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Mothers' experience of the observation and the observer

Numerous psychoanalytic writers have discussed the place of the observer's perceptions of the infant in infant observation, and how these perceptions can enhance insight into such processes as containment, transference and countertransference. Less, however, has been published that I am aware of about the observer's relationship with the mother, either from the observer's point of view or from the mothers' point of view. About the mothers' experience, there has been relatively slight recognition of the emerging relationship between mother and observer, and little reference to mothers' experience of the observer's presence and their experience of its impact on their relationship with their infant.

For over fifty years, students of infant observation have entered the homes and intimate lives of families. For twelve to twenty-four months, the student witnesses and experiences, at its earliest, the ever evolving psychological and emotional world of the human infant. Over the course of this time, where the observer meets with mother and infant for one-hour weekly visits, to learn and take interest in her baby's growth, a relationship inevitably emerges and develops between the mother and the observer. Harris noted that observers are faced with the task of establishing a "position with the mother from which one can be friendly, receptive and willing to forgo judgmental attitudes ... taking an uncritical interest in whatever she wants to confide about the baby or about her own feelings in dealing with him" (1976/1987, p. 227).

On the mother's side Bick (1964) described that the mother has to find a way to fit the observer into her household "in her own way" (p. 242). The literature is sparse when considering mothers' ways of fitting the observer into their households, and perhaps into their minds, and how mothers come to experience the observation as a whole. There is also a similar significant gap in the literature about the impact of the twelve-month infant observation on the mother-infant relationship. Even less has been written about the ending of infant observation.

A few authors have, however, offered ideas based on theoretical knowledge and experience, about what meaning the infant observation may take on for mothers. Bick, for example, stated simply her understanding that the observation was welcomed by mothers, and experienced as an event where they could have "someone come regularly into their home with whom they could talk about their baby and its development" (1964, p. 558). Similarly, Coulter (1991) used her own experience as an observer to reflect on the meaning of infant observations for mothers. Brafman (1988) suggested that the observer fosters the mother's self-esteem and self-image, while Shuttleworth (1989) acknowledged that the observer often became a container for the mother, as did Rustin (1989), Crick (1997) and Wittenberg (1999). Bodin (1997) extended this notion of the containing presence of the observer, suggesting that it helps the mother to keep her mind open to her baby, and has a therapeutic side effect, while Raphael-Leff (2003) and Diem-Wille (1997) considered the mothers' use of the observer as a benign and supportive presence.

A mother's view of her relationship with the observer has also received little attention in the literature to date, despite an implicit awareness of its significance (Crick, 1997; Harris, 1975, 1976; Magagna, 1987; Piontelli, 1986). Coulter (1991) explored this suggesting that while it is not a social, friendship or therapeutic relationship, it does involve transference. She stated that the relationship may be understood through the observer's countertransference in relation to the mothers' feelings and responses.

Mothers' fantasies concerning expectations of the observer and of the twelve-month infant observation have received barely any recognition in the literature, apart from Rustin (1989) who mentioned that these expectations can range "from viewing the observer as a child care expert, to treating her as needing to be taught the basic facts of life and in particular the fundamentals of baby care" (p. 9).

Similarly, exploration of mothers' reasons for taking part in a twelve-month infant observation has been limited. Crick (1997) and Raphael-Leff (2003) briefly commented on varied reasons such as loneliness, insecurity or anticipated difficulties which are hoped would be alleviated by the observer.

Even less has been written about mothers' experience of the ending of the observation, despite an extensive literature on separation and loss (Bowlby, 1980; Mahler et al., 1975). Sowa (1999) broached the significance of ending for families, and remarked on the need for sensitivity when finishing an observation, but did not discuss this experience further.

A similar significant gap in the literature concerns the impact of the twelve-month infant observation on the mother-infant relationship. Little has been discussed regarding the mothers' expectations and fantasies concerning benefits of the infant observation to the mother and baby, apart from Coulter (1991; see Chapter Ten) who stated briefly that the mother may have some personal interest in the observational process, "consenting to it on the basis of her own expectations and fantasies as to the benefits of this observation to herself and her baby" (p. 253). Examples as to what these presumed or imagined benefits may be were not discussed.

The concept of the observer being beneficial to the mother-infant relationship was noted by Harris, who suggested that the observer's "interest in the complexity of the infant's development is likely to reinforce the mother's interest in her baby and to encourage her to value her capacity to understand him" (1976/1987, p. 229).

When discussing the mother's relationship with the observer as one of transference, Coulter (1991) concluded that this could be helpful to the mother. The mother could make use of the observer as a transference figure, such that the observer could offer supportive interpretations as appropriate. Bodin (1997) extended this in remarking that the observer's presence can lead to the mother identifying with the third position, a reflective stance which creates more mental space within the mother, within which to think about her infant. Wittenberg (1999) expressed similar notions, commenting that the mother may give more attention to the baby when the observer is present. She further mentioned that the observer is helpful to the baby, firstly in presenting the baby with the oedipal situation, and secondly, becoming a container for the baby's angry feelings, thus preserving the good feelings for the mother.

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