Home Sociology Infant Observation: Creating Transformative Relationships
The mothers' experience of the observation and the mother-observer relationship
The mothers' reports of their overall experience of the infant observation, with particular reference to the mother-observer relationship, flowed easily according to the phases of the observation itself.
i. Pre observation
In studying mothers' thoughts, feelings, and fantasies experienced before beginning the observation, several themes emerged about their reasons for participating in the observation, their expectations of the observation and their fantasies, and expectations of the relationship with the observer.
Crick (1997) and Raphael-Leff (2003) briefly commented on the varied conscious and unconscious motivations which underlie mothers' decisions to take part in an observation. Both gave reasons for mothers agreeing to the observation, for example, their anticipation of difficulties being alleviated by the observer's visits, as well as loneliness, insecurity, and altruism. I found their comments were confirmed by the findings of the study, as several reasons emerged for mothers taking part in the observation, some more overt than others.
Sandra, Fiona, and Mary all wished to help the observer. They perceived the observation as an important piece of research, and/or that they were helping out a friend who had a connection with the observer. The benefits of observation to the observer were clearly acknowledged by all three mothers and the observation was perceived in terms of the observer's need as opposed to their own.
Sandra stated, "It was a girl I actually work with ... she suggested ... I think I just thought that I could help out, that it was a fairly important issue and ... important for research purposes."
Mary too spoke of the importance of research: "I was approached ... by a friend of mine and she said, look someone needs to do a research, and I said ok . I guess I also thought there are not many people who volunteer with things like this."
Fiona made clear her decision to help a friend: "Basically it was just out of a favour for somebody, yes."
On closer inspection however, it became apparent that Sandra and Fiona had several other reasons for participating in the infant observation. Sandra formulated the view that the observer was an expert in mental health, and therefore would be a supportive presence for a potentially isolated mother who was vulnerable to postnatal depression. She said,
"We sort of thought it would be good in a way, someone coming each week just to break up the monotony of being a mum ... and just have a chat to ... also my husband thought that, because he had a few friends that have had postnatal depression, he said we've got to be careful around that sort of thing ... So I think he thought that if the observer was here with her 'psych' background ... if I did get it, she'd pick up on it.”
She clearly articulated her hope that the observation and the observer's presence would alleviate her difficulties, the potential loneliness, and isolation.
In a similar vein, Fiona, despite initial apprehension and ambivalence in her decision to take part in the observation, indicated curiosity about what the observer might offer her when she said that she "wanted to see for herself” what psychologists were really like, and if they were helpful.
What also became clear to me when exploring mothers' fantasies about the observation and observer, before beginning it, was that there existed considerable anxiety which needed to be set aside. W. E. Freud (1975) commented on the possibility of the intrusive nature of infant observation for mothers and Wittenberg (1999) also referred to mothers' experiences of being "watched” as evoking anxiety.
In this study, initial anxieties surfaced for mothers prior to the beginning and during the early weeks of the observation, despite having information about what the observation would entail. Concerns related to the observer being a stranger, and underlying anxieties about being observed, judged or invaded were expressed. Sandra spoke of her initial awkwardness and apprehension: "She'd come once a week., except for holidays ... she would just observe ... basically I would do as I normally would do ... I thought it would be a bit hard, because I didn't know her at all . I didn't know her. I thought it would be awkward at the start.”
Fiona also expressed similar feelings:
I was actually quite hesitant about thinking, you know, that everything is fine and so forth ... you are sharing your tiniest treasure with and you just want to make sure that nobody is sort of . I didn't want my baby to feel uncomfortable . you know they do, you can pick up that they are uncomfortable . I'm not very good at these sorts of things and I'm a bit of a private person . I didn't want my baby's space to be invaded . these are thoughts I had prior to .
I know how I feel when somebody is just watching me ... it's like a space invasion and when this is your home and this is your haven? ... it wasn't as if she was a friend.
In the final stages of pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby a mother's primitive anxieties surface, anxieties can be traced back to their own infancy (Klein, 1959). It is very likely then, that the first year after the infant's arrival is a period of heightened vulnerability for mothers, exacerbating feelings of invasion, attack, and persecution, as suggested by Klein, in which every discomfort, frustration, and pain is felt to be inflicted by hostile forces.
