self with symbolic functions. As the drive for separation and the demands of the environment penetrate the world of fusion and omnipotence, of dual unity and magical, autistic thinking, the child is torn in two: one part seeks autonomy and freedom, the other clings to paradise, merger and infantile bliss. As the mother responds and descends to the infant’s level, she provides him with a differentiated kind of human reflection. He is learning object relations as well as self-regulation and attunement. Stern explains:

The issue at stake is momentous. The infant requires the integrative experience to successfully restructure the world - that what he does changes the other. Since these acts are also charged with emotion, with pleasure or pain, acting on the world also means being able to change one’s own feelings “in the desired direction.”

(1977: 116)

When mother gives her child a positive, nurturing introduction to existence, things go well. Nurturance includes soothing, reassuring, and facilitating the development of confidence, as well as his enthusiasm and joy in life. Under these circumstances the child builds up a good mother representation. The developing self of the child comes to attach to his particular mother with all the intensity and absoluteness of primary love and infantile dependence; the mother is no longer interchangeable with any provider. Winnicott (1965: 29-36) suggests that a good relationship between an infant and his mother allows him to develop a separate sense of self - a self whose existence does not depend on the presence of another - at the same time as he develops a sense of basic relatedness. The infant begins to disidentify himself from the original unity with mother through the frustrations he inevitably suffers and through the aggression called forth by those frustrations. The infant, who starts out in a symbiotic condition of absolute dependence, gradually begins to perceive the mother as separate - as “not-me.” The son begins to become subject, the mother becomes object, and then the baby splits into good and bad objects.

In the stage of adaptation Winnicott called “relative dependence,” at about the age of six months, the child is beginning to realize that his mother’s mind is necessary. The infant oscillates between perceptions of his mother as separate and as not separate. The self originates in the mother and separation from her is the beginning of differences and perceptions of limitation. The child’s first crisis is his perception of mother as a separate being. The infant achieves a differentiation of self only insofar as its expectations of primary love are frustrated. The infant will inevitably undergo tension, discomfort, and pain as the reality principle begins to penetrate emotional and cognitive levels. The child comes to recognize that mother has different interests and activities. He uses his developing physical and mental capacities to adapt to her interests and her modes of behavior in attempts to retain his connection to her. Changes are gradual in the infant’s cycle of fusion, separation, and re-fusion through which he progressively differentiates himself.

In the normal course of things, if separation is done in conjunction with the infant’s inner experience of continuity in the midst of changing instances and events, an experience of self is formed. As absolute dependence decreases, the child gains increasing awareness around his actions and can connect them to personal impulse. Gradually thereafter, the child no longer experiences the environment as totally acting upon it. Not only is he influenced by the social, political, economic and biological world, but the child influences his world in turn. The development of this factor is critical in Freud and Jung’s masculine model of development.

Eventually the child is able to populate the world with samples of his own inner life. His object relationships, as well as the nature of his self, develop through his awareness of mother’s separateness: this development points to the fact that there is a part of the individual that wants to see the mother separately, as an independent subject. This creates an anxiety that spurs the development of ego capacities as well as the creation of ego boundaries. For this part of the child, total merging and dependence are not desirable. The phase where the child is struggling to maintain his connection to mother and at the same time struggling to get some distance from her is an extremely difficult one. While the child has gained a certain sense of himself as a separate and permanent being, he does not yet have an emotional certainty of the mother’s permanence, nor the emotional certainty of being an individuated whole self, or what Mahler called “libidinal object constancy.” While he has attained perceptual and cognitive recognition of separateness and object permanence, he does not yet have an emotional certainty of being an individuated whole self.

At about the age of nine months, the child begins to sense that he has an interior subjective life of his own and that others do too. In the same way that vision sets up a relationship of recognition between self and other, it facilitates a separation between the two. Eye-to-eye contact is strikingly like the interaction between mother and infant carried out with locomotor behaviors during the 12- to 18-month period of separation (Stern, 1985). Early eye contact can mimic the child walking away from and returning to mother’s side. The child continues to need mother’s emotional support while learning to walk: “The child walks alone with his eyes fixed on his mother’s face, not on the difficulties in his way . . . In the very same moment that he is emphasizing his need for her, he is proving that he can do without hef’ (Mahler, 1975: 41).

With the locomotor shift and the child’s awareness that he can be physically autonomous, he also becomes aware that the contents of his own mind can be shared with another. It is not a time, as previously thought, that the child exerts all his efforts to separating, individuating, and getting free from mother. Separation is indeed occurring, but this period of time is equally devoted to creating an intersubjective union with mother, of forming new ways of being with another which continues throughout the life span. From this point on, all future developments of self-knowledge depend equally on the mediation of the other. The paradox of recognition is the need for acknowledgment that turns us back to dependence on the other: this is the natural, organic course of human development. Basically one is faced with dependency on others outside of one’s control. The success of transition depends on the stability of one’s self image and identifications, and the level of distinction between object and self.

The nature of a boy’s self and object relationships change with a growing recognition of the mother’s separateness and a lessening of dependence on her. As development occurs over the passing months and years, the child turns to substitutes - transitional objects that facilitate his movement away from the relationship with his mother, and that also enable him to continue in that relationship at the level of fantasy and emotion. He is moving in two developmental directions at the same time. The child learns to use objects around him in the culture to preserve his secure tie to the maternal figure, while he struggles to achieve a measure of his own power and control.

The development of recognition is often accompanied by feelings of rejection which mark the psychic loss of mother’s security and protection. Shame is not only an affect in evidence as early as the first six months of life (Ayers, 2003), but the core of the pain in the separation which results from a loss of symbiosis and the demands to be autonomous. Shame is primarily object relational, ultimately about the self and other, and so it becomes intensified at the point of differentiation due to the felt dependence on the other. Sartre put it this way: “shame is the feeling of an original fall, not because of the fact that I may have committed this or that particular fault but simply that I have ‘fallen’ into the world in the midst of things and that I need the mediation of the Other in order to be what I am” (Sartre, 1956: 288). From an intersubjective perspective, the issue involved in a boy’s separation from the mother is not only how he can free himself, but also how he can engage her in seeing him which necessitates that he in turn look at her. It is in this way that the need to face shame becomes an inescapable necessity for recognition.

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