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A too-good mother and her baby: beginnings, the end of merging, and self-weaning

My example concerns a mother-baby couple which I had the opportunity to observe by the Bick method (Bick, 1964) in their home for an hour each week many years ago. At the time, I was very impressed by this mother's sensitive, loving relationship to her baby and it was only some years later when I learned how the relationship had broken down that I started to try to understand what had gone wrong, hence the motive for this paper.

Louise was the first child of professional parents. Her mother had gladly given up work in a care-giving profession to become a full-time mother. When I first met Louise at six days old, I found a contented, responsive baby and a blissfully happy mother, Mrs L. Unfortunately, I was able to meet Mr L only twice. He worked long hours and was often away. Mrs L's own parents lived abroad.

During the early weeks, mother and baby continued to seem in perfect harmony. Louise was never left to cry for a moment and Mrs L was always devotedly on hand to comfort, feed or talk to her, alertly sensitive to all her moods. For example, Mrs L's need to protect Louise from distress was apparent in her decision not to bath her for several weeks after Louise cried loudly during her first experience of being bathed.

There are many mothers, like Mrs L, who make a maximal adaptation to their babies at the start, though few achieve such immediate harmony, especially with a first baby and with no supportive help. The first requirement for a change in maternal adaptation comes around three to four months when babies initiate moves towards independence. They begin at times to resist close body contact, to strain away from mother's body and to "ask" to be put down. They also increasingly look away from their mothers in order to give their attention to toys or to other people.

Winnicott's view was that these first steps towards autonomy signified the end of the period of merging. "As soon as mother and infant are separate, from the infant's point of view, then it will be noted that the mother tends to change in her attitude. It is as if she now realises that the infant ... has a new capacity, that of giving a signal so that she can be guided towards meeting the infant's needs" (1965, p. 50). Experience shows that ordinary devoted mothers not only begin to allow their babies space to signal their needs, forcefully if necessary, but are usually a little ahead of their babies' moves towards independence, anticipating, and encouraging the next forward step. Some mothers cannot manage this transition to autonomy gradually, but respond with a sudden severance of sensitive contact, an instant weaning or an abrupt return to work. Other mothers respond, usually quite unconsciously, with withdrawal or hostility to their babies' budding autonomy, while continuing to be completely tuned to their babies' needs in all other respects. Only too-good mothers continue to make near-perfect adaptation to their babies, including all their babies' moves towards independence.

I first saw Louise indicate her wish to be put down off her mother's lap at fifteen weeks. After a contented breast-feed and several minutes of happy conversation on mother's knee, she flung herself backward against mother's arm, stiffened, arched her body and grizzled. "Oh you want to go down on the mat again", said mother and laid her gently down where Louise enjoyed kicking. Mother waited several minutes until Louise looked back at her with a smile before she knelt down beside her to play.

This observation was to prove typical of later interactive sequences in Louise's moves towards independence: Louise led and mother followed. Mother allowed Louise to play alone in her presence, but she always remained alert for the smallest sign that Louise wanted to resume contact with her and was immediately responsive. In other words, she showed no change in her attitude and continued to be as empathic and adapted as before. She seemed to want Louise's life to be an idyll in which there should be no room for conflict, dissatisfaction or anger.

However, Louise was not to be fobbed off. At eighteen weeks old, she became impatient with her breast-feeds and would pull angrily away from the breast, "while swearing at me", Mrs L said, whenever the let-down reflex was slow to function. Although she never cried by day, she sometimes woke screaming at night and was difficult to comfort. It was perplexing that such a well-mothered baby should wake screaming. This was the first indication of a sense of persecution which became a feature later. In spite of many broken nights, Mrs L said she never felt resentful because she shared Louise's distress. Amazingly, it was not until Louise was sixteen months old that she told me she had resented her for the first time since she was born.

Mrs L was reluctant to introduce solids. She said she did not want Heinz to come between her and her baby. However, when Louise was five months old, she reluctantly responded to advice and found that Louise ate eagerly and wanted to master her own spoon.

At six months Mrs L introduced juice from a beaker, which Louise also welcomed. Following this development, at midday feeds Louise refused the breast, but when offered the beaker she drank thirstily. Within a month, she had weaned herself. Mrs L was devastated. She wished she had thrown the beaker away; but such an act would have been entirely out of character. She always felt bound to fulfil Louise's wishes.

Louise's motives for self-weaning are a matter for conjecture. Since she had had no practice in tolerating frustration she may have found it unusually hard to bear the pain of breastfeeding at a time that her gums were seen to be inflamed from teething. Perhaps also she may have needed to protect a mother who could not bear to be hated or to protect herself from her mother's too-close attentiveness and attunement. Her self-weaning must have introduced a needed dyssynchrony between her own and her mother's feelings.

A baby with the initiative to wean herself does not appear to be "worse than castrated". Louise's frustration of her mother's wish to breast-feed her was probably the first clear sign that her response to too-good mothering would not be passivity and merger but the alternative of rejection.

Of course much must remain unknown and speculative in this method of baby observation. In particular, I learned almost nothing of Mr L's relationship to Louise. He was said to be delighted with her, but too busy to share her care. This must have suited Mrs L, who probably did little to encourage him to be involved, just as she did nothing to bring Louise into relationship with me.

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