Winnicott (1965) remarked on the mother's strong identification with her infant at this early stage:
. towards the end of the pregnancy and for a few weeks after the birth of a child the mother is preoccupied with ... the care of her baby, ... which at first seems like a part of herself; moreover she is very identified with the baby and knows quite well what the baby is feeling like. For this she uses her own experience as a baby. In this way the mother is herself in a dependent state, and vulnerable. (p. 85)
In light of this, it is not surprising that mothers may experience the initial stages of infant observation and the observer's presence as an anxious and uncertain time, with the anticipation of potential attack by a stranger.
ii. The start of the observation
Bick (1964) noted that mothers do welcome the fact of having someone visit regularly to whom they could talk about their infant but she, like other writers in this field to date, did not comment upon the earliest stages of the observation, before mothers have felt fully comfortable with the observer's presence.
The study confirmed the initial stage as a time when various prominent persecutory anxieties can be gradually set aside. This, however, was felt to depend on the early experience of the observation and experience with the observer. Sandra, Fiona, and Mary expressed the need to take time to negotiate the routine of the observation, and to develop some understanding of their role, and that of the observer. There was some confusion expressed by all three regarding the observation process and what would actually occur in the hour that the observer was present. This was reflected earlier in concerns expressed by Fiona about feeling invaded, watched, and judged. This was echoed by Sandra when she commented on her feelings of being watched and her concerns about what the observer would see. She said:
I suppose with someone there, you are thinking, "I wonder if they're thinking, perhaps this is not going well whatever” ... I wasn't thinking she was judging me in any way, in the end, anyway or anything. I suppose at the start you do try to do things, like when you put the child down and they're crying . it's a bit odd. It didn't really worry me though. It was all confidential and that, anyway.
The mothers described settling into the observation after the first few weeks. It seemed that once routine and familiarity was established, and mothers had some experience of the observer and observation, a sense of ease and perhaps reassurance prevailed. Sandra commented on her initial experience of adjusting to this and said:
I suppose it was just sort of getting used to what she'd do and you know, like if the baby was asleep . she'd sit therefore an hour watching a sleeping baby, you know . but she'd say, no that's fine, that's what happens . I suppose it was getting into a routine of what happens each time. She just did whatever the baby's doing.
Fiona too commented on her need for time to adjust. I had no idea of what I had really let myself in for ... I thought, how was I going to spend this hour? (laughter) and really it was quite funny because the hour would end up going just like that. I suppose I didn't know if I was supposed to entertain or what I was supposed to do, but it didn't take very long to get into the routine of what was happening and it was only a few weeks and I thought, oh well, this is okay, I can do a bit of this.
It seemed important and necessary for mothers in this study to have the actual experience of the observation and the observer's presence to help them manage their concerns and any underlying anxieties. Both Fiona and Mary said that they began to realise that the observation was unobtrusive and did not interfere with their daily routines and lives. Fiona said:
It wasn't long before I thought this is ok, it seems harmless enough ... I just sort of got myself into a routine and obviously for me to allow it to happen and keep happening for the twelve months, ... if I had felt uncomfortable or intimidated by it ... why would I let it continue?
Mary in a similar vein spoke of her need for the observation to be non-interfering. "She was quietly spoken ... and she was ... not obtrusive. Very calming presence, very non interfering presence. It was like she wasn't there but she was there.”
Despite ambivalent feelings being present at times, there seemed to be a developing sense of trust with the observation and the observer, and of what it had to offer after initial anxiety had subsided.
The findings revealed that the opportunity for "chatting” with the observer appeared to be one important factor in helping the mothers settle into the observation, and seemed to also be experienced as a benefit. Both Sandra and Fiona openly expressed their enjoyment at having someone available for them to talk to about their baby's development and other daily events. Sandra stated,: "I think she sort of had a job to get on with, but I probably did distract her by chatting all the time ... I suppose we just talked about things that were happening in the world ... yeah, just chatted away.”
Similarly Fiona commented, "It was nice to have someone taking so much interest . to note what may have been happening in my baby's week . and chat away to them about my baby . You could just spool off this wonderful talk about your precious baby.”
When mothers reflected on their experience at the beginning another significant factor that emerged was that they valued a sense of control over the observation, especially the option to withdraw which seemed to have an enabling function. It was evident that the freedom to choose to end the observation at any time contributed to the mothers' decision to take part in the observation. Mary articulated this clearly when she said, "We were also given the option to finish if it didn't suit ... I guess having that 'out' was really good because if it didn't suit our lifestyle, it didn't work, then we didn't have to have it, I guess just knowing that made me not worry about it too much . so we will take it as it comes and if it fits great and if it doesn't fit, then that's okay as well.”
It seemed that this option to end the observation may have helped ease some of the mothers' initial anxieties and concerns by giving them a sense of control over the unknown. Also, as the process of infant observation is a long-term commitment for all parties involved, it is possible that the mothers found relief in having an ongoing possibility to end this process.
In the light of this finding, I wondered whether the option to withdraw actually enables mothers to explore their curiosity or need, in relation to the infant observation, without feeling trapped or too vulnerable. The period prior to the observation and its early stages is a time when mothers possibly feel most ambivalent toward the observation and observer, which is very likely due to their conscious and unconscious needs or expectations of the observation, merged with heightened vulnerability brought on by primitive anxieties, present in the early caring of the infant.
With the intensity of such emotion and heightened sensitivity, it seems possible that the option to terminate provides mothers with a sense of control over an experience that might otherwise feel anxiety provoking and potentially overwhelming.
iii. During the observation
Several themes emerged when Sandra, Fiona, and Mary reflected on their experience of the observation and their relationship with the observer during the actual observation. What became clear was that the mother-observer relationship developed over time.
Sandra recalled the following when asked to reflect on her contact with the observer, "We got to know each other pretty well over the twelve months, you know ... it was nice to chat to her about daily bits and pieces and what's happening in the news and things."
Fiona too commented on her feelings, "It was quite a treat to have somebody that was coming in the door and just looking at your baby ... and you could do a bit of interacting ... I suppose you get to the stage where you think it's just 'Jane' ... we used to call it Therapy Thursday."
And Mary commented on the inevitable relationship that forms: "She would come in once a week for an hour and go again ... we obviously got to know her."
Despite some initial anxieties, the observer's presence was felt to be non-restrictive, not inconvenient, and quite enjoyable. There was a sense that for all the mothers in this study that a relationship with the observer was both inevitable and welcome.
However, the quality of the interaction and relationship with the observer appeared to be shaped by various factors. Firstly prior conscious and unconscious fantasies, and expectations of the observer, for example observer as expert and observer as stranger, were relevant. Secondly, the observer as a transference figure, that is who the observer represented for the individual mother was important (Coulter, 1991). Thirdly, how mothers negotiated the observer's presence and role in their mind emerged as salient.
But it seemed that this developing relationship presented considerable confusion for mothers. In this study, accounts of the relationship with the observer indicated that they had some difficulty in both controlling and in understanding the degree of closeness or intimacy experienced with the observer. Despite their awareness that the observer had a task to do and the observation would eventually end, the mothers noted their growing enjoyment and comfort in their connection with the observer as well as their dilemma and confusion regarding the extent of intimacy. Mary's comment highlighted this:
It was all professional and it was on a professional level. It had to be a professional level ... it was hard to develop a friendship ... when she's just got to observe and not interfere with what we do really. It was sometimes difficult, yeah. I was a bit caught between, do I sit and chat to her or do I just do what I normally do? ... was I being rude doing what I normally do?
And Sandra commented: "It's strange, in a way . you get used to chatting but at the same time that's sort of part of her work that she was doing."
The various uses that mothers have made of an observer have been illustrated in the literature in particular for support and containment (Bick, 1964; Harris, 1975, 1980; Rustin, 1989; Crick, 1987; Raphael-Leff, 2003). In this study, two of the three mothers seemed to use the observer in this way, as was evident when they described enjoying the observer's visits because it gave them the opportunity to interact and talk about daily happenings or their infant's development. In addition one mother, Sandra, reported anticipating that the observer would be a helpful presence, and perhaps safeguard against isolation and depression.
Harris (1980), Shuttleworth (1989) and Wittenberg (1999) comment on the mother's use of the observer as a container of a range of positive and negative feelings. This was also evident in the findings. Two of the three mothers talked openly, suggesting that the observer may have been used as a container for unbearable feelings and anxieties outside their immediate awareness.
Coulter emphasises the idea that the mother-observer relationships have a transference quality. It was difficult to explore the extent of unconscious use of observer and whom the observer represented for these mothers transferentially in this study, given that there was only one meeting, and little was known of their own personal histories. However having said this, it was still possible to hypothesise transference dimensions to the relationship.
Sandra, Fiona, and Mary had prior expectations of the observer/observation and what its benefits would be, some more conscious than others. Coupled with this, they indicated an emerging confusion regarding their perception of the observer's role and their relationship to the observer. For instance, all three mothers commented on the observer having a task to do, but each expressed some thought about the observer which indicated that there were other dimensions to this relationship. Sandra perceived the observer as an expert/carer or perhaps maternal figure, who could look after her and her baby, while Mary claimed that her relationship with the observer was professional, yet openly stated that she wanted to meet the observer's partner. With this in mind it seems clear that particular aspects of the relationship with the observer had a multitude of representations indicative of transference.
Overall it appeared that the mother-observer relationship was multi-faceted. Further understanding of the complexity of this relationship is important beyond the personal impact upon the mother. It raises the question of whether this relationship and mothers' use of it influences the observational experience for observers and what is then actually observed. Furthermore, it raises questions of how the relationship may influence the way mothers interact with their infants, and how might this therefore impact on the development of the infant.
The study also revealed the increasing significance of the observation for mothers over the course of their contact with the observer and as the relationship with the observer developed. Although the literature has not described in detail this experience for mothers previously, writers such as W. E. Freud (1975) and Sowa (1999) have suggested that the observation becomes valuable, containing and supportive for mothers overall.
Here the observer became an important and familiar presence, and the visits became part of the mothers' routine and ongoing life. Fiona referred to her observational hour as "Therapy Thursday" whilst Sandra spoke of how the observer was invited to her infant's birthday where only family would be present. Mary had wanted to meet her observer's partner.
The degree and quality of significance of the relationship was individual to each mother. This may have been determined by factors such as the mother's level of family support, isolation, and anxiety, or whom the observer came to represent for them in the transference. These factors could intensify and shape the relationship to the observer and therefore influence the experience of the observation (Coulter, 1991).
It is also interesting to consider whether this increasing significance may be linked with an experience of the observation and relationship with the observer, as supportive, containing of anxiety and possibly therapeutic. This is in line with Bodin's (1997) view that infant observation has a therapeutic side effect.
iv. The experience of loss and sadness at the ending of the observation
The present findings certainly revealed that the ending was a difficult experience for mothers, who gave direct accounts of the loss and sadness felt during this time. Sandra and Fiona whose observations had finished two years previously described a sense of loss at the end of the observation, making specific reference to the loss of routine and their relationship with the observer. They also revealed feelings of sadness in missing the observer in their home.
"I suppose it was different when it all stopped because you're used to having someone around every week and then it was just sort of nothing ... because it was just a regular routine sort of thing, you are used to having her come ... . When it stopped, it all sort of just stopped, yeah,
I sort of in a way missed her ... I suppose it was a bit sad in a way ... you go from not having anything to do with her and then you have that for a year, then back to not having anything to do with her . it's strange in a way . It was sad coming to a close because it was something that was just regularly occurring ... you get used to her and just chatting.”
Fiona's reflection was that:
"Well, it was sort of, you know, because every week for an hour, you've got this thing happening and then it just stops . It was a bit unusual, because you do, you do sort of get a bit of a routine and then it's just gone ... You think, Oh well, this person is coming, it's nice to chat away about your little person ... and um then to have it stop, and it just stops! ...
I suppose you haven't got that person that you can just chat away to about how wonderful your baby is . and I don't know . well, you can't help but chat away to someone that is observing . you just can't stand there or sit in a room whatever and not . . You think, talk to them.”
Although Mary's observation had only just come to an end she too expressed her sadness at the loss of the observer's presence: "It was sort of sad ... became she's a nice lady ... yeah, you get used to her being around.”
The considerable extent to which Sandra and Fiona, rationalised their feelings of loss and justified the observer's departure also suggested that the ending of an infant observation is a difficult and painful process for mothers.
Sandra said: "I knew right from the start that it would come to an end after a year . it didn't really worry me . I realised for both of us that we are both busy anyway, life goes on, you know, and that aspect of your life was over. It did seem funny for a few weeks. I would think, 'Oh, she would have been here by now' and then you'd think, 'Oh that's right, it's finished now.”
Fiona also tried to make some sense regarding her feelings:
"It was a bit like, 'Oh, the person that you're chatting with about your baby, you know, like that's finished'. Well I actually found it hard to, well not hard, because I always knew that it was coming to an end.”
It is important here to note that this time also coincides with the infant's weaning and increasing autonomy, the period of Mahler's (1972, p. 333) "growing-away process". In the light of this, it would seem reasonable to suggest that mothers may have already been experiencing feelings of loss relating to separation-individuation at the time of the observation ending.
v. Post observation
The mothers' feelings post-observation arose unexpectedly in the interviews. It seemed that as they freely reflected on their experiences, what emerged was new insight into the feelings, thoughts, and fantasies of their relationship with the observer post-observation, allowing deeper reflection into the meaning of the observation for these mothers. These areas have not been previously explored in depth in the literature.
The three mothers expressed, either explicitly or implicitly, a desire for contact with the observer, a wish to see the observer again and a curiosity about the outcome of the observation. Sandra commented: "I did say to her, 'You know, if ever you want to drop in or anything' ... But I'm sure we'll catch up with her one time somewhere or ... bump into each other or something ... I suppose in a way it might have been nice to have still seen her a bit."
Mary spoke of her desire also to continue contact with the observer, "You get used to her being around . it's sad but we've got her phone number . so there will be continuity of it, not of the research ... but we know she is only a phone call away ... she is someone we will just touch base with . because we want to continue some sort of contact."
But for Fiona the desire for contact with the observer did not emerge in a straightforward manner, as it did for the others. She spoke of how she had not had any contact with the observer after the observation ended, and had only heard through a family member that the observer was seen in the community occasionally. Fiona did not say directly that she would have liked some contact with the observer, but conveyed a sense that she had thoughts about seeing the observer or having a chance encounter. As she spoke of not seeing the observer again, and not hearing about her for a while, she said: "I haven't even spotted her down the street or anything."
This suggests that the mothers' relationship with the observer held great significance and that the mothers' attachment to the observer was deeper than they consciously experienced. In addition, the mothers' desire to know the outcome of the observation is further suggestive of the importance of this experience for them. Sandra expressed her curiosity about her helpfulness and the outcome of the observation: "I was glad I was able to help (pause). I suppose you sort of wonder too how she went with it . what sort of came out of it all, if it went all right .
I just wonder if it did really help her."
Fiona too wondered about what had become of the observation and the observer: "She made some sort of comment on how she would love to see my child . I don't think you could ever forget . it's such an intimate thing . little ones are so interesting and trusting and um, so precious."
The mothers clearly wished to know what the observer did with the experience of mother and infant, and if the observer still thought about them. The inclination to want to have contact and see the observer, particularly for two of the three mothers whose observation ended two years prior, suggested that the observer was still very present in their minds. The findings also indicated that two mothers experienced confusion about the observer's capacity to cease the observation and contact with mother and infant. Sandra planned to invite the observer to her baby's first birthday where only family would be present, implying that the observer was perceived to be someone important and close to family. She said: "I suppose it was a little bit sad in a way ... she actually finished ... and it was a week later we had the first birthday party ... So we said to her, you are welcome to come along ... We are just family, brothers, sisters, grandmas and grandpas . because she had been a part of my baby's life for a year . I can understand it's sort of part of her work ... but we said she can pop in any time."
Fiona spoke of finding it difficult to understand how the observer appeared to remain detached and walked away from such an intimate experience. She commented: "You wouldn't be studying little people if you really didn't think little people were wonderful and it's quite unusual to, um . I don't know if I'd be able to do it, sort of watch somebody and keep yourself detached enough to then walk away. How do you cope? ... It would be really hard to detach yourself, I must admit . I would not be able to do that."
If this level of intimacy develops and exists in the mother's relationship with the observer, or if the observer comes to represent an important figure in the mothers' experience, as suggested by the findings, it is possible that mothers are left feeling confused, hurt, angry, and abandoned at the end of the observation, indicative of feelings of loss experienced in separation (Bowlby, 1980).
The development of a mother's relationship with her observer is a complex one influenced by the mother's external circumstances and her internal world functioning. However, the complexity of this may not be within mothers' awareness. Unlike the observers, mothers who take part in the infant observation, untrained in psychoanalytic matters, may lack the framework for understanding the intricacies of concepts such as transference relationships. Whatever feelings may emerge, mothers are left to make sense of their experience as best they can. In this study two of the mothers who were no longer in contact with the observer were left with confusion and unresolved feelings about their relationship with their observer, and about the ending of the observation.
It is also interesting to note here that I had difficulty obtaining a sample for the research, as mothers were not initially forthcoming with a desire to participate. This may well have related to the hurt, confusion, anger, and possible feelings of abandonment that they were left to work through after the observation ended.
All three mothers expressed a desire for contact with the observer after the end of the observation. They seemed puzzled about the ending of the observation and the observer's departure or "detachment," as one mother termed it. Given the extent of the impact of the ending, it is possible that the mothers' wish for some contact also revolved around their need for reassurance, that the experience was valued and considered important by the observer, or perhaps that they—mother and infant as persons—were still thought about and valued by the observer.
I think that further contact with the observer may have alleviated feelings of abandonment, confusion, hurt or anger in relation to the loss at ending. That the two mothers who had finished their observation two years prior became inquisitive about my own experience as an observer suggested that they may have been searching for answers for their unresolved confusion.
The mothers' perception of the impact of the observation and observer's presence on the mother-infant relationship
I noted several themes in the findings relating to the impact of the observation, in particular the observer's presence, on the mother-infant relationship. Although mothers' prior expectations of perceived benefits for themselves have been noted, this has not been the case concerning potential benefits to the baby; mothers' expectations about the likely benefits of the observation to their baby have not previously received attention in the literature. The findings of the study reveal very little about this area. Only one mother, Sandra, directly articulated her thoughts surrounding possible benefits of the observation to herself and her infant, before the observation started. She had an expectation that the observer would be an expert in mental health and would therefore be a protective figure for her infant as well as herself, perhaps preventing any disturbance in their psychological health. She stated: "I just thought ... because you're looking at baby and observing them, you know ... from (the observer's) point of view, seeing perhaps what they might turn out to be like later, it would be quite interesting ... if they sort of thought that something was a bit unusual." Fiona and Mary did not directly comment on their fantasies regarding the benefits of the observation to their baby. As noted earlier there are various reasons for mothers taking part in the twelve-month infant observation. It is also possible that, as mothers decide to take part in the observation during their pregnancy, anticipated benefits to herself also constitute anticipated benefits to the baby because the baby's needs are inextricably bound to the mothers' own personal needs.
The findings suggested that there was a marked ambivalence from mothers when considering the impact of the observer's presence on their infant. This also has not previously been noted in the literature. Sandra referred to her infant benefiting from the observation, and to the observer's presence being a positive and supportive experience, believing it contributed to her infant's outgoing personality. She said: "I thought perhaps, that's why she is a bit outgoing .
I suppose she got used to seeing the observer ... every so often from this distance ... But I do wonder, because like she's not shy at all . whether that's because she had someone around every so often when she was younger . She likes being the centre of attention now . maybe this is where it all came from."
On the other hand, however, she expressed a degree of anxiety about the possibility of her infant's personality development being adversely affected by the observer; she said: "I'd never really heard of observations actually. I did ask her, she said it's been happening for over twenty years ... I said, 'I hope none of them turned out to be axe murderers, later on ... the children."
Fiona also expressed her concerns regarding the observer's presence being experienced as invasive, initially, and conveyed feelings of hesitation about the observer developing a relationship with her infant as the observation would end in twelve months and the observer would "be gone". Fiona had similarly expressed, earlier, difficulty in understanding the observer's capacity to "detach" herself from the observational experience and she seemed to feel considerable distress around the ending of the observation. Clearly the findings illuminated a degree of ambivalence about the observer's presence for mothers themselves, and in relation to the infant.
Another theme which emerged from the study was that mothers experienced the observer's presence and the observation itself as helpful to their relationship with the infant. Harris (1976),
Bodin (1997) and Wittenberg (1999) all wrote about the observer's presence being helpful and supportive to the mother-infant dyad in helping a mother create more mental space for her infant. This was strongly supported by these findings, with mothers giving detailed examples of changes in their thinking and ways of relating to their infant. For example Sandra noted: "I suppose ... it made me a bit more aware that the first year of life is so critical ... the cuddles and the love you show is important ... you do realise that it was probably important to be around ... like you wouldn't want to be home six weeks and then go back full time or something."
Fiona also spoke of the change in her relationship with her observed child as a result in taking part in the infant observation; she stated, "I do find I'm just watching my child all the time, when I'm sitting or whatever I often find myself just sitting and watching . whereas you know . I suppose people do all sorts of different things, I could be out in the garden or be reading a book ... yeah, but I like watching her. Perhaps the observation may have ... I don't know, I just do, I just sit and watch."
Despite the ambivalence regarding the observer's impact on the infant, mothers did indicate that the overall experience was helpful to them and their infants. Sandra and Fiona both felt that they developed a greater awareness of different aspects of their infant's development as a consequence of having an observer present. Fiona said:
I found myself really noting, particularly when she would sit and watch too and just see the different things my baby would do. The observer coming to do the observation made me more aware I'm sure, at watching those tiny little things.
Sandra stated, I realised they are a little person ... how you treat them will reflect later on ... they are little individuals, rather than being a baby that goos and gaas and cries, wees and poos and sleeps . they are more than that.
It seemed that for Sandra the observer's presence facilitated more space in her mind to think about her infant's needs and the importance of a mother for a baby's developing mind. She felt more attuned to her baby's emotional states as a result of having the observer present and observing. For Fiona, the observer's presence sharpened her focus on her infant's capacities and on the subtleties of her infant's development. It can therefore be seen how one mother's thinking in relation to her infant was significantly enhanced, whilst another mother internalised the function of the observer. From this, it can be seen that mothers' overall knowledge and awareness of the infant's emotional needs, capacities and development was acknowledged, and heightened as a result of having an observer present.
There also appeared to be an increase in mothers' awareness of the infant's needs and recognition of the significance of "the mother" for the infant's developing mind. Sorensen (1997), when exploring the three fundamental elements of the containing function, that is observation, clarification, and emotional resonance, stated that, "(Mothers') keen observation is not only necessary for keeping the baby alive, but also the foundation of a loving relationship" (p. 114). She further commented on how this capacity to observe is the beginning of a mother's knowledge of her infant and also of the infant's experience of himself. In addition, when mothers understand the nature of what is being observed they can "have an active, responsive mind to it .
and (have) an experience of being open to the most primitive communication" (pp. 117-119), which is vital in the containing process.
vi. Implications for infant observation
Infant observation and the mothers' relationship with the observer clearly mobilises certain processes and feelings resembling the intimacy of both the mother-infant relationship, and the patient-psychotherapist relationship. This presents several issues for the practice of infant observation as mothers are not patients, and their feelings which arise as a consequence of the observation and specific relationship to the observer are left for them to work through.
A mother's vulnerability is heightened at various stages throughout the observation. Anxieties about invasion and being judged surfaced for the mothers in the beginning of the observation. Although these anxieties were linked to the stirring of primitive anxieties experienced at the earliest stage of life, this anxiety also seems specific to the observation and the observer's presence itself.
The mothers reported that they did not have a clear understanding of what the observer's role was or what the observer was actually observing, and there was some confusion regarding their own role during the observation. This suggests that such uncertainty contributed to the degree of anxiety the mothers were already feeling.
When considering the practice of infant observation, and viewing the observer in reality as a "stranger" going into the home of the mother-infant dyad, some practice issues are worth considering. Firstly it might be helpful to give more detailed information regarding the observation, how it takes place, and what is going to be observed. Secondly, observers could be prepared to help mothers understand the feelings likely to emerge in the early stages of the observation, either by discussing this with them before the observation begins, or letting them know that certain feelings as they emerge are considered to be commonly felt by mothers. This would allay some of mothers' discomfort and anxiety in the beginning, and provide better understanding and greater reassurance.
Similarly the way an observation is ended needs further consideration. The mothers experienced feelings of loss, sadness, hurt, anger, and abandonment at the end of the observation. The complexities of the mother-observer relationship and the separation and loss felt as a result of the infants' weaning and growing autonomy (Mahler et al., 1975), possibly impacted on the mothers' understanding of ending and their emotional readiness for it.
This raises important issues and questions for the way observations are ended. Firstly, it seems important that mothers' experience of ending be understood by observers and that observers be prepared for the experience themselves, in order to help mothers in this process. Secondly, some thought about the actual process of ending and how this should occur seems important. For example, when does the observer prepare the mother for their leaving? Although mothers have an awareness from the very beginning that the observation comes to an end after twelve months, the mother's relationship with the observer and its increasing significance with all its complexities impacts on her emotional experience and understanding of ending. Should preparation occur only in the final visits of the observation or does this process require more time and extends over a longer period? Lastly, should follow up contact be required and incorporated as part of the ending process? It seems that mothers in this study felt that follow-up contact could give them a sense that their time and the experience were valued by the observer. It also may help mothers process some of the unresolved feelings of anger and abandonment. Overall it seems important that mothers are supported or helped to understand the experience of infant observation, particularly the beginning and ending as this is where most difficulties have been reported.
